Friday, February 25, 2011

Thoughts on Beauty V: Beauty in Art

My friends, it has been a while (I've been dreadfully busy), but we have finally come to a place where we can claim that this line of reasoning has something to do with art.

I have a friend, R.C. Speck, who is dazzlingly smart. I don't just mean that he can analyze complex systems quickly, although he can. He has that other quality which I think completes the concept of intelligence: he is creative. He comes at problems from angles you would never have thought of if you were plodding along by logic alone.

He said something to me once that made a big impression on me. I just recently asked him if this thing he said was his - he says he thinks it isn't. But he can't remember where he got it. This is what he said:

"Every trivial truth has an opposite that is false. Every great truth has an opposite that is also true."

This is a very mystical sort of a thing to say, and I have never tried it out empirically. But it has, to me, the ring of the truth. And it is very perplexing - it is more useful to me as an unsolved problem, to think about, than it is as a solved problem, to shelve with the other solved problems. I suppose that makes it a koan.

We will get back to Mr. Speck's koan in a little bit.

So far, we have discussed the experience of beauty, and the two major types of beauty, functional beauty and the beauty of the immaterial. There is much more that could be said - but I haven't got it in me to say it; all I've got left is to consider how these little concepts apply in a practical way to art.

Therefore, let me state the totally obvious: if you want to think about beauty as being found in things of high functional-aesthetic value, and high soulfulness, then you will naturally have art that, in evoking beauty, evokes the one, or the other, or both.

For my part, I consider the distinction between these two types of art as being a distinction between art of trivial beauty and art of great beauty.

Here we come to the ugly business of examples. Ugly, because I know my key example for trivial beauty is near and dear to at least a few of you. Let me take a moment to tell you a funny anecdote about the shooting of 300, a film described as "kind of like Herodotus, except the Persians didn't actually have orcs." If you've seen this movie, you may remember that there were some impressive abs on display:

As was previously mentioned, this is Sparta.

These abs resulted from a grueling workout regime instituted by the director, Zack Snyder. Since the regime was so grueling and all, Zack Snyder, in the time-honored manner of good generals, followed it himself. Thus, he could say to his abmen, "Your abs will not suffer in any way I am unwilling that my own abs should suffer."

Now, we're not here to develop our abs, but I want you to know - when I let loose on my example of trivial beauty in art, I have chosen it because it's near and dear to me as well. I'm going out of my way to assault something which I know I love, as you love it, so that you will not think I am simply casting aspersions on art I don't like to begin with.

That said, it's art nouveau.

I have devoted years of my life to art nouveau - I once shot a short film, Venus, which took massive labor (mostly on my part) to render in an entirely art-nouveau style:

For research, I filled a shelf with books on art nouveau and related topics and studied them:

I'm no trifler with art nouveau. But when I think of art that is trivial in its beauty, I think of the endless sumptuous curves of art nouveau:

The Horta House, Brussels

I think of the harmonious colors of art nouveau:

The Met's Tiffany window

And most of all, I think of the overly perfected figures, and treacly emotionality, of the prince and avatar of art nouveau, the incomparable Alphonse Mucha:

Let's get back to Mr. Speck's koan. Under the distinction he draws, the trivial truth has an opposite that is false. And this applies to the beauty of art nouveau. Art nouveau depends for its impact on perfection - a perfection I myself failed to meet with Venus. No curve, no feature, no coordination of the elements can be out of place under the art nouveau system, because the entire edifice fails if any part does not stand. It reverts from magnificent beauty straight to absurdity and pretense, and from there, to ugliness. It is a brittle and specific beauty.

Well, you argue, it is primarily a decorative art; in most cases, function is its very purpose. True - but art nouveau descends largely from the pre-raphaelites, I think it's fair to say.

William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott, c. 1888-1905

Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Proserpine, 1874

John William Waterhouse, Narcissus and Echo, 1903

This movement, begun in the second half of the nineteenth century and ending more or less in 1914 or 1915, as art nouveau itself ended, could be called the fine arts branch of the nouveau aesthetic. It too depends on a nearly obsessive coordination of pictorial elements, stylized depictions of plants, and above all, beautiful people in far-away fairylands expressing their beautiful feelings in beautiful gestures and looks of dismay, transport, or anger.

It's all surface, it's all beautiful, and it all points to the neurotically aestheticized emotions of a decadent culture in a state of crippling decline that ultimately machine-gunned itself into oblivion in the bloody trenches of World War I.

Which is not to say that this work is not cheering to the senses and does not give many people, myself included, much pleasure.

But it is dangerous, dangerous stuff. It asks you to substitute a handful of jewels for your sense of humanity.

Let's turn to some artwork which I think of as beautiful with regard to soulfulness.

Rembrandt, Hendrickje Bathing in a River, 1654

It is so casual, so simple. The robe sketched in, the elements imperfectly arranged around her, the colors stingy, the body carelessly erotic - sexy if that's what you're thinking about; not, if not - and that face, intent, beautiful but ordinary, lit poorly, touched by grace. Where art nouveau has perfected nature to match artfulness, Rembrandt has made art imperfect to match nature.

