This is a parable about beauty in art:
A child is trapped in a burning building; a fireman pulls her out, risking his own life in the process. He is hailed in newspapers as a hero.
And so he is. But did he enter the fire because he wanted to become a hero? Or did he want to save a threatened child?
His motivation tells us a great deal about his quality as a human being.
Most of us would agree that the purpose of a heroic rescue is not the heroism, but the saving of a life. Heroism may result, but it is not the reason the action was taken. If it were, we would suspect the hero of being shallow and self-involved.
It is much the same with beauty. It is no more the goal of art than heroism is the goal of the rescue.
And those many lesser artists who create art with only beauty in mind will come up with shallow results.
Because the authentic goal of art is more complex, more difficult and as a result, more lasting. It is no less than the creation of reality — or at least our ability to comprehend our little corner of it, like trying to palm flat the starched corner of a picnic cloth in a tornado.
It is the recognition that simple language can never effectively encompass the contradictory layers, complexities and confusions of experience’s windstorm and that such things can only be approached through metaphor: We cannot say what it is, we can only take stabs at what it is like.
In this sense, the true artists endeavors not to be pretty, but to be true. And if he manages to engage truth, the result will appear beautiful, if not to us today, then to posterity.
So when we think of beauty contests or the colorful landscapes of calendar art, we naturally think of beauty as something trivial and frivolous. And when we look at yet another American Impressionist oil-daub of a well-to-do young debutante in a white dress and parasol standing on a sunny turn-of-the-century lawn, we cannot but recognize that it has more in common with Robin Leach than it has with Rembrandt’s Hundred Guilder Print, Euripedes’ Medea or Bach’s B-minor Mass.
Conversely, when we discuss what is most profound in the world, it always seems to possess great beauty.
Such beauty is a natural byproduct of the search for truth.
But, when we use the word “beauty,” we mean different things at different times.
The word can mean “pretty,” as when we talk about a pretty picture or a blush-cheeked cheerleader.
Pretty almost always means, at some level, “conventional.” Pretty is something most people can agree on. There is a predictability to it, ultimately, a monotony.
And when a man says a woman is beautiful, he is almost always making a judgment that is not esthetic, but hormonal.
Beauty also refers to that which we find peaceful and productive of pleasant feelings. A lot of people find burbling brooks and meditative flower arrangements beautiful in this sense. It is also the genesis of New Age music and George Winston.
Then, there is beauty that is the precise and craftsmanly use of materials. Artists recognize this when they see the delightful line of Picasso’s drawings or the expressive and tight control of a Durer wood engraving.
Artists probably recognize this beauty more than most, but they are not alone. The wide popular appreciation of Salvador Dali owes greatly to the public perception of him as a magician of craftsmanship. The same of Andrew Wyeth.
Fourthly, beauty is sometimes reserved for the subject matter of a piece of art, where the audience pays little attention to the craftsmanship, but feels warm and fuzzy about the subject.
People respond to the religious sentiment rather than the art in most popular biblical art. Likewise, they respond to the scenery in an Ansel Adams photograph.
But all these are essentially lower orders of beauty. And much that is meretricious is deemed beautiful for a while, if it reinforces the prejudices of the age. What Victorians called beautiful, we largely snicker at now. But we shouldn’t be so smug, for our great grandchildren will undoubtedly giggle at our art and mores in just the same way.
The real thing doesn’t founder on the prejudices of the day. That is why we call it “classic.” that is why the best Rembrandt or Eakins speaks across the years and continue to move us.
The beauty of the art we recognize as great has a handful of special qualities that probably make it unsuitable for practical things, like magazine illustrations or political propaganda.
Ambiguity is one such quality. All great beauty is at some level equivocal: It can take no partisan stand because it holds all options open. It manages to allow of multiple, even contradictory interpretations because it is “large and contains multitudes.” Profound beauty makes no moral judgments, at least not on the rote level of dogma.
Real beauty must be ambiguous: like the smile of the Mona Lisa or the meaning of the white whale in Moby Dick.
That ambiguity is inextricably bound up with these other qualities of great beauty:
Metaphor — Not only what something is, but what else it is. A landscape is never only a piece of pretty scenery, but a metaphor for the structure of the human mind, or a metaphor for a nude torso, or a metaphor for the fecundity of nature. A still life usually tells us about death and transience. A portrait tells us about suffering and humanity. Moby Dick is a metaphor; so is the Creation of Adam on the Sistine ceiling.
Complexity — Not necessarily complication. Sometimes, a very simple gesture, in relation to the rest of the work, can be very complex. The complexity may be of character in a play, of metaphor in a painting or of a key relationship in a symphony.
But if a work of art is to mirror life in any meaningful way, it must reflect the complexity — even contradiction — of existence.
Memorability — The quality we say “haunts” us. In great art, we may often find ourselves saying: “I don’t know what it means, but I can’t get it out of my head.” The gift to create what is memorable in this sense is what we mean when we say an artist is “touched by the muse.”
Surprise — Great beauty is always fresh and it does unpredictable things. Why is there a little girl running through Rembrandt’s Night Watch? Why does Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony keep stopping?
Inevitability — But that surprise always forms part of the larger picture and we feel by the time we come to the end that it couldn’t be any other way. There is a “rightness” to every gesture, every musical modulation, every theatrical act.
Wholeness of form — This is almost mystical. The form that I’m talking about and the wholeness we recognize are almost certainly archetypes that are hidden deep in the psyche and the wholeness cannot be prescribed, but only recognized.
It is what makes us recognize when a play is over: The form is complete and whole. The same works in great paintings or music.
Ultimately, what you get from beauty is not a feeling of fuzzy complacency, but of transcendence, a feeling that there is something larger and more meaningful than the everyday, the quotidian. That life is part of some larger pattern, not necessarily religious — that within that pattern you share something with the Zulus in South Africa just as with your brother in Pittsburgh.
Or that there is a great mystery at the center of the universe, whether it is scientific or Hindu. That the simple everyday reality is somehow ennobled, though it may not include any concept of nobility.
And in the end, in a world of suffering, chaos and meaninglessness, the art, like the fireman, rescues us.