In December of last year as part of our ongoing Art of Change initiative, we brought together a small group of experts and thinkers in a range of fields—psychology, economics, art, philosophy, public policy–to discuss the topic of beauty. The goal was to ask how we might more effectively articulate, value, and nurture beauty as a basic need and right. 

The conversation had two parts:

  • Making the case for why beauty is essential to the health of human beings and society, and how it can be a catalyst for justice.
  • Expanding the space for beauty in our contemporary discourse and policymaking, and understanding the role of art and artists in that shift.

For the next few weeks we will be sharing contributions on the topic by some of the participants in the convening, including Charles Eisenstein, Sunil Iyengar, and Trajal Harrell. Here, Krista Tippett talks journalism as a healing art, and the human need for beauty in times of tragedy. 

Krista Tippett, “On Being” Radio Host

I’m very aware of how journalism applies incredible sophistication and energy to analyzing what is catastrophic, corrupt, inadequate, and failing; part of what I want to do is figure out how to apply that kind of sophistication to the possibility of beauty among us, with all the complexity that implies. I cleave to a notion that my profession can be a healing art; I want to believe that’s true, and I want to work towards that, however much evidence there is to the contrary.

When I think about the connection between beauty writ large—visual beauty, beautiful language, natural beauty, beautiful lives—and justice, or social healing, I see that what beauty does is it unsettles. It taps into spirit as well as intellect. It can be a source of courage and it can be a source of hope. And it can create this frame for a larger sense of what is possible, even if we don’t know what that is.

I have come to think of beauty as a core moral value. I take that language from my Muslim conversation partners; that God is beautiful and loves beauty, and whether something is beautiful or ugly—which is also to say whether it is creative or destructive—is as much a litmus test of whether something is of God as any other kind of orthodox litmus test. I also hear scientist after scientist, mathematician after mathematician, equate beauty and truth; that if an equation is not beautiful and elegant, then it is probably not true. I think of the social venture capitalist I interviewed who works with some of the poorest people in the world, and one of the questions she’s learned to ask is: “What are you doing when you feel most beautiful?” This is a question that unlocks their own capacities for finding beauty in moment after moment in the course of ordinary days, but in addition enhancing their sense of what might be possible. and their agency in that.

The week that Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot—a week of national tragedy—I had already posted a conversation with [poet and Ford Foundation Director of Creativity and Free Expression] Elizabeth Alexander, and it was all about beauty. Elizabeth talked about how we need a new language to approach each other, which is one of the things poetry does. But I was worried. We’re putting a poet on the air in this week of national tragedy. Will this seem beside the point? Will it seem offensive? Then I watched it climb on iTunes. We’ve hardly ever had that kind of response. People were so starved, and it was so important to hear about “words that shimmer.” In so many contexts, those can be an antidote to the way we went about things in the 20th century—whether it was political solutions or global economic development—of defining things in terms of issues and problems. I sense that the vocabulary of justice work has actually assumed this antiseptic lens of seeing everything and approaching everything as an “issue,” with a cold vocabulary of problems to solve. To see beauty in another person creates also a necessary dimension to how we define what is wrong and how we think about how to move beyond it.

About Krista: Krista Tippett created and hosts the Peabody Award-winning public radio program and podcast On Being, and curates the Civil Conversations Project, an emergent approach to new conversation and relationship-building across signi cant difference. She grew up in Oklahoma, attended Brown University, and became a journalist and diplomat in Cold War Berlin before attending divinity school in the 1990s. Her work focuses on conversations about large questions of meaning in 21st-century lives. For her, beauty is something to pursue alongside wisdom, indeed as an essential element of it. Poets, artists, and musicians illuminate this, and so do her Muslim conversation partners, who insist on beauty as a “core moral value,” a litmus test of whether something is of God. Physicists and mathematicians explain that if an equation is not elegant and beautiful, it is likely not true. She’s grounded and nourished by a working de nition of beauty that she learned from the late Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue: “Beauty is that, in the presence of which, you feel more alive.”

We’ll be posting responses to this discussion triweekly here on the site. Follow us on Twitter at @ArtofChangeIs to share your own ideas.