I wonder at times about the narrow definition I hold to for what is beautiful—or “beautiful,” to give it is usual ironic twist. This question becomes more pressing as we are swamped by garbage of all kinds; overflowing landfills, toxic waste in decaying metal drums, roadside debris, and now the wreckage of the Japanese disaster, due to hit the west coast in three years (it gets to Hawaii first).
It’s hard to argue that any of that could be defined as “beautiful”—and some of it is lethal. But the earlier mess of the industrial revolution has found its admirers, specifically, Claude Monet in his paintings of the Seine, backed by tall black factory towers—almost decorative in the mids of his blues and greens; or Charles Sheeler’s 1930 “Classic Landscape”: grain elevators, railroad tracks, and a polluted canal.
Since the collapse of industry in the U.S., those scenes are less familiar and a good deal less admired, and yet there is a sturdy beauty to some of them, such as the boxcars I saw at sunset in the enormous rail yards west of Los Angeles.
Can we come to admire what is crashing over us like nuclear reactor debris on a beautiful Laguna beach?