We humans

Why beauty matters

Jul 14, 2015

Quick: Make a list of the things you need every day. Your first thought is probably what’s practical: food, a roof over your head, your health. We value these things so much that we say all human beings deserve them. Artist Theaster Gates (TED Talk: How to revive a neighborhood: with imagination, beauty and art) wants to add a new item to the list. Here, he makes the case for why we should treat beauty as a basic service, and happiness as a metric of success.

Without beauty, nothing else matters. “In my city, Chicago, I have seen firsthand what happens when a focus on, say, housing fails to account for our human thirst for beauty, for the sublime, the emotionally enriching, the spiritual,” Gates says. If we build homes without culture, without a social agenda, we’re simply creating new kinds of problems — and we won’t come close to solving the ones we have.

Beauty can change how people act. People act differently around beautiful things, says Gates. “If you’re in an environment where there’s a bunch of waste on the ground, it’s easy not to care for that place, to add your filth to the existing filth. By making a place beautiful, which often means simply peeling back the layers of what is already there, we remove the distractions. We are able to see the existing beauty more clearly, and we are able to start to begin to care.”

Small civic actions can be beautiful. “When someone walks past flowers every day, when he sees litter picked up over and over again, a sense of pride begins to seep into his soul,” says Gates, who’s worked on just such small-seeming projects in his neighborhood in Chicago. “This isn’t about giant interventions that bring in hundreds of volunteers from out of town to ‘transform’ a neighborhood. This is about daily pride at living this life, and how our joy in our surroundings might influence our neighbors and those around us.”

Beauty begets beauty. “In my neighborhood, we used to feel the constant threat of violence hanging over our heads,” says Gates. “Now, summer’s coming and instead everyone’s talking about the next barbecue, when we’re having our block party. The hunger for cultural programming, the creativity generated on our block allows people to embrace the possible. We’ve become a positive beacon shining a light to show what’s possible. And yet all we’re doing is providing a platform for the skill, talent, love and genius of those who are already there.”

Beauty should be the starting point of everything. “At every level of the human experience, we are looking for the beautiful, something that gives priority to our souls, not just our physical needs,” says Gates. “We drink in nature, we yearn to commune with the beautiful, we crave the sublime, so that’s why the starting point for everything I do is the beautiful, not the practical.”

Determine success by measuring happiness. Metrics are important, Gates acknowledges; they’re the oil that often helps projects get done. But: “Let’s think about how to value happiness. Let’s think about how we might try to measure hope,” he says. “Building a house for someone is just the start … we also need that home to be a happy place if we’re to make any difference in this world.”

Featured photo illustration by Dian Lofton/TED.