othering beauty

A blogalectic with Jenna St. Hilaire and Masha

We’ve been talking about Beauty, what it is and what it isn’t. That leads us to some very strange places, and long words like kataphasis, apophasis, and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagate. Apophatic thinker that I am, I see this simply as a human predicament: the less we’re comfortable with something, the harder it is to understand, the more we take refuge in
very long words.* So there is something startling, something radical in its simplicity, when Jenna find the chutzpah to write this:

All I can say is that beauty can be found anywhere on this earth, and in wildly different things, if one only troubles themselves to search it out.

This underlies, I think, the core disagreement between Jenna and Masha. Whereas Masha directs us to the Good, the universal, Jenna directs us to the immediate, the particular. This is the distinction that divides Western thought between itself. The line may be a fine one, but it seems my compatriots are on opposite sides. (For myself, if you’re interested, I explore the particular and the apophatic, and I think that probably tells you more about me than either of us think.)

Masha draws from Jenna’s subsequent, and eloquent, discussion of beauty to reemphasise the role of the individual artist:

In so many ways, the role of the artist is similar to the role of the prophet, a "necessary other" existing and creating, not in "untrammeled freedom" but in an "exacting form of discipline" (Kathleen Norris) that submits the Artist to the demands of his vocation and demands from him not only talent, but devotion and commitment as well. It is a communal role, a social role – creating the "lie that tells the truth" (Picasso) and presenting the world as it really is, in all it’s intimacy, passion, failure, and ultimate, glorious beauty. That is why, when the artist fails to call forth the riches of his world, when he calls his world poor, empty, and uninspiring, he fails to create art.

I don’t know the source of the Picasso quotation, but I’m not sure I like it. A lie can’t tell the truth. A lie is just a lie. The truth may look like a lie if we’re not ready to perceive it, but a lie is a lie. My difficulty may be semantic but it’s there.

More important to me is this idea of the artist as a sort of prophet. This is a concept that’s intrigued me for some time, owing partly to how it was put forward by Novalis, and its subsequent influence on George MacDonald. But there’s another parallel I’m exploring, which I’ll explain, somewhat, below the jump.

Abraham Heschel, in The Prophets (1962), says the prophet has two faces: the face of judgment, God toward the people, and the face of supplication, the people toward God. The unique role of the prophet is to inhabit both roles at once. Heschel says quite a lot more about prophets, but this dual-aspect struck me. It echoes, I think unwittingly, what Tolkien writes about fairy tales. In ‘On Fairy-stories’ (1947), he writes that:

fairy-stories as a whole have three faces: the Mystical toward the Supernatural; the Magical toward Nature, and the Mirror of scorn and pity towards Man. The essential face of Faerie is the middle one, the Magical.

Tolkien offers three faces as opposed to Heschel’s two. But that’s fitting for the subject matter, and the tradition of the third road. As the Fairy Queen explains to Thomas the Rhymer, there’s the path of Righeousness, the path of Wickedness,

And see ye not yon bonny road
     That winds about yon fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
     Where thou and I this night maun gae.

Artists, like the prophets, confront and wear all these faces at once. They occupy that strange and liminal space of living within a communal role, as Masha notes, while being a voice in the wilderness. They dwell on the borders, on the third road between nature and supernature, between the people and God, and speak what they see as they turn from one to the other. Art is capricious and dangerous, as are all things in that perilous shade, and the artist dances a deadly step of mockery and wonder. They belong to neither world and to both. So they hold the Mirror of Scorn and Pity, the face of judgement, up to the people, while knowing irrevocably that the reflection is their own.

Much, much more could be said but this, I think, is enough for a start.

*Does anyone know what epistemology means? Well, that’s the whole question, isn’t it?

7 thoughts on “othering beauty

  1. There is not a single piece of visual art, music, film or book that I can not learn something from. A bad film can teach me just as much as a good film. A bad book can teach me just as much as a good book. A bad piece of music (no matter how tortuous to listen to) can teach me just as much as a masterpiece.

    Isn’t that beautiful?

  2. So much in here–as usual–Mr. Pond. There is one part that I would like to comment on for now: “I don’t know the source of the Picasso quotation, but I’m not sure I like it. A lie can’t tell the truth. A lie is just a lie. The truth may look like a lie if we’re not ready to perceive it, but a lie is a lie. My difficulty may be semantic but it’s there.” Agreed that a lie is just a lie, and so cannot be the truth. However, I know that some translators render the ancient Greek word ‘muthos’ as ‘lie’ rather than as ‘myth’. (I don’t!) Thus, if they (and Picasso) have myth in mind, then something that is not true (as in a historical fact) can still be truthful (i.e., mythic). This is similar to Aristotle’s endorsement of poetry/art (the truthful and universal) over history (the true and historical particular).

