icon-email icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-print icon-rss icon-search icon-stumbleupon icon-twitter icon-arrow-right icon-email icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-print icon-rss icon-search icon-stumbleupon icon-twitter icon-arrow-right icon-user Skip to content
Senior Correspondent

This tenet is difficult to define simply because Beauty is such a subjective concept. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" goes the old saying. And the discussion becomes even more complicated because any consideration of Beauty gets tangled up with the larger idea of “art,” a discipline which seems to maintain, at least in the minds of some "artists," a fascination with the "ugly" the "grotesque" — the "unbeautiful." Consider Picasso's Guernica, Migrant Mother by Dorthea Lange, or any of the host of Pulitzer Prize winning photos from the strangely named "theaters of war" around the world.  Art? Certainly. Beauty? Just as certainly not.

It is important to remember that the tenets of Distilled Harmony are mutually re-enforcing. So in Distilled Harmony any definition of Beauty must support the other tenets — Foster Harmony, Distill Complexity and Oppose Harm. Those other tenets allow, even require us to turn away from the arcane posturing necessary to find artistry in the grotesque and pursue a less tortured view of Beauty.

Looking through the eyes of Foster Harmony, I was first inclined to define Beauty as that which induces a harmonic kind of lethargy.  Your breathing slows, your blood pressure drops, you settle into a calm, peaceful reverie. But I soon realized that Beauty could have quite the opposite effect. Beauty is equally prone to energize us. Our pulse races, we feel compelled to move, to dance, to sing! What is this Beauty that seems to call forth such wildly varying responses?

The tenet Distill Complexity urges us to seek the least complicated explanation of such seeming disparity. Or as Einstein put it, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." And there is, thankfully, a simple thing that unites both the ecstasy and the tranquility that beauty inspires: Beauty is that which makes us smile.

Simple? Certainly. Simplistic? Far from it. Mind you, I do not mean the sardonic, self-satisfied, superior smirk that has come to pass for a smile in contemporary sophisticated culture. Rather, I mean an open, spontaneous, and joyful smile. The pure smile of a delighted toddler, of a lover who is loved in return, of a parent watching a child sleep. When any stimulus – a scene, a painting, a sculpture, a dance, a song, an object, a poem, a sentence, anything — draws such a smile from us, we are in the presence of Beauty as Distilled Harmony would have us understand it.

So we have defined second half the Enable Beauty tenet — Beauty. Let us now turn our attention to the other: Enable.

There are three broad avenues through which we can Enable Beauty: create, collect and experience.

"Create" is self-explanatory. We all at least dabble in creative activities, painting, poetry, the piano. You know your favorite. Often these explorations fell by the wayside when we encountered intimidating "real artists" whose efforts exceeded our own. And we, often nudged by well-meaning teachers and parents, soon relegated our creative efforts to the closet or under the bed and set about the serious business of getting a "real job," of making a living, of raising a family, of living a life. Enable Beauty says haul them out again, create — not to ape the "experts" but for the sheer joy of creating. We often forget that making beauty serves not only the observer, the audience, but the creator as well. Part of Enabling Beauty is the smile inherent in the act of creation. Who knows, the day may well come when we create something to share, something that will bring a smile to another face, but often our own creative smile will suffice.

"Collect" speaks to the idea of living amidst Beauty. Making our homes, our offices, our cubicles, yards and porches places that launch a smile. Here we often think too small, limiting ourselves to prints and posters, to a playlist on Spotify or Pandora. We think that "art collecting" is for the 1% who can drop 30 million for a Van Gogh, 100K for a signed Ansel Adams print. We think opera and the symphony are for “old” people. These biases allow “volume” to become an aesthetic variable in our music. They make IKEA and poster shops our interior decorators. That kind of thinking limits our opportunities for smiles.

