The Wright Perspective: On Beauty

My latest is up at EveryJoe:

http://www.everyjoe.com/2014/07/03/politics/robbed-of-beauty-by-the-left/

I usually write about trivial things. This is perhaps the most important column I have ever written, because it explains the central mystery of our time: why our age alone of all ages of Christendom has no fine arts, no public effort to create and retain beauty.

Unfortunately, I sent in my first draft which was accidentally misfiled in my ready-to-send folder, and so the published copy left out the conclusion. (I sent this in today, too late, hoping the publisher would update the publication, but it was a tyro’s mistake on my part, very unprofessional. Alas.)

Here for my readers is the version of the column as it was originally meant:

Why do they adore such imagery? That answer is not difficult: the desolation of
ugliness aids the Leftist cause in a very real and very subtle way.

Imagine two men: one stands in a bright house, tall with marble columns adorned
with lavish art, splendid with shining glass images of saints and heroes,
mementos of great sorrow and great victories both past and promised. A
polyphonic choir raises their voices in golden song, singing an ode to joy. The
other stands in a slum with peeling wallpaper, or a roofless ruin infested with
rats, hemmed by feces-splashed gray concrete walls lurid with jagged graffiti,
chalked with swearwords and flickering neon signs advertising strip joints. Rap
music thuds nearby, ear-splitting, yowling obscenities. A bureaucrat approaches
each man and orders him to do some routine and routinely humiliating task, such
as pee in a cup to be drug tested, or be fingerprinted, or suffer an anal cavity
search, or surrender his weapons, or his money, or his name. Which of the two
men is more likely to take a stand on principle not to submit?

Which one will automatically and unconsciously assume that human life is sacred,
human rights are sacrosanct, and that Man is made in the image and likeness of
God? The man surrounded by godlike images? Or the man surrounded by mocking filth?

Which one, in other words, is more likely to fall prey to the worldview of a
dark world cosmos without meaning, without truth, without virtue?

The point of nearly a century of aggressive ugliness in the fine arts is to
produce disgust. (etc)

UPDATE: without a minute’s hesitation, the publisher updated the text. Wow. Things move quickly in the modern, electronic world — it is much more forgiving than the print world.

68 Comments

  1. Comment by tar109:

    If you have the time you may be interested in the Power of Beauty Conference that the Hildebrand Project is co-hosting with Franciscan University of Steubenville this October. In the call for papers they note:”Artists in philosophical reflection on art are also welcome to submit.”

    Here is the web address:

    http://hildebrandlegacy.org/main.cfm?id=130&r1=0.47&level=1

  2. Comment by Joseph M (was Ishmael Alighieri):

    There are some signs that at least the Church is getting a grip, awaking from the 1960s dogmatic slumber that produced the L.A. Cathedral, for example. The architecture school at Notre Dame (of all places) is cranking out people with a sense of beauty. Duncan Stoik’s Guadalupe shrine and his chapel at Thomas Aquinas College are both worthy masterpieces, places where a man might stand in defiance of a petty, ugly world. And I haven’t seen any more L.A. Cathedrals on drawing boards anywhere. Morten Lauridsen, while largely ignored by the press, writes glorious music recognized by fellow musicians as masterpieces.

    Then there’s this website: http://www.artrenewal.org/ wherein an art historian gives details about how a master like Bouguereau got to be anathema. Exposing the process can only help disinfect.

    So, there are some signs of hope. Not too many, but some.

  3. Comment by sparrow:

    Bravo, loved this. When I was young my parents routinely took me to art museums and what a loss it was to transition from the classic high art of the past to modern or post-modern con-artistry, which I instinctively hated.

    I’d add that the beauty of the Church helped lead me to God. Specifically the classic paintings of Madonna and Child. Further the desolate state of modern “art” prevented me from pursuing art as a career. Disgust with it’s current state fed my cynicism and frustrated my artistic ambitions, just as you have so accurately described. Thank you for this; Beauty articulated seriously and well is exceedingly rare.

  4. Comment by HMSLion:

    I visited the Vatican Museum in 2002, and it was fascinating to watch the people. They were enthralled by the older works…but walked through the 20th Century gallery as if it was not there. Because there was so very little of merit. The common man has more taste than he is credited with.

    But there’s hope. Go over to http://www.cordair.com/ and have a look. The interview with Bryan Larsen is damning of modern art – because part of the problem is that the teaching of technique has been abandoned. Many people have an artistic image in their heads…but not the skills to transfer it to canvas.

    And I would not dismiss the popular entertainments so lightly. I’m convinced that historians two centuries from now will consider John Williams the greatest composer since Wagner…although I’d keep an eye on Lindsey Stirling. The orchestral versions of her works show real potential.

