When I first visited Warsaw, in 1985, I learned to mock the Ministry of Culture. I listened and tried to understand the Poles at that time, and I gathered that the building consolidated in one huge structure everything that the Poles felt about communist rule. Double lives, underground feelings, ironic paranoia.
Recently I was talking to my graduate student, a Pole. We were discussing cities and architecture and beauty. She told me, “I like the Ministry of Culture. How it looks, I mean.” I laughed because I thought I was supposed to laugh. And she said, “No, I mean it.” She said, think about the 1970s communist architecture and then compare it to the Ministry of Culture. In contrast, it is a lovely piece of kitsch. Just wonderful. That is how she sees it; she sees something there that she can find beautiful.
This fall in my Psychology of Human Emotions course, I taught my students about how our minds have evolved to detect the negative. We have an uncanny ability to see the snake in the grass, react to the spider before we consciously perceive it, and recall the worst thing that was said to us in passing on a given day. This negativity bias can affect our well-being, our relationships, our satisfaction with pretty much everything. So you know, I told the students, you have to train yourself to see the beauty. You may not see it automatically.
It is very easy to perceive the beauty of medieval villages in France. Every guidebook describes them, and they are classified by the country in terms of their beauty. I was therefore surprised when I arrived at Marseille-Marignane, the airport where I landed when I spent a year in Aix-en-Provence, to find that the stretch of autoroute between Marseille and Aix was appallingly unattractive. I didn’t know in advance that I would pass that many Carrefours and Renault dealers. Not far from the autoroute, passing by Meyreuil, there are a couple of nuclear reactors standing around. Just like strip malls are not beautiful, neither are the zones industrielles in France.
But like I say, our minds are made to automatically detect the negative. My friend Marie-France lives near those nuclear reactions. And after reflection, she finds a certain beauty in them.
Shortly before I moved (back) to the United States for a year, in 2006, a French colleague told me that she had driven around in the US, and that she found the cities ugly. Except San Francisco, she said, “she isn’t an ugly city.” Imagine my surprise, then, when I went along the coast of Maine through small villages, drove down to Boston, passed over the Mississippi with a view of Dubuque, Iowa, before me, and crossed Wisconsin on highway 23 through towns like Montello. And never mind Charleston, Sante Fe and Savanah. These are all gems; there are also towns and cities that could be called “ugly” by someone who didn’t know what to look for or appreciate.
Just as there is perceptual adaptation (getting used to visual sensory input, like you do when you come into a dark room on a sunny day) there is emotional adaptation. Some things finally lose their ability to make you feel awe. But, if you look hard enough in the places called ugly, you can sometimes feel something else. A jolt of feeling, something unexpected, something not listed for you and ranked in terms of beauty.
Something like the Ministry of Culture.