Spatial Design, Sensory Development

Has beauty lost its way as a noun?

Neale Whitaker 25 January 2022

Magazine editor, lifestyle commentator, and judge on Nine Network Australia's 'The Block', Neale Whitaker, shares his journey back to true beauty.

Sometimes my partner David and I pack our dogs in the car and head south from Sydney to a little dot on the map where our hearts live. It's neither truly bush nor coast, cottage nor beach house. At the end of a dirt track is an isolated weatherboard house that's not beautiful in any conventional sense. If there's a chill in the air, we'll light a fire and open a bottle of wine or two. There's no TV and intermittent Wi-Fi comes but mostly goes. We'll go to bed when it's dark and rise when it's light with the kookaburras and whip birds. The dogs will point in the breeze as Weimaraners' should and sometimes they'll race the wind by the pounding surf. Each one of those repeated rituals feeds our souls and replenishes joy. And if that's not beauty, then tell me what is.

That may not be the definition of beauty you expect from me. After all, haven't I edited some of our most desirable, aspirational - and downright beautiful - magazines? 

Surely, I, of all people, must aspire to more esoteric forms of beauty? 

Well, yes and no. I can appreciate the geometric precision of a Magistretti lamp, the craftsmanship of a Wegner chair, or the visceral abstraction of a Dale Frank canvas. And it would be disingenuous to deny the refined aesthetic my career has allowed me to pursue. But that's a prescriptive beauty that - to me - can feel superficial, even contrived. At its most innocuous, an off-the-shelf acquisition of beauty through a catalogue of objects that society has decreed 'beautiful'; and at its most pernicious, perpetuating a belief that beauty comes at a price, the preserve of the wealthy, the privileged and those who ‘get' it.

Nonsense. Beauty surrounds us.

Can beauty be observed in the sprouting of new life?

Despite the world's best daily attempts to disabuse me, I still believe beauty is life's default position and that it comes free of charge. Having said that, I also believe that as words, 'beauty' and its adjectival form have lost value and relevance, and I'm as responsible as anyone for their demise.

Was the sushi I ate at lunch really 'beautiful'? Is the car I'm lusting after 'beautiful'? Or that post I just read on Facebook? It's such an easy term to throw around and, like its near neighbour 'luxury', a one-size-fits-all descriptor. Journalists have seized 'beauty' to cover everything from Kardashian-style to contouring hacks to cellulite. 'Beauty' writers are as likely to cover cosmetic surgery and yoga as they are to write on lip colours and fragrances. This is not to denigrate their worth, but merely to demonstrate how 'beauty' has lost its way as a noun.

Beauty deserves respect.

I too must be more judicious in future with my use of these words because beauty deserves respect. I've known that all my life. Even as a child, I understood the glow of wellbeing that emanated from certain things. Like most kids, I loved stuff (what child doesn't love gifts?) but I also learned at an early age to read beauty elsewhere.

Can beauty be found in the delicacy of loose parts sourced from nature?

The magical silence that came with a snow-covered dawn (I grew up in England} and the piney scent of hot fairy lights on a Christmas tree. Or the distant sounds of the beach - laughter, surf, speedboats - on a still summer afternoon. The gift of these memories was they could be locked away and recalled whenever I chose. Perhaps the more portentous of my life's journey was the joy that came with creating an immediate beauty – my purple bedroom wallpaper and pendant light (purple, that Pantone for the 1970s, was my favourite childhood colour}, my carefully curated posters and books. I still love the contrived disorder of paintings, sketches, and photographs thrown together gallery-style. At age 11, I saw no reason why Donny Osmond couldn't sit alongside a palm-fringed beach and Orinoco the Womble. They were all beautiful to me.

Simple beauty makes my mind and my spirit soar.

Does daylight filtering over a collection of objects giving them dimension and making them shimmer resonate as beauty for you?

For several years I worked in a corporate office where I checked my soul in each day - like a bag or a coat - at the front desk. However much the sun shone outside, however green the leaves or blue the sky, however much I searched for an atom of joy to carry me through, I felt barren. What’s ironic is that the job I was performing was editing one of Australia's most prestigious interior design magazines. I guess the experience was Buddhist. That office was the mud and murk we had to grow through to produce an exquisite lotus of a magazine. But I swear I couldn't have written this article in that gloom. I now have a light-filled office with a beautiful (genuine use of the word) gum tree outside the window. I have fresh flowers beside my computer screen (white ranunculus, since you ask), and paintings on the wall that I love. There are treasured books on the shelf behind me and a string quartet on Spotify. Sounds idyllic because it is. It's only taken me a lifetime to realise it's what I need. Every cell of my body now feels alive.

And let's count the ways I find beauty elsewhere. In my dog's gaze and David's smile, in a favourite musical chord or a shaft of late afternoon light on the trees outside our apartment. In the first sip of a luscious, chilled rosé or the soulful call of a scavenging Currawong. And in locked-away memories of wood smoke on an English autumn evening, surf breaking on sand, dust-flecked sunlight on a Burmese road, Yves Klein blue and sunbaked terracotta, the rhythm of tabla in an Indian raga and jazz voices that have soothed me through the years - Holiday, Vaughan, Winehouse. Am I confusing beauty with bliss? No, I'm not. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder but it's also in the mind, the spirit, and every beat of the heart.

Neale Whitaker is a magazine editor, lifestyle commentator, and judge on Nine Network Australia's 'The Block'.