Beauty & Utility in Hawthorne’s “The Artist of the Beautiful”

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Our modern lives need beauty, because, in the machine-like pace of modern life and the machine-like culture, there is not much beauty to be found. Nathaniel Hawthorne pointedly illustrates in “The Artist of the Beautiful” the cost of valuing the practical over the Beautiful.

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Artist of the Beautiful,” the artist Owen Warland is described seeing a steam engine for the first time as a child. Before the mechanical monster, the highly sensitive youth faints. At first, we might think Owen is simply too sensitive, but there is another possibility: He is reacting precisely as he should. Like the proverbial canary in a coal mine, Owen is sensing a danger that others cannot.

What danger does he sense? The story suggests a conflict within modern society between the beautiful and the practical. Surprisingly, this divide may account for and connect to more cultural forces than we realize.

This tension is presented to us primarily through the world of work, a theme established in the opening scene, as Owen’s former employer, Peter Hovenden, walks with his daughter Annie past his old watch shop, which is now in Owen’s hands. Hovenden observes the young man at work on something apparently too small and delicate for the elder’s tastes, as he wonders with a sneer, “What can the fellow be about?” Unwilling to consider Owen’s work, or his “irregular genius,” as anything other than a vain and idle pursuit, father and daughter move on to the blacksmith, Robert Danforth. There the old watchmaker sees something he likes, the man with an “arm of might” at work in the darkness and glowing light of the forge, which Hawthorne describes with muscular grace, obviating the higher regard Hovenden holds for the blacksmith. As if the question needed settling, the old man says, “give me the worker in iron after all is said and done. He spends his labor upon a reality.”

The old man and his daughter move on, and we are taken back into Owen’s shop, where it turns out the young man is working on a mechanical butterfly. But this is no mere automaton, and it is unlike the metal shaped to a particular use by the blacksmith. Owen’s work is meant to be purely a thing of beauty. But the contrast at the outset is clear: The blacksmith makes what is practical and good, while the artist makes what is Beautiful but useless.

Hawthorne is suggesting both his society and ours value the practical more than the beautiful, and we might, at first, challenge this. After all, there are many ways our culture tries to preserve beauty, from museums and symphonies to national and local parks. Our concern here is not merely if we try to keep beauty in our world but whether it is enough, and, more importantly, whether we really know what is beautiful.

Beauty is, of course, hard to define, but it might be good here to try to give some working, if flawed, definition: A beautiful thing in this world of ours, this middengaard, contains some essence of the transcendent Beautiful, nothing short of an aspect of the Divine.

Hawthorne echoes this when he says of our artistic efforts that “the deeds of earth, however etherealized by piety or genius, are without value, except as exercises and manifestations of the spirit. In heaven, all ordinary thought is higher and more melodious than Milton’s song.”

Reaching to the Empyrean is not so easy for an incarnated spirit, so we may first look to the natural world for signs of enchantment. This is what Hawthorne’s artist does. When he is young, the author tells us that Owen attempts “to imitate the beautiful movements of Nature, as exemplified in the flight of birds or the activity of little animals,” and that he “sometimes produced pretty shapes in wood, principally figures of flowers and birds.”

As a watchmaker, Owen at first attempts to compromise with his society’s demands. He adorns clocks with wondrous designs and flourishes, or musical chimes, but which cause the clocks to no longer run particularly well. Of course, this is unacceptable, Hawthorne says, to the “steady and matter-of-fact class of people who hold the opinion that time is not to be trifled with, whether considered as a medium of advancement and prosperity in this world or preparation for the next.”

It is obvious to most that “advancement and prosperity” are among the greatest purposes in our culture. Our economy functions by the constant advertising of what seems a constant flow of goods and services, from new personal technologies to new HBO melodramas. How does one navigate this sea of prosperity? With a well-paying job, of course. Hawthorne is suggesting a weakness in the Protestant work ethic. Whether this is the logical outcome of the ethic is a point to be debated. But clearly, he is suggesting that those who think of work as “preparation for the next” life may believe all other forms of activity are not only irrelevant, but irreverent. The old watchmaker implies as much when he claims of Owen’s mechanical wonder that “there is witchcraft in these little chains and wheels” or that “in this small piece of mechanism lives your evil spirit.”

