“The perception of beauty is a moral test.” – Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 21 June 1852
Over two hundred years ago, John Keats famously declared that “Beauty is Truth, and Truth Beauty.” When contemporary scientists and mathematicians refer to a theory as beautiful, they associate beauty with concision and streamlined elegance. Yet for as long as people have regarded beauty as essential, beauty has also been characterized as indulgently ornamental and impractical. During Thoreau’s era of increasing industrialization and mercantilism, poets and artists were accused of idling away in unproductivity. Likewise, in today’s seminar rooms and art galleries, to focus on the beauty of a novel or painting is often seen as detracting from art’s political and ethical potential. How can we negotiate between these tensions, especially during this era of increasing political and environmental catastrophe? Is it possible to reconcile them? When is the pursuit of beauty crucial to moral engagement, as Thoreau argues, and when is it a distraction from it? This lyceum event brings together an interdisciplinary group of artists, scientists, and scholars to ask where they stand on the purpose and pursuit of beauty in the 21st century.