    • Comment by bear545:

      “And I would not dismiss the popular entertainments so lightly. I’m convinced that historians two centuries from now will consider John Williams the greatest composer since Wagner…although I’d keep an eye on Lindsey Stirling. The orchestral versions of her works show real potential.”

      Agreed. Going back a bit, the prime example of fine art writing in English today is Shakespeare, who was a popular artist of his day. As Larry Correia has said:

      “And the fact that he keeps bringing up Shakespeare (the original popular *genre* author) to mock authors who write popular stuff in order to get paid, is very ironic. If Shakespeare was alive today, is anyone stupid enough to think that the guy who specialized in writing entertaining plays for the masses would be writing stuffy, pretentious dreck for what works out to be $3 an hour in the hopes of winning a prestigious literary award? Hell no! We’d all be watching William Shakespeare presents Star Wars vs. The Avengers III: The Jedi Hulkening this summer, and it would be awesome, and the NYT would hate it.”

    • Comment by bear545:

      I would like to add that I remember visiting the local museum a few years back. The galleries of the nineteenth and prior centuries were filled with people. However, you could have fired a cannon in the modern art galleries and you would not have hit any people- and you would not hit any art, either.

    • Comment by Raphael:

      This made me think of my visit to Rome in 2007. The church of Santa Maria degli Angeli has all this modern art as you walk in. The bronze doors reminded me strongly of Han Solo encased in carbonite, and the “statue” of John the Baptist (consisting of a giant marble head with a clean-shaven face lying on its side as though just knocked off a statue of Apollo) made me think of the talking head of Thetis in the old Clash of the Titans. They were both done by the same artist, I believe.

      It’s kind of funny. The later Roman emperors would knock the heads off statues of Apollo and replace them with their own heads, because they didn’t have artists to compare with the old masters. What *we* have is an artist whose work consists of…knocked-off heads of Apollo! At least the emperors weren’t pretentious about it.

    • Comment by robertjwizard:

      Yes, the Randians do produce some good visual artists. It shouldn’t take you more than a minute to discover you are in Ayn Rand Land on that site. I bet Mr. Wright could do it in under 10 seconds.

      Some are very good. I ponder though, the total lack in the literary arts. She never did produce a writer.

    • Comment by Mary:

      Movie soundtracks are probably the great classical music of the 20th century.

      Illustrators also have a good shot at being its great artists.

      • Comment by Scholar-at-Arms:

        I would take pulp fantasy & gaming illustrations by Frank Frazetta or Dave Trampier over any piece of modern art I’ve seen.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          Anyone would take any pulp fantasy and gaming illos by Frazetta over any piece of modern art. That is exactly the point. Modern art BY DESIGN is supposed to be unappealing, ugly, aggressively ugly.

          Is anyone but me old enough to remember when paperback sci fi illustrations stopped being absurdly ugly looking and started to have actual pictures on them, pictures with shading, perspective, composition, just like the old pulp magazines once had? During most of the 1970′s most cover illos were blurs and jagged swathes of color, and not because I could not find my glasses, neither.

      • Comment by John C Wright:

        Movie soundtracks are not that different, ultimately, from opera music. Listen to the soundtrack to THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY and then to THE UNTOUCHABLES and compare it to Prokofiev soundtrack to ALEXANDER NEVSKY — I think Prokofiev notably better in degree, but not in kind.

  5. Comment by Legatuss:

    Two other reasons people don’t produce beauty today, which support the leftists original idea (call it a supporting cast):

    SLOTH. It’s easier. Face it, making a jar of stuff is easy, a urinal, just buy one and stick your name on it (the manufacturer should have been listed as the artist, and received most of the selling price, assuming it sold). Learning to draw what you can see, and by thus doing learning to draw what only your mind can see, takes work. Getting your leftist friends to tell others how “important” your urinal is does not.

    PRIDE. There is also another idea expressed in the old video series “The Western perspective”, which boils down to pride. In olden days, only the nobles could afford art (at least to own), so they congratulated themselves on their good taste and told themselves they were nobles because their taste was so refined. Then along came free enterprise, and the “commoners” became rich enough to own art, and soon their taste was as refined as the nobles. So, how will the nobles feel superior? Then the “nobles” invent a new kind of art, and told themselves the “commoners” just didn’t get it because their taste was inferior. Aren’t the emperors new cloths beautiful?

    Meanwhile, commoners are still making art, even on popular TV. Here is some
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oi-zZOjutJY

    • Comment by Stephen J.:

      And to continue the litany, a third reason: ANGER. Almost without exception, any artist I’ve ever heard talk about why they created deliberately ugly or offensive art said that they did it to be “provocative”, to “wake people up”, to “shock people”, to “get them talking/ thinking”. At the bottom of all this is, I think, a deep rage not only with the Western world and most of its inhabitants, but also at the idea of Beauty itself for its gravest sin: the fact that the very joy and transcendence it can evoke in us is considered to be a distraction at best and a lie at worst, a way to lull us into putting up with or closing our eyes to suffering rather than working with righteous indignation and without surcease to end it. These artists see Beauty not as a transcendent liberation but as an opiate for the masses, and they consider their job is to be the tough-love counselors who help us detox and face “reality”. They are, in essence, victims of the Problem of Pain, in that they have no patience for Beauty in a universe that also contains Suffering. (That this conveniently places them in a position where they can indulge their general contempt for people while feeling morally self-righteous over it is not coincidental; though to be fair, I think many young artists don’t start out with the conscious realization that this is where that mindset leads.)

