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Sunset
Stuart and I were sitting on the roof, outside the dormer window, and sipping a little Drambuie. Cigars were for later.

“A beautiful evening, isn’t it?” he said.

“Yeah, the sunset is so orange.”

“You call it orange, but really, how many different colors are there in that sky — even a band of green in it.”

“Where?”

“There, see, above that reddish cloud. Perhaps it’s only a trick of simultaneous contrast, but that green has always fascinated me.”

“I see it now, rather a pale green, almost opal, but green.”

“How much better to see the whole thing, instead of just the calendar version. You know, I always wonder why pretty magazine pictures look so cliched, while the sky in front of us doesn’t. I guess there is a difference between pretty and beautiful.”

“Or, maybe beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

“Yeah, well, I used to think that.”

I could see Stuart had something on his mind. He usually did.

“Used to?” I asked. “OK, so what is beauty? Personally, I tend to think of Scarlett Johansson.”scarlett and hedy

“Really? I kind of favor Hedy Lamarr, but then, I’m always a little behind the times. But really, first we have to agree on what kind of beauty we’re talking about. Erotic attractiveness is a completely different thing from esthetic beauty. You could even say they are opposites.”

“How’s that?”

“Because erotic beauty draws us to possess it, while esthetic beauty doesn’t — it fascinates us, but leaves us disinterested, involved but motionless.

“This is the essential difference between art and pornography. If you look at a picture and say, ‘I want that,’ or ‘I wish I were there, seeing that sunset,’ you’re reacting as if to pornography, whether it’s a picture of a naked human or a brazen sunset. Erotic beauty impels you forward into time and history, while esthetic beauty draws you upward and out of the mad stream of time.”

“So you’re saying beauty comes in two categories?”

“Oh, there are lots of other divisions to make. For instance, there’s that ‘eye of the beholder’ question.

“Well, that’s what they say.”

“But it’s an easy way out. It doesn’t really answer anything. Actually, it seems to me that beauty is either internal or external. That is, either it is in the eye of the beholder, or it exists objectively, outside the accident of perception.”

“What do you mean, ‘objective’ beauty? How can that be?”

“Look at it historically. Centuries ago, it was mostly thought that beauty was an objective quality. You had it or you didn’t. Those who say beauty is external to human perception fall into two camps: the transcendent and the inherent. The second camp says that something is beautiful because elements of the physical world are by nature so. The first camp looks beyond the physical world to something metaphysical.

“You mean God?”

“Right. It could be a god or the gods. On the other hand, it could be an unnameable, ineffable mystery at the center of the universe. If a god has made something beautiful, it is then our recognition of that divine intention that is external to our psychologies. It really is beautiful, whether we recognize or not.”

“But what if you don’t believe in any of that supernatural stuff? Where does beauty come from then?”

“Again, two ways. It might simply exist as mathematics does, in its proportions and harmonies; some things may be beautiful the way a triangle has three sides. Such qualities are inherent in the objects we recognize as beautiful. Or, as another possibility, it might be biological, or based on evolution: Certain things may have emerged as ‘beautiful’ in the development of the universe because their beauty promotes evolutionary goals. Thus, a bright, beautiful flower attracts bees — which ensure the survival of the flower species through pollination.

“That’s all fine. But what if beauty really is internal — only the eye of the beholder?”

“Then again we face two choices: If beauty is only found inside us, it is either cultural or acultural.”

“Wait. I thought it was all cultural.”

“You hear that a lot on university campuses nowadays. It’s a popular point of view currently. But it is not the only way of understanding it. A good portion of the academic community has jumped on the bandwagon of cultural identity. Art, for instance, is seen as a way of establishing ethnic pride. It certainly may do this, but it is not the only thing art can or should do. Deconstructionists, for instance, like to look under the rock and find the bugs — what we really mean when we write or talk — and they show us that race, ethnicity, class or power is often at the bottom of things. Powerful White European men, for instance, have tended historically to value powerful White European male art.

