There’s a certain grim pleasure that an Englishman takes when he finds out that his town is officially the worst at something.
Highest rate of teenage pregnancy, highest number of obese adults, greatest number of burglaries per capita.
You get the idea.
My hometown, as it happens, has long been a notable contender in the competitive field of ‘Britain’s ugliest town.’
In fact I remember there was a lot of harrumphing in the local newspaper back in 2000 when critic Theodore Dalrymple said that my hometown reminded him of ‘Ceaușescu’s Romania with fast food outlets.‘
(Incidentally, my Dad went on a school holiday to Ceaușescu’s Romania in the late ‘70’s. When I asked him about Dalrymple’s opinion he conceded that old Teddy may well have a point.)
As a 13 year old boy who was already exhibiting the classic signs of being a pretentious aesthete in the making I understood exactly what Dalrymple was talking about.
I’ll quote him at length, as his almost mirthfully gloomy assessment summed up my brutalized by Brutalism teenage mood:
‘But while Walsall undoubtedly exists, it is difficult to know where precisely it begins and ends, because it is in the middle of one of the largest and most depressing contiguous areas of urban devastation in the world, the Black Country of the English Midlands. There is nowhere in the world where it is possible to travel such long distances without seeing anything grateful to the eye. To the hideousness of 19th-century industrialisation is added the desolation of 20th-century obsolescence.’
So in an attempt to make lemonade from lemons, or to make thought-provoking reading from growing up amidst concrete tower blocks and grey skies, let’s talk a little about trying to find beauty under such conditions.
The Importance of Beauty
‘Beauty is assailed from two directions, by the cult of ugliness in the arts and the cult of utility in every day life. These two cults come together in the world of modern architecture’
Roger Scruton, Why Beauty Matters.
Beauty has been dismissed, marginalised and distorted for such a long time that I feel compelled to argue why it is important. Of course, on would like to think that it should be self evident, but here we are.
I believe that beauty is a need of the human spirit like oxygen is a need of the human body.
Further I believe that the chronic and prolonged absence of beauty leads people to become bitter, defeated, complacent, depressed, passive and angry. The reason for such things will naturally be multifactorial but the beauty factor cannot be overlooked if recovery from the above existential malaise is to be overcome.
Personally, I would argue that the bored, listless low-level malaise that is often mislabelled as ‘depression’ and medicalised with a DSM diagnosis and a Sertraline script is caused by a lack of things ‘grateful to the eye’.
That seems simplistic, but think about it for a minute- if beauty wasn’t a need why would artists and architects throughout all of civilisation go to the effort of making paintings, novels, churches, music, tools, houses and clothing the way that they did?
Why go to all that extra effort when all that is required is something that merely does the job?
And why would it be that deteriorating mental health, rising obesity and lower levels of trust and communal spirit seem to coincide with the mass uglification of the world?
Now, I can’t point to hard causative data and I won’t trot out statistics because statistics rarely help such matters. You have your numbers, I have mine and whoever shouts their numbers the loudest wins.
No, I’m artsy fartsy and intuitive as regular readers will have by now learned to tolerate. I deal in guts and hunches and what my eyes tell me. And what my sense and my emotions and what my eighteen years of living in ‘the most depressing contiguous are of urban devastation in the world’ is this:
Beautiful buildings and beautiful art signal to you that the society you are in cares about you. That other people care about you. That you are a part of a history that matters and that through work and skill and the mastering of a craft you too can contribute in your own small way to this lineage.
These are the kinds of ideas that you can build a life around.
These are the antidotes to an atomised, nihilistic life of quite gnawing existential despair- of caffeinating yourself to work and then drinking yourself to sleep.
Over and over and over.
Embracing the Ordinary
‘It is characteristic of a great soul to scorn great things and prefer what is ordinary’
So beauty is important because it enlivens our experience and thus enriches the soul.
But beauty doesn’t have to be grand and old and opulent and expensive. It is a question of what moves you.
And this I think is where the truth of ugly modern art and design becomes apparent. It is not designed to make you feel, it is not supposed to move you. It is designed to either be merely functional or it is there to merely provoke a short-lived negative reaction- usually shock or revulsion.
‘Edgy’ art soon becomes dull, but well-rounded art can still cut you to the quick after millenia.
No, the key to conducting a search for beauty in your life involves beginning with what is ordinary.
It involves training your attention.
Because even in a place as officially ugly as my hometown there is still beauty.
There are the remnant of proud craftsmanship, there are red bricked terraces where workers lived before the tower blocks came and the jobs went away. There are canals and hidden green spots and cafés that are trying.
In fact, one of my fondest memories tied to this place of recent years is when, on a rare visit home, I went to the art gallery that was the backdrop for and Dalrymple’s well-places scorn. While there, I saw Rodin’s The Thinker which was currently on loan to the institution.
It was a weekday afternoon and The Gallery was completely empty.
Beauty must be searched for. But search and you shall find.
Because the world at large has seemingly shunned beauty does not mean that beauty will go quietly into that good night.
She is resilient.
Beyond Concrete-A Few Practical Suggestions.
In contrast to many of these newsletters which (merely) play with ideas and concepts, I feel compelled to end this one on more of a practical note. I am generally reticent when it comes to dishing out advice, but beauty has a way of making us forget all of our standard rules and procedures.
From personal experience, I can tell you that even if you live in one of the many beauty deprived areas of the world there are still things you can do. No matter how bleak it seems, there is always something that you can do, no matter how seemingly small the action is.
So first of all, you must begin to see the imbibing of beauty as an essential part of your life. You must prioritise it and schedule it the same as you would physical exercise.
The galleries in your town- as soon as they reopen- must no longer remain empty. No longer neglected like they so often were before the pandemic. Sometimes only absence and deprivation can make us feel gratitude for that which was previously taken for granted.
Galleries and museums are inexpensive and they are often free. And even the smaller ones will house several works that will refresh the eyes and restore the spirit. Don’t neglect this out of apathy disguised as laziness. Lack of engagement with everyday reality can no longer be a part of the repertoire
And secondly, beyond such institutions of culture, there is the ultimate source of beauty- and the inspiration for every great work of art ever created (even the avant garde ones).
There is nature.
Unplug, turn off your devices, and go out and embrace it.
Like Ishmail I find that a damp drizzly November of the soul is best cured by being close to the ocean. But woods, meadows, rivers, mountains and fields work just as well.
And when I get back I feel a swell of inspiration in my chest and I soon get to work trying to write something that might just make the world that little bit more beautiful.
Until next time,
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Wonderful article. Thanks for bringing us the ugliest place in Britain, a war cry for galleries and Roger Scruton all in the same piece.
Thought provoking as always, Tom! Have you read “Divine Beauty” by John O’Donohue? It’s an insightful book about this very topic, and takes the idea of beauty to a deep level, talking about art, music and life. It does have a basis in Christianity but don’t let that put you off – it isn’t heavy handed, more of a spiritual element than religious and easy to read beyond that aspect.