Notes on a Crisis in Beauty

Fan Kuan, "Travellers Among Mountains and Streams," Northern Song Dynasty.
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1.

“I do not mourn for what I have lost. For if there is one new art that we have had to learn, those of us who have been hunted down and forced into exile at a time hostile to all art, then it is the art of saying goodbye to everything.”

So wrote Stefan Zweig in his simple, lucid autobiography, The World of Yesterday. His liberal, pan-European views and his idealism appear naive now, but also more poignant, bearing like some battered raft so many ways of thought and feeling that time has swept away.

Perhaps the task of the past, now that it is long past, is to grasp the present and send some tremor through it, however slight. Reading Zweig in this precarious moment I want to resist the desire to say that our time, too, is hostile to art. Fascism has not yet devoured the Western world, though the moment darkens. But soon, far too soon, we will have to learn to say goodbye to everything. Goodbye the beautiful species, goodbye rivers, goodbye the cultural world. In his suicide note, Zweig said that “I prefer to end my life at the right time, upright, as a man for whom cultural work has always been his purest happiness and personal freedom – the most precious of possessions on this earth.”

I know that I too will die. But to contemplate the worsening climate crisis, ringed with denial and inaction, is to realize that our whole cultural world will die. That, like Zweig, it is committing suicide, though not thoughtfully. As a child I used to ponder the nuclear war I thought was on the horizon. I was perhaps ten or eleven. Winnipeg, where I grew up, was directly north of the American missile silos which would launch a nuclear strike against the USSR, or against which the USSR would launch its strike. Any missile that fell short would hit us. I knew about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and knew, too, that those without the good fortune to die in the blast would envy the dead, enduring radiation burns and poisoning, their skin hanging in sheets. I would look up at the immense blue sky above the city and think it will happen on a beautiful day like this, when no one expects it. I came to fear the hot summer days of the prairies.

I was an odd kid. I’d stumbled across a black and white picture of Las Meninas and puzzled over it. I couldn’t bear to imagine a world in which someone didn’t puzzle over this strange and beautiful work. To my childish mind, it seemed so much sadder than contemplating my own death.

And now the arctic is melting faster than imagined. Across Europe, daily temperatures reach highs never recorded before. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, carbon emissions must reach zero by 2030 in every country in the world. I have no hope of this being met. I believe our species will survive, but art, poetry, music – the cultural work that was, for Zweig, the most precious of possessions on this earth? Like the vanishing glaciers, they too will shrink, then vanish in the drought and famines, the widespread migrations of millions, the inevitable wars. So goodbye the poems that changed my life, goodbye the bands and singers, goodbye the art to which I gave my life and which gave it meaning.

Stendhal once said “Beauty is nothing other than the promise of happiness.” Over many years that stuck to me, a post-it-note pasted to my shirt. A year ago in Rome I saw William Kentridge’s Triumphs and Laments, his shadowy procession of figures marking off the stone embankment of the Tiber. The images, taken from various moments in the Eternal City’s long history, are made by pressure-cleaning the grime of years from the negative spaces around the figures. What remains are like shadows cast. Already the embankments are darkening, the figures are being swallowed. I think it’s a great work, but its lack of a future troubles me and I cannot dismiss this.

Not far from the frieze is the beautiful Ara Pacis Augustae, Augustus’s Great Altar of Peace. It may be the most beautiful work of propaganda in all of Western history, a message in a bottle from a time when the work of rebuilding the state could itself be seen as beautiful. The altar promises peace after many years of a civil war that burned fields and destroyed lives. It has survived, though damaged, since 13 B.C.E. But it endured, while Kentridge’s figures are already disappearing.

Kentridge’s disappearing figures surrendered the promise of happiness when they surrendered a future. Built to vanish, no future generation will contemplate them across a gulf of centuries. Our time will be a future’s distant past. But no future present moment will feel tremors from that vanished work. “Perhaps the centuries part – and feelings are transmitted,” wrote Pain Not Bread, a collective I was part of. And the Ara Pacis seems to provide proof. “Works break the boundaries of their time,” wrote Bahktin, “they live in the centuries, that is to say, in great time…they live a more intense and fuller life than in their own present moment.” I live for this experience of time suddenly opened, miraculously dilated. Is this why an artwork from somewhere in the deep past can feel like emancipation? “I’m leaning/on this broken fence/between the past/and present tense” wrote John K. Sampson of the Weakerthans. Goodbye, broken fence…

 

2. 

