Be careful communing with Nature. She may shatter your standard of beauty.
Garrett Kincaid – February 23, 2023
I had the privilege of going to college in Hoboken, NJ, at Stevens Institute of Technology. Hoboken, where I still live, is a square-mile city that sits on the Hudson River, across from NYC. And the highest point in Hoboken, with the best view of Manhattan, is right in the heart of campus. Throughout my years as an undergrad, I never took that view for granted. I would pause on my walks to class and stand at attention or sit on a bench at sunset to study how the different skies would reflect off the city-glass.
I saw the skyline as beautiful, until I returned from Iceland.
Flying south along the Hudson, parallel to Manhattan, I could see straight down each of the long, longitudinal streets — 63rd, 42nd, 36th — each one-ways crowded with cars. The trafficked streets flickered by like the spaces between a picket fence, revealing broad red and white stripes of car lights. It felt intensely patriotic, but I couldn’t find the rest of the flag. All those bright lights had blotted out the night’s star-spangled sky.
On that return flight from Reykjavik, while descending into the Newark airport, I had this involuntary, uncomfortable thought: the New York skyline is a weak imitation of a mountain range. New York is rightly a source of American pride and is a mark of human achievement. But maybe it is only that. Maybe it is impressive, admirable, exciting, and not beautiful.
Flying above the city, I was proud; I was impressed. Yet I was reminded of what was absent from the scene: the peaks of the Andes, broad Californian trees, the sprawling Kansas plains, Iceland’s ferocious falls. Nature is the ultimate standard of beauty, but in New York, Nature is subordinated to things like commerce, productivity, and entertainment. In Iceland, Nature undisturbed and protected; it is paramount.
I saw the skyline differently that night because my three months in Iceland had shattered my standard of beauty. Skyscrapers are imitation mountains.
Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder; it’s subjective. But maybe there is an objective aspect of beauty — something that organizes aesthetics into a hierarchy. I propose that there is such a thing and that it is unconditionality.
The buildings of New York’s skyline are more like cogs in a machine than pieces in a museum. Undeniably, there is art involved, from the architect’s design to the craftsmen’s construction. But those buildings were created with expressed, utilitarian purposes — to profit from corporate rent, to be commercial centers, or to attract tourists.
For something to be unconditional, it must exist for itself and not in service of some objective. The closer something is to being unconditional — an end in itself — the greater its capacity for beauty, whereas the closer somethings to being a tool — merely a means to an end — the lesser its capacity for beauty.
The ultimate unconditional artist is Her Majesty, Nature. No lake, ravine, or volcano is created to turn a profit, accrue fame, or attract visitors. Each is simply a byproduct of the singular flow of the universe. Each is entirely unconditioned. What we create can’t quite compare; the best we can do is imitate Her. Nature inspires us to create for the sake of it. So, let’s abide, for it is only by creating unconditionally that we unlock the top tiers of beauty.
Whether you consider yourself an artist or not, we all are creators. Every day, we create conversations, meals, and daydreams — not just paintings, sculptures, and books. How could the next thing you create be made more unconditional, more beautiful?
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