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 Sarah Ruhl, Sunil Iyengar, and Trajal Harrell. Here, Martin Seligman recalls moments where beauty had the potent power for disruption on scales both personal and intimate, and political on a global scale.

Martin Seligman, Director, Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania

“I’d like to share one moment, and one thought.

Thirty years ago, I was sitting in the front row of the Berlin Philharmonic, near the very end of of the Mahler’s Second. At the word auferstehung—“resurrection”—I burst into tears. The soprano looked at me, and then she burst into tears. The performance was disrupted.

The thought—and you’re not going to find this congenial—but beauty is dangerous. Beauty, unlike almost anything I know, gets under the cognitive radar. It enables a message that you might resist to become believable. We’ve talked about Picasso and Douglass, but we need to be reminded of Leni Riefenstahl and Stalin. That both Hitler and Stalin thought they were in the service of social justice. Both of them used that word. And Riefenstahl and Stalinist beauty is a vehicle of propaganda. We live in a society in which there is huge disagreement, maybe not around this table, about what constitutes social justice. And therefore, we have to be aware that what we are talking about is double-edged.”

About Martin: Martin Seligman works on learned helplessness, depression, optimism, and positive psychology. He is commonly known as the founder of Positive Psychology, an approach that focuses on understanding and amplifying the mechanisms for enhancing personal growth and life satisfaction, rather than simply treating pathology. He has been working to promote this as a eld since 2000. He is the recipient of three Distinguished Scienti c Contribution awards from the American Psychological Association, and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Society for Research in Psychopathology. Martin received both the American Psychological Society’s William James Fellow Award (for contribution to basic science) and its James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award (for the application of psychological knowledge). He received the British Academy’s inaugural Wiley Prize for lifetime contributions to psychology. He holds ve honorary doctorates from prestigious institutions that include Uppsala University in Sweden and Complutense University of Madrid. Martin was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1996 by the largest vote in modern history. His presidential initiatives concerned the prevention of ethnopolitical warfare and the founding of Positive Psychology.

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