Friday, March 13, 2009

Beauty in Hard Times

Beauty is a wonderful thing, a thing of true value. Stocks look valuable at sometimes, and seem worthless in others. Posters of one’s favorite band seem valuable when you are a teen, and just cheesy latter in life. But beauty is of real and enduring value, in swell times and lean times. God forbid I should speak against beauty.

What I do want to say is that Beauty has a whole host of relatives that are worthy too. Beauty is a good thing, but not the only good thing.

The ancients and medievals in the West, valued beautiful art, but had plenty of other goals for art too. Grotesque art (like statues of rotting corpses) which nonetheless managed to convey religious truths like the ephemerality of this life, were considered art and valued. Horror stories, political art, and homely arts, all of these were valued as well even if what they produced wasn’t exactly beauty. But beauty proper had a place too, in the cathedrals, in the songs, in the decoration of clothes. It was part of how the wealthy showed off there wealth, how the young showed of their youth, and how the content showed off their contentment.

But this picture changed in the 1700s and 1800s. Beauty (and its very close relatives the sublime and the delightful) came to seem central to art, and to aesthetics, and aesthetics was cashed out as the science of beauty. A Baroque artist, a Rococo artist, and a Neo-Classical artist would have very different pictures of what beauty is, and what techniques best achieve it, but all three think that all real art is aimed primarily, even exclusively at creating beauty. And the philosophers of this time are very interest in how the philosophy of beauty related to the philosophy of moral value, and of economic value. To David Hume, Edmunde Burke, or Adam Smith, the question which of these paintings is genuinely better is philosophically very parallel to the questions which of the actions is genuinely morally superior, which of these assets is genuinely worth more, and which of these political systems is genuinely better. For the Scottish Enlightenment, the artist exploring beauty is in effect exploring morality, politics, and economics as well, even though that isn’t their real goal.

But by the end of the 1800s and the early 1900s you begin to see a rebellion against beauty by artists, and it continues during the twentieth century so that you see plenty of anti-beauty art in the 1990s and the 2000s. Arthur Rimbaud is the first person I know of to speak against beauty in public, at the beginning of his poem “A Season in Hell”

“Once, if my memory serves me well, my life was a banquet where every heart revealed itself, where every wine flowed.
One evening I took Beauty in my arms - and I thought her bitter - and I insulted her.
I steeled myself against justice.
I fled. O witches, O misery, O hate, my treasure was left in your care! …”

But the basic critique of beauty is found in many different arts and artists during this time, and it takes slightly different forms. Sometimes, the artist is pursuing some other goal besides beauty but thinks that they wind up hitting beauty as well, such as in Picasso’s Cubism; Picasso’s goal isn’t beauty, but he thinks his painting do succeed at being (oddly) beautiful incidentally. Sometimes, they are hoping to help people see beauty within a piece that looks ugly at first, but that they think is not genuinely ugly, as in Stravinsky’s ballet the Rites of Spring. But sometimes, the artist is actually opposed to beauty. The Dadaists thought that beauty was used by the powers that be to tranquilize the populous into accepting stupid policies like WWI. For them, undercutting beauty was part of undercutting the ruling regime. For Lichtenstein, obsession with beauty forced us to focus on the culture of the upper class, whereas art needed to wrestle with the culture of the whole society, thus must also struggle with pop culture. For Yoko Ono, beauty caused us to dwell on pleasant emotions, and situations where things were basically working, whereas art needed to confront life in both its pleasant and unpleasant forms. In a broken world, beauty is a balm, but it is in danger of being a lie or a distraction, and maybe the people need to be riled up rather than soothed. Many artists felt that art ought to confront the audience at least as much as it should cater to the tastes of the audience. So by the 20th century, beauty seemed like the coward's way out of refusing to look at the harsh realities of the world.

So do we need to be riled or soothed? Well, BOTH! Sometimes we need to be riled up and sometimes we need to be soothed, so I’m just not as willing to oppose beauty as a lot of 20th century thinkers were, but I’m also not as staunchly in favor of it as a lot of 18th and 19th century thinkers were. Further, I’m pretty impressed by Frank Sibley’s article “Aesthetic Concepts” from 1963. He argues that aesthetics is the study of human experience especially as it is colored by a particular kind of emotional experience such as when we experience beauty. But he argues that we have dozens and dozens of genuinely aesthetic concepts, like graceful, convoluted, or intriguing. According to Sibley, the vocabulary we use to talk about art falls into 3 basic categories, sensory talk that isn’t aesthetic yet (red, circular, polyphonal), aesthetic concepts (balanced, suggestive, harmonious), and overall judgment terms (good, lackluster, a classic).

So my position is that it makes sense to find ways to bring beauty into our lives, even in hard times, probably especially in hard times, but that beauty has a number of relatives that we should also try to bring into our lives during hard times.