Kentridge’s figures may be prophetic in their fading. Stendhal sensed that beauty necessarily involved a future. Now that the future of our civilization is in doubt, beauty itself is in doubt. The philosopher Byung-Chul Han goes so far as to state that “the experience of beauty is impossible,” that it has been exhausted in the endless proliferation of mindless “likes.” But I don’t want to admit this. Even if all the algorithms conspire against us, training our neural chemistry in affirmation-without-end, beauty somehow occurs.

Like Kentridge’s frieze, Rebecca Belmore’s Fountain (2005) improbably erupted into existence, even in this climate with its acquired insensitivity to form. A woman is almost submerged in grimy water by some marshy shore. She struggles to right herself, to stand, but she collapses, is on the verge of drowning. She’s struggling with something, a bucket. She’s trying to heave a bucket of water out of the lake or the river, but she falls back. Finally she makes it, and with one final exhausted heave, throws the water at us, we viewers on the other side of the screen, which is not actually a screen but a scrim of water falling in front of us onto which the images are projected, ghostly particles of light. The image of water hurled at us turns to a wash of red. Blood stains our wounded sight. It’s genuinely upsetting, breath-taking and striking; it’s ugly and gorgeous, a beautiful assault.

Rebecca Belmore, “Fountain” (production still), 2005. Photograph: José Ramón Gonzáles.

We speak of beauty. But what we often mean is aesthetic experience, which can be provoked by what is gruesome and horrific. Yet the experience is itself beautiful, lightly detaching from whatever subject provoked it. The awful, the horrific, are melted down and recast, and we sense this transformation of the world. Han writes that “the task of art is the saving of the other. The saving of beauty is the saving of the other.” The other is the other-than-beautiful – what is not beautiful – mediated by form. One transmutes into the other, as all things do, in the translation space that is aesthetic experience.

 

3.

I realize that the various arts councils see art as a communications strategy, a way of encoding statements of moral good in visual form. Long ago they surrendered any faith in the aesthetic. What’s so much worse is that many artists seem to share this. At the Art Gallery of Ontario, the recent exhibition Anthropocene looked like a trade fair, the works installed with such an absence of feeling or perception. Leaving the galleries, one passed by a real-time polling device that asked, “In A Word, How Does What You’ve Seen Here Today Make You Feel?” Worried, Sad, Informed, Angry, Motivated, Suspicious, and Unconcerned were the top choices. Of course, polls are constructed to produce certain outcomes; it wasn’t possible to answer, as I might have, “Dulled, or “Soporific” or “Depressed about the exhibition.” The artworks, as art, had disappeared from view. They were only vehicles for a message, what mattered was only how we felt about the climate crisis that was their subject. Aesthetic experience was nullified.

Vittorio Sereni, the postwar Italian poet who has meant so much to me, once praised another poet’s writing as free of “any preconstituted understanding. In you,” he continued, “understanding is an outcome.” That seems a workable way of recognizing beauty: that meaning gathers, is always provisional, is always elusive. In a gallery one floor below the Anthropocene, I restored myself by studying an early painting of Joseph Kosuth’s. Black, an almost blank surface bore in white the text, “an object that tells of the loss, destruction, disappearance of objects. Does not speak of itself. Tells of others. Will it include them? Deluge.”

In the huge galleries a floor above, everything was preformed, saturated in an understanding that denied all ambiguity. It seemed important to rule out being troubled by the beauty of Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of polluted landscapes, his beautiful images of ugly scenes. Not so many years ago, this was a common reaction to his work, this being troubled, just as readers across the last two centuries have felt a mysterious exhilaration while reading Leopardi’s poetry, with its bleak view of an uncaring and impersonal nature. All that had vanished.

But I think I understand. Adorno believed that aesthetic experience was rooted in experiences of natural beauty. If nature is threatened, so too is aesthetic experience. Hence the looming loss of faith.

Joseph Kosuth, “Jasper Johns (Art as Idea as Idea),” 1968. Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

 

4.

Du Fu, the great Chinese poet of the Tang dynasty, wrote, “The state is ruined, mountains and river survive.” Today things seem reversed: the state survives, mountains and rivers are ruined.

