Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/11/2010

My Personal Holiday Greeting: the Right to Beauty

When I think back to my childhood, I well remember how by making progress on the piano I became more and more conscious of my own soul, my own ego. It was myself whom I discovered, myself whom I experienced ever more intensely. . . my whole being came under the spell of music-making, my temperament was kindled by it, my heart poured its warmth into it. Thus, I. . . employed a work of music as a vehicle for enjoying my own talent. ––Bruno Walter (1)

A series of more or less (probably less) connected thoughts:

During some obscure Christmas season in the ‘50s our family made its (almost) annual trek from far-Western Nebraska to Kansas City for the holidays.

An Aside:
In later years, working in “liturgical” churches, I wondered how the Pastor and his family could be away from the church on Christmas, but then I realized that—like the Puritans of New England whose repressive Christian oligarchy forbade the Popish celebration of Christmas—the Baptists had no interest in liturgical niceties. Get the baby Jesus born, make some money, and get on with it.

An Aside within an Aside:
I remember the year my father preached a Christmas sermon on the Magnificat and the importance of the Virgin Mary in Christian theology and nearly got fired for it. That was in the “old church” in Scottsbluff, so it was between 1952 and 1958.
End of Aside.

In the long string of Christmas visits (all of our relatives on Mother’s side of our family and Father’s parents lived in Kansas City), during the trip I have in mind we first went for dinner to our gay uncle’s apartment, where he lived with his partner (together now over fifty years). I remember it for many reasons: my uncle’s Italian partner taught us how to eat spaghetti twirling the pasta on a spoon; one corner china closet in the dining room was full of miniature figurines—hundreds of diverse folk two inches high; the top shelf of the china closet held bottles of liqueur which shocked my mother almost as much as the one bedroom (of course, it was never spoken that the men were gay—or even any euphemism for it—until I was living in a partnership like theirs perhaps thirty years later); and their apartment had a décor, not simply an arrangement of furniture.

After dinner we piled into the family car (green ‘52 Plymouth), Dad driving, Mom and sister crammed in beside him, uncles, brother, and I crammed into the back seat. Perhaps our other uncle and aunt and two cousins were with us and we were in two cars. I remember for sure that I was next to the passenger-side window in the back seat next to my uncle. We were looking at Christmas lights in and around The Plaza. We saw a store (not actually in The Plaza) where the lights were particularly badly done, not symmetrical, wrong color combinations, not related to the shape of the building—and I made some rude comment about the ugliness of that display. My uncle, I remember as if it were last night, said to his partner, “Well, someone in the family has artistic sense.” My uncle’s partner is an artist.

Not many years later, I understood that my uncle had really said to his partner, “See, I told you he is gay.” This is not an aside: neither my uncle nor his partner ever touched me or spoke to me inappropriately in any way. We never spoke about my being gay until I came out to them—while I was in college. I must say that in case any idiot who thinks gay men recruit young men to be gay is reading this.

On another Kansas City trip (I think it was fourth grade because I seem to remember showing the picture post cards I bought there to Miss Swanson) my uncle and his partner took us to the Nelson Art Gallery and—how dramatically queenly shall I be?—changed my life forever. The gallery (now Nelson-Atkins) has changed much since then. The gallery remains one of the reasons my life continues to change.

I live now in an apartment with a serious lack of décor. I am somewhat (though not overly) jealous of my gay friends (and my straight friends) who have homes and apartments where Nate Berkus seems to have been a guest. I’d love to be surrounded by order and, if not beauty, at least niceties.

A Disclaimer:
In no way do I fancy my musical experience akin to that of Bruno Walter. If you thought I was making a comparison, well—I may be ego-centric, but I do have some perception of reality. End of Disclaimer.

Gustavo Gutierrez argues that “the weakest of humanity” must not become “the rubbish tip of the industrialized nations,” for “the right to beauty is an expression (more pressing than some suppose) of the right to life.” So too the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture demands that the Catholic Church engage “in the promotion of justice and building up the great common house where every creature is called to live, especially the poor,” for “they too have a right to beauty.” (2)

The right to beauty is an expression (more pressing than some suppose) of the right to life.

Although that one sentence is what interests me, I leave it in the context of the article because it is a passionate spiritual call for inclusion of the poor in the most important aspects of civilization which are often reserved for those with means. And not simply food baskets at Christmas.

But if there is a universal and fundamental right to beauty, a right that the poor especially are in danger of being denied, then this right flows first from the fact that the startling and sometimes overwhelming encounter with beauty opens up something essential in the human heart, drawing us out of ourselves and inviting us to an engagement with the transcendent. (3)

I’m pretty much a “Bah Humbug!” type of Christmas person. But many of the trappings of Christmas (a) consist in beauty (don’t ask me to define beauty). I am like Bruno Walter only in that I know myself through music—through the experience of beauty (b)

It was myself whom I discovered, myself whom I experienced ever more intensely.

I do not mean to imply that my uncles are responsible for my experiencing myself. They had little to do with my music making (c), for example. But I am able to see that my experience of family (shall I be totally obvious?) gave me the freedom to experience beauty (d). Unlike so many gay men my age, I knew and loved gay men as family. And—Oh, dear! must I admit it?—Christmas played a part in my discovery of the “startling and overwhelming encounter with beauty” that made me conscious of my own soul.

The increased self-knowledge and the metaphorical world-view which the genius of mankind has gained through the ascent of music to the summit of its expressive power, mark an important epoch in the essential history of man; I believe that a later age will recognize the discovery of this terra nova one of the most significant events on mankind’s brave march of conquest through the boundless world of spirit. (4)
________________
(1) Walter, Bruno. Of Music and Music-Making. Trans. by Paul Hamburger. New York: W.W.Norton, 1961. p. 21.
(2) McCormick, Patrick T. “A right to beauty: a fair share of milk and honey for the poor.” Theological Studies 71.3 (2010): 702+.
(3) idem.
(4) Walter, ibid. 67.
(a) Aria, Bach Christmas Oratorio:
Sleep now, my dearest, enjoy now thy rest,
Wake on the morrow to flourish in splendor!
Lighten thy breast, With joy be thou blest,
Where we hold our heart’s great pleasure!
(b) Chorus, Bach Christmas Oratorio:
Fall and thank him, fall and praise him
At the Highest’s throne of grace! God’s own Son
Will of earth the Savior and Redeemer be now,
God’s own Son Stems our foe’s great wrath and fury.
(c) Charles Villiers Stanford, Magnificat
(d) Leo Sowerby, Magnificat
(e) Herbert Howells, “A Spotless Rose”

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Responses

  1. Those silly old uncles. Bubble lights, ribbon candy, birds that chirped, a water fountain running, perfect furniture, good food and always, the lights at the Plaza. The package with the three wise men came at a perfect time for me this year since I haven’t been able to find baby Jesus. How did uncle know? It was suggested, although I joke about it, that there is symbolism there that goes beyond my memories of the Uncle’s house at Christmas. The wonder and excitement of the journey was much greater than the gifts. Do you think this uncle really knows how much influence he and his partner had on both of us?

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  2. He knows.

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  3. What wonderful memories and what an amazing mother and sister to your uncle. You were so fortunate to have a loving enviorment. The silence actually spoke loudly of your family’s acceptance rather than condemnation or outright hatered that would have had a adverse affect on you and your future. Enjoyed your photos they take me to a happy time in KC I now reside in Fl. Have a wonderful holiday season I hope you are in a great relationship and have found love. Bless you and yours. HAPPY MCQUANZIKA!

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