Tuesday, June 8, 2010
I rewrote the essay...and...uh...I think I nailed it this time! Not only are some of the muddled parts less muddled, but there is an expanded section on prettiness and ugliness...plus a thrilling joy ride into Tall Poppy Syndrome!
I will spare you all and put it behind a cut.
PART I: Introduction
I am not interested in ideas about beauty. I don’t find it thought provoking. On the contrary, I find beauty to be thought annihilating. Which is as it should be. I believe the experience of beauty to be universal. Every culture has a sense of beauty—although we could argue the details and the semantics.
The real question isn’t “is beauty in the eye of the beholder or is it a quality in the beheld” anyway—the real question is: “do we desire something because it’s beautiful or is it beautiful because we desire it?” It’s a chicken/egg question.
Because beauty is really not a particularly verbal or intellectual experience, critics, theorists and philosophers can argue forever that its irrelevant and we can all even agree on that point...basically, you can deny it all you want, and still, the appetite continues to rage completely unfazed, unabated and entirely undiminished. Similar to the smitten lover who knows they’ve chosen an inappropriate partner, passionate love blazes on regardless of all rational logic.
What is “beauty”? Because for this talk to have any meaning there needs to be a definition put forth at the outset. So here’s my provisional definition, which keeps getting revised with invasive surgery every time I visit this topic!
“Beautiful” is a sacrosanct term reserved for the extra special peak aesthetic experience that appeals to our “soul” as well as to our senses; “Beauty” is the transformative experience of being filled with desire and inspiration. The simplest way I define “aesthetic Beauty” is that it is the object, the embodiment, of our love, which we perceive as attractive in appearance. So now you can relax while I digress a bit...
I want to be clear, that in discussing “beauty” I am distinguishing between “beautiful nature” and “man made beauty” and also between “beautiful ideas” and “beautiful objects”. As an artist I am interested in the aesthetics of man-made objects.
Nature is beautiful. No kidding—one hears this ALL the time, its hardly a burning debate. But it’s not really very interesting in a discussion of aesthetics because we are not responsible for creating it and we have no impact on its meaning. A flower, a tiger or a sunset is ultimately utterly without morals or meaning. A sunset only means the earth is still in rotation...unless it’s a painting of a sunset. Art can embody intentional metaphor, and narrative—even though it can be deployed exploitatively rather than empathetically. At the very least, it has the potential to address humans on their own terms.
Beautiful ideas are similarly uninteresting—world peace, caring for others—all beautiful ideas but they are cheap, easy to come by and not particularly in contention. Yet they STILL need aesthetic help in selling them to humanity. Any fool can and they often do have good ideas but it’s the guy who writes the best song who gets the followers who are actually inspired to make changes. This is why I find much conceptual art is so dreary.
I believe "beauty" and "pretty” are, by definition, two different things. A pretty object needs something more to make it beautiful. But beauty doesn't need anything more to make it relevant. Pretty is only skin deep—but beauty is much, much deeper as any ugly person can tell you.
PART II. Prettiness and Ugliness
Pretty is the word we give to a superficial attractiveness that gives pleasure or is emotionally neutral. “Pretty” appeals to our senses and maybe our egos (think “trophy wife” to get a sense of what I mean). Pretty is hedonistic and provides a low level boost of instant gratification. Since all humans share the same biology, the same five senses, and that is more than enough to ensure that there are aesthetic qualities that are universally agreed upon. The human mind cannot tolerate much ambiguity or constant incompletion. It seeks patterns and imposes them on disorder. We are biologically wired to be alert to color contrasts, patterns, symmetry, and radiant light. I say alert—because its not always attraction=consumable. The biological imperative seems to be to notice, then analyze the red berry rather than gobble it down or toss it out without thought. We also have much software we have devoted to facial recognition and the fact that mirror neurons fire like crazy whenever we see anything resembling a person. Apparently we find the most mathematically average faces the most attractive. So that’s what “pretty” is, its inert, powerlessly pleasing. Pretty is “nice”.
But lately, the idea of PRETTY has begun to really pique my interest. Because I am not sure the issues of beauty are really debatable, as I have (and will continue in a few moments) to define them. What’s bugging the art world isn’t whether or not someone’s is having a real moment with an artwork! What’s irritating is the demand that it be good looking. So the real issue isn’t beauty at all but prettiness. Should an artwork look pretty? And for most culturati, the answer is no. For example, if you tell someone they made a pretty painting you are really asking to be socked in the kisser! Because artists are generally reaching for the higher goal of sublime, or awe inspiring or at the very least something profound calling it “merely pretty” is quite the insult.