“These people have a point, but it isn’t the totality. Beauty isn’t just that powerful White European men, for instance, have tended historically to value powerful White European male art.

“Right. The famous dead White men.”

“The trend is to say that beauty is culturally determined. But I would argue that culture doesn’t define what is beautiful, but what is not beautiful.”

“What is not beautiful?”

“Yeah. For example, the ‘dominant culture’ told a lot of White Americans for a very long time that ‘nappy hair’ wasn’t beautiful. The culture excluded what it wanted to exclude. What was left was deemed beautiful. Various ethnic groups are now turning that same exclusion around on those who formerly excluded them.”

“Oh, White men walk like this, but Black men walk like this, that sort of thing. But you’re saying there’s another way to look at it?”violon d'ingres

“Yes, there may be factors at work that range across cultures. Scientists have discovered that there are some things that seem to be universally recognized as beautiful — certain color combinations, or even aspect ratios. In physical beauty — if we want to get back to Scarlett and Hedy — for example, a certain mathematical proportion between hip and waist size seems to transcend culture. Some cultures may value thin women while others like the Rubenesque, but the hip-waist ratio remains constant. Some underlying principles seem to be at work.

“Their work is still new, and their results are fragmentary, but it may be that evolution has hardwired certain esthetic receptors into the human mind.”

“Like a bee before a flower?”

“Right: Does the flower become beautiful to attract the bee? Or does the bee develop a love of beauty to discover the flower? It blurs the distinction between the perceived and the perceiver.”

“Still, I’m not getting it. What sorts of things do we see as beautiful?”

Sometimes, I forget that Stuart is really highly educated. He’s lived his life as some kind of bohemian, shifting cities, or jobs, or lady friends, never settling, and never — this is always discouraging — never writing anything down. But every once in a while, he dredges out some bit of arcana that I might once have studied, but never kept up with.aquinas in glass

“Thomas Aquinas,” he started, “the famous 13th Century Christian scholar, said the beautiful has ‘integritas, consonantia and claritas.’ James Joyce’s translation of that from the Latin gives us ‘wholeness, harmony and radiance.’ ”

“Hey — I remember reading Joyce’s comments about a butcher’s basket: To see it apart from its surroundings, as a separate thing, is to see its integritas, its wholeness. As something distinct and not a part of something else.”

“Exactly.”

“Then you look at its parts — the handle, the weave of the reeds, the roundness of the bottom — and you see how those parts interact in the design.

“That is the harmony, or consonantia. But, you know, I’ve never quite accepted his definition of claritas.”

“It’s the tricky one. Joyce claims that once you’ve seen the whole and the parts, both together may join to excite your esthetic appreciation. They become larger, brighter, more meaningful than their simple existence as a basket. They have radiance. But the Latin of Aquinas is less clear.”

“I remember looking it up. My Latin dictionary translates claritas as ‘clearness or brightness’ — words less charged than Joyce’s ‘radiance.’ It also implies a clearness of mind, a plainness and directness of argument.”

“Yes. Meanwhile, there are other qualities we expect from beauty. It should surprise us, but once past the surprise it should feel inevitable.”

“Say, maybe that’s like a good murder mystery: The end should be a surprise, but it shouldn’t be arbitrary. We want to be satisfied, after our astonishment, that this solution to the mystery is the only possible one.”

“As when a Haydn symphony veers off into a strange key, or when the Beatles back a song with a string quartet. You are taken aback at first. Then you realize the perfection of it.”

“But wait,” said. “We still haven’t said what exactly is beauty. Is it a noun? Is it an adjective? — a quality that other nouns possess?”

“Or is it a verb?” Stuart was getting to the crux of the matter, as he saw it. “I’ve worried about the question for years, and I finally decided that if you want to know what beauty is, you must look at it as an event, not a thing. It is an occurrence, a transaction.”

“Hmmm. Sounds like you’re combining the external definition of beauty with the ‘eye of the beholder’ thing?”

