Thursday, July 16, 2009

You Keep Using That Word

What is it that makes something beautiful? What do we mean when we say that something is beautiful? Most of us have been conditioned to think of beauty in terms of visual appeal. We may think of a famous painting, a lovely person or a sunset as beautiful. But why?

Is Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” beautiful? Truly this subtly smiling lady would not be deemed beautiful by modern fashion standards and in fact, we may even admit that she’s a bit homely. Perhaps it’s the painting itself that is beautiful. Closer inspection will reveal a simple barren landscape behind the modestly clad female subject but nothing that we can really say that would stand out to us as beautiful. The painting, however, is excellently crafted by one of the greatest painters ever to live. Is that what we mean by beautiful?

Visual attraction does exist in humans and we need look no further than romantic interest to find evidence of this fact. We may, in fact, find someone so visually appealing that we stop in our tracks and stare. The basic makeup of most humans is the same: two arms, two legs, a head, a torso. Nothing breathtaking about that. Yet we distinguish between two very similar humans quickly labeling one ugly and one beautiful. Is it the combination of physical features? Does it matter if these features are real or manufactured? Is this really beauty…or perhaps simply sexual desire?

The most stunning of sunsets that many of us have captured with our cameras at one time or another indicate how light from a star is bent and scattered as it enters Earth’s atmosphere and makes its way through dust and pollution to our rods and cones. There’s nothing inherently beautiful about the science of how we see a sunset, yet we pause at what we call beauty and gather our cameras to capture that moment. Perhaps it is not the clouds and atmosphere and light that we find beautiful, but rather it is that moment we are privileged to experience.

Beauty is more than visual.

One of the time tested definitions of beauty as it relates to the visual and performing arts is that an object, performance or event provides the spectator with a moment of transcendence. This moment occurs when the object, performance or event becomes something more than a literal interpretation of itself. At this moment the art urges the viewer to think about something beyond or greater than itself. In fact, the object, performance, or event no matter how glorious or visually appealing simply becomes the pathway that allows the viewer to travel to a different level of interpretation and acknowledgement of truth. Writer Don Miller said that the purpose of art is “to point ourselves and those around us to a reality greater than the one we know and toward which only the imagination may point.” It is this experience that gives the viewer the internal feeling of having experienced something beautiful. Consider the following examples:

"Under The Table" by Robert Therrien
In Robert Therrien’s “Under The Table” (1994, 10’ x 26’ x 18’) the viewer is presented with a gigantic dining room table and chair set. Therrien has recreated a very common image and a sight that most people in western cultures see every day. Yet the dramatic increase in scale of this everyday image creates a moment of transcendence for the viewer. To be sure, there is nothing exceptionally beautiful about this very simple wooden dinette set, yet the immediate response of the over sized furniture is one that takes the viewer out of the present and into their past. One of the first things a viewer will realize when looking up at the large table and chairs is that the last time they had this particular point of view was likely when they were children playing in the kitchen floor of their homes. At this moment, the viewer is no longer looking at a generic table and chair set, but they are taken back to specific childhood memories and to the fears and joys those memories may bring along. The viewer moves beyond analyzation of a physical object in space and into the contemplation of the beauty of innocence, hope and promise. Memories of such individual experiences will most certainly vary from person to person and the reactions to such memories may range from the very positive to the very negative.

In a 2005 live performance by the band Wilco, Jeff Tweedy provides a different kind of transcendent moment for his audience. Starting out the Chicago concert the band plays Tweedy’s song “Misunderstood” and at one point Tweedy begins to sing the word “nothing” over and over and over again (36 times if I counted correctly). As he continues to repeat the word into what seems like infinity while the band also repeats the same chord along with the word a change begins to take place. The listener has time to move from thinking about the novelty of repeating a word in a song for emphasis to becoming slightly annoyed by the monotony of the repetition to wondering if Tweedy is lip synching and the recording has hung up, to finally moving beyond the literal nature of the single repeated word and into thinking about the symbolic meaning of someone speaking this word into infinity. Somewhere along the way Tweedy is able to transcend the literal interpretation of the single word and gently direct the listener toward something beyond. (To experience Tweedy's moment, check out Wilco's 2005 release "Kicking Television" Live double album. Specifically, the song "Misunderstood" right around the 4 minute 25 second mark.)

Mural by Mark Mulroney
Mark Mulroney creates large scale murals that change how a viewer interacts with an interior space. His paintings make use of a flat presentation of planes of color that rely heavily on a good sense of design and a good sense of humor. The images Mulroney uses in his murals are representational but maintain a healthy ambiguity that prevents the works from being read or interpreted too quickly or easily. Many of his images are reminiscent of things seen in comics, coloring books, or print ads and Mulroney's use of such subject matter allows him to tap into a more wide ranging collective viewer lexicon. His paintings present themselves without pretense and bank on the fact that most viewers will recognize at least pieces of the images and that they will then try to connect those images in some sort of narrative in order to form an interpretation of the work.
While Mulroney's images are clean and well crafted the subject matter can tend toward the dark, threatening or downright bizarre. The human forms are not "pretty" or idealized and many images are distorted to suggest pain. It would be easy for the viewer to quickly dismiss the idea that any real beauty existed in his work without taking the idea of transcendence into mind. Subjects in his art works are painted in various sections of the walls sometimes but not always connected by visual cues. These visual elements may not be in a linear order but may be arranged as a writer would arrange elements of a sentence to communicate a coherent thought. As the viewer engages in this visual act of translation, the sum of the collection of images becomes much more important than the individual parts. It is here that a moment of transcendence is achieved and the viewer is moved beyond the images and into the greater meaning of the symbolism. The hieroglyphics on the wall may be interesting as individual symbols but the greater meaning is derived from understanding the meaning of all the symbols together as a complete thought.

Beauty has not been the most popular term among Contemporary artists and perhaps this is due to the misunderstanding and misuse of the word. When the Post Impressionists stepped more toward the area of Abstraction they also stepped away from the goal of simply portraying visually appealing objects on canvas. Instead of leaving beauty behind they were, in fact, pursuing a better definition of the word and attempting to point us toward a greater reality. These early visual pioneers were beginning to understand that beauty was more than a desirable object and was something that could not be communicated in literal terms. They needed to discover new ways to communicate ideas that were beyond the reach of words and just outside the grasp of the literal image. They and the stylistic movements that followed them have helped us realize that beauty is more than just the presentation of an appealing image; it is an experience that moves us beyond that image and into a transformative moment.
(As for the image at the top, don't judge me. Katie Holmes is pretty)

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