"The human soul needs actual beauty even more than bread." - D. H. Lawrence
We've long known about the income gap, but there is a much more insidious form of inequality that creeps quietly through our streets: it is the beauty gap.
We live in a world where beauty is unequally distributed amongst rich and poor. I don’t mean luxury goods and fanciful homes. I mean something much more fundamental: the piece of the world we see each morning when we open our doors. I’m talking about the world we see around us – the neighbourhood, the open spaces, the sky (if we're even able to see it, that is).
What does the world look like from your front door?
Here are 2 images from Google street-view of the first sight that one is greeted by should one live in a wealthy or a poor district in Hong Kong.
This is the world you are greeted by if you live in a wealthy district in Hong Kong ("Mid-level")
And this is the view from a less wealthy district a few miles away ("Sam Shui Po")
Our door frames are like the frames around a work of art, and whatever we open our doors to each morning forms that first painting we see of the world. When the privileged person looks out at the world each day, he sees a picture of hope and beauty – the world is his to conquer. The same cannot be said for the one living in poverty. He opens his door to see overcrowded quarters and dirty streets.
I'm reminded of D. H. Lawrence's exposition of the ugliness of the mining landscapes of England's working class:
The great crime which the moneyed classes and promoters of industry committed in the palmy Victorian days was the condemning of the workers to ugliness, ugliness, ugliness: meaningless and formless and ugly surroundings, ugly ideals, ugly relationship between workers and employers. The human soul needs actual beauty even more than bread. ("Nottingham and the Mining Country", 1929)
Beautiful spaces and mental health
After years of living in dingy student flats, I finally found myself owning a home of my own. For the first time, I had a place I felt excited to return home to and elated to wake up to. My dad’s paintings and my vase of dried Valentines’ day flowers greeted me each morning, reminding me that this home was mine to build and mine to furnish.
But at one point, I hit a slump in my career and gave up on fighting – the dishes began to pile, the floor was littered with my laundry, and I no longer felt like I wanted to be here. How could I enjoy the paintings or admire the flowers when the rest of the home was in such a state?
Thankfully, that was just a passing phase for me; but imagine what it would be like if you lived your whole life in this state, seeing nothing around your neighbourhood that you could feel proud of, nothing you could feel excited by— nothing but ugliness.
Our memories, experiences and sense of self are tied to specific places: think of your childhood and you might picture yourself running in the backyard of your nana’s home; think of your first crush, and your might recall hushed giggles in the school playground.
When you’re at a dinner party and someone asks where you live, do you feel embarrassed to tell them you live in a rough part of town?
We build our identities around spaces of beauty. When only some of us are able to do that—only some of us have spaces we can feel proud to call our own– we have a beauty gap. And we need to address it as a society.
Beautiful Spaces and Social Equity
The beauty of space, though seemingly insignificant, has deep and enduring impact upon our psychology.
It was perhaps with this in mind that Lee Kuan Yew, first Prime minister of Singapore, initiated the ‘Tree Planting Campaign’ in the young nation in bid to make clean air and green spaces a public good rather than a private luxury. His urban planning schemes were developed to make spaces of natural beauty – gardens, park strips and flower beds—accessible to even the poorest of neighbourhoods. This was coupled with regular cleaning services serviced by council tax to create a clean and green environment for all.
On hindsight, Lee reflects on his early initiatives:
“If we did not create a society which is clean throughout the island, I believed then and I believe now, we would have two classes of people: the upper class with gracious surroundings… and the working class, in poor conditions.
Today, whether you are in a one, two, three, four or five-room flat, executive condominium or landed property, it’s clean.
You don’t live equally, but you are not excluded from the public spaces for everybody.”
This is a typical block of public housing flats in Singapore (Queenstown). Such green features can be found in most neighbourhoods around the country.
The first step to solving a problem is realising its existence. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced many of us to spend much more time in our homes and neighbourhoods and, in so doing, brought to light the vastly different experiences we all have of home. It has made visible the polarity between the experiences of the haves and have-nots.
If we cannot solve the income gap just yet, let us at least solve the beauty gap. Let what lies between the rich and poor not be a beauty gap but a beauty space: a space of shared beauty for all.
I have discussed an earlier post that beauty is not a luxury for the few but a fundamental human right for all. In another post, I have also explained the power of beauty to heal, to uplift and to restore dignity.
These posts are published by Aestheletic. At Aestheletic, we’ve taken down our art gallery walls and brought our fine art to the streets as wearable art, because we believe that beauty is for all.