Searching for Beauty
Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not. — Emerson
* * *
By God, when you see your beauty you'll be the idol of yourself. — Rumi
* * *
I told Beauty, take me in your arms of silence. — Aragon
* * *
Beneath our loquacious chatter, there is a silent language of our whole being which yearns for art and the beauty from which art comes. — Rollo May, My Quest for Beauty
I read some years ago that scientists had not come up with an agreed-upon definition of stress, one that from a scientific standpoint met with common approval. Yet any layman can readily define stress. The experience is clear, even for the scientists who can't formulate a definition of the word. Stress may differ from person to person in terms of cause, reaction and so on. But it is clear when we are having a stressful experience.
I find the intellectual wrangling over the definition of beauty to be similar. Over the years, I've made a study of beauty. I've read arguably the three most important writers on aesthetics — Plato, Kant and Hegel. They are not "an easy read." Rather than addressing our simple, direct response to beauty, they write "about" beauty, in a broad philosophical context. Robert Adams writes, "Philosophy can forsake too easily the details of experience." Either we have the experience of beauty or we don't. It's like someone writing about self-realization. Either they've had the experience or they haven't.
This past month as it happens I've read two books that illustrate this point: Jed McKenna's Spiritual Enlightenment, and a memoir by Balthus, Vanished Splendors. Both men have truly experienced firsthand what they are writing about. They speak from an irrefutable depth and truth. Hard won. Resonant. Masterful. If the insight doesn't come from that level, it's mere intellectual speculation — perhaps intellectually engaging but in the end, experientially useless. Utterly useless. Interestingly, we have come to the point in the contemporary art world where beauty is suspect as an aim in art. It is not considered rigorous or tough minded enough to be taken seriously. It's almost a dirty word.
Yet if we look at the artifacts of all cultures, beauty has always attracted our attention. We know when we are in its presence. We're held. Different artworks will arrest different people, and as I point out in Principle Six, some art will arrest greater numbers of people for longer periods of time. These are the works that are perhaps worthy of being called great art. We have to recognize that some people today, observing the greatest works of art or the most awesome works of nature — the Grand Canyon for instance — give these works but a minute before they're ready for something else. Insatiable for change, they are immune to deep resonance.
Art and beauty are about that inner resonance. It isn't the subject matter that holds us. Some inexplicable reaction stops us, and we find ourselves connected with something other than our self. Perhaps our "Self" might be a better term, to distinguish it from the self that is caught up in thoughts, worries and distractions. I like Ken Wilber's definition, that beauty "suspends the desire to be elsewhere." In the face of great art, we experience transcendence; we are fully in the moment.
Because of this, if we're going to discuss deeper purpose in creative expression, we have to discuss beauty. As the art historian Kenneth Clark pointed out, the idea of the beautiful is the longest standing theory of aesthetics around. And for a reason. We can't help but come back to beauty. Like a perennial philosophy of spirit, it feeds us. In his book My Quest for Beauty, Rollo May writes:
We realize now that our common human language is not Esperanto or computers or something having to do with vocal cords and speech. It is, rather, our sense of proportion, our balance, harmony and other aspects of simple and fundamental form. Our universal language, in other words, is beauty.
By beauty, I don't for a minute mean pretty or sweet. Donatello, the Renaissance sculptor, had his sculpture of Mary Magdalene paraded around the streets of Florence when it was finished. The emaciated Mary is not a pretty sight, but it is an example of uncompromising work that was deep and accessible. If you think of Goya's painting, The Third of May, 1808, you see an extraordinarily powerful, beautiful painting that is also horrifying. This figure bathed in divine light, arms outstretched like Christ on the cross, before the dark anonymous line of the firing squad. That's a beautiful painting. It's not pretty. But it is beautiful. It is moving.
Philosophically the debate goes on about beauty and the sublime. Simplistically we could say one deals with pleasure, the other, awe. Goya's painting is probably an example of the sublime, as is the Grand Canyon. I don't think the distinction concerns us much in the making of art. You make art based on your nature. What you end up with may be one or the other. The more you think about it in advance the more likely you'll end up with neither.
One thing is certain. It is difficult to produce beautiful things, particularly to do so consistently. I know. I make paintings. Some have an indefinable quality that attracts people, and I could sell those images a dozen times over. People feel it. Yet it is far from something I can produce on demand. It is a constant challenge.
