Beauty · Words of The Mother and Sri Aurobindo

Of Mediocrity, Beauty and Ugliness

Sometime back when going through some old notes and writings, I came across a rather interesting quote from the painter Paul Gauguin. It was one of those things that you just can’t keep to yourself, so I am sharing it on my blog. 

“There is always a heavy demand for fresh mediocrity. In every generation the least cultivated taste has the largest appetite.”

Days passed. And I almost forgot about it.

Then the other day while re-reading Sri Aurobindo’s wonderful essays on “National Value of Art”, the following caught my attention:   

“The mind is profoundly influenced by what it sees and, if the eye is trained from the days of childhood to the contemplation and understanding of beauty, harmony and just arrangement in line and colour, the tastes, habits and character will be insensibly trained to follow a similar law of beauty, harmony and just arrangement in the life of the adult man. This was the great importance of the universal proficiency in the arts and crafts or the appreciation of them which was prevalent in ancient Greece, in certain European ages, in Japan and in the better days of our own [Indian] history. Art galleries cannot be brought into every home, but, if all the appointments of our life and furniture of our homes are things of taste and beauty, it is inevitable that the habits, thoughts and feelings of the people should be raised, ennobled, harmonised, made more sweet and dignified.
“Between them music, art and poetry are a perfect education for the soul; they make and keep its movements purified, self- controlled, deep and harmonious. These, therefore, are agents which cannot profitably be neglected by humanity on its onward march or degraded to the mere satisfaction of sensuous pleasure which will disintegrate rather than build the character. They are, when properly used, great educating, edifying and civilising forces.”

~ Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, 1: 447-448

Perhaps some hints to the answer to the problem that Gauguin might have been concerned with, namely, how to cultivate taste and rise above mediocrity is to be found in Sri Aurobindo’s words cited above. But only hints. Because in order to cultivate taste for beauty, you will have to ask the most important question – what is beauty? 

In several writings and talks of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo we find many deep insights into this. And of course, there is one of the earliest writings of Sri Aurobindo from his student days in England, the delightful and thoroughly enjoyable 70+ pages-long play, “The Harmony of Virtue” in which he speaks of Beauty, Virtue, Harmony and much more.

But today I find myself particularly keen on reflecting upon two things.

One is a small passage by Sri Aurobindo where he gives us a deep insight into how to truly appreciate beauty. In this engaging and thought-provoking passage titled “The Beauty of a Crow’s Wings” he emphasises how we fail to ‘see’ beauty when we are blinded by our ‘prejudiced habits of mind.’ Remove the veil of darkness that is there because of the limitation of the mind, and all becomes beautiful.

“It is not only that the sable blackness of the crow’s wings has in it wonderful shades of green and violet and purple which show themselves under certain stresses of sunlight, but that the black itself, sable of wing or dingy of back & breast has itself a beauty which our prejudiced habits of mind obscure to us. Under its darkness, we see, too, a glint of dingy white.”

~Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, 12: 410

The other is a letter Sri Aurobindo wrote when someone asked him if there is a universal beauty beyond the limits of our ordinary divisive seeing of things, and if there is anything ugly in the eye of the artist.

“There is such a thing as a universal Ananda and a universal beauty and the vision of it comes from an intensity of sight which sees what is hidden and more than the form—it is a sort of viśvarasa such as the Universal Spirit may have had in creating things. To this intensity of sight a thing that is ugly becomes beautiful by its fitness for expressing the significance, the guna, the rasa which it was meant to embody. But I doubt how far one can make an aesthetic canon upon this foundation. It is so far true that an artist can out of a thing that is ugly, repellent, distorted create a form of aesthetic power, intensity, revelatory force…. But we cannot go so far as to say that the intensity of an ugly thing makes it beautiful. It is the principle of a certain kind of modern caricature to make a face intensely ugly so as to bring out some side of the character more intensely by a hideous exaggeration of lines. In doing that it may be successful, but the intensity of the ugliness it creates does not make the caricature a thing of beauty; it serves its purpose, that is all. So too ugliness in painting must remain ugly, even if it gets out of itself a sense of vital force or expressiveness which makes it preferable in the eyes of some to real beauty. All that hits you in the midriff violently and gives you a sense of intense living is not necessarily a work of art or a thing of beauty.”

~ Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, 27: 702-703

The remarkably powerful last sentence gives a marvellous insight indeed! And a great lesson for not only those who create any work of art, but for all who are seeking beauty and harmony in life. Intensity of emotion, feeling or thought may have its place and purpose but it may not always lead to harmony or beauty, within and without.

Unless this intensity is purified and transformed into intensity of love for the Divine, bhakti and samarpan. Because that intensity does not hit you in the midriff; it straight goes to the psychic part of you behind the heart and gives you a taste of true beauty, the All-Beautiful, All-Attractive.

Dialogue with Arjuna by Keshav Venkataraghavan

And what of ugliness in life and art? I find the most perfect answer in three sutra-s from Nolini Kanta Gupta:

“Ugliness comes into being only when we endeavour to exhibit something, be it decent or indecent, as a truth which is not realised as such in the conscious bliss of the heart.

“O artist, have you realised the bliss with which the Divine has filled the ugly and the filthy to the brim? If so, then you have acquired the philosopher’s stone which transforms even the ugly into the beautiful.”

“When Duhshasana, the second Kaurava, unrobed Draupadi, it must have been something indecent to look at. But when Sri Krishna robbed the bathing gopi girls of their clothes, it was supremely beautiful.”

~ Nolini Kanta Gupta, Collected Works, Vol. 7, The Obscene and the Ugly – Form and Essence

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