Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The Power and the Beauty

Folded card by Laurie and Thomas A Clark, 2010, 7,4 x 5,3 cm

Yesterday Peter Foolen posted the above image on Facebook. I should say straightaway that I admire Tom and Laurie Clark’s work a great deal, not least because it's both intellectually engaging as well as beautiful. However, this particular work urged me to reconsider my attitude towards beauty and in the process to re-read Susan Sontag’s essay “An argument about beauty”:

“What is beautiful reminds us of nature as such–of what lies beyond the human and the made–and thereby stimulates and deepens our sense of the sheer spread and fullness of reality, inanimate as well as pulsing, that surrounds us all. […] Imagine saying, ‘That sunset is interesting.’”

As it turns out, Sontag’s sentiments agree very closely with the Clark’s. In both cases we are presented with formidable arguments which are not in the least easy to contest, indeed they are so articulately and persuasively rendered that it’s extremely tempting simply to chime in and agree (as I did on Facebook). However, at the risk of casting myself as a "new Puritan", I’d like to consider these arguments a little more closely – not from a position of “suspicion” (mistrust) but of skepticism (doubt).

In both cases we’re presented with well articulated, highly crafted and well informed arguments. They could easily be, and probably wish to be, described as beautiful. And here perhaps is the first indication that something is amiss. Not only are these arguments beautifully rendered, they are also authoritative: they announce themselves as skillfully considered powerful ideas despite, in one case, the very unassuming form of a folded card. But this power is also, to some extent, based upon the way these arguments force anyone who opposes them to adopt the mantle of either “Puritanism” or in the case of Sontag: “ludicrousness”. Arguments from positions of certainty often do this: they cast opposing views as faulty and seek to denigrate those who hold them. Perhaps this is the crucial difference between a discussion and an argument: not so much the passions involved but the way each party seeks to characterize the other.

One thing which is only touched upon in Sontag’s essay, but which is very prominently suggested in the Clark’s card is the contrast between culture and nature: between words and feelings, images and flowers, representation and reality. Sontag writes:

“The beauty of art is better, ‘higher,’ according to Hegel, than the beauty of nature because it is made by human beings and is the work of the spirit. But the discerning of beauty in nature is also the result of traditions of consciousness, and of culture–in Hegel’s language, of spirit.”

Whilst we might take pleasure in the sheer beauty of a sunset – and sincerely describe it as such - when it comes to the products of culture, we are dealing with something else entirely. Humans are makers of meaning, whereas, as Sontag reminds us in another essay, nature just is:

“The truth is always something that is told, not something that is known. If there were no speaking or writing, there would be no truth about anything. There would only be what is.”

If it’s beauty alone that we seek then why the need for culture at all? However, if we are to ‘read’ culture - or nature for that matter - thereby perceiving them through the lens of culture, then it would seem to make sense not to be too passive in the assumptions and interpretations we make of what is presented to us. Beauty, flow, grace, unity, balance etc are all pleasurable experiences, but you don’t have to be ‘suspicious’ to realise that such things can be used – whether unintentionally or by design - to conceal, to persuade, to distract or to manipulate. When we’re presented with neat packages of beautifully articulated or rendered information there’s a tendency to accept the flow, to take pleasure in the grace, to appreciate the unity and to enjoy the balance. Perhaps a little healthy skepticism, far from diluting our experience, would help to temper such unquestioning tendencies.

A suspicious puritan is probably the last person you’d want to meet. A skeptical puritan, on the other hand, at least has the vague prospect of recognising the extent to which they've been deluded.


Anonymous said...

Lodovico Settembrini could not have said it any better!

I much agree on a stance of skepticism rather than one of suspiciousness. My objection to the Clarks and the Sontags would be that a Hegelian split of nature vs culture, of beauty vs meaning, in my view would sort of miss one of the best things about art; the merge of ,as you so brilliantly wrote, "philosophy" and "stuff".

J. Hamlyn said...

Believe it or not, I haven't got round to the Magic Mountain yet but Lesley recognised your source instantly: "There is something suspicious about music, gentlemen. I insist that she is, by her nature, equivocal. I shall not be going too far in saying at once that she is politically suspect." (Herr Settembrini, ch. 4)
But isn't that exactly the kind of wholesale "suspicion" that the Clark's are railing against? I agree with you though about the issue of polarisation.
"The first question I ask myself when something doesn't seem to be beautiful is why do I think it's not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason." -John Cage

Anonymous said...

I enjoy your quotes, especially the last one by Cage. I thought of it today when the snow flakes came down as perfect mathematical stars. They do that when the temperature is right, today was -10 celsius. I remembered Lesleys snow post and thought of nature, math, and of your blog post. Should these snow flakes be regarded with suspicion? Perhaps. I am rather sick of it. (Just like the Berghof population). There has been nothing but monochrome and white since the end of october.

- Tor

J. Hamlyn said...

As the Clark's card reminds us, the harebells will be with us soon enough.

Anonymous said...

The horror! The horror! had the card been all white.

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