I mention this because much contemporary art simply doesn't attempt that path, the path of beauty. For artists to say beauty doesn't concern them because they have more important and deeper concerns — social or environmental issues for example — is fine. But I say: Don't knock beauty and don't call it meaningless or irrelevant or superficial without consistently trying to produce beauty and discovering how difficult it is.
If the current art market will tolerate work that ignores such basic tenets of historic art making, that is understandable, given the context of the times. But I feel it's similar to the hype that went along with the "new economy," the dot-com Internet world. The old ways of looking at stock price earnings and profits were not considered important any longer. A new economic model was in place. Yet the dot-com bubble burst and now everyone finds the old model of establishing a stock's value still relevant and demanding the same discipline as always. The heady trends of the "new economy" have been found painfully vacuous.
Artwork that is destined to last is probably going to have to address beauty. A recent Los Angeles Times article on the art critic David Hickey stated, "he dared to discuss artworks as objects of 'beauty' — and what a marvelous ruckus that word prompted. To the reigning art establishment, the notion of 'beauty' is politically incorrect, outmoded, even dangerous."
As an artist, placing yourself outside beauty's purview is now safe. This is a place, ironically enough, comfortably inside the status quo. But a look at beauty and its creation is very relevant to a discussion of divine or deeper purpose in expression.
Heidegger defines metaphysics as a search for "that upon which everything rests — a search for a reliable foundation." We would be in good shape if we had a reliable definition of aesthetics on which we could build such a foundation of meaningful art making. However, we do not. "Beauty is a topic of great philosophical interest and one that is relatively unexplored. Few would deny its importance, and yet the mere suggestion that it be defined drives intelligent people to witless babble." But shouldn't we at least look and see whether there are some core ideas that would be fruitful? We're searching for ideas we can use, practically, in our art and life, not a seamless philosophical argument.
The Greeks certainly were not afraid to address beauty. They obsessed over it. They defined two kinds of beauty. The first was a condition in which all the parts added up to one harmonious whole. No part could be added or removed without altering and perhaps destroying that harmony. The second kind of beauty, favored by Plato, was that in which the work allowed the Ideal Form of life to shine through.
In both definitions, the Greek word for beauty, kalon, was the same word used for goodness. The German language makes a similar connection. Gerhard Richter, the German contemporary painter, said that in German the idea that a painting is good implies that it is beautiful. The German word for good, gut, has almost a moral quality. "The aesthetic and the moral blend," wrote James Hillman in his essay, The Practise of Beauty, "as in our everyday language of craft where straight, true, right, sound imply both the good and the beautiful."
Human beings have an intuitive capacity and knowledge (what the romantic poets called sensibility) that somewhere at the centre of life is something ineffably and unalterably right and good, and that this "rightness" can be discovered through artistic and spiritual explorations that have been honored by all the great perennial religious traditions.
This is fundamental to authenticity in a spiritual sense. When we create beauty we somehow add to the light of society. Beauty is uplifting. It penetrates the density of what surrounds us and enlivens our world. We could never say that, like technology, art is progressive in a linear sense. That Modernist idea was simplistic and ran out of steam quickly because the premise was too small. It also lacked depth; it was devoid of richness. It was all didactics. The twentieth century seemed intent on finding an artistic expression that removed itself from everything toward which every civilized culture until that time had aspired.
Few in America would argue that their city's civic center, assuming they could find one, is more pleasing than Il Campo in Siena, or that the boxes and tubes that pass for public sculpture today are more pleasing than the many nineteenth-century statues we encounter on a stroll in Paris.
Economics and the International Style have ravaged our landscape. In older sections of American and European towns and cities, we find an architecture where design was not dictated by immediate economic factors. We see materials, proportions and decorative façades that please us as much today as they did the people who lived a hundred or four hundred years ago. Beauty doesn't flourish in a culture that honors the bottom line above all. How can a significant architecture result when a corporation's quarterly report, reflecting the sensible use of resources to build a new factory — a metal rectangle one-thousand feet by four-hundred feet by twenty feet — must first and foremost satisfy shareholders? It's unthinkable that shareholders, instead of being concerned only with profit and performance, would be proud that their corporation built the most stunning corporate headquarters in fifty years in downtown Seattle or Minneapolis at the expense of their shares' appreciation. Corporations serve a specific function, but because of how all-pervasive they've become, with their short-term profit mentality, often aided by government complicity, we have an urban, rural and industrial environment that is not just ugly — it's killing us.
