I recently found myself in one of these modern hotel ballrooms, the bougie kind of space that half the population never sees unless they are paid to clean it. Amid a roiling sea of business chatter I looked up at the ceiling the way a sailor might note the moon through a gap in storm clouds.
Cubic silver scaffolding hung below a series of mirrors across the ceiling. At first I thought they were sculptures. But then they began to glow and I realized these angular boxes were actually light fixtures. The lights, cubes and mirrors created a mildly dazzling effect, an inoffensive burst of aesthetic energy in a room built for mundanity.
Someone designed this and a company manufactured it. In other words, a person—probably lots of people—earned pay creating this very object. Versions of this work no doubt adorn hotels and conference centers around the country, perhaps around the world.
Why didn’t they install plain LED ceiling lights? Someone decided that customers would enjoy a better experience in a more interesting space. This was worth the expense.
As I considered this, I remembered something an engineer told me one time. He said that students should only study sciences and technology, trades and business. Everything else is a waste of time or money. In his view, the arts are fundamentally unnecessary. A nice hobby if you have the time, but no more than that.
I think about this a lot, because it’s evident that more people seem to believe this with each passing year. New buildings are plain and unremarkable because that is cheaper. Parks erect cookie cutter play equipment, avoiding foliage and flowers that require regular maintenance. Nationally, and locally, higher education enrollment is plummeting. The very notion of attending college to become a more well-rounded, versatile human being seems to confuse people. Why would you do this?
To me this line of thought represents a kind of faithlessness. Most atheists I know have more faith than this, faith that a life is worth more than its base elements. We are more than carbon and water, producers and consumers.
Each of us are each born into a world colored by the artistic traditions of unknown millennia. We inherited the songs we sing and the symbols that fill our imagination. Why would we suddenly conclude that our ancestors should have focused on building Dollar Generals on the edges of their seasonal encampments?
Because we’d be rich? No, we’d be poorer.
For centuries, humans poured their lives and extra dollars into churches. For a shorter time, they poured their lives and extra dollars into communities and schools. These periods—which span from the awakening of ancient civilizations to some uncertain point in recent memory—produced art, music, literature, landscaping and architecture. And while we still produce all these things today, we produce and judge them as products, only rarely as evidence of our humanity.
What does it take to be human in an artificial world like the one we’ve made for ourselves? Robots can make things, maybe even attractive things, but they cannot feel what beauty creates in the soul.
A great many serious matters are discussed in hotel ballrooms and corporate boardrooms, no doubt. And I would never preach the radical idea that they should be abolished, bland carpet ripped from the floors, lecterns burned in fires that could be seen from the countryside. I will, however, cop to enjoying that fantasy a great deal. Nevertheless, I was glad that someone paid extra for the fancy light fixtures.
May we all remember the value of beauty in a marketplace that would otherwise reward ugliness and greed.
Aaron J. Brown is an author, radio producer, and instructor at Minnesota North College in Hibbing. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com. He’s working on a book about Victor Power called “Power in the Wilderness.” Contact him at email@example.com.
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