While we won’t find any extended criticism of the notion “to work is to pray,” Hawthorne is aware of the cost of not pursuing the Beautiful. Throughout the story, Owen faces the scorn of his townspeople, who come to think him mad, an epithet Hawthorne calls “this easy method of accounting for whatever lies beyond the world’s most ordinary scope!” Indeed, our day-to-day lives, what we might call ordinary, are dominated by pursuits either practical or related to it. The philosopher Josef Pieper argues that what people nowadays think of as leisure is not leisure, at least not as it was understood by the ancient Greeks, whose word for leisure, “skole,” gives us our word for school. Leisure is a time for higher pursuits, and many of the ancient Greek pursuits—poetry, philosophy, music, and geometry—formed the foundation of our liberal arts and sciences.

For moderns, leisure is merely break time, but for Pieper, this is only a period of rest given to ensure the efficiency of the worker; these breaks serve work, thus both corrupting a higher notion of leisure and reversing Aristotle’s injunction that we work to have leisure. But things of true leisure, such as attempting to create the Beautiful, are pursued for their own sake, not some other end.

Our lives, in fact, are dominated by work and work-like things. While there is evidence that the work week has shortened, I have yet to meet anyone who thinks they have a relatively short work week. And if hours have decreased, other things have increased. Commutes, for one, are simply an accepted grind. Or work-like duties related to the household and family that may dominate people’s two days off a week. While I am not necessarily suggesting we would all be happier working only three days a week, it seems rather inconceivable that so much of our lives should be spent on efforts outside the direct interests of the self and the family. Yes, work supports the life of the self and family, but it is the money that does this. All the hours of labor spent on tasks specific to particular jobs is not time spent engaged in personal pursuits, such as reading, exercise, eating well, playing with one’s children, or a host of other things we may dismissively call hobbies, to say nothing of having time for truly spiritual pursuits such as prayer and meditation. As much as the sentiment has merit, praying and working are not identical.

Unquestionably, our world of work has produced an enormous bounty, and while Hawthorne could not be aware of such an explosion of goods and services as we now know, we can imagine through his story the effect of a life so devoted to pursuing the comforts of life that it eclipses other higher pursuits.

We see this when Owen’s creation is destroyed, which happens four times in the course of the story. After the second destruction, the artist seems to give up on his attempt to capture the Beautiful, as he turns to wine and revelry. Here, Hawthorne makes clear that the loss of the higher, the Beautiful, is disastrous to the person, as the artist’s life begins to disintegrate: “When the ethereal portion of a man of genius is obscured the earthly part assumes an influence the more uncontrollable,” the author says, adding that “Owen Warland made proof of whatever show of bliss may be found in riot.” I think we can be forgiven for saying this is true of any person, not just the sensitive artist, who at this point in the story had “lost the steadfast influence of a great purpose,” suggesting a relationship between the loss of that which is higher and seeking pleasure to ease the pain. Without the pursuit of the Beautiful, for Owen, “There was a certain irksomeness of spirit, which… was more intolerable than any fantastic miseries and horrors that the abuse of wine could summon up.”

Here Hawthorne makes one of his more pointed illustrations of how the soul suffers when it is lost in the material world, a world unable to offer any real balm to the loss of the spiritual, but which often is that which the spiritually lost seek. One cannot help but think of other works connecting meaningless pleasure to a meaningless life. Barely human beings, the characters of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World have a wealth of pleasures to distract them from their existential angst. Should anyone for a moment try to confront their deepest despair, there is meaningless sex, the “feelies,” and soma to numb the pain. A few decades after Huxley was Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, giving us flat-screen surround-sound television as best a man in the 1950s could imagine it, and interactive melodramatic TV series that drew mindless audiences into their stupefying influence. And there was his hero, Guy Montag, trying to read from the Bible while on a subway, but constantly interrupted by a toothpaste commercial blaring on the train’s speakers.

One cannot help but think of our world here. Where is the beauty in our entertainments? When will the distractions stop? C.S. Lewis knew deeply that distraction was the way to destruction, as when his devil Screwtape excoriates Wormwood for allowing his patient the time to go for a walk and read a book. We are nearing the time when we will not have the patience nor the will to do either. A book simply won’t be stimulating enough. A walk will be too slow.

It has been long established that the person suffers when there is too much pleasure in his or her life, and yet we continually seek it out, and suffer for it. Hermann Hesse called it “the sickness of the rich.” Living within this culture, it is often difficult to get a real perspective on the enormous wealth so easily accessible to us. Even most of our poor have clean housing, air conditioning, smart phones, and televisions. Who could argue with having all of this? Certainly not those who have it.

In Bradbury’s book, his perhaps naive optimism is revealed in one telling scene, when Montag dares to read Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” to his wife and her vapid friends, causing one to erupt into tears at a sorrow she didn’t know she had.