When I was talking about Spielberg's holy grail last time we met, I was aware that I could be accused of aestheticizing the commonplace, in the same way that Tolkein, for instance, hearkens back to an idealized primeval England while conveniently neglecting the part about pneumonia, starvation, and dying during childbirth. This is a risk, when you discuss the aesthetics of the truthful. It is a risk inherent in the analysis itself. It is best simply to be truthful, and let the dusty academics talk about the aesthetics. So I am playing a double game here: on the one hand, I am an active artist who is trying to make art from a position of truthfulness, as Rembrandt has done, and on the other hand, I am a dusty academic, writing up my analysis of it for you right here. This blog has always been risky for me as an artist - but I am not an artist alone, and I find I have a need to write as well.

Enough about that. Now, when we considered "the opposite of art nouveau" to test Mr. Speck's koan, we considered art nouveau with the elements all screwed up. That seemed like a fair opposite to me; the elements are what makes art nouveau art nouveau. What makes this Rembrandt itself? The person, I would say. The work is subsumed in the vision of the person, the emotion he brings to the person and the emotion she brings to her experience of her life. She is submerged in her world, young and beautiful with regard to form and innocently intent on her action; he is in love with her. What is the opposite of this?

Self-portrait, 1669

He is set apart from any world. He is old, and ugly with regard to form. He is no innocent and takes no action. He is ambivalent about himself - ambivalent to the point of revulsion. This withered Rembrandt is the opposite of adorable Hendrickje. And this picture is as rich in the soulful sort of beauty as the first one. Here Rembrandt has reversed one great truth and found another.

Oh, and you were wondering about the works that have soulful beauty and beauty with regard to form? Sure, let me give you one.

Titian, Venus with a Mirror, 1555

This is one of my favorite paintings in the whole entire world. It's at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, if you want to go take a look for yourself.

So that's what I've got, for now. I know I am far outside the bounds of responsible speculation here, let alone scientific reliability. But this is where my thought leads me - I hope it is at least diverting.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Thoughts on Beauty IV: Beauty as Pertains to the Immaterial

Last time I made a substantive contribution to this discussion, I went on for a while about the beauty of objects with regard to their functionality.

This time, I'd like to discuss beauty as it pertains to soul. But before I get to that, let me add two things:

1. That Saatchi gambit? Totally didn't work. Bummer, right? Thanks for trying though.

2. Many of you have written very thoughtful comments, and I haven't replied to a one of them in a few days. I've just been really busy - family in town, and then me out of town visiting family. I'm off to the Hirshhorn this afternoon, actually, because I'm in Washington, writing to you from a Starbucks in Dupont Circle. But I will get to the comments as soon as I can, and I really appreciate the consideration you are giving this discussion.

OK, so - beauty as it pertains to the immaterial, or for convenience, the soul.

This is the most human form of beauty, and it is visible in those things which are either human, or reflect human action, or are easily anthropomorphized as the outcome of a human-like will. We understand them by reference to ourselves.

Let me give you a good example of the distinction between the beauty of functionality and the beauty of the immaterial. It happens to come from the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In this movie, Indiana Jones is searching for the cup Jesus drank from at the last supper. I get where he's coming from, I checked behind the sofa for it one time myself.

After much ado, Indy gets to a room guarded by an immortal knight of some sort:

immortal knight of some sort

Indy knows the cup is in the room. Unfortunately, the room is full of cups:

room fulla cups

And they are all really gorgeous cups - big gaudy cups, made of precious metals and gemstones, shiny, well-crafted, and so forth. Now, Indy's plan is to drink from Jesus's cup, because it'll make him immortal. On the downside, if he drinks from the wrong cup, he will rapidly die a growdy death:

stupid Nazi drinks from wrong cup

Stupid Nazi!

So Indy's really got to drink from the right cup.

He looks around the room for a while, and then he spots it - half-hidden on one shelf is a small cup, a humble cup, wretched even. Dull, corroded, spotted, uneven. This is the cup.

Well, this scene is a dramatization of the difference between the beauty of function and the beauty of soulfulness (another example of Steven Spielberg's sterling instinct for stagecraft and viewer prodding). The fact is, both types of cup, the humble and the gaudy, are perfectly well adapted to their basic function - holding liquid. The gaudy cups have some other functions as well: showing off wealth, showing off magnificence of curve, pushing all your buttons for intensity of color and value contrast. But the dull cup is the more beautiful with regard to what we learn about humanity from it. It is made by a hand, with the imperfections of the hand, without much in the way of wealth but with a simple honesty of form. It is not a vainglorious cup, but it is a very moving cup. It is a cup good enough for a savior born in a manger.

Things that are beautiful due to soulfulness have this quality about them. They betray a richness and honesty of emotion, of vitality, of the specificity of character both of the individual who made them and of humanity as a genus. They do not so much appeal to our appreciation of the outward things, the graceful curve and right color, so much as they appeal to our memory of interaction with one another, of emotions we have felt, of our sense of appreciation of each other as conscious beings. They have a quality of voice, of a conversation we have carried on and still carry on.

