A very short history of ugliness (3)

June 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

After Courbet, deluge

Courbet was the equivalent of an unrestrained fart in a fashionable drawing room: it didn’t merely expand the realm of the possible (by allowing farts/red hands, say); it damaged any and all notion of limit. To paraphrase a Russian novelist, if farting in the salon is allowed, then everything is allowed: Schiele, Kokoschka, and Munch. The fairly mild action of introducing some ungainly looking people into salon paintings turns out to have opened the the flood-gates, letting in full-length celebrations of sickness and mental disease.

This alone wouldn’t be so bad:  after all, it is easy enough to avoid modern art galleries (by and large coterminous with ugliness), the Horror of War galleries, and books on nineteenth century art — as many right-thinking people do.  But there was a more sinister consequence:  the flood of ugliness did not come without a public fight, and the fight was both vocal (and therefore highly visible) and — perverse.  Instead of turning around the topic of what is beautiful, it turned around the nihilist argument that there is no such thing as beauty.  Both concepts — of beauty and of ugliness were willfully misrepresented in the debates, undermining the usefulness of the language to a point where, today, it appears totally broken, unable to carry any meaning at all.

The debate over Klimt’s paintings for the Great Hall of the Vienna University was typical of the intentional — and damaging — misuse of language in the nineteenth century beauty debates. The Univesity, objecting to the paintings, called them ugly, which they in truth weren’t — to the extent what we can say (the paintings do not survive):  they merely allegorized the university project in a way the professors objected to.  So the professors were lying about beauty (Klimt’s paintings weren’t ugly) in order to deny the facts (that they hated science to be represented as uncertain).

Their opponents were guilty of dishonest misrepresentation of beauty also:  whereas in order to defend Klimt it would have been simplest to speak the truth:  you professors are mistaken, these paintings aren’t ugly, they chose instead to argue the nihilist point:  who’s to say Klimt’s paintings aren’t beautiful?

Why did the defenders of Klimt choose not to defend these paintings but instead attack the very notion of beauty (and thereby defend the right of ugliness to coexist)?  Perhaps because that was the anti-authoritarian spirit of the revolutionary times (we’re at the height of the anarchist movement) — and Klimt’s defenders wanted to challenge authority more than they wanted to defend beauty; or perhaps because the argument of “who’s to say” seems like the killer argument (it seems impossible to reply to); or perhaps also, because in their debate they hoped to secure the support of all those who had defended the ugliness of Courbet and Kokoschka.  This is the dynamic of public debates:  arguments transform as new alliances are made.  As in all debates, what matters is winning, and the arguments themselves become unimportant.  End — in this case, winning – justifies the means — in this case, argument.  Argument and logic, become victims of politics.

The principal casualty of this — and all other nineteenth century debates — about ugliness and beauty was the language used to speak about them.  Today we live with the consequence of its perversion.  We are unable to speak coherently about the topics of beauty and ugliness today because our thoughts about them have been confused by the dishonest arguments of the past.  This perversion of language has made it possible for otherwise very intelligent people to say things like there is no such thing as beautiful or ugly but thinking makes it so.  Indeed, the proof of the effects of the past arguments lies in the fact that the more educated they are on the topic, the more likely they are to say it.

Recently, voices have risen from Evolutionary Psychology against this interpretation — with powerful arguments (that the apparatus for the recognition of ugly and pretty is nature-given for better selection of mates, food, and environment, and therefore that the concepts of beauty and ugliness reflect something real in the psyche of man — and, more importantly, something objective in nature), but good arguments don’t ever win a thing; this whole generation will have to die before it will be possible to speak again of ugliness and beauty with the unspoiled clarity of times preceding the calamitous nineteenth century.


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