The Importance of Art & Beauty to Sustainability

Helio Mattar, Brazil’s former General Electric CEO and Vice Minister of Commerce left business and politics to transform consumerism. In dialogue with Walter Link on GlobalLeadership.TV, Mattar discusses the importance of emotions and beauty for leadership and sustainability, and how excessive consumption leads to environmental crisis and personal unhappiness.

Mattar believes in the importance of art and beauty for happiness, and that appreciation of beauty is integral to sustainability.

Excerpted from Helio Mattar: From Consumerism to Conscious Consumption [WATCH FULL VIDEO HERE]


Walter Link

You were talking about the importance of feeding your soul. I’d like you to say something about this personally also in this wider context that we have been talking about together for many years which is that, in a way the biggest challenge to social environmental sustainability is also consumerism, what you are now focusing on with Institute Akatu. And we talked about the necessity of a paradigm shift not only from unsustainable production for consumption, to more sustainable production.

But the fact that we are trying to fill nonmaterial needs through consumption, that we have a whole economy, a whole society which more and more is global that attempts to satisfy all our needs in a very material way while we can see throughout human history that, in fact, many of our needs are not material. So I think that leads back to this question of, what feeds your soul in your experience and how does that relate to consumerism?


Helio Mattar

If I talk in general, my own soul is fed, in general, is fed by beauty. Beauty, not only in the aesthetic sense of beauty but in the ethic sense of beauty also. As the Greeks would equalize static and active. In Portuguese I say that there are four A’s: which is affection, friendship, love and art.

These four elements, these four A’s in Portuguese, they are all related to beauty. Beauty in the sense of affection, you can only have affection for other people if you reduce your own importance in that relationship and really try to find what is good in the other one. You can only have friendship in the same way.

You are only going to love, really love someone, if you are going to accept that other person thoroughly without asking what that person has to give you. But asking yourself what you have to give to the other person. And the artist is exactly the same. If you produce the art you are being generous to people, you are expressing your emotions and dedicating your life to expressing your emotions. Through art you are expressing your vision of the world through art.

So it’s all beauty. Beauty is the basic attribute which I think should be part of the Bill of Rights of the human being. The right to beauty. Anyone should have the right to beauty. The right to beauty in relations in terms of friendship, affection, love. The art to beauty in whatever surrounds you physically, tangibly or intangibly.

And that’s what feeds my soul. For instance, I see that I harden myself whenever I stay too long far from music for instance. Music is a most extraordinary art because it talks to anyone of any culture and it touches you without you knowing what is the interface. The interface is sounds. You cannot really understand what is going on, why is it that this sound is going this way? I feel my emotions and you coming from a totally different culture, you feel the same emotion.

Is it the same? I don’t know if it is the same. But you feel moved by music. So I love the language of music because of that ability to talk to different cultures. I would love to find a language that would have that. Actually, the closest to music in my point of view is poetry. In poetry we are able to express beyond the words themselves. So you read poetry and you are not reading the words, you are reading the images, the way the images relate to each other and how they move you in certain directions.


Walter Link

Last year I brought a group from the Triodos bank, we were doing this two-year leadership development program to also meet with you here and the COO in particular was very touched by the way you spoke about beauty. He is a former McKinsey partner and he is responsible, among other things, for the IT area and he has now taken over the financial investment area of the bank.

So he is a numbers man in some sense but he also chose of course to work for a sustainability bank like Triodos. And I wonder whether you can make the connection, in your experience, in your perspective, between this discovery of art and music and how it touches you in this very visceral way, and what it can help us to understand sustainability and shift from kind of materialist consumption to a different way of life that can be rich and satisfying without being so materially demanding?


Helio Mattar

I do think there is a direct relationship, direct relationship, between beauty and emotions that beauty provoke and sustainability. If you look at sustainability as being a process through which companies, people as consumers, public officials will have to worry about the other ones, not about themselves.

Companies which for a long period of time worried about shareholders, if they want to act sustainably they have to worry about how other people feel about their actions. This is the quality of the relationship is the feelings that are established in these relationships. The consumer wants to be a conscious consumer, wants to be a sustainable in the future works for sustainability in a sustainable society.

They will act in a solitary way. They will worry about the impact of their consumption on others. On the society, on the environment. When you are worried about the feelings of others what you are doing is exactly what art does to yourself. The artist, at some point in time, be it develop a piece of music or a painting or a sculpture, and when you enter in contact with that you are moved by it.

And if you would meet that artist you would see that that is a human being with all the qualities and all the problems that human beings have. All the contradictions and so on. It’s exactly the same in sustainability. Sustainability is in the process of establishing that the feelings of people in both directions will have to be considered.

The feelings of consumers, not only in relationship to the products themselves but how they are treated by the company and how they establish the relationship as well as the relationship to communities. So it’s not an objective thing. It is part of how companies and people are being touched in a mutual relationship. And then you have to have sensitive souls on the part of the companies in order to really work for sustainability.