There have been a lot of fights on exactly what beauty is, but a harmonious fit between parts, and a sense of delightfulness divorced from our immediate self-interest are classic elements. Winning a million dollars is delightful (at first), but our interests are directly involved. Watching a beautiful sunset is delightful too, even though it doesn’t really advance our interests in a direct way. Beauty is classically related to sexuality, youth and ephemerality as well. Sunsets are beautiful in large part because they don’t last. Beauty soothes us when things are hard. It makes it look as if things fit together, as if even the hard bits are just small parts of a larger more glorious design. One of my families’ favorite movies is O Brother Where Art Thou? which strives to convey the ways in which song and music weaved through the lives of common folk before the time of television and movies and Ipods. And here the music of beauty, solace and wistfulness dominates, not the music of anger, alienation, and reflection that I grew up with.

So beauty is a kind of delight but it is not the only variety of delight or even the only important one. When my kids get a new toy, they sometimes experience a delight that is not exactly beauty. It is a delight of fun, or hopefulness. Likewise when they learn a new skill that they can use, they experience a kind of delight twinged with pride and self-discovery. Delight is a close ally of curiousity, and so I will often find a book delightful even if it is not exactly beautiful. Beauty, as well as soothing, can give a lightness of spirit that we call delight, but delight is a broader concept than just beauty. And in hard times, delight is important too, not just soothing beauty. We need to keep our curiousity, our capacity for surprise and wonder. It is part of what allows us to retain openness to new and changing situations, it is part of what allows us to continue to adapt, and to enjoy adapting. In hard times, we need also a delight beyond mere beauty.

There is also a deeper kind of wonder, an experience tinged with awe, where we encounter what is far greater than ourselves. Traditionally, this close relative of beauty is called the sublime. In the sublime, we experience a glimpse of the transcendent, we are taken out of ourselves into a relation with things far vaster than ourselves. We stare through a telescope at the majesty of the Milky Way, and briefly experience our smallness. We look at an exquisite Greek vase from thousands of years ago and for a moment catch a glimpse of the brevity of our lives. The light filters through the trees of a forest, just so, and we are transported for a moment beyond time and space in the play of the dust motes in the beam of light. The sublime helps us to remember our place within the vastness, it helps our humility and our openness to wonder. It helps re-ground us in the essentials of our life. In hard times, we need splashes of the sublime, beyond just beauty.

And there are plenty more relatives of beauty that are important along side beauty. It makes sense to want a home to be familiar, comforting, ... well homey. Especially in hard times, some little corner of the world where one can be at home is a great luxury. The interesting helps to keep us engaged. The nostalgic helps us to remember our past. The graceful helps to lift us beyond mere necessity. The humorous, the cheerful, the silly, the festive, the cool, even the elegant are aesthetic goals worth seeking, if you can afford them, and usually you can afford at least some. And none of these aesthetic concepts is exactly the same thing as beauty. The angry, inspired, passionate, insightful, honest post-punk music I listened to as a youth, isn't really beautiful, but it is cool, and it is valuable, even aesthetically valuable. I do not think people should be cheerful all the time, or that one should be forced to live or work in a cheerful place. Enforced cheer is one of the more twisted aspects of our society. But we ought to have a place in our lives for cheerfulness on occasion. Cheerfulness isn't beauty or vice versa, but cheerful decor is sometimes appropriate, and I think that contemplating the differences helps us to see how lots of relatives of beauty all have a role in helping us to maintain a balanced and open perspective for confronting challenges.

Now I said that I don’t think a home should be beautiful, or at least not regularly beautiful. I think that a home should be homey, familiar, inviting and comfortable, and that is quite a different goal than beauty. But I do not mean that beauty should be missing, just that it should have a different place, or be an occasional visitor to the home, rather than the main aesthetic goal of a home.

But what of the ugly, the horrific, the terrifying, the repulsive, the tragic? Well, horror and tragedy in art usually thrive during economic downturns. People feel fear, and bitterness, and a whole host of foul emotions during hard times, and I think that is a good thing. Our world is not sweetness and light and people need to be able to face the dark as well as the bright aspects of our world. But pain is easier to bear when the pain makes sense than when it just seems meaningless. Childbirth involves intense pain, but women often find the pain far more manageable than other lesser pains precisely because they understand the point of it. Artistic explorations of the horrors and tragedies of our lives, can often help us to deal with them better precisely my making them more comprehensible. Some can find beauty even in horrors and tragedies (I’m quite good at that, and its one of the reasons I’m a goth), but even if you can’t experience them as beautiful, darker art, and darker aesthetic goals can still be valuable. But I wouldn’t want to live in a tragic house, or a horrific one, even if I want to read tragedies or horrors occasionally. Even ugliness itself is not always to be avoided. There are ugly truths, there are ugly tools. We must be willing to look on the ugly, even if we prefer the beautiful. I listen to beautiful music, like those haunting Depression era gospels, but I listen to ugly music too, like Einsturzende Neubauten. Without the beauty, it would be hard for me to find peace, without the ugliness, it would be hard to keep up the struggle, and I think both are important responses to our lives in hard times.

