Civic Engagement Forum
Bluffton professor/poet stresses the importance of beauty to humanity
How do you encapsulate an idea as abstract as beauty? According to Dr. Jeff Gundy, professor of English at Bluffton University, beauty “does not respond well to mere reason.” However, during his Civic Engagement Forum titled, “Field Notes on Beauty,” Gundy explained that beauty, though abstract and unrestricted, can be captured through ideas, images, poems and songs.
“Beauty is something to love. It might not be love or truth itself, but the pursuit of beauty and the attempt to create it and to nurture it really is important to us as human beings, as people trying to live together,” said Gundy.
The March 28 presentation led into Bluffton’s annual Civic Engagement Day. Throughout the year, the university focuses on a significant contemporary issue that is related to its mission and becomes the subject of cross-disciplinary exploration. This year’s theme is Creativity, The Arts and Civic Life.
Gundy’s presentation included four parts:
- Why do we hunger for beauty?
- Complication: beauty and sadness
- Complication: beauty the deceiver
- “Beauty will save the world”
In explaining why we hunger for beauty, Gundy played the song, “Hunger for Beauty,” by Jim Croegaert which includes the lyrics:
“Moon hanging lonely there in the sky
Looking so holy; a host held up high
Off in the distance train going by
Why does it move us cause us to sigh
Why do we hunger for beauty?”
Gundy explained, “We all may differ on what beauty is, but we all have the hunger for beauty.”
To further delve into the hunger for beauty, Gundy shared examples ranging from the works of St. Augustine: “I tasted you and now I want you as I want food and water; you touched me, and I have been burning ever since to have your peace,” to the words of poet Ralph Waldo Emerson: “For the world is not painted, or adorned, but is from the beginning beautiful; and God has not made some beautiful things, but Beauty is the creator of the universe.”
While these examples easily equate beauty with truth, creation and all good things, beauty and our desire to create and possess it, is complicated.
This sentiment is expressed in Rubem Alves’ poem “The Poet, the Warrior, the Prophet.”
“Sadness is not an intruder in beauty’s domains. It is rather the air without which it dies… Beauty is sad because beauty is longing.”
Gundy also questioned just how far we can trust our sense of beauty. Does beauty lead us astray?
“Beauty is not only a terrible but a mysterious thing. Here the devil struggles with God, and the battlefield is the human heart,” according to novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Gundy also explored the connection of war and beauty—the seduction of the battlefield through his own poetry and through Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” an anti-war painting created in response to the bombing of the village of Guernica by Nazi Germany during the Spanish Civil War.
Using the protest song, “Strange Fruit,” as performed by Nina Simone, Gundy further delved into the connection between art, history and ugliness.
Song lyrics speak of the lynching of African Americans in the United States.
“Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”
Despite these failings of beauty, Gundy’s final point of the presentation was punctuated by another Dostoyevsky quote, “Beauty will save the world,” a line from the novel, “The Idiot.”
And he offered practical advice on the impractical idea of beauty:
- Awaken to the beauty that is everywhere in Creation: in all human beings and in the blooming, buzzing, battered, beautiful world.
- Cherish and honor and sustain that beauty. Make our own lists.
- Align ourselves with all that is life-giving, generous and nourishing, and resist what is violent, selfish, mean-spirited and acquisitive.
- Do good work. Make art. Resist the powers.
- “Namaste,” we might say when we meet or “Grüss Gott,” a German greeting that recognizes
the beauty of God in all of us, in everything.
“The poet Rumi puts it this way: ‘Let the beauty we love be what we do.’”