Beauty: The Necessary Excess

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I love beauty. Call it superficiality, vanity or frivolity. Call it all three. I care not. Those who discount beauty-who see it only as a frivolous distraction from the bare bones of function-are either lying, or have no soul. Beauty-visual, music or food-is needed to function. Not only is it everywhere in nature, but we as a species strive to create it. Other species seem drawn towards it as well. Ever wonder why tropical birds are so colorful? Why peacocks are so…unnecessary? It is, in part, to attract a mate. Things that are alive are attracted to attractive things; and we are attracted to beauty because it is attractive.

Still with me? Good.

A Satin Bower Bird's nest decorated with bottle caps and straws. Borrowed from Lulie and Marie's Blog

A Satin Bower Bird’s nest decorated with bottle caps and straws. Borrowed from Lulie and Marie’s Blog

Even if we were the only species actually drawn to beauty, wouldn’t that then contribute to our humanity? Wouldn’t it set us apart from every other species? We go out of our way to create beauty. Much like the male Bowerbird who decorates his nest with bright berries and flowers to attract his mate, or songbirds attracted to the strongest song. Beauty could then be argued to be an indicator of virility. The oldest and most reliable indicator. Is it any secret why women with large hips and bosoms are considered attractive? Or bright berries and fruits that attract animals to feast, spreading its seeds? Sure some bright things indicate “danger”….but it’s still a good thing, right? It serves as protection for the tiny tree frog or coral snake who would otherwise fall prey to larger predators; and, if they are eaten, they get the last laugh because the diner will die from the poison…and they’ll both be dead…but right now, we’re talking about happy, positive things. So beauty does indeed serve numerous functions, be it to attract strong, healthy mates, to perpetuate a species or to protect against being someone’s dinner. But what about beauty for the sake of beauty?

Imagine for a moment, this world, if Monet never thought it necessary to paint, or if Beethoven figured he’d make more money as an accountant? Or what if people based the value of food only on its amount of and variety of nutrients? Cake! There would be no cake!

Perhaps this is why the Rococo period in history fascinates me so. It was the epitome of frivolity. It was an era of playfulness, softness and asymmetry. The era poked fun at the staunch lines and symmetry of Baroque, and rebelled against the social confines imposed by the Church. Artists favored creamy pastels and soft curves. They often painted quiet pastoral scenes, graced with impish figures wandering or dancing or swinging on marvelous floral swings. The austere lines and strict rules of balance were banished as elements in architecture and design. Craftsmen instead embraced whimsical flourishes that mimicked nature in its randomness. Fashion followed suit with laces, silks and chiffon of blushing pinks, demure champagnes and soft baby blues.

People didn’t take life so seriously. They welcomed beauty-saw the world for the enchanting, colorful, chaotic and of-the-moment place that it was. I would argue that the people during this era were more enlightened than those from any other in history. Sure, the scientific and technological breakthroughs were wonderful in their own right; and there belied a tip of the hat to human innovation and creativity; but it was nothing like (and very nearly the opposite of, in that science and technology are devoted to function-to understanding the world and manipulating it to make life easier for us) the celebration of life and love that was Rococo.

The era was so short-lived, though, to the detriment of the human culture. It is almost as if people are afraid to embrace beauty-almost as if people fear to indulge and revel. Certainly there are limits-for what does revelry become if practiced too often? It loses its novelty…and that is an essential part of beauty: if you ensconce yourself in something too often, that something becomes common. That is why we, as a species are constantly challenging ourselves to redefine beauty.

On the other hand, there are those that would espouse mundaneness-those who assert that beauty is inefficient, function-less and has no utility other than filling space and expending energy that could be put to more productive purposes. Although too much of something can leave us jaded, not enough can leave us colorless, tasteless, mute and numb. Dead.

Some would try to bridge the two extremes by beautifying efficiency or industrializing beauty. There is merit to this endeavor, and I would not stand against it. I would encourage it! However, it is okay to have beauty for the sake of having beauty: shimmering gems, colorful paintings, stomach-dropping symphonies….pastries.

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Ahhh, pastries: one of the ultimate expressions of beauty. Not only is it, by its very nature, unnecessary (why eat a cake, when you could get calories from a more nutrient-dense source?); but it is the only foodstuff that is decorated. Pastries are frosted like lace, topped with jewel-like candied fruits, embellished with flourishes of crème and draped with fondant like bridal gowns. They are meant to appeal both to one’s eyes and one’s tongue. They caress all the senses: aromas of sweet caramel, satisfying baked goods and floral fruits embrace us, like hugs; the feeling of silky pastry cream, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate and pillowy yellow cake is enough to make us close our eyes to revel in the experience; the tastes, oh the tastes! Tangy curds, sultry crèmes, buttery cakes, nutty, rich, deep and so much more. They are a celebration of the senses, and therefore of life. Pastries nourish the soul.

So, my friends, wear makeup. Flout your jewelry. Dance about just to feel the air move around you. Listen to music that stirs your emotions-that inspires you. And…eat a cookie.

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Recipes can be found here:

Macarons (I flavored it with banana extract and used coloring. The filling is a vanilla buttercream)

Puto (The topping is a strawberry buttercream)

 

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