“Right. You have the two blades of a scissors. The scissors itself is neither the one blade nor the other, but the two working together: Beauty is your active participation in the perception of the things of the world.”

“So it’s like this: The world is capable of being seen as beautiful — that’s the objective part — and we’re capable of perceiving that beauty — that’s the subjective.

“And where the two things come together, that is beauty.”

“That would make beauty an active thing,” Stuart said, “not a passive observation. You have to pay attention.

“To become part of the event, you must be awake, aware, alive. You must see or hear or feel more intensely than you do in the ordinary world of driving your car or cooking your burger.”

“So that’s why a photo of the sunset is a cliché.”sunset cliche 2

“The photo becomes a commonly accepted image of beauty, a shorthand for doing the actual work. It becomes a ‘word’ or symbol for the beauty, rather than the event of the beauty itself.”

“That reminds me of what James Agee was writing about in And Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: ‘For in the immediate world, everything is to be discerned, for him who can discern it, and centrally and simply, without either dissection into science, or digestion into art, but with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands: so that the aspect of a street in sunlight can roar in the heart of itself as a symphony, perhaps as no symphony can: and all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revisive, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.’ ”

“Or as Blake has it, ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is …”

“Infinite.”

“Yes. In a way, beauty is the act of paying attention, deeply and committedly.

“When the commitment isn’t there, the beauty isn’t.”

“So, you’re saying the world is full of things that we habitually think of as beautiful — certain categories of nature or certain subject matter in art — but that our acceptance of them short circuits our actual involvement?”

“The ‘warm bath’ school of beauty. They keep us from participating in the beauty.”

“Someone at the newspaper once wrote about it as ‘paying attention as if you were defusing a bomb.’ ”

chardin 3“Bingo. Beauty is not for the faint of heart. When you pay attention, the music of Arnold Schoenberg becomes ineffably beautiful. It’s the point of John Cage’s 4’33″ where the ambient sounds you hear while the pianist is not playing are presented to you as beautiful. And they are, if you engage with it properly. Paying attention. What is beauty? Beauty is paying attention. It’s the simplest definition there is.

“And this finally gives us the key to the claritas of Aquinas and Joyce. When seen, truly seen van gogh cypress— or by analogy, felt, or ‘apprehended’ in that Joycean locution — your object takes on a mythic significance, as if it glows from within. It is indeed ‘bright.’ It is the crockery of Chardin and the cypresses of Van Gogh. A clarity that glows from within.”

“As you’ve said many times, ‘Every bush is the burning bush.'”

“Wholeness, harmony and radiance,” Stuart said, paraphrasing St. Paul, “and the greatest of these is radiance.”

Claritas charitas est,” I said, making a lame play on words, in Latin, no less.

“Put that on your T-shirt and see who salutes.”

 

coal town wv
The view from the top of the mountain gives you the conventionally Romantic view of the landscape, the long view, closer to heaven and further from the streets. The view is pristine, and the tiny ants below, with their Ford Pintos and 7-Elevens, hardly muck up the scene.

It is the Romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich, of Frederic Edwin Church, of Albert Bierstadt and the landscape stands in for a kind of vast, sublime Eden.

This is the view of West Virginia promulgated by its official state song: “Almost Heaven.” And it isn’t that such a view is false. It isn’t false — there really is great beauty in the mountainscape of the state as seen from its peaks — but it is partial. Conversely, it is easy to see the bottoms of the mountains as some sort of dystopia: the epitome of Appalachia and its poverty, meth use, grime, coal-mining eco-disaster and educational malaise. coal tipple wv bw

But there is a Romanticism of the hill-bottoms, too. I don’t mean a nostalgia for the black-and-white WPA photographs and the “simpler, old-timey folksiness.” That kind of Romanticism is a refusal to recognize reality. That isn’t really Romanticism, it is escapism.

No, I mean that the soot, the coal trains, the sludgy stream in the mountain cove, the old homes, with their collapsing porches and front yard full of automotive detritus can elicit their own sense of the sublime.