Adorno’s sense of the entanglement of nature and aesthetic experience grew out of a period in which Europe’s population gradually shifted from agricultural to industrial, from the countryside to the city. Nature – which for centuries had meant hard labor for most, grinding poverty, hunger if not famine, and death in childbirth – began to look beautiful, at least from the standpoint of the crowded, filthy cities. Stendhal’s “future happiness” suited the long period in Europe and the West when cities swelled, people lived longer lives and came gradually to believe the world was to be enjoyed, and wealth gradually accumulated. (For the long view, read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.) That hope-filled vantage on nature, that optimistic sense of things, has gone, or is going.

So what happens to beauty? The commentators I have read seem to believe that the aesthetics of a changed climate will be something like what we have today, though with an added moral dimension. This seems ridiculous. Romanticism was utterly different from what preceded it. No one who studied Augustan literature in England or Fragonard and Watteau in painting could have predicted what would follow. Medieval art doesn’t follow from the Roman painting or sculpture that preceded it: Rome fell and the world changed. Aesthetic experience, cut off from what we understand as its roots, will be utterly different.

 

5.

I don’t know why I care about the fate of a beauty I won’t share. With no shining future ahead, in the midst of a damaged nature, how will aesthetic experience change? It’s unknowable. But still, I would make my guess.

Let’s return to the Ara Pacis Augustae. On the sides of the altar, Augustus and Livia appear, Agrippa, Maecenas, even children – the imperial family and friends, in procession, as though they were just citizens, mere persons. At the same time, they display aspects of gods. The frieze of human figures above is mirrored by a vegetal procession below. It is organized around scrolls of acanthus (the thistle that stubbornly endures baking heat) and the aquiline fern (which propagates after fire). These addressed the citizens as Rome tried to rebuild after the devastation of civil wars: As the acanthus, after the arid and bleak summer, is reborn with the first rain, so Rome too will be reborn after the devastation of War. As the fern propagates in fields burnt by fire, so too will Rome grow from scorched and blackened earth.

Augustus’s Great Altar of Peace. Photograph: Andy Patton.

Nature provided the model for human society. But if nature itself has been so distorted as to become dangerous to us, it no longer can. Aesthetic experience will not be rooted in it the way Roman beauty was, or in the related but different way that Romantic beauty was. If anything, the ideals will be inverted, as though the human procession in the Ara Pacis provided nature with its model. Is it possible that aesthetic experience will be grounded in experiences of a well-functioning state, if such a thing exists in the future?

I often find myself thinking of Medieval art. I love the ruined Romanesque frescoes at San Clemente in Rome, those peeling 11th century frescoes of St. Clement and St. Alexius; the faded paintings at Reichenau with its arcade of stiffened saints; the huge Madonna at Torcello, bending over you in her dome of gold. Ruined, still lovely, but so diminished, after the astonishing heights of Roman wall paintings, the painted garden room from the Villa of Livia, or the room of the pine motifs on the Palatine. Like all aesthetic experience, the medieval mosaics and frescoes involve you in something that transcends the limits of the solitary self. But it is radically unlike our art, unlike anything since Giotto and Dante. It is an art that is disappointed in the world, turning away from it in fear or despair, an art outside of time, without faith in change. Hope lies elsewhere. Is this how art could exist without the promise of a future?

Is this how art might respond to a poisoned atmosphere, a threatened civilization in which everything has become dangerous? Will we still turn to huge video installations or immense (and immensely costly) projects? Instead of instilling awe and amazement, will such works appear overblown, uncaring, like invading armies? Will technology appear not as shiny and new but the very enemy that led us to this place? Will something like the inwardness and the careful limits of a still life by Morandi be the path forward in a world where constraint now appears beautiful? Once each of us has been complicit in murdering the world with excess, will discipline or diminishment gain in loveliness?

Beauty and aesthetic experience aren’t the products of conscious thought. They emerge from our circumstances and form us. I spent several years studying China’s Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), a period marked by a radical change in its sense of what beauty was. Everything had to shift, following centuries of chaos and disorder. A new aesthetic was forged in the necessity of trying to save “this culture of ours,” as the reformer Fan Zhongyan wrote in a famous letter. Now beauty had to encompass the widespread sense of being cut off from the cultural past, to absorb and admit the loss of skills, the broken tradition, to internalize a loss of faith in China’s cultural superiority and the supposed universality of those values. It found its way forward in a new definition of beauty, one that valued eccentricity and damage. I love the poetry and calligraphy of that age, those extremes of wounded eccentric loveliness. If our civilization endures at all, it will be in some greatly changed form, accompanied by a limping beauty. Perhaps it will emerge as Zweig’s art of saying goodbye.

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