And I agree art shouldn’t linger too long at the pretty level—but why isn’t it seen as a stepping-stone to something more visually intense? Why can’t it be a means to another end, a tool? In the desperation to be profound, is it necessary to jettison prettiness? Why must it be reflexively dispatched with entirely in order to ensure the primacy of meaning?
I like some art that’s pretty—I’m not afraid to admit that in public—but I demand it be pretty and beautiful too!
So as I continue with my remarks about beauty—keep in mind that one way—maybe even a major way, to reach beauty is via prettiness.
Thus I will repeat that pretty appeals to the senses. It is attractive to the eyes, it draws you in. And it is universal—in the object itself, not the eye of the beholder.
These pretty things are:
CONTRAST (of material, form, shape, color, texture, line),
RANGE (how diverse are the elements comparatively),
DESIGN (proportion, pattern, repetition, rhythm, symmetry),
LIGHT (radiance, warmth, shadow)
MIMESIS (by which I mean that representation activates recognition and empathy.
SKILL (I include this because, for better or worse, we are turned on by displays of skill).
There are two ways these principals are manipulated by artists to be interesting and possibly beautiful—either harmoniously or disharmoniously and the level of intervention can remain merely attractive or can scale the heights all the way to beauty. But these are the things that get our visual cortex humming. They prepare us to have a beautiful experience...and when we don’t we get disappointed which is why, I think we hate pretty so much.
So if pretty is pleasing to the senses (and the ego) then ugly is the opposite—displeasing to the senses (and ego). But beauty’s vastness can contain both—they just don’t happen to intersect, as seen in the top diagram. I don’t think that if pretty and ugly were to overlap, as in a traditional Venn diagram, you would get anything like “beauty”...more likely it would just compound the nauseating factors! A sugar coated turd, if you will.
Ugliness is usually more interesting than pretty, though, because it’s associated with the repulsive and things tend to be repulsive for a good reason. Thus, they are more psychologically loaded. It takes more energy to process something negative than positive--it stands to reason that prettiness doesn’t really require any real effort, but ugliness must be dealt with somehow—either avoided, transformed, or disposed of. Again—if an artist is intent on avoiding the dreaded “pretty” dead end and adopts the strategy of making work ugly for its own sake... if they imagine that’s a recipe for guaranteed artistic depth, well then I’m more a little concerned. Ugliness can be a profound, powerful experience but only if its wielded appropriately—otherwise it just gets tossed in the trash can.
Some notions of ugly derive from self loathing and fear of our bodies not putting us in the best light with its chaotic, unpredictable, dirty, smelly, demands and its insistence that it someday will die. Furthermore, it makes sound biological sense to not to consume what is rotten or mate with the horrifically asymmetrical or those with festering sores –no matter how politically incorrect and just plain cruel that may seem.
Now this is where ugliness gets really interesting. What should be repulsive is always going to get a portion of passionate defenders. People can be open minded and often perverse—we have a huge capacity to find attractive things that could easily lead to self-destruction. Its not as simple as unhealthy=repulsive and good for you=attractive.
We are a tricky species. Perhaps the biological imperative to analyze applies to the ugly as well. Or we may initially feel repulsed—but maybe we are turned on by the intensity of our response alone.
But seduction involving a hefty component of ugliness is not something one can typically accomplish by a full frontal assault. Transformation across domains is necessary. So you can manifest an ugly idea with good design and it changes from a bad idea to a beautiful one.
So we have an elevated awareness and fascination with the grotesque. The word grotesque derives from the word grotto, and a grotto is a moist cave. You don’t have to be Freud to know why dark, moist caves are going to be an emotional hot zone.
Pretty is the biologic attraction to appearance and ugly is repellant appearance. Since both involve a heightened response, they can be used to create beauty.
PART III: What is Beauty?
To repeat what I said above: “Beautiful” is a sacrosanct term reserved for the extra special peak aesthetic experience that appeals to our “soul” as well as to our senses; “Beauty” is the transformative experience of being filled with desire and inspiration.
The impact of beauty is nothing short of fierce. Nancy Etcoff points out that many of the words we use to qualify “beauty” are violent: bombshell, knockout, drop-dead gorgeous. Rapturous...This is how bad we want it; this is what we are willing to risk getting it. Beauty provokes a gut “WOW!” response, which is why I called it “thought annihilating”—it doesn’t really appeal to the intellect.