You drive through the valleys of West Virginia coal country, around the impeding hills to the next valley and you pass grade crossings, coal tipples, rusting car frames half submerged in the streams, and lines of houses just up the hill from the road. Next to the road is the railroad track and next to that is the stream, all following the same geography. appalachian plateau BW cropped

The central part of the state, the Appalachian Plateau, is a weathered peneplain, where all the mountains are rounded bumps all about the same height, like the mountains children put into their tempera paintings, one seen in between two others.

It is primarily in these mountains that coal is mined. And in those valleys, crossed with a braid-work of streams, railroad tracks and roads, that most people live and work. Pocohontas wv

In the south, you have McDowell County, a center of coal production country spreading into Kentucky and western Virginia. The collapse of the industry means that the population is one-fourth what it was in 1950, poverty is rampant, and for those men that remain, the average lifespan is the lowest in the U.S. — 12 years shorter than the national average.

In the plateau region, which is what most people think of as “typical” West Virginia, the roads meander through the V-notches between the hills; it is impossible to drive in a straight line anywhere. You are always curving around some mountain into the next valley and around the next mountain.

Until the opening of the West Virginia Turnpike and I-77 and I-79 (work not completed until 1987), traveling anywhere in West Virginia was a slow and tortuous process, and locations not a hundred miles apart as the crow flies, could be more than 250 by car. Aside from the chute-the-chute of the Interstate system, driving in the state is still pretty much a slalom. bradshaw wv

In the small towns, smeared longways along the streams and tracks, the hardware stores and groceries have largely been supplanted by Dollar Stores and coin laundries, and the largest private employer in McDowell County is the Walmart. There are satellite dishes — many dangling and unhooked. The macadam at the gas station is potholed and the store sign advertises prices for cigarettes by the carton.

But, despite this triumph of entropy, the landscape has significance. It has meaning: Just ask any who live there. They may be needy to escape, but if they leave, they pine to return. It is a landscape that gets under your skin, like coal dust gets under your fingernails. keystone wv night coal mine bw

It is a mythic landscape, not a pristine one. It tells us things about the universe and about life.

It is a landscape with its own hell: underground fires that can last decades and at night glow red and orange like the combustion of hell. Some count over 500 such fires in West Virginia. Avernus may be the gate to the underworld for the ancient Romans, but it is West Virginia in the New World. coal train and house

The slow rusting of old refrigerators and Chevys, and abandoned buildings overgrown with weeds and vines, their glass broken out and now enameled with spray-can art, and the closed factories, with lines of smokestacks — these all tally the losses, the sucking down into the past of the present, spinning like water around a drain before disappearing into oblivion. This, too, is sublime. We feel it more in places like West Virginia; it is instantly visible.

Also, because the land is littered with the obsolete and abandoned, you can see them, can pay attention. In suburbia, familiarity has dulled our senses and we hardly notice the clapboards, the street curbs, the cars in the shopping center parking lots, the school buildings, the very trees that line the roads. They are there to be seen, but who actually looks? coal train in rain bw

In this moonscape of detritus, waste, loss and forgetting, the details are burned once again into us, made unfamiliar by rot and decay, so we can see them again. The very “thingness” of each chesspiece on this gameboard of depletion makes them palpable and gives them presence, and presence imbues meaning — significance.

There is a difference between the pretty and the beautiful. Postcard sunsets and green mountain vistas are all pretty enough, but they distract us from the essential facts; they are a magician’s misdirection, keeping our eye from the real thing. As Tom Robbins wrote, “The ugly may be beautiful; the pretty, never.” The real thing is our gaze into the eye of eternity, and you get that from contemplating anything bigger, vaster, scarier, more overwhelming than yourself. coopers wv grad crossing

Yes, you can look at the old tires and relic houses and see only a failed economy, but you look instead at the passing of time engraved on those same objects and you see intense beauty.

currierivesfiremansaves

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.

hundred guilder print

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.

sunset

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.

firemansavechild