When life is a banquet where every wine flows it is possible to take beauty but find it bitter, and prefer as Rimbaud did camp and kitsch (it has been suggested that Rimbaud invented the idea of campiness). But after a season in hell, well … after that as Rimbaud says “All that is over. Today, I know how to celebrate beauty.”


  1. Damn, Brian, that's one helluva piece you've written.

    You know, I'm put in mind of Cameron's house in the movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off": it's very beautiful, and very cold, and you're not allowed to touch anything.

    Since you've been discussing this over at Sharon Astyk's (and at home), I've wondered if beauty is the sort of thing that's an appropriate *goal* at all for a home. I've thought about how I would go about trying to create beauty--even just a space of beauty--in my home, and I'm not sure how to go about doing it. When I decorate, or clean, or reorganize, or whathaveyou, beauty isn't really my goal, and I'm not sure how to go about making it a goal. Making things tidy, pleasing, comfortable, sure (well, when I get around to it). And I think we find beauty in our homes in places, but they're not planned. To somehow *put* beauty into a home seems to me to push it out of the boundaries of home and into the realms of a museum, like Cameron's house. Should beauty *only* be incidental in a home?

    I guess, reigning in these ideas a bit, I've tried to do such things in the past: a small "zen" corner with fountain, various paintings/art we have hanging (although I doubt many of even those are transparently aiming at "beauty" either). But those places where I try seem to get removed from the daily space of our home. Maybe that's a good thing?

    Or, maybe, I'm running a fever and need to go lay down.

  2. You know my Dad's house has a painting I've always loved, just as you enter. And it is beautiful, not just homey. (I agree, none of ours are exactly beautiful). But you come in to his house, you see it, then you look over at the dining room, or the sitting room and all the little things on the mantle. It is a little moment of beauty, before moving on to the rest of the house. Or my mother's farm, when the trees in front are in bloom it is beautiful, it just isn't beautiful all the time. When the leaves are full, and the little inflatable pool is out, and you sit on the porch swing and watch the kids play, it is nice, pleasant, but not quite beautiful. But it really is beautiful a few days a year.

    Back when I was a grad student, my bonzai tree was beautiful, before I killed it. I think little snatches of intentional beauty are probably OK even in a home, as long as beauty doesn't try to crowd pleasantness, homeyness, and other good goals out. My own experience of beauty has always been in little bits of revelation, I said over at Sharon's blog "in moments caught sideways," so the beauty-in-short-occasional-flashes model seems very natural to me. But maybe that's because I've always been more of a poet than a decorator.

  3. I want to say something about the pleasure of reading these words above but a storm is coming across the mountain. Thunder. I wonder if you are familiar with Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers by
    Leonard Koren?
    grace in New Mexico

  4. Nah, I haven't seen that book yet, we'll see if our library has it.

    When I taught Aesthetic Theory last semester we did a little bit on non-Western aesthetics and talked about wabi-sabi, as well as some other Japanese aesthetic goals like shibui (elegant understatement and underdetemination, like a mountain in the mist), iki (sassiness), tsu (cultured refinement), mono-no-aware (bittersweet ephemerality), and kawai (cuteness). I hoped that seeing how this played out in a different cultural context would make it easier to see in ours too. Hello Kitty is not at all wabi-sabi, and seriously lacks tsu and mono-no-aware, but it is chocked full of kawai, and has a fair bit of iki (at least at first and on occasion still), and hints of shibui. My bonsai had tons of wabi-sabi and some tsu, but not really kawai or iki or shibui or mono-no-aware. Iki and tsu are almost direct opposites. Yet, I want all of these goals on occasion, and more besides (none of them capture homeyness, or as someone on Sharon's blog pointed out, German has a great word here gemutlicheit). An aesthetically rich life just requires aiming at lots of different goals on different occasions.

    I also like how shibui has never really been a direct goal in the West, yet Westerners can often get the point and value of it without much difficulty. Danto argues that part of the value of innovative art is that it expands the categories that we can use to think about and experience existing art or situations.

  5. the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.

    there is this combination of words in that book:
    "beauty is a dynamic event which occurs between you and something else."

    I find beauty in corrosion. rust.
    In how a winter's worth of wind changes and
    rearranges the crust of sand on this land. Places
    what someone might call debris in whorls, creates
    swales in patterns I could never imagine.
    And I am forever using the word beauty full.
    It annoys me, how MUCH I use that word. But I
    don't know of another.