Beauty is also always positive, meaning, “life affirming”. But it’s rigorous (where prettiness is not) because it’s not about gratification at all. It is more about anticipation rather than relief and release. As long as we are filled with desire, we are engaged with something and probably not looking to end it all. So beauty is hope-full. The chicken/egg question is a positive feedback loop—we desire it because it’s beautiful and it’s beautiful because we desire it. So we keep after it.
But there’s a dark side--beauty can be so powerful it can transform meaninglessness and atrocity into a union with the cosmic. Because this experience is so glorious, so fleeting, mysterious, erotic, traumatic, even, it is always calling attention to its own inevitable loss. Therefore, beauty embodies a healthy measure of anxiety and fear. It takes courage to take the risks of engaging beauty.
Beauty fills us with desire.
I think we want two things in life. We yearn to be complete and we want to know there is a good reason for suffering and profound meaning in all that seems random and troublesome. Beauty, like love or truth or god, belongs to the category that promises catharsis, completion and enlightenment rather than simply pleasure and we imagine that possessing beauty will bring relief once and for all.
Beauty is to art what love is in life. Beauty is something without which, you suffer. Something you will go to great lengths to experience.
The desire for beauty defies rationality and common sense. It can cause one to abandon safety and self-interest in its pursuit. Under its influence one feels vulnerable, out of control. The loss of beauty causes pain; its death causes more pain. However, beauty is all the more poignant because it is transitory, and it cannot actually be possessed although it tantalizes us with this possibility and that keeps us awake, alive and feeling.
(This is why I find man-made beauty the most interesting, or a flower--a rainbow, a sunset can only be itself and follow its own independent destiny which includes its inevitable demise. But art can address our desires both directly and eternally; it has nothing better to do, in fact!)
Beauty fills us with inspiration.
I think as a species, we have a nagging sensation we are incomplete and we yearn for the long lost missing thing that will make us whole again, take us home again. We want to fit in—and we want to be unique simultaneously.
This is why we enjoy being full for the most part; like all galactic matter, we enjoy expanding and contracting and there’s nothing like a big bang every now and then. We like to define, refine and confirm our barriers to protect our sense of uniqueness and identity and yet we like to let the outside in- to prove we are not empty and not alone--as in breathing, eating, or sexual union— but also metaphorically, as in “full of inspiration” or “full of love”. Nancy Etcoff, whom I mentioned above, is a neuropsychologist at Harvard who has studied both prettiness and happiness. It would seem that what for many years was called “the pleasure center” of the brain is more about anticipation than results. If you stimulate that section of a rat’s brain every time it pushes a lever, it will push it until it dies of exhaustion. This may sound a lot like addiction (and certainly explains addiction as a spiritual crisis wherein one replaces an abstraction with a chemical substance) but the reward is not so important as hope and faith…so ladies and gentlemen—it’s not really about the climax so much as the penetration, if you catch my drift. (Don’t worry people—it’s not really a gender thing, OK?)
When we are full—our boundaries become fuzzy—we become at-one, or a lot less hungry or lonely, if you will. The hole becomes a whole. But something happens to one’s sense of being a discreet being in these cases.
Which brings me to the role of “self” in beauty. Beauty is not only is thought annihilating and language annihilating but also ego annihilating—it allows one to transcend the self which is why it feels so good. When someone surrenders their ego, they are for the moment, anyway—AT-ONE. with something larger than the self. The petty miseries of life seem to dissolve away. “Get over yourself” is more than a glib phrase—it's a path to enlightenment.
One of the things inspiration does is it completes a circuit, jumps a synapse. “Inspiration” literally means to be taking a breath—the opposite of which is expiring, a synonym for death. And in the case of art, one is symbolically inhaling the life of another. As a viewer you take in the artists inspiration when you engage with the artwork and it inspires you. So there’s transference here. The inspiration travelled from the artist, into an object and then into you. It’s a form of deep human communication and empathy that transcends time, space, and even death. So beauty is a momentary triumph of eternity. Seeing an object made well made intelligently and with care and love, made to be special or beautiful collapses barriers, and for a second, you share an understanding. Even though the maker may be long gone, you can see exactly what they dreamed, as they were able to see how you feel.
Beauty is the aesthetic expression of Eros.
