Sometimes you can spend a long time grasping for a truth that you sense, but find impossible to put into words. I’ve tried many times before to write something sensible about beauty in art but have never managed to say quite what I wanted to say, mostly because I wasn’t clear on it myself. I’ve been reading Thomas Moore’s Dark Nights of the Soul recently, a book I can recommend if you ever find yourself in your own particular dark night, and it’s clarified something for me that makes me feel I can now express some of my thoughts a little better.
I’ve felt for a long time that a large proportion of contemporary art is focussed on what I think of as the ‘nasties’ – the downright ugly, the negative, the anguished, the cruel – and all of this seems to go hand in hand with a view of life that’s cynical and pessimistic and without hope. But when you argue against this and in favour of something more uplifting, you lay yourself open to accusations of sentimentality and an unrealistic Pollyanna-ish view of the world, as if it’s a wonderfully happy place – which it patently isn’t. As ever, the truth lies somewhere between, but many folk like to assume that if you reject one of these views then you have to be in favour of the other.
I’m not drawn towards what I heard described recently as the ‘miserable bastard’ school of photography (a term I shall be using with great delight in the future), but I also dislike the kind of pretty-pretty, isn’t-everything-wonderful school either – the kind that’s full of frolicking children, dreamy sunflare , pretty girls drifting about in long white dresses, and ‘lifestyle’ interior shots. And I realise, now, that one of the things that’s significant here is the difference between pretty and beautiful. Pretty satisfies briefly but quickly becomes tiresome and dull – it’s the junk food of art. Beauty satisfies for a long time, offering more each time you see it, and has great depth. Beauty doesn’t have to be the obvious sort of beauty, but can be found in things the unperceptive might dismiss as ugly or unimportant. It’s the difference between the smoothly polished and idealised celebrity actress and the elderly woman whose whole life is mapped onto her face – just look at this wonderful portrait of Jane Goodall to see what I mean.
Moore has a lot to say about what he calls ‘dark beauty’. This is a beauty that’s found in pain – a kind of sublime suffering. Every life has both pain and joy in it, and that’s why an image of an elderly face, or any face that’s allowed to be ‘real’, gives us so much more than the air-brushed perfection we see everywhere. Both the sorrow and the joy are there to see. Moore argues that beauty and suffering are inextricably linked together, and that much of what we regard as great art has this pairing.
This is how I have experienced it. When I feel low, I often listen to Bach’s Mass in B Minor – most particularly the first and the last sections. To me it holds immense beauty while at the same time being totally heartbreaking – listening to it, I have sometimes howled with pain while at the same time feeling hugely comforted by its beauty. It offers me something that’s bigger than me and my problems – the kind of feeling I get when I look up at the stars in the night sky and realise how small I am in the total scheme of things. It manages to match my pain and recognise it, while also lifting me above it. More than that, it also satisfies when I feel good, and at those times I find great joy in it.
Turning to photography, I saw this same mix of emotion in Joel Meyerowitz’s images of Ground Zero – interestingly, Meyerowitz himself referred to the ‘awful beauty’ of the scene. The devastation is shown in all its fullness, and with all its implications, but a kind of sublime beauty permeates these pictures. In many of the images there is beautiful light coming from a directional source. In one image, the light comes from above and although its source is actually an out-of-shot spotlight used to facilitate work on the site, it has the look of something much more metaphysical. The wrecked but still-standing walls almost resemble cathedral ruins and in the background there are lights on in the surrounding office buildings – life goes on; there is hope. Many of the images are of workers – rebuilding, clearing and restoring. One worker, in a statement that’s almost poetic, was heard to say ‘we are gardeners in the garden of the dead’. Meyerowitz’s work clearly shows the pain and devastation of a terrible event, but also allows us hope for the future and the possibility of transcending this awful thing. In other hands this might only have been a depiction of horror and brutality – in Meyerowitz’s hands it offers layers of conflicting emotion that deeply satisfy and don’t offer pat or easy answers.
One of the most touching art installations I’ve come across formed part of the Folkestone Biennial several years ago. Loudspeakers were fixed to the wooden benches that look out from high on the cliffs, over the English Channel, and a recording was triggered as you sat down. The recording consisted of readings of letters written by soldiers during WW2 who died in France, on the coast you can just make out in the distance across the water. The beauty of the scene, the love and pain expressed in the letters, and the poignancy of knowing the men who wrote them had died, and in what conditions, all combined to create a mixture of beauty and pain that left a memorable impression.
For me, this is what’s missing in a lot of contemporary art. Only the bad is shown, in as ugly a way as possible, with no room for an understanding of the complex layers of emotion and story that surround it, or a more nuanced interpretation. The best art – in my view – says ‘this is the human condition, and it has many aspects to it’ and it connects us rather than isolates us. But of course, to welcome art like this you have to recognise these feelings in yourself. If you’ve grown a hardened shell of cynical dismissiveness, then it can be threatening to encounter something that might crack you wide open, and it’s a lot safer to stick with the coolly intellectual and to sneer at or dismiss as sentimentalists those who think differently. What troubles me sometimes is that the most feted of contemporary art seems to have at its centre only the aim of shocking and disgusting its audience, at the expense of looking for a deeper truth.
I would never want to be prescriptive about what consitutes good art, and I’m glad that there’s a whole smorgasbord of art out there, of all types, to suit everyone. But for myself, I’m looking for art that does more than diminish me and leave me feeling troubled. I’m looking for something that fully acknowledges life’s pain, while also celebrating the beauty and the wonder that can be found on the other side of it. I was accused once, by a tutor, of having ‘old-fashioned values’, which only made me wonder why anyone would believe that values should be something that are a matter of what happens to be on-trend at the time. The human condition is timeless, and I don’t think the values that support us as human beings are subject to much in the way of change.