Sunday, January 2, 2011

Beauty as a public good

Why you have to subsidize greatness....

Beauty is the antidote to white noise. Beauty, in the sense meant here, is not in the eye of the beholder, not a matter of taste. The Taj Mahal, Bach’s ciaccona, the double helix, Godel’s incompleteness theorem don’t gratify us – almost the opposite: they arrest us. They strike us against our boundaries, against the inevitable necessity of the world, with tension, proportion, balance.

And when beauty strikes us, we wake up. We no longer just passively swallow the external sensations from the world. We begin to perceive the world actively. We willfully move not only towards the steepest gradient of pleasure, but also against our limits. This to-and-fro dance turns our sensations into sense, and some tasks emerge as meaningful challenges for us. At least for a while, we become entrepreneurs. And possibly, part of the challenge in our enterprise is not just to take advantage or to buy the time and effort of the people with whom we interact, but actually to engage with them and with their own enterprises.

Beauty cannot be provisioned in a decentralized market. Unlike with vaccinations, the problem has nothing to do with free riding. The point is that there is no way in which beauty can be marketed: there can be no promo to genuine surprise. We cannot form demand for an experience which will alter our outlook, because the new outlook makes no sense to us before we actually have it. Our only chance to have beauty is to commission it by a centralized, public initiative.

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