The Crime of Ugliness



    ONE hardly assents without question to the statement that ugliness is a crime. That the love of beauty is a pleasure we know, but why place it among the moral obligations? Is it not straining the use of language a little to speak of the morality or immorality of inanimate objects? Beauty is nothing but a condition of matter. And how can matter be either good or evil? Surely beauty is one of the things we may leave outside the pale of ethics!
    Beauty, however, is really only another name for goodness, and the maintenance of beauty is as much a moral duty as the maintenance of goodness. And I come to believe this in the following way:
    I perceive that we call things beautiful [Page 25] which are most pleasing to our senses at their best, just as we call things good which are most satisfying to our emotional nature at its best, and still other things true which conform to the requirements of our mental nature. You may, if you wish, say that we have a special faculty for the apprehension of truth, which we call reason; that we have a special faculty for the perception of right and wrong, which we call conscience; and so you may say, too, that we have a special faculty for the appreciation of beauty, which we call taste, for want of a better name.

    Again, since I cannot make any discrimination between my three natures, nor call one higher or nobler than the others, but am compelled to do equal reverence to body, mind, and soul, paying them equal heed and equal care, I conclude that taste and conscience and reason are of equal importance, equally to be obeyed. I know, moreover, that happiness only results from the exercise of our faculties, and the highest happiness only results from [Page 26] the equal exercise of all our faculties to a normal degree in a normal way. When I exercise my reason, I am controlling and directing my curiosity in order to arrive at the truth; for in no other way can I attain pleasure or happiness of mind. When I exercise my conscience, I am controlling and directing my emotions, in order to attain and preserve the good, for I cannot have happiness of soul in any other way. And when I exercise my taste, I am controlling and directing the work of my hands and the acts of my body in such a way as to produce the most beautiful result. I know that unless I am allowed to work in this way, I can have no joy in my work.
    Now furthermore I may conclude, surely, that joy in one’s work, pleasure in one’s emotions, and satisfaction in one’s thoughts, go to make up the sum of happiness. And I am profoundly skeptical of the validity of any theory of conduct which can countenance the cultivation of any one of these forms of happiness [Page 27] at the expense of the others. If it were not true that we can only reach happiness by a degree of cultivation of all our faculties, there would certainly be many more happy people in the world. All people who cultivate their mind assiduously and exclusively would be happy, and all those who cultivate their taste, with no regard to thought or sincerity of emotion, would be happy. But this is not the case. And more than that, we perceive that piety is by no means a sure bringer of happiness. The blameless life is often hidden under a mask of woebegone unloveliness. Our good friends are not happy because they have made the mistake of thinking goodness the only aspect of the universe, whereas it is only one of three aspects. God does not exist as goodness alone; any more than man exists as soul alone; but He exists as beauty and truth also, just as man also exists as body and mind.
    We are not constituted to find pleasure in falsehood or wrong, however much our ill-balanced [Page 28] natures may seem to do so at times. There is always within us the capacity for approving what is noble and for believing what is true. No more are we constituted for deriving benefit from what is ugly, however we may tolerate it. For once show us something beautiful in its place, and instantly we are influenced by it. Now certainly the love of truth and the love of goodness are great virtues; yet they are not greater, I take it, than the love of beauty. And when we allow ourselves to act without regard for truth and goodness, our acts become injurious to our fellow beings, and are called crimes. For the same reason I call ugliness, or the creation of what is not beautiful, a crime. That it is not so considered generally is only too evident. When any one creates a beautiful object he is thought to have added to our luxuries. When a millionaire gives a library to a town, he is even thought to have conferred a benefit upon the community. This, however, is rather from the idea that townspeople are [Page 29] getting something for nothing than from any sense of the beauty of their town being enhanced. Indeed, the library is too often but another crime against taste. But any general sense of the value of beauty or any general sense of the hurtfulness of ugliness, I fear, we shall look for in vain. Yet that is not true, either; for we all feel the harm of ugliness. Only we have not been taught to recognize it as an offence against the public welfare. The only instance of such recognition in recent days is the legislation against the disfigurement of the landscape with advertising signs. Certainly the perpetration of these hideous enormities all over the fair earth cannot be considered a crime in the ordinary sense of the term; they cause no material injury to any one. Yet they do offend every one of us, whether we are conscious of it or not; and that common, widespread injury, that hurt to every man’s innate sense of beauty, is of the very nature and essence of crime. Public art [Page 30], or rather public work, is much more rightly the subject of censorship than private morals.

    Of course, the cure for the disease does not lie in censorship at all; it lies in securing freedom for the workman. The appalling ugliness of our civilization in the mass, its monotony, its lack of cheerfulness, is only the reflection of our own lack of joy and elasticity. Our works are hideous, because we have no pleasure in them; and we have no pleasure in them, because we are slaves to commercialism.
    But we must not scold. Only to rail against conditions that seem false and unlovely, is to be unlovely and false to one’s self. If we do not like things as they are, and do not believe in them, let us change them. Let us go about it with some degree of good nature and tact; for tact is only good taste in matters of conduct. If ever a burden of conviction hurries us away into angry speech, let us repent of our haste. We shall accomplish little for the good cause of beauty by the sacrifice of beauty in our own works and words [Page 31].