I submit to you that the beauty of a partly cloudy day, apart from the palpable elements that push our neurological buttons (intensity of light and color) has beauty of soul because it is so marvelously idiosyncratic, so individual, irreplaceably individual. Consider Vermeer's depiction of an afternoon in the View of Delft, 1660-1661:

We cannot get enough of that. It partakes of the miracle of an afternoon categorically the same as any afternoon, and yet in itself, so unique, so particular, that we cannot help having a feeling - ranging from a vague twinge to a fervent belief - that the hand of Someone essentially like ourselves, subject to changing thoughts and emotions, even to whimsy, is hard at work in a workshop somewhere, making afternoons for us to enjoy.

The weather is beautiful, because the world is nearly human in its weather.

Landscapes are beautiful, because they are submerged in the same nutty, human-like individuality:

Claude Monet, Landscape at Rouelles, 1858

When we see the weather, or a landscape, we have a feeling that we live in a world that is animated in a very human way. Or rather, that being human is a discrete small part of a vast continuity which is also, in a profound way, human-like. We rest in the palm of a god who makes sense.

Similarly, we have an experience of beauty when we encounter solid objects made satisfyingly and simply:

They encourage us to recall modesty and industry, to savor our deep inclination to believe that just enough, is all that we need to be happy. They sanctify the tiniest of moments, the most trivial of activities, with a kind of clarity, of joy in the merest instances of doing and of being. This kind of beauty, and the experience it arouses, has little or nothing to do with the beauty of the ideal curve, of the magnificent adaptation. It is the beauty of the kitchen and the yard.

Apart from weather, landscapes, and tools, the beauty of soul is manifest, of course, in the human body. But not in the entire body equally: it is most manifest in the face. As we have discussed previously, we have a separate set of visual processors in the brain tuned specifically to faces. This is important - it tells us that our cognition of the face is separate from our cognition of the body.

What this implies is that we may, quite easily, be prioritizing different modes of beauty when we turn our attention to bodies, and then to faces. My own suspicion is that we prioritize for beauty of function when we consider the body, and beauty of soul when we consider the face. Consider how high a value we put on symmetry of body, and how we recoil from it in the face.

Let me give you a couple of examples of objection to assymetry in the body. First, there is the silent-movie trope of the villainous thug with the single club foot or short leg. And then there is something I get all the time in my paintings: nobody ever comments on an asymmetrical face, but if I show a model with breasts slightly different in size or shape, most people notice immediately, and some object. This is not a reasonable objection. A huge proportion of women have asymmetrical breasts. The objection drives me up the wall. The wall, I tell you.

But the issue arises in the priority system of the mind: symmetrical, functional aesthetics for bodies, asymmetrical, soulful aesthetics for faces. Which is not to say that the aesthetics of function - the curve, the clarity - do not apply to faces. Rather, in faces, the two values are more equally important than they are in most other objects, in determining a perception of beauty.

Look here - many people would be willing to concede that Greta Garbo is a beautiful woman:

But she is by no means a woman of symmetrical features. We have a correspondence in her sculpted crookedness with the asymmetrical aesthetics of soulfulness.

Let me come back to our friend Farrah Fawcett:

Her body is optimized for function, along the lines of the athlete. Her face corresponds with functional aesthetics as well, but it is also optimized for soul: within an overall functional structure, her eyes and mouth are disproportionately large and high in value contrast, allowing emotion to read extremely easily.

I once wrote a post about my favorite sculpture, Rodin's bust of Camille Claudel:

He actually made a more finished sculpture based on this study, called, modestly enough, La France:

But I prefer the Camille Claudel. The simplicity of this sculpture, its offhand, slightly damaged quality, seems to me to betray more of the hand of the sculptor, to be more consistent with the deep melancholy of that beautiful face, so utterly human and soulful.

Yes, there is neurological programming involved in our appreciation of face and body, much more than I've covered here. This entire model of beauty is riven through with places where meaning bumps up against biology, and we are prone to mistaking biological responses for meaningful conclusions. But some part of this outline, I think, also corresponds with a truth.

We'll keep trying.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Vote for Me.

Since I'm still busier than you want to know, let's take a little break from the thoughts on beauty. This is Charles Saatchi:

This is Charles Saatchi's wife:

This is the cover of a book about a show of the Young British Artists, a gang that Saatchi helped shepherd to success. Saatchi is a very successful adman who has become a superstar collector:

This is Charles Saatchi's gallery:

And this is the piece I've entered in a relatively, but not entirely, pointless competition hosted by Charles Saatchi on his website:

Red, oil on canvas, 60"x36", 2009

I know some of you are members of Charles Saatchi's website. So do me a favor, OK? Go over there and vote for my piece. Here's a link:

Incidentally, Charles Saatchi is an Iraqi Jew, which I think contributes in no small part to his being freaking hilarious. He has two books out of answers to interview questions, both of which I recommend:

My Name is Charles Saatchi and I am an Artoholic



These are seriously funny books.

Here's that voting link again. Please go vote for me:

Thanks - and more on beauty soon.