The metaphor of transferring life force with one’s breath is the original myth of Eros. And one could easily see beauty as the aesthetic expression of this Eros. I got this idea from Rollo May, the great existential psychologist, who discusses Eros as “the power which drives men to god” (Atheists, please understand that’s metaphorical). Eros was originally a creator:
“When the world was barren and lifeless, it was Eros who ‘seized his life-giving arrows and pierced the cold bosom of the Earth’ and ‘immediately the brown surface was covered with luxuriant verdure.’.... Eros then breathed into the nostrils of clay forms of man and woman and gave them the ‘spirit of life’.”
Originally, Eros was the force that propelled the self towards its highest expression—towards mature self-fulfillment and union with the divine. Apparently, Eros became “sexy” later. In a later telling of the myth, the Earth is barren until Venus lifts her curse and allows smitten Eros to consummate his love for Psyche.
The kiss of life is no joke—when it comes to beauty and its attendant passion and inspiration this is not “artificial respiration” but metaphorical. The transference of the life force of one creator into another.
The experience of beauty is transformative. It can transform the awful into the awesome.
In addition to being the promise of that long lost thing, perhaps beauty’s function is its ability to transform chaos into something transcendent and meaningful. To transmute suffering into a beatific state (whence “beauty”). To transubstantiate our mortal flesh into something more eternal, more metaphorical.
This explains why so much of we call beautiful art must reference heartbreak and tragedy. There’s no transformation from joy to joy—obviously there’s no need to change that particular situation! Nor is there any transformation from emptiness to emptiness or ugliness-to-ugliness, this is just a reaffirmation of our worst fears.
Beauty is empathic, empathetic and embodies the notion of pathos in everyway possible with the exception of apathy. Beauty makes it possible to face, even embrace, the unbearable and traumatic, which would otherwise be too painful to contemplate. Beauty’s power is transformative because it assists us in feeling our feelings in a richer, deeper way, and it is a full spectrum emotional experience in which all is fair game to express. This certainly explains the appeal of tragedy. One can call an absence of pain and sorrow “happiness”, but joy can really only exists in contrast to darkness.
Beauty is dangerous.
Because the thing we desire makes us feels so positive we hope that it is good--we struggle to find these desires noble and moral. There is a long historical confusion between beauty and goodness—no doubt arising from the positive feedback loop. But anything we desire can be exploited for nefarious purposes and beauty can and has been used to sell people just about everything. But beauty is amoral and may deliver one to some odd conclusions, not always in line with society’s rules. There’s a lot open to interpretation with beauty and who knows what the brain of the beholder is bringing to the experience. Beauty is ironic—it promises everything but it delivers just about anything it wants to—from a momentary peek at the deepest mystery of our existence to the cheap euphoria of a commercial jingle. No wonder it’s so dangerous and threatening. No wonder it gets abolished from time to time.
Beauty, truth, the meaning of life, god, and love: these are all just synonyms for the same thing, the thing that makes it all worth the trouble. And to me, this makes beauty something worth fighting for.
PART IV: Creating Beauty
Trying to make something beautiful because you wish it to be so is almost as ludicrous as trying to make something meaningful. Interacting with the material world to create a physical object involves a lot more than intention and wishing. One can take “the beautiful” as subject matter and illustrate it directly. But to transcend apery, the image or form must actually embody the experience, not just parrot it back to the audience, which is why so much falls flat.
In order for an artwork to transcend pretty and become beautiful the appearance of the object itself must invoke a sense of...of...of...what? Imperative desire? Intense pleasure? Deep emotional longing? Shock and awe? Mystery and/ or the miraculous? Love? Hate? All the above and more?
If none of this makes any sense, well here’s a more usable, concrete definition:
Beauty is the formal elements of art (line, color, shape, pattern, texture, composition, rhythm) and the concept --it’s intelligence and it’s emotional tones-- in a confluence that results in a visual equivalent of “love”. Perfection, being the completion of something is the death of it—it demands admiration but does not allow for much empathy. So I think most so-called perfect images are rather boring and end up just being pretty, ironically.
Beautiful art is MORE than the sum of its parts. Of course, one can’t find a recipe to follow or even hope that with the right attitude and ability, beauty will result. You can only have intuition, faith and hope that beauty will arise out of a righteous quest based on love. Does that sound silly? Oh well.
The biological qualities we find attractive or pretty: symmetry, recognizability and familiarity, bright color, pattern, shape are “beautiful” when they are emphasized, ornamented, enhanced, exaggerated and celebrated. When they are made WRONG in the RIGHT way. Artists draw your attention to these qualities by tweaking them a bit so they are unexpected. There is something about beauty that is familiar, yet unique. Obvious, yet mysterious. Easy, yet difficult. Comfortable yet disturbing. Lovely, yet hateful. And in every case, a lot in between.
