On the latest episode of Giving Ventures, host and DonorsTrust Vice President Peter Lipsett talks with Marion Smith, president and CEO of the Common Sense Society; Margarita Mooney, executive director of Scala Foundation; and Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society. All three touch on the importance of beauty and the role it plays in securing freedom.
Beauty ‘Gives Meaning to Life’
Smith, who returned full-time to Common Sense Society in 2021 after serving as the executive director and CEO of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, says beauty is the guiding force in people’s lives and, simply put, that one knows it when he sees it.
“[Beauty] is the opposite of ugly and ugliness, and I think we understand it as that which gives meaning to life,” he says, adding the late Sir Roger Scruton, a “free-marketeer” who supported underground dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, was also committed to beauty for beauty’s sake.
Common Sense Society, founded in 2009, is an American and European network of scholars and debaters who explore the “ideas, cultures, and geography that have shaped our history in order to best contribute to a future that fosters human flourishing,” according to its website.
Beauty, then, is a natural part of scholarly discussions, says Smith, adding that his organization isn’t a gatekeeper of taste but that proponents of the idea that what a person takes in around them ultimately molds a person and, therefore, it’s important to take in what is true and beautiful.
“We are giving credence, I think, to the very common sensible idea that our environment—the tangible, physical things we interact with every day—does shape how we see the world. It shapes our ideas, it shapes how we interact with other humans in community.”
Its latest project? Better understanding how beauty affects the human psyche and physiology and digging into research that suggests more brutalist architecture is more jarring and evokes a “fight or flight” response from those who live and work in places with exposed steel and glass.
“Surely an understanding of that [research] can guide how we build schools, for example,” says Smith. “Any survey of that shows we’re building schools that look more like prisons did in the 1960s and 1970s and surely that’s something that we should be getting further away from.”
Freedom and Beauty Go Hand-in-Hand
Mooney, executive director of Scala and associate professor in the department of practical theology at Princeton Seminary, has devoted her life to thinking about beauty and teaching about its importance in everyday life. (In fact, she even wrote a blog post for us all about beauty.)
“What I think that people don’t often recall is that the tradition of freedom in America also grows out of this idea that—not only do we know truth in a rational, analytic way—but the beautiful attracts us and therefore leads us to the good and makes us want to know the truth.”
Scala Foundation is a nonprofit, founded by Mooney in 2016, dedicated to gathering K-12 educators, artists and scholars together in order to “restore meaning and purpose to American culture through beauty, liberal arts education and religion,” reads its website.
“What’s unique about Scala is that we bring embodied experiences of beauty—whether that be experiences in nature and increasingly with music and art—precisely to help students who may already be convinced of much of the meaning of … economic freedom but help the see that, through embodied experiences of beauty, they can share the truth that they have with others in a way that’s inviting and attractive in an environment that’s increasingly divisive.”
Classical, Traditional Architecture Fundamentally Beloved
Shubow—who in 2021 was elected chairman of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which comprises seven appointees dubbed the “aesthetic guardians” of Washington, D.C.—argues that people have a fundamental inclination toward architecture that is classical and traditional.
“I don’t think there are too many Americans who look at the U.S. Capitol building and think ‘That is ugly.’ And, on the flip side, there’s been a long, persistent dislike of brutalist buildings for many decades,” he says, adding a Harris poll commissioned by his nonprofit proves as much.
The National Civic Art Society, founded in 2002, exists to educate the public and elected officials about the importance of preserving and creating classical, traditional, “dignified” buildings, monuments and open public spaces in our cities and towns, reads it website.
Of the poll, Shubow says the majority of respondents, though wildly different demographically, agreed on architectural preferences. “I would not call that a matter of subjectivity—‘Well, you like this, I like that.’ When we’re looking at projects that are funded by tax-payer dollars and that speak to who we are as Americans, we should look to what the majority wants,” says Shubow.
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