There’s a frequent refrain in more traditional schools of thought when it comes to the arts that goes something like this: if people were only exposed to beauty, they would prefer it to the ugliness which has characterized much of painting and sculpture, architecture, film, and music for the past century or so. I don’t deny that there’s some truth to that notion, particularly when it seems as though all aesthetic values are now utterly and perhaps irreversibly subjective. Yet I wonder whether the notion that, in effect, “If you build it, they will come,” is a bit too narrow of a view to take, when it comes to the intersection of aesthetics and values in art.
Last evening while watching television – a habit which is becoming increasingly difficult to justify, given the available offerings – I came across a commercial for yet another blood-and-guts program from a cable channel which, over the past several years, has singlehandedly revived the zombie genre for the small screen, as well as glorifying the drug trade, biker gangs, and other unsavory aspects of contemporary society. The theme music for the spot was the opening of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Gloria” in D Major, a joyful piece of Catholic sacred music which, at least so far as I can tell, has nothing to do with a shoot-em-up series about a comic book anti-hero, even if God Himself is (apparently) a character in all of this mess.
Then there was this tweet from the Cathedral of Rochester in England, which has temporarily turned the nave into a crazy golf course (what the cousins call mini-golf over there.) Presumably, this is an effort to attract more visitors rather than worshipers, since in order to affect this alteration one presumes that a considerable number of pews had to be put in storage. No doubt St. John Fisher, whose seat this cathedral was before he alone among the English hierarchy had the cojones to stand up to Henry VIII, thereby losing his head in the process, is just as embarrassed for the people of Kent as I am at this extremely tacky turn of events.
In both of these instances, we’re dealing with artistic treasures of great beauty, but whose inherent dignity – and indeed ours – is being cheapened in the quest for popularity. Perhaps the use of Vivaldi’s choral masterpiece will attract viewers to the television show, but to what end? Is the sale of automobiles or contraceptives so vital for the survival of our culture that we need to make a blasphemy of sacred music in order to sustain these trades? No doubt, this new indoor funfair attraction in Rochester will bring the punters into the cathedral to get out of the summer heat. But how many of them will stay to pray, rather than simply play?
While such questions are simultaneously important and, on some level, frivolous, I bring up these examples in order to make a particular point.
It seems to me that it isn’t enough to simply introduce people to beautiful things, and expect them to immediately gain some kind of deep level of understanding, which thereby causes them to forsake the banal in favor of the sublime. After all, true beauty contains truth, but superficial beauty is just as appealing, and moreover subversively seductive and pleasurable. In and of themselves, beautiful things are not the panacea for our social and cultural ills that some would like them to be.
It’s all very well to go along to a great museum and look at images of beautiful figures in beautiful landscapes, or enter a magnificent concert hall to hear a great symphony, and tell people that these are the sorts of things which they must learn to appreciate above other forms of art. However, the reality is that life is one series of ugly events after another, from physical pain and mental suffering to poverty, loss, dashed hopes, and all of the other ills which categorize this existence as we know it. If the portrayal of ugliness is bewilderingly appealing, it’s probably because, most of the time, on an emotional level it’s much closer to people’s experience of daily living.
Instead, allow me to suggest that alongside a gospel of beauty, those of us who care about aesthetics must simultaneously learn to accept, and indeed to preach, a gospel of ugliness.
Yesterday, July 29th, marks the anniversary of the death of one of the most popular artists who ever lived, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890). Rejected by those in the art establishment who only wanted to look at beautiful things, today his paintings are the prize possessions of public museums and private collectors all over the world. People line up for hours to see exhibitions of his work, and on those rare instances when one of his canvases comes up for auction, it inevitably sells for an enormous sum. Meanwhile, the arbiters of 19th century aesthetic taste, or more precisely the artists whom they championed, who spent their careers creating things like soft-porn images of nymphs cavorting in cascades of flowers thrown by meaningless putti, are practically forgotten. Why?
Van Gogh was a terrible draftsman, and his painterly technique, such as it was, involved slathering on thick layers of paint in a rather childish way. He often used cheap pigments that, over time, have faded and muddled the colors of his paintings. He was also, by all accounts, someone whose mental illness caused him to sometimes cower in a corner, and at other times to be a quarrelsome, whinging, royal pain in the arse. No doubt, many who came to appreciate him after his death, when he was no longer around to annoy anyone, were drawn in by the romantic notion of one man suffering for his art, and that certainly explains at least some of the initial enthusiasm for retrospectives of his work – but it doesn’t explain his staying power more than a century later.
Perhaps his work still speaks to so many because, in the ugliness of many of Van Gogh’s images, we see something that isn’t airbrushed, auto-tuned, and plastic-wrapped. Its beauty lies precisely, and paradoxically, in its humility and its ugliness. We may not always like what we’re looking at, like the painting below of a pair of tattered, and probably quite smelly, pair of old shoes which, if we came across them on the street we’d probably toss in the nearest bin, using a stick to prevent ourselves from touching them. And yet as a work of art, the image of these hideously ugly shoes is imbued with a kind of dignity and indeed beauty which the man who wore them never enjoyed in this life.
Should you balk at this notion, I’d ask you consider the following:
He had no majestic bearing to catch our eye,
no beauty to draw us to him.
He was spurned and avoided by men,
a man of suffering, knowing pain,
Like one from whom you turn your face,
spurned, and we held him in no esteem.
By way of conclusion, I don’t mean to suggest that one should start preferring the work of Le Corbusier to that of Borromini – because if that’s where you’re at currently, I really need to completely rethink this whole writing gig. Rather, I think it’s important to recognize that aesthetics alone do not provide the artistic answer to all of our socio-cultural problems. Something which appears to be ugly can do just as much good in providing a salve to the human soul as something which glistens with an approximation of supernatural perfection. For after all, no matter how frail, scarred, flawed, or weak a human being may be, that person is nothing less than a miraculously beautiful work of art.