Hawthorne is perhaps more cynical. As we’ll see, there is little indication either the jovial blacksmith Robert Danforth or the bitter old watchmaker Peter Hovenden would also be so moved by a glimpse of the Beautiful. While Danforth is mostly a friendly giant, he does mock the artist when he can: “I put more main strength into one blow of my sledge hammer than all that you have expended since you were a ‘prentice,” says Danforth. Owen’s discomfort with this “man of iron” is obvious, as when he later ruminates, “all my musings, my purposes, my passion for the beautiful… all, all, look so vain and idle whenever my path is crossed by Robert Danforth!” Hawthorne makes the antithetical relationship of beauty and utility abundantly plain when he adds later that “ideas, which grow up in the imagination and appear so lovely to it… are shattered and annihilated by contact with the practical.”

Unable to win this competition, the artist at one point tries to be practical and simply repairs clocks and watches without any artistic flourishes, gaining him society’s admiration but deepening his despair. The weight of culture is, of course, powerful. And while societal norms often provide a stabilizing, and largely good, influence on individual behavior, they clearly do not always. Our culture is powerfully influenced by ideas transmitted from a relatively small number of people through modern mass media, instantly and constantly, lending an overbearing weight to particular values. Neil Postman tells us how new technologies affect all parts of a society, like a drop of dye in water. The dye doesn’t simply sit in the water, but colors all the molecules. Europe after the printing press wasn’t Europe plus the printing press, as Postman says. It was a different Europe. What is America after the computer, he asks? We can ask: what are we after the internet? This machine is almost perfectly post-modern, leveling all things and almost worshiping novelty. And it functions on that most practical of traits, efficiency, transmitting information of any sort quickly and in massive quantities. You can easily look up anything from Parmenides to pornography, though I think we know which of those you can find more quickly, or is “googled” more frequently.

While the Beautiful can be found online, it is lost in a sea of other things. Many of them are not beautiful.

If resisting the cultural tide that values work and reward seems impossible to Owen Warland, how much greater are the forces against the soul reaching out for the Beautiful now?

The end of the tale is a surprisingly happy one, if somewhat bittersweet. Having finally succeeded, through various trials, to create his magical, mechanical butterfly, Owen shows it to the family of Robert Danforth. Danforth has married the one-time object of Owen’s love, Annie Hovenden, suggesting just one more defeat for the “man of genius,” losing out to the Earthly, practical man. But by this time, Owen is no longer troubled.

He keeps his creation in a finely-crafted wooden box, which, interestingly, Danforth seems to appreciate more than the magical wonder within, ever the practical man who can value both form and function, as long as the function is obvious. The butterfly’s magic is revealed in its wondrous glow, which changes depending on whose finger it touches. Of course, the bitter Hovenden seems to have the most negative effect on its emanations, a clear statement that the beautiful cannot survive those who are hostile to it. The butterfly glows less intensely on Annie’s and Danforth’s fingers, but an interesting thing happens when it alights on the finger of their young child. Hawthorne tells us that it seemed “As if the butterfly, like the artist [was] conscious of something not entirely congenial in the child’s nature.” The glow grows dim on the child’s hand. One might think a child would appreciate such a wondrous little thing and be possessed of a purer spirit. But Hawthorne somewhat relentlessly suggests that the child of the practical is going to be even more practical and more bitter. As if to confirm the suspicion, before anyone can act, the child crushes the delicate butterfly in its not-so-innocent hand.

Unlike before, this does not devastate the artist. As Hawthorne tells us with an almost aching beauty, “He had caught a far other butterfly than this.”

Are we like the child who cannot appreciate, cannot apprehend, the Beautiful, because we haven’t the sense for it? How much are we like the bitter Hovenden, seeing the practical, the immediate, as the only real worth? Or does the artist of the beautiful, in fact, live in most of us, who needs to be satisfied, once our practical urges are met? What is missed most when it is gone from our lives, the beautiful, or the practical?

It must be the beautiful, else our activities would cease when our work days were done, and along with that would our yearning. But our yearning does not cease. It often troubles us as a barely-there nagging when we’re watching television long into the night, or distracting ourselves with any other of a myriad “appliances of pleasure,” to borrow a phrase from Poe. It is a yearning for the ineffable.

Our modern lives need beauty because, in the machine-like pace of modern life and the machine-like culture, there is not much beauty to be found. We need to know there is more than the workaday world, and more than a sea of pleasures to soothe us. When Owen Warland caught his “far other butterfly,” he could rest with the inexhaustible satisfaction of having touched the imperishable. And then he could smile, as can we, once we have laid eyes upon the Beautiful, in this life and beyond.

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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

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