May 5, 2012 § Leave a comment
Rodin’s talent is grossly exaggerated. His drawings of the Balinese ballet illustrate the point: that the figures are graceless should clinch the point but a surprisingly large number of people don’t notice and argue — how else? relativistically! — “perhaps it is graceless to you“, etc. (meaning, “other people might like it and who are you to disagree”, etc.). Indeed: they don’t mind his other stuff, why should they notice that his Balinese sketches are all ugly? But, more to the point, and damning beyond any shadow of a doubt: Rodin’s sketches of the Balinese are wrong: no such pauses are allowed in Balinese dance. (This is not a matter of opinion; it is a fact; and I happen to be an expert judge). So, there you have it, QED.
(Oh, you don’t get it, someone will say, no doubt, “that’s Rodin’s vision“. But this is, precisely, my point: the vision thing is — defective).
Now, Rodin, like all nineteenth century European art, is ugly, convoluted, violent, and above all, overrated. It is a function of the age — that tiresome, dull age of purposeful hard work; nineteenth century discovered purpose and merit; but also the people — the new men who came up from the bottom to dictate the style. People whose ancestors have had nothing to do with art for ten thousand years and who have never needed the cognitive apparatus required to recognize it. People who got up by figuring out a faster way to get the grain to the market, or a way to screw some colored people out of a natural resource. People who did that 14 hours a day 7 days a week. What would they know about art? What they liked was stories of sweat, commitment, passion, powerful emotions, and — meaning. Lots and lots of meaning. Purpose. Manon.
Yeah, they liked Manon.
Camille Claudel the film does not make any of this more palatable. Conversations about art oscillate between incomprehensible (see “how the artist’s mind ranges beyond our powers of comprehension?”) and trite (“she has the soul of a man!”) — and back again. The love story is just like any other love story, illustrating plainly that Rodin and Claudel, at any rate, were no different from the rest.
(Which is, precisely, my point).
And throughout: ugly sculpture (misshapen bodies, twisted in some nightmarish agony, covered with warts, parts missing), people wearing ugly clothing badly, dull colors, wet clay, murk, dirty streets of Paris.
Why look at this at all? Is it telling me something valuable and worth knowing about love? No. About Rodin? I was happy not to know. So, why? So many people worked so hard, spent so much time and money, to waste 40 minutes of my time.
I have to get better at identifying drivel early — so that I can kill it earlier.
I am making progress. Last Tuesday I identified — and killed — Marquise after 8 minutes.
June 1, 2011 § Leave a comment
The three prophets of ugliness: Goya, Delacroix, Courbet
Nineteenth-century’s adventure with ugliness may have begun with Goya — not a terribly talented painter (a euphemism), but one who felicitously did in the end find a fit outlet for his “ungifts” — in the Horrors of War.
(Ugly is rather good for horror. Goya wasn’t exactly inventing its use for the purpose: Donatello already did that with his Mary Magdalene. But spare a thought for poor artists: it is difficult to do something truly original in any field of life: it’s all mostly been done).
Although one wishes Goya had been more immediately successful in finding an appropriate employment for his skills — and had spared us his Mayas (equally ugly whether dressed or undressed); and all those portraits of frightened little people against threatening, dirty nondescript backgrounds; for all that, one is happy for him to have arrived home in the end.
And even, to a small degree, for himself: can now walk into a room with the Horrors of War, spend three minutes there shuddering, and then promptly leave relieved that the experience is over.
It is difficult to be happy for Delacroix, however. He seems to have never found a home for his special “gifts” since even when he paints horrors of war (e.g. Chios) they aren’t especially horrific, just ugly. One can only conclude that ugliness suited his psyche; that he was — in terms of our simile — a little perverse. That he actually liked what he painted. And that those who liked his work were perverse also. And why not. I am a liberal fellow and people turned on by ugliness do not shock me anymore than gays do. De perversibus non est disputandum.
Incidentally, Delacroix worshiped Goya. (Figures).
He also promoted Courbet.
It was Courbet who raised ugliness to the status of aesthetic principle. He did so consciously and, I believe, out of calculation. Courbet was a master of the technique of success de scandale; quite possibly its inventor. He realized that nothing scandalized people like ugliness and he painted with the intention to be ugly. There are paintings by him which suggest that the problem was not congenital — that he was in fact capable of perceiving and painting pretty things prettily — only chose not to. There was simply more fame and more money in ugly: this was his aesthetic catechism.
Why there should be money in it is in itself interesting: art historians note correctly that there was a socio-economic dimension to this strategy: the wholesale rise of the nouveaux riches — the Don Calogeros — that’s Don Calogero Sedara to you — who recognized themselves in Courbet’s paintings and who accepted that merely being painted — no matter how — elevated them to equality with Old Money. (“A painting is a painting is a painting.”)
Some philosophers today like to argue that this new aesthetic was not ugly, just differently-beautiful, and that the support given Courbet in effect an aesthetic claim that “we find this beautiful, no matter what you old snobs think”. I think the view is mistaken: a practical race, unaffected by useless notions of ought, the nouvris didn’t mind to be painted as they were. Why, there probably was a pride in that: :I have made my way in the world by virtue of what I am; what I am therefore must be worth admiring. So what if I have short legs, bad breath, and my wife’s hands are red?”
There is a pride in the ugly body parts despite their ugliness; indeed, because of it. (“I have made it despite my disadvantages”). This attitude denies neither the existence nor nature of ugliness, but takes pride, why, glories in it.
Next: After Courbet, deluge
May 31, 2011 § Leave a comment
Ugliness as an uncontrolled experiment
One possible interpretation of the history of European Art in the nineteenth century forces itself upon you as you read its various histories (and look at the illustrations): that it was an experiment with the aesthetic of ugliness; and that the experiment has gone horribly wrong.
The simile might be to an innocent child learning to stimulate its anus for sexual pleasure. Just as gentle stroking of the anus can indeed be pleasurable, so limited use of mild ugliness can be effective in art, not perhaps so much for the shudder it gives, but for the way it makes following beauty stand out even more. Some things — like mountain-climbing, or being mercilessly scrubbed down in a Turkish hamam — feel best when they stop; and sometimes, the experience of having them stop is worth having them in the first place: spending half an hour with Goya’s Horrors of War becomes deeply rewarding the instant we walk out of the room.
But, unchecked, daring experiments develop according to their own dynamic; and some uncontrolled dynamics, like the dynamic of a speeding driverless car on a winding mountain road, can only end one way. In our metaphor: gentle stroking leads to probing, probing to penetration, and, before you know it we’re into incontinence, piles, and colonic cancer. (I.e. start out with a little ugliness in Goya and end up with nothing but in Schiele and Munch).
To guard against the disastrous consequences of uncontrolled experiments, the divine Pythius Lycegenes gave us the commandment μηδέν άγαν: nothing in excess. Alas, the nineteenth century, like a bunch of high-schoolers going on strike, embraced Rousseau flattering dicta, and refused to read the classics for instruction. They went for self-discovery instead.
And there’s the rub: any discovery is only as valuable as the thing it throws up. Given the nature of human nature, self-discovery throws up mostly nastiness. It is perhaps not ignorant but self-knowing of the human race to avoid any closer brush with… self-knowledge.
Next: The three prophets of ugliness: Goya, Delacroix, Courbet