This point has a lot to do with the current art world, and with our own impatience when we make and view art. Beauty seems to need quiet and take patience, both to create it and to experience it.
If our minds are filled with a long and urgent "to-do" list, we are not likely to slow down long enough to appreciate anything but the next line we can draw through our never ending list. Yet every now and again something in nature or art stops us. It arrests our constant external activity and search. We can be stopped by the way the light filters through the trees in our backyard or hits a bowl of fruit on our kitchen table. And we are silenced, even if momentarily. We can be stopped by cave paintings as easily as by a thirteenth-century tapestry or a seventeenth-century ceramic bowl from Korea or a fifteenth-century Italian painting. We may be impressed by the craft of the artist, but almost always what moves us most deeply is the beauty that is expressed through the craft.
In the face of beauty, we are silenced, because beauty expresses silence. In lavishing attention on the object of the artwork, the consciousness of the artist can touch something divine, some transcendental quality, and that transcendent element now resides in the artwork. How do we know it? We feel it. We experience it. Our heart responds to that sublime quality the artist infused into the work.
A work of art is like a visual form of prayer. The depth of the artist's attention, the prayer, is what we respond to. We can be moved more deeply by a ten-inch by ten-inch Corot landscape or a still life by Chardin than by a ten-foot Ascension altarpiece. Our response comes from the power of the prayer that contributed to the making of the piece. The artwork lives. If we are left unmoved by a painting of the Virgin, it is likely because the artist was unmoved in the act of painting her. The subject matter is mostly irrelevant; it is important only as a vehicle for the artist's attention. Authenticity results from the depth of the artist's feelings. And this is the key to how much silence, consciousness or attention the art reflects.
We may respond to a work of art in another way. The subject matter of a painting or the lyrics of a love song may move us sentimentally, but we sense deep down something superficial that we may even come to resent. Watching a predictable Hollywood romantic comedy, for example, I often experience a real annoyance at the sentimental romantic ending. The strings are playing and the guy gets the girl — which you could see was going to happen from the beginning. I feel manipulated, not moved. It is the same with Thomas Kinkade's paintings, although with a sentimental painting I feel not so much manipulated as repelled. Kinkade's response to the critics who say his art is irrelevant is to point out that ten million people have bought it and therefore it is profoundly relevant. This is an interesting point, but it has nothing to do with whether he is producing art or not. Ten million people have bought teddy bears — but we don't mistake teddy bears for art.
Subject matter functions as an armature through which you as an artist engage your intensity of feeling. It is the quality of your attention that influences how you see and how deeply you feel. Different artists have affinities for different subject matter as a way into expressing themselves deeply. And that depth is the quality we, the viewers, respond to. It is what we continue to respond to over the centuries in great works of art. The fact that things last, that we continue to admire them, is in the end a good indicator of their quality, of their silence. Art museums therefore have little nodes of silence nestling in their galleries. They are filled with, to use André Malraux's expression, "the voices of silence."
History edits out the noise. Every age has produced paintings, literature, and music that are now ignored or completely forgotten. We've edited them out. On the other hand, we keep returning to those works that have silence. We respond on three levels to the silence and beauty. First, the context — the time and place in which the art was created and the community in which it was created. Second, the poetic view of the world to which the artist responded. Third, and finally, the plastic quality of the object itself.
There is always work that is ahead of its time and receives little acknowledgement in its own day. For instance, an artist may follow a line of discovery that is outside a rigid stricture of style or common understanding. Usually, even if the artist is ahead of public taste, there are a few admirers who recognize what the artist is doing. If his or her work has truth, eventually the public will catch up. Even Impressionism, that most bucolic of art forms, and currently the public's darling, was reviled in its day.
Impressionism was an interesting phenomenon. Before the French Revolution, the aristocracy defined taste and style, which was felt to be in good hands. Artists created for a discerning clientele. In the decades after the revolution the middle classes became much more powerful and usurped what was left of the role of the aristocracy in defining taste and style. Those artists who pandered to this new, powerful and, as yet, largely uncultured class with sentimental Academic painting did very well. The middle classes loved the paintings that rehashed mythology and presented tidy virtues. Bouguereau for example was, at the end of the nineteenth century, the president of the French Academy and the highest paid artist in France. But with the rise of Modernism in the twentieth century, he was largely forgotten. Interestingly, at the end of the century we started to see him again, popular on posters and calendars.