Finding Beauty

Huge smoke plume from Colorado wildfire

Face it, 2020 has been a bleak and trying year for most of us. Perhaps it would seem like talking about beauty is irrelevant at this point. I disagree. I believe beauty is more important than ever. Finding beauty around us will help to elevate our viewpoint to get through this.

Beautiful fire

Let me give one personal example. I live in the Colorado front range area. This was a year of wildfires. From mid summer on over 500,000 acres of forest burned in our area, some coming as close as 5 miles to my house.

This is a great tragedy for me, since I am in the forests every month of the year. This is one of the main places where I do my art and it was a great place for peace and rejuvenation. Much of the area I knew and loved is forever changed (forever being in my lifetime). And not changed for the better.

I’m trying to take an attitude of seeing what is there instead of moaning about what is not there. The image at the top of this post is an example. It was taken at the height of the fires and the massive smoke that blanketed our area. Just behind this ridge a 200,000 acre wildfire is roaring down toward my town. A terrible situation, but an interesting image.


This illustrates my point that beauty is based on attitude. Appreciation of beauty can also lead to a change of attitude. If I can look at something I think is terrible and worthless and still find beauty, I believe it is healthy for me.

That is not the same as saying that everything is beautiful. The fires I mentioned are terrible, but there is beauty in places. Cancer is terrible and ugly, but sometimes a person’s character and coping skill is beautiful. Covid is terrible but… Well, I haven’t found it yet, but I’m still looking.

I have to believe that beauty is there if I learn to see it. That is not ignoring things or burying my head in the sand. Instead, I believe it is an important coping skill and a sign of good mental health. All around us is ugliness. Sifting through that and finding beauty is a worthy skill.

I will be transparent with you and say I am a Christian. I believe there is a creator who is in charge of everything and has promised us a great eternal future if we believe in him. That faith makes it much easier to look past the problems I am dealing with today and look forward with hope.

I would never tell you you cannot seek beauty unless you are a Christian, just that I would have a hard time of it. You are completely free to follow your own guide.

Beauty isn’t kitsch

People through history have sought beauty. Even if we cannot define it, we can recognize our own values of it when we see it. Whether it is sculptures or paintings of the human form or landscapes or wildlife or still life, or if it is expressed in music, or writing, or dance, the medium does not matter. Humans have expressed ideas of beauty as long as we have had conscious thought.

Today, though, we are in a time where the idea of beauty is dismissed by the art elite. It is termed kitsch or banal or cliche. Much contemporary art is dark or formless or focused on pain or loss or emptiness.

I’m sorry to sound critical, but that sounds like artists who are empty. Who are disillusioned or who have no core beliefs in something uplifting. I am sorry for them. Maybe I just don’t understand as fully as they do, but I have to look to things that are encouraging. Or at least things you will look at and say “wow, I didn’t see that”.

It is human nature, unless art school has trained it out of you, to pause to appreciate a great sunset. Or to linger over a vast landscape or a waterfall or a flower or a face. Different things will appeal to us individually, but almost all of us will call something beautiful.

Beauty is uplifting. It energizes our spirit and makes us happy for a few moments. How can this be bad?

If not beauty then…

If you do not acknowledge beauty in your life, what do you have? What replaces it? Ugliness, darkness, hurt, cruelty? Why would you seek those things?

You can say “that is reality“, but so what? Why should the negative things be glorified? It has never really been the purpose of art to just depict reality. I want my art to make people feel better, not worse. If you want to feel bad, listen to the news.

It’s there to be found

Beauty is still there. It is all around waiting for us to open our perception and appreciate it. I want to be an artist who recognizes that and helps other people to see the beauty, or at least the unique, that I do. I don’t want to make ugly, depressing images because too much of the world is like that already.

We all need to step back, take a deep breath, and start trying to see the positive aspects of life and our world. Not to ignore problems but to give ourselves the strength to look for solutions. We all need to be uplifted in our spirits. Seek beauty and do not be ashamed to call it beautiful.

Pretty Pictures

If I call myself an artist, am I allowed to take “pretty pictures”? If you look at fine art galleries and catalogs the answer seems to be no. Some would say I am not an artist if my images are pretty.

I know. I know. This is a long standing conflict. The modernists and postmodernists and surrealists and photojournalists and conceptual and fashion and even environmental activists have seized the microphone and control the dialog right now. According to their designated gatekeepers, “prettiness” is not a worthwhile reason for an image’s existence. It should have deep meaning or angst or futility or confront the evils of modern civilization.

I can’t wholeheartedly support the politically correct party line here. People are wired to perceive beauty. No, beauty is not in the eyes of the beholder. That is a silly notion. There are objective notions of beauty that most people share, regardless of race or culture – a sunset, flowers, waterfalls, mountains, the ocean, certain facial features, human bodies, etc. We are all drawn to these. Even, I believe, the most hard core postmodernist. There may not be much agreement about truth, but there is actually surprising agreement about beauty.

So if we all react to it and we share such common appreciation of beauty, why is it rejected? I think there are a couple of reasons.

First, I think the guild of artists is trying to protect their turf. Everybody who picks up a camera (or phone) rushes to take pretty pictures, so, by implication, it must not be something an artist would do. If everybody is doing it it must not be special; it must not be very valuable. Besides, if 4 billion pretty pictures are taken a day, how can I stand out as an artist?

Second, most artists want to be taken seriously. In the current vernacular this involves being gritty, dark, bland, sometimes ugly, confrontational, challenging. By going the opposite direction of the mainstream we show that we are different. Maybe that makes us an artist. We need to be elitist, above our audience and leading them.

There is some truth to all of these statements. It is necessary for an artist to stand out from the crowd in order to be seen and to make a living. Art is a business. Having a differentiator is good business.

But we should lighten up a bit. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We need an edge to differentiate ourselves, but acknowledge that beauty is still beauty. I may create some totally abstract, even surreal images in the name of “art”, but I am a sucker for a beautiful sunset. I have to shoot it, even if I know I may never show it to anyone. Maybe it’s partly because I am fortunate to live in Colorado where I am surrounded by beauty: mountains, plains, waterfalls, snow, etc. Within 40 miles of my house I go through many of the major climate zones of the country, from high desert to tundra. I love it. And I shoot it. It may not be what the “serious” artists would call art, but I love it and can’t resist.

Is it really art, though? If it is art to me, it is. And if I can create something a little bit above the norm, maybe other people will see it as art, too. I take it fairly slow and disciplined, asking myself “why am I wanting to take this?” I try to come up with a slightly different treatment of the subject. But those are refinements. The truth is I may be taking the picture because it is beautiful to me.

The image accompanying this article is a minor example. I just loved it. That’s why I stopped to take it. Sure, it was the time of day, the stark old barn, the bleakness and loneliness, the composition of the cloud formations, the expanse of the Colorado plains; these and other things. But what grabbed me was the beauty I perceived at the moment. I couldn’t. help myself.

Bottom line is that sometimes beauty triumphs. Beauty is beauty and it is worthwhile even if it is not bringing any “deep” message. We need more beauty in our world.