Is beauty a basic need and right?

Beauty is not essential because it is in service to some economic or social outcome that is more basic than it, it is in and of itself a basic need.

Last December, as part of the Art of Change initiative, our work with the Ford Foundation exploring the interplay for arts and social justice in the world today, we brought together a small group of experts and thinkers in a range of fields—including psychology, economics, art, philosophy, and public policy–to discuss the topic of beauty. The goal was to question the dominant paradigm of our society, which overvalues economic metrics as an indicator of wellbeing, and ask how we might more effectively articulate, value, and nurture beauty as a basic need and right.

The conversation had two parts:

  • Making the case for why beauty is essential to the health of human beings and society, and how it can be a catalyst for justice.
  • Expanding the space for beauty in our contemporary discourse and policymaking, and understanding the role of art and artists in that shift.

[To hear thoughts on the topic by some of the participants in the convening–including Claudia RankineHilton Als, Krista Tippett, and Teresita Fernández– visit the Art of Change site.]

We want to share a bit more about why we feel this discussion is so important.

Contemporary society has overvalued economic growth and technological innovation, equating these with progress in human development and prioritizing those factors at the expense of the things that most people agree make life worth living: among them human connection, beauty, nature, love, and art. We have always known intuitively—and now we have research data to back this up—that material wealth alone does not lead to happiness. Yet our hyper-capitalist society has made it increasingly difficult to talk about and champion the more humanistic elements of life as worthy of investment and development.

To attract and retain support in this context, the arts have become increasingly adept at justifying their value in terms of economic impact. While not invalid, economic value has little to do with the reasons why people are drawn to art, and why it has been an essential element of all human communities throughout history. Our current socio-economic paradigm creates few openings to talk about these other aspects of art–its ability to inspire wonder and joy, to help us transcend our small selves and see ourselves as part of something bigger, to connect us to each other, to make meaning, to stir empathy, and to affirm human dignity.  We struggle to talk seriously and publicly about the essential role of beauty in our experience as individuals and as a society — not as mere prettiness, but in all of its ethical, life-affirming, disruptive and even “terrible” (via W.B. Yeats) dimensions. 

There are indications that we may be seeing a shift, and a kind of pushback against the hyper-capitalist and materialist values that so dominate our lives today. There is growing interest—not only among spiritual leaders, artists, and philosophers, but also among economists, social scientists and policy makers—in more holistic approaches of thinking about personal and social development.  These approaches recognize the importance of humanistic principles, and challenge the premise that maximizing economic value is or should be the primary project of our lives as individuals and as a society. This has implications for the way that we understand the value of art, and art itself may be a powerful agent for propelling this shift.

In this conversation, we tried to avoid the argument that art is either “for arts sake” or “instrumental,” and instead suggest that it is actually always both. Beauty is not essential because it is in service to some economic or social outcome that is more basic than it, it is in and of itself a basic need.  We considered the interdependence between beauty and justice, exploring how beauty itself is a kind of justice, and also how beauty can be an agent of justice because of what it provokes in us. We asked: how might we leverage this inherent yet often unexamined connection between beauty and justice in order to build, in the words of Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, “an economy of empathy”?