Part V: Beauty’s Banishment from Art
So why did beauty go out of style in the art world in the 20th Century?
The first reason is TALL POPPY SYNDROME. This is the yearning to be all-inclusive, homogenous, equal and fair at the expense of extreme accomplishment. Great for short poppies, I guess, but not much else.
Technique, materials and process became an issue. After the Industrial Revolution, a pernicious mind/body split became manifest in the art world. One might observe that mass production was, in part, to make things more democratic—decent plates and bed sheets for the proletariat at last! But at a cost—I don’t just mean that machine-made things are bereft and depressing. They ARE bereft and depressing (as the social experiment with public housing so deftly illustrated) or “objects always reflect the character of their maker so when that maker is a soulless automaton, you will be eroding the human condition” I do believe that, but perhaps that’s an argument for another day. —But I refer to the unwinnable contest between hand and machine—I am saying when machines do it cheaper, beauty becomes a social and economic battle and extremely undemocratic as unique human made objects (objects made with love and intelligence) are mostly available only to the wealthy (and those who can make them, of course!). Albeit, beautiful objects have always been more valuable and the better they are the less affordable. So status is always lurking in the margins making kind, generous, liberal people very uncomfortable. When the middle class arose, it was out with the “wall bling” and in with the Wal-Mart.
Obviously, making something beautiful requires ability and time. Whether that comes from hands–on practice or raw talent, it doesn’t really matter—either way—its totally at odds with middle class democracy as it is either merely a coincidence of genetics or the result of having a lot of spare hours and money to indulge on an expensive hobby. And if the plates and sheets from Wal-Mart are nice enough...well why gripe? So judgment became suspect—is became hierarchical elitism based on obsolete patriarchies and exclusionary practices. It seems to be kind and generous to “level the playing field” and see everyone as equal. Perhaps we are born with that potential, but as we grow we make choices, we must face our limits and it’s utterly disingenuous to treat all aesthetic experiences as equally moving.
Body dysmorphia is another reason for beauty’s suspect position in contemporary art. We just can’t seem to reconcile our brains with anything below the neck. Perhaps its because of all the embarrassing and undignified noises and demands our bodies make on us that we would prefer to launch our heads into outer space. We want to liberate them from our crotches, our stinky feet. Or maybe its just because our bodies and the bodies of even the most loved of loved ones will betray us by dying and rotting.
Safer to emphasize the idea, then one can farm it out to a pair of invisible, contracted skilled hands at no cost to the concept. Then, not only have you created needed jobs and the artist doesn’t have to rely the capricious talent of some mutant savant (probably of the idiot variety if “Amadeus” taught us anything) nor do they need filthy lucre to be considered worthy. Thus, technique became mindless labor entirely divorced from the sublime, lofty philosophies of the Artist. The issue became polarized: sweaty toiling cattle tilling the fields versus pure inspiration and the clean zaps of an enlightened brain thinking deep thoughts. Of course, the brain is a moist and goopy organ with plenty of obnoxious physical needs. How can we ever feel at-one with some greater context if we simultaneously deny our own bodies? The mind/body split will only lead to a dead end until we are at last the artificial intelligence we seem to be slouching towards. Bionic brains, here we come!
The other devastating blow to aesthetic beauty was World Wars I and II. If beauty is analogous to high passion it was never more obvious how much tragedy and atrocity that can lead to. Best to stay cool, and the Birth of Cool was the death knell for beauty. People became afraid of passion and sought to devalue it. War also spelled out in bold type how frivolous and luxurious beauty can be. With all that suffering, is not the indulgence in individual pleasure not insulting, idiotic, a fearful escapist denial or glitzy sugarcoating of the truth?
Beauty became an insult. It became economically impractical. Everyone can see how utterly unfair it is, OFF WITH ITS HEAD!
And voila! The head and the body are two separate things!
And yet we still desire beauty, just as much as we ever did, despite our best interests. And you know why? Because despite what it seems—it is still an experience available to ALL. Anyone can get a glimpse of who we are and why we are.... Beauty absolutely can deliver on its promise of love, completion and enlightenment to anyone as long as they are open to it.
Would you feel better knowing how many lives had been saved by beauty? So many.
©Judith Schaechter 2010