What do we really need in times of crisis? We can make a list of some of the essentials: food and water, medicine, shelter, social connections, toilet paper. There’s probably more I’m not thinking of. What about beauty? In times of crisis, what role is played by beauty?
To answer, allow me to draw a bit of a distinction between the aesthetic and the anesthetic. We associate anesthetics with surgery. An anesthetic “knocks us out.” Literally, anesthetics numb us. They make us insensitive to feelings of all kinds – pain or pleasure. An anesthetic is an escape. Escapes are essential to survival. I wouldn’t want to go through a surgical procedure without being numbed. Similarly, I wouldn’t want to experience an existential crisis without some opportunity for a momentary escape. This is why you are binge-watching Tiger King on Netflix right now. This is also why you are missing things like live sports, movie theaters, and concerts. You’re missing them not just because they are fun, but because they are an escape. Much (not all!) of our entertainment has an anesthetic effect in times of crisis. It allows us a moment of respite. We can turn off the scariness of the world and immerse ourselves in our favorite TV show. Anesthetics are not bad, they just don’t have a lasting effect. I’ve come to dread that moment when I finish watching a show on Netflix and realize that I must enter back into reality. It’s easier, as it turns out, just to watch the next episode.
Aesthetics are different. Aesthetics don’t merely offer an escape. True beauty gives us a compelling picture of a different world. It’s not an escape; it’s a vision. Experiencing the truly beautiful or the truly awesome reminds us that this world, full of troubles, is not/can not be all there is. This is one of the reasons why skeptics are generally so bad at beauty. They are frustrated and confused by it. A person who has rejected the notion of another world as nonsense will find an artist’s attempt to transport us there to be a fool’s errand. Skeptics often choose instead to specialize in banality and cynicism when it comes to art.
Here’s the other thing about experiencing the truly beautiful. It has staying power. It doesn’t metabolize quickly the way that anesthetics do. Beauty isn’t interrupted by the world; it transforms the way that we see the world.
When moments of crisis hit – the way they have recently – I would encourage you to not just consume anesthetics. I’m not going to lecture you about watching too much TV. Some escapism is important right now to help us cope. (Bring back baseball, please!) But don’t neglect the beautiful. Look for opportunities to be emotionally and spiritually moved. Don’t hesitate to laugh. Don’t resist the urge to cry. Look for moments to be captivated by a picture of another world. Don’t give in to the scolds who insist you be scared all the time. Instead, celebrate every moment – big and small – that reminds us that this world of trouble is not all there is.
Fortunately for us, many artists are “doing their part” by producing moments of beauty to help us cope. I’ve posted a couple of my recent favorites below. Ben Rector playing the Doxology is one of the most worshipful moments I’ve had in a long time.
If you go to grew up going to church, you know this song. If that isn’t your thing or your tradition, no worries, you can still bask in this (literally) timeless melody. Pro tip: I was feeling it on this pass and decided to just roll on into singing, so keep watching if you want. pic.twitter.com/ZuOeSdUW6D
— Ben Rector (@benrector) March 23, 2020
— Yo-Yo Ma (@YoYo_Ma) March 19, 2020