Beauty Matters

We’re not even going to attempt to define in this article what beauty is. But we will in another.

Art has had a rocky road over the past century or so. An ever more self-impressed art establishment has managed to separate thought about it into almost entirely secluded categories: representative skill, impressions from the underlying geometry, meaning/ motivation of making the piece, etc. It turns out that as a curiosity, an experiment, working with one or another of these to the exclusion of the other(s) is interesting and enlightening to the artist and certain parts of the audience, and can be a lot of fun in its way; but it makes it lesser art than it could be. Dimensions of the meaning itself have been erased, and penetration to one’s soul can no longer be achieved.

More simply: the whole effect of art is a synergy of its dimensions – not physical dimensions, but dimensions of meaning, like varying inputs to the mind. Denigrate one of those to the detriment of all.

(Western) society itself has followed a similar path. Which influenced which, I don’t know, but the parallels are unmistakable.

We occasionally, here, touch on the trouble caused by denying the immutable truths of human nature. You can usually see a defense of such foolishness coming, by the presence of the word “should” in a sentence. Poor, horribly misused word.

In the case of the art world, it was and is a belief that people should support and buy artwork that is not appealing to the eye. Now, if you like it, then you like it, and no one will deny that you see beauty in some aspect of a piece; but the fact is that you do see beauty in it, and your appreciation is no ill reflection on those who don’t. Or if it is the history or visually unrepresented meaning the artist meant which appeals to you, don’t pretend that everyone else, especially those who don’t know the story, should have the same reaction you do. Even knowing won’t overcome a particularly unattractive presentation, except to the very few.

At the end of the 20th century, a champion of the synergy of meaning and beauty died of cancer. Less than a month before, in July of 1999, he was interviewed by Ben Wattenberg for PBS.

Daughters of Odessa
The Daughters of Odessa: Martyrs of Modernism

Hart: Oh, you have things that rhyme, and things that have meaning and value and people can relate to. But put structure and beauty back into poetry. And then there’s, you know, musicians that are a part of this, or composers who want to bring back melody and harmony and real beauty in music. And then a lot of architects who are involved in sort of the new urbanism, and a lot of classical revival sort of things.

Wattenberg: So, you mean, we might, or our children might have a world where poetry rhymes, where fiction tells a story, where architecture is not a glass box, and so on?

Hart: That’s the hope.

Wattenberg: And paintings look like something, and sculptures.

Hart: And have meaning to you, personal, have meaning to society at large.

Wattenberg: How would that affect life?

Hart: Well, I think it would have a profoundly positive effect on life, because I think that the arts can be a moral force in society. I think that the real purpose of the arts in the truest sense is to be part of the civilizing process, and that by bringing beauty and value into the cultural mainstream and reasserting it as a thing of major importance is something that helps that hungering process of true civilizations.

Wattenberg: What is the allusion in title The Daughters of Odessa?

Hart: I’m a big fan of Russian history, and originally that started as a small sketch of the four daughters of Nicholas who were murdered. And then it turned into a larger allegorical work, as a tribute to all of the innocent victims of the 20th Century. It’s meant to speak to all of the things – I even called it Martyrs of Modernism as a subtitle. What I’m talking about, of course, is the deliberate destruction of things that are lovely, beautiful and filled with life, as personified by all of the brutality of the 20th Century.

And I picked Odessa simply because of all of the horrible things that happened in the 20th Century most of them got a dress rehearsal in the Ukraine somewhere along the way, whether it was the Pogroms or the suppression of the rebellion of 1905, or the actual revolution, the Stalinization, the collectivization of the peasants, the famines, the holocaust, the Nazi invasion, Chernobyl, all of the most dreadful things of the 20th Century were sort of played out in the Ukraine, so by making a tribute to all of the innocent victims of the 20th Century, I thought Odessa was kind of a nice poetic reference.

Those are the martyrs of the 20th century: the deliberate destruction of things that are lovely, beautiful and filled with life.

Here’s the kicker, though: You don’t have to understand his double allusion in the title, or the motivation of the piece that the subtitle reveals. You don’t even have to know it has a title. It draws the eye of its own. The mind reacts to it, and an honest self-reflection will quickly understand that it’s a different reaction than to beauty without meaning (a strange thing, it turns out, which we will discuss another time).

During the memorial to Hart at the Senate, his works were said to “evangelize about how the world could be if values of beauty and truth were embraced.”

Does that sound like the joyless scolding so much of the world’s unbeautiful art tries to convey?

Beauty has meaning, and carries other meaning with it, and these meanings run the range and scope of human experience.

It matters.

Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.