Disinterestedness of Beauty
Musicians who aim to pursue a career in music, would say that they are always looking opportunities to perform, record, and compose music. This can come from good motives such as the pure love of music, wanting to make new friends, and serving God. However, the pursuit for a career in music (and indeed any career) can sometimes make people become self-focused, interested only in their own future, and valuing other people for what opportunities they can give. This can develop a functional and utilitarian view of human experiences such as music and friendships: where these things are valued by what they can do for me.
This happened to me whilst I was studying music in my final year of university. I developed relationships with lecturers and even fellow students, in the hope that I would get an opportunity to ‘gig’ with them. I became restless and discontent, as I daydreamed constantly about a career in music, longing to perform at exciting places and events. Even when I received fantastic opportunities to play music, I did not enjoy them, but rather belittled them, thinking they were mediocre, and that I needed to look for better, more concrete opportunities. The sublime aesthetic experience of music was lost on me as I only thought of music in how it would serve my own career.
Function and utility are main criterion in the Western world today. We only need to turn on the TV and be bombarded by adverts ‘promising’ to make our lives easier with various products. In a consumerist society, we are taught that our needs and wants are most important, and that objects and indeed others, are there to serve us. We struggle when we ‘don’t get something’ out of an experience, or a person. An extreme example of this is pornography, where the other is treated as a physical body, not an embodied soul with a personality, and is only there to satisfy one’s selfish and carnal desires.
Now however, my functional view of life and music has been challenged, especially when I came across G. W. F Hegel:
Hegel proposes that when one contemplates or confronts beauty, there is no desire to grab hold of it and see what it can do for us, instead it is disinterested, unselfish. Beauty is not there for us to get something from it, rather beauty flies in the face of selfish utilitarian possession, as beauty cannot be controlled, and makes us submit ourselves to it.
St. Paul in his writings to the Corinthian church writes similarly about love: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” (1 Cor 13:4-8). Love like beauty, is not utilitarian, it calls us to be present with each other, and relate selflessly, not wishing to possess or use another.
God himself created the world solely out of love and beauty. There was no other reason for God to create us. God as Triune lives in perfect and complete community and did not need to create the world to complete him. Rowan Williams points out that God created the world gratuitously, disinterestedly, out of an act of pure grace, that goes beyond the level of functionalism or utilitarianism. This means humanity can transcend function or utility, instead perceiving beauty in life and work and bestowing grace and love towards one another. The English industrialist William Hesketh Lever believed this, as he built the beautiful village of Port Sunlight hoping that his workers would learn that “there is more enjoyment in life than a mere going to and returning from work”.
Thus, the disinterested nature of beauty calls us to be present. Beauty calls for us to put down our cameras and our phones, and take in the loveliness and sublimity of family, friends, nature, and the transcendent. Beauty calls us to stop using people for function, status, and physical or emotional satisfaction, but rather view them as graciously made and loved by the Creator God, as we ourselves are. God sees us as beautiful, and does not wish to possess or control us, thus we are called to imitate this in our relationships with each other. We can learn from beauty to shift the perspective from how things or people serve our own agenda, to put others first, and become more present and content in our lives.
- James Beattie