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.


  1. I love this line: "Where art nouveau has perfected nature to match artfulness, Rembrandt has made art imperfect to match nature."

    Perfection is a shallow veneer. Look into anything in depth and you will find its imperfection. Even the magnificent symmetries of mathematics will lead you to irrational numbers and Gödelian uncertainty principles.

    That does have something to do with "Speck's Koan" (which I've heard before but also don't know where it originates). The world is paradoxical in its deepest nature.

  2. I'm sorry, Fred, for totally plagiarizing you, but I would offer, also, this:

    Imperfection is a shallow veneer. Look into anything in depth and you will find its perfection. Even the irrational numbers and Godelian uncertainty principles of mathematics will lead you to magnificent symmetries.

    Ain't life cool?

  3. Well, there you go. Well played!

  4. Both of you have turned up a nagging problem with this already overlong series of posts: virtually every applicable term is a fundamental term that needs rigorous defining of its own, which we don't have (or at least which I haven't bothered with). Ideally, the argument would be written in C++, I suppose, English being a little soft for the purpose. Anyhow, defining perfect and imperfect in this context is not only difficult, but I've been using it inconsistently. I'm rather dismayed with the entire series of posts - the topic turned out to be much more difficult to nail down than I had thought at the beginning, and really, I like to write "here it is - this is the answer" rather than "here's some food for thought." But that's all I got in the end...

    By the way, there's a passage in Neal Stephenson's "Baroque Cycle," I think volume I, which both of you would enjoy. If I'm remembering correctly, it's Hooke making some of the first microscopic observations, and pondering in wonder that the more you magnify human things that look perfectly shaped, like pins, the more irregular and crappy they look, and the more you magnify natural things that look like a mess, like the leg of a beetle, the more they reveal flawless forms.

    So ha!

    Anyhow, thanks for sticking with me through this muddle.

  5. It's been a worthwhile muddle, Daniel, and I much prefer food for thought to "This is the answer" when it comes to philosophical topics.

  6. Hmm. I guess I could live with that. I'm glad it was worthwhile for you, anyway. I know I certainly clarified a few things for myself, probably mostly how little clarity I have about something I thought was fairly straightforward...

  7. This RC Speck seems quite the perspicacious chap indeed.

  8. He is, and not only perspicacious, but also often grandiloquent.