In the early 1960's there was still such a thing as a local corner shop that seemingly had everything. Mrs Whitaker's faced the end of our road in Halifax. When you entered you stepped into a short narrow room with a high ceiling and worn unvarnished floorboards. To the left, dark shelves rose packed to the ceiling with merchandise, to the right, a large shop window with an old display of stock, much faded by light. At the far end was a small wooden counter with a hinged top, behind this stood Mrs Whitaker, the entrance door bell having already summoned her from her back room.
Once I was considered old enough, Mum would send me there with a hand written note and shopping basket. The note contained a list of things we needed, to be handed to Mrs Whitaker on arrival. On this particular day, Mum sent me to buy Daz washing powder. The pack of Daz came with a bright red plastic tulip. In the sixties everything seemed to come with a promotional free gift, or a token to cut out and save. Its questionable whether soap powder and a bright red plastic tulip were natural sales companions, though it seems someone at Proctor & Gamble deemed it to be so. I became really entranced by this unexpectedly beautiful thing being given to me, for free, and returned home delighted.
When Mum saw me coming in holding a red plastic tulip she quizzed me about how I'd got it. I told her it came with the Daz but she thought that so unlikely, she marched me straight back to Mrs Whitaker's to apologise for my having thieved it. There of course she found out the vindicating truth. Mrs Whitaker's shop was soon to vanish; the arrival of the first supermarket in town a few streets away, quickly killed it off, The tulip, however, remained with me as a much prized childhood possession.
I was around six or seven, and still possessed a fascination and delight with everything I encountered. Most young children have this briefly, an irrational unbounded love and appreciation for objects, places, even imaginary people. Everyone else, but me, seemed to know this tulip was a poor crude substitute for the real thing. However feeble its verisimilitude may have been, it was as charmingly innocent and devoid of pretence as I was, I didn't care, I loved it, and saw it as beautiful. My free spirited perceptions were able to appreciate it just for what it was, not for what it wasn't or what it should have been. I took direct unmediated delight in its everyday beauty, however tawdry. It seems sad that we lose this ability to appreciate the beauty of ordinary everyday things, and can spend our subsequent lives grieving, searching and longing for this way of perceiving things to be revived in us.
What is it that changes our way of seeing? A lot of this comes down to a lack of life experience, and an accompanying naivety. Together these make children able to view things with a constantly new, fresh and vital eye. It is familiarity that slowly dims or extinguishes a child's 'beginners mind'. Life experience itself can cultivate a bored disinterest in what has already been seen and known, as we seek out fresh stimulating experiences, to feel that buzz of the new once again. Our countries economy survives on our desire for novelty. whilst our formal education informs, alters and refines our sense for what an aesthetic pleasure can be. The higher up the educational ladder we go, the more knowing and sophisticated our aesthetic sensibility may become.
This can come at a cost, we start to self censor our responses to the breadth of things we are able to appreciate possess beauty. What we believe to be beautiful or not beautiful, is created through learnt biases within our own culture, it is an acquired distinction. Like osmosis, we absorb other peoples aesthetic views through the conversations we have, the books, papers, websites we read, the advertising, programmes, theatre and films we watch, making them our own. As we narrow, refine and elevate of our views of aesthetics, we turn an appreciation for beauty, everyday or otherwise, into a search for an other worldly and rather rare endangered species.
Everyday beauty tends to be broader ranging, more comprehensive and available everywhere, at anytime. If a grown adult, however, were to show a simple childlike delight in something as everyday as a bright red plastic tulip, they may end up being patronised, treated as charmingly naive, unsophisticated, uneducated, ill-informed, unrefined, primitive, their sanity might be called into question. Generally what is ordinary and immediate, is often popular, and this on its own can summon forth an air of cultural condescension. These things being detrimentally compared to more rarefied aesthetic experiences, often held up as supremely High Art spiritually inflected, that you have to spend some time learning how to understand, appreciate and have a feeling for. This tends to stifle or stunt an appreciation for everyday beauty, instinctive, uncensored, and not strongly filtered through a cultural bias. Its present in everything, to consider it beautiful or not, ordinary or extraordinary, low or high brow, machine made or hand made, are distinctions that no longer serve any purpose. Appreciating everyday beauty appears to grow the more aligned we become with each 'presenting moment.' This may cause the arising of delight, by our closeness to it, by the intimacy of our being with its being, through appreciating its suchness, we touch upon our own.
This is the first of four blog posts I'm planning to write concerning aspects of Everyday Beauty. In future posts, I intend to look at three differing views on the relationship between everyday beauty and art, the elevated and the everyday aesthetic. One takes a modern Buddhist's perspective, one an essentially secular viewpoint, and another takes the secular as its spiritual launch point. The first comes from Sangharakshita the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order, the second from the artist and non-musician Brian Eno, and the third from Soetsu Yanagi, a 20th century Japanese ceramicist. I'm hoping that through exploring these views, however divergent or conflicting they may be, some of the elements that encourage or discourage a deeper appreciation for everyday beauty may emerge.