    And Bennu99, you are right that much might be learned from a bad book, film, etc., but does it follow that it’s beautiful? What seems to be beautiful in such cases is the occasion for learning rather than the book or film itself. There seems to be a difference here, but I’m not sure….

  3. You know, I think you’re right Carrie Anne. I don’t know why I judge art on how much I can learn from it. There is a difference.

    I’ve always had difficulty with a group declaring something or someone beautiful. How can one say one thing or person is more beautiful than the other. Can beauty be measured in quantity? I tend to agree with Jenna – that creation is beautiful in itself.

    But I think I need to read more philosophy on the subject.

  4. I peak over the shoulder of Mr. Pond every now and then but do not comment often (I think this is my second). Love this post and comments. My wife is involved in our local modern dance community and I go to concerts with her. I am often struck by the pieces…some are only for movement’s sake, some are angry, some are despairing, some are shallow. But the concert itself and all that comes together to make art happen always strikes me as miraculous. Bodies, emotions, music, form, intent, motion, heart, thoughts, light and a thousand other things all come together and reflect a glory that no one expects. We almost touch it, barely get our eyes on it and the lights come up. Art stirs up our longing that we don’t know is there. Then we walk back into the mundane with the fading fragrance still just there. Someday…

  5. Bennu, what seems beautiful in what you’re describing doesn’t seem to me to be the ‘bad art’ or ‘tortuous music’. Rather, what strikes me as beautiful is our incomprehensible and irrational human ability–even insistence–on finding the precious in the worthless. And that is beautiful.

    If you’re wanting to read more philosophy about it–well, this isn’t strictly philosophy (and the more readable for it!) but you’d probably be interested in C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism. He talks about what you were saying, how we can and sometimes do find beauty in otherwise unbeautiful art. It’s specifically about literature, of course, but I think some of his ideas might apply to music, too.

    Carrie Ann, thanks! I think I can see what you’re saying…and if that’s what Picasso meant, then that makes a lot more sense. As I said, I’m simply not familiar with the quotation or its context. But that’s some very interesting points. Although that would seem to support the assumption that if something is not a historical (or scientific) particular, it’s thus not ‘true’, a ‘lie’. Which might be making too much of empiricism.

    Chris, that’s as good an explanation of beauty as any I’ve heard. Thanks. And welcome back. 🙂

  6. On the Picasso bit about lies, it would be well worth comparing the famous discussion between Lewis and Tolkien about whether myths are “lies breathed through silver.”

    It’s probably too much of a tautology to say, “Beauty is that which makes us say ‘that’s beautiful!'” I still can’t help thinking there’s something to that, though.

  7. Oh dear, Mr. Pond, neither I–nor, I daresay, Aristotle–would want to make too much of empiricism, so apologies for making it sound like that. What is so crucially important for Aristotle about poetry, art, myth, philosophy is that these fields study particulars (when done properly–not like 20th-century logical positivism) in order to discover the immanent universal truths about the world and the human condition. That’s why he uses ‘true’ for historical fact (e.g., it’s true that Socrates was sentenced to death by an Athenian jury) and ‘truthful’ for artistic, fictional representation that captures universal truths about humans in as beautiful a way as possible (reaching for the noble, engaging in tragic folly, mortal, etc.).

    Eric, thanks for directing us toward the Lewis/Tolkien discussion about myth. I’m looking forward to reading that.

    I for one don’t like translating ‘myth’ as ‘lie’, since I think that good fiction is truthful (and beautiful!). Just because a claim (like ‘Santa Claus wears a read suit’) doesn’t correspond to something in the world (since there’s no actual person named Santa Claus–sorry guys…..), doesn’t mean there isn’t a truthful spirit of Santa and Santa-like people to be captured in the Santa tales. That’s not a lie; it’s just truthful representation of a kind of person or idea. I don’t think that anyone on this discussion thread disagrees with what I just wrote–at least not that I can tell from anything written above–so my comments here are just meant to clarify a view that is part of a debate in philosophy of logic, metaphysics, and ethics, as well as a debate in ancient Greek translation.

    Ah, would that I could articulate what lies behind my utterance of “that’s beautiful,” Eric…. I’ll have to ditto Mr. Pond on endorsing what Chris says, and then think much harder about aesthetics before I hazard any attempt to address the main issue of this post. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying following your discussions about this wonderful topic!

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