"Collect" says start now to surround yourself with the sounds and objects that make you smile, whatever now is for you. It matters not whether you are 15 or 85 or anywhere in between. Remember, Van Gogh never sold a painting during his lifetime. Hence it stands to reason that works from artists who will be the "old masters" of the next century are for sale at art fairs right now for 50 bucks. OK, maybe 150.00 — and that's a lot of pizza, but the return on your investment may be smiles for a lifetime. For those of you further into your lives, consider that new car you are thinking about. Can you peel a few grand off that purchase for that awesome piece of sculpture you saw at the gallery downtown? 

For all of us, we often eat at the same table everyday — do you want to buy the one on sale at IKEA or maybe aim for something with a little more kick. Some inlay work? A little book matched mahogany? Remember you eat there everyday! Which would you chose for your daily companion, a smile or a shrug?

"Collect" is about living amidst smiles, collect what you love and never throw it away. Expose yourself to old museums and new galleries, symphonies and street corner musicians, sidewalk painters and boardwalk dancers. As I said, collect what you love and never throw it away. Being a slave to a passing fashion is still being a slave.

"Collect" also asks that we listen to sounds that are unfamiliar to us. Classical music doesn't just mean Mozart, who, when he was the “new band in town,” was accused of putting "too many notes" in his music. Classical music, more purely speaking, means music with staying power — music that will be making people smile fifty, a hundred, two hundred years from now. Who would have thought when the "mop heads" played The Ed Sullivan Show in February more than a half century ago, that one day The London Symphony Orchestra would play their music and the baby-faced one would become Sir Paul? As you reach out and sample the music around you, you certainly will not like everything you listen to, but you should listen to as much as you can, so you will know what puts a smile on your face. Those selections become the soundtrack of your life pairing beauty for your eyes with smiles for your ears.

"Experience" is also an invitation to the smorgasbord of life. Theaters, 14-screen cinemas, concert halls, museums, hi-def Smart TVs and surround sound systems all announce their intention to "entertain" us — perhaps to bring us into the presence of smile inducing Beauty. Sometimes they succeed, and we should certainly allow them to try. But it is important to remember that the artifacts that we encounter in those venues began life as someone's personal experience, someone's observation about existence that was translated into a form that sent that moment out into the world for us to share. And some of those efforts become beautiful, some of those efforts bring us smiles. Two points from that observation:

First point — while we may never see our name in lights, or "make a living" by spinning our glimpses of Beauty out for others to see, part of experiencing Beauty is creating benchmarks of memory. We may not be able to capture perfectly, in words or on canvas, in stone or with notes the moment we first fell in love, or saw the sea, or watched fireflies lighting up a meadow. But we enrich our lives if we acknowledge those moments and mark them for a smile — in a poem, or a sketch, or a bit of prose, and keep it somewhere special.  

That notion of "somewhere special" has become more important in the 21st century. Time was, in the distant past, that the joy of representation was limited. The paintings on cave walls, monuments in the desert; these were the provinces of the powerful. Their moments of significance, their smiles were noted. Ours would not have been. Today we are faced with a strangely inverted reality. 350 million pictures are uploaded to Facebook everyday, another 60 million on Instagram, and there are hundreds of other sites with similar numbers. 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every hour. The danger, of course, is that the treasured gets overwhelmed by the trivial, Beauty is brushed aside by rivers of the banal.  Here, for certain, is a complexity that still crys out for distillation. Hopefully wiser minds than mine will provide such a distillation and it will prove to be a smile worth waiting for.

The second, and final point: As I have already said, the Beauty that others create and share with us begins as an experience in a life. And while it is delightful that others share those creations with us, it is even more important that we be aware of the Beauty woven throughout our existence, in life as we experience it everyday. In the rain and wind, sun and flowers, in the sights and sounds that surround us, in the smiling faces that in turn bring smiles to our own. And Beauty is that aspect of life depicted. So in your own way, in your own life; somehow, everyday find a way to make some smiles. Enable Beauty. 

Stay Up to Date

Sign up for articles by Robert Schrag and other Senior Correspondents.

Latest Stories

Choosing Senior Living
Love Old Journalists

Our Mission

To amplify the voices of older adults for the good of society

Learn More