      It should also be in fairness noted that while the Left’s hostility towards classical Beauty has done the lion’s share of the harm, the mass commodification of ersatz Beauty in pop culture did a fair bit of clearing the ground for that reaction by creating a satiated and bored audience for it. As any parent knows who’s tried to make a bored teenager enjoy a museum trip, it is just not as easy to appreciate the beauty of the Mona Lisa, the Pieta or Leonardo’s Last Supper if you’ve seen photographic reproductions of them all your life without ever being taught about what they meant and mean.

  6. Comment by Zaklog the Great:

    I don’t know where you would place this on the high art/popular art scale, but the most intense recent experience of beauty from art I can think of is actually from a fantasy novel by Brandon Sanderson. (I’ve a few problems with his theology, but that’s another subject.)

    A man (with unusual abilities, but not invincible) is watching a group of soldiers who had been betrayed and abandoned by their supposed allies get slaughtered in battle. Meanwhile, he and his friends have a chance to escape horrific slavery if they just turn and walk away. Watching this, he makes the vow, “I will protect those who cannot protect themselves” and throws himself and his friends into the battle, knowing that either death or a return to brutal slavery is the almost certain result. The scene makes me want to cry every time I read it.

    Although their work may be interesting in many other ways, I very rarely see this kind of beauty from atheist authors. Terry Pratchett is the only exception I can think of offhand.

    • Comment by Arwen Riddle:

      That was a powerful scene in Way of Kings, it gave me chills.

    • Comment by Montague:

      Terry Pratchett know the great secret of sin which condemns the left: that treating people as not people is sin. He is not an atheist in the modern sense, but rather a sane and rational pagan.

      • Comment by John C Wright:

        And yet Pratchett is a pagan who, like the pagans of old, extols the virtues of suicide. That is about as sane and rational as a pagan can be: rational like Socrates, who killed himself, sane like Cato, who threw himself on his sword.

        As a fan, I am betrayed by Pratchett. I trusted him and loved his work and supported him, and he came out and made propaganda films for the culture of death, praising euthanasia. I will never read, or even touch, one of his books again. The idea fills me with too much grief.

        • Comment by Montague:

          Mer– dammit Pratchett, you know better. You should be hollering wrath on that brutal filth, Mr. Pratchett, not aiding it.

          To be fair, Socrates’ suicide was (though wrong) at least pseudo-suicide; he did not despair of life, but rather thought something proper could be done by dying; at least, if the distinction put forth in Bushido (the book) is sound.

        • Comment by Mary:

          Possibly his judgment is failing him. Alas, he has the best of all possible reasons for his judgment to fail.

  7. Comment by gettimothy:

    Rojer Scruton addresses this subject in a documentary which aired on BBC. You can view it here. http://documentaryaddict.com/Why+Beauty+Matters-542-doc.html

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Roger Scruton provided all the examples I used in my column, by no coincidence. I showed that documentary to my children, and was chilled to the bone.

      • Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

        I watched the video (thanks to Mr Timothy) and noticed your themes were the same. One idea that strikes me particularly in Mr Scruton’s presentation is this:

        Why are the classical nudes the opposite of porn?
        The difference is the same as between love and lust; love is giving, lust is taking.

        I think the test of “love or lust” can be applied to every form of art and is one of the keys to determine if the art is true or fake.

        It happens that the decadence in visual arts began at the same time sensuality invaded the culture. It developed at the same pace, parallel to the gradual abandonment of Christianity. The final stage of decadence is the sexual revolution, choosing lust over love, breaking or preventing marriage, resulting in child neglect or abuse being so widespread.

        • Comment by gettimothy:

          I have noticed something new that may make you reconsider your “the final stage of decadence is the sexual revolution”.

          What I have noticed is the growing moralistic tone of it–almost a demand that it be recognized as virtue. By my recollection (fallible) that demand was not there in its beginning.

          My knowledge of history is appalling, so excuse the ignorance and dismiss it as you see fit. It is my supposition that the Weinmar Republic had a similar decay of public morals. I am curious if it had to turned into a demand to be called virtue.

          I am glad you liked the Documentary.

          grace and peace.

          • Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

            “…the growing moralistic tone of it–almost a demand that it be recognized as virtue.”

            You are too kind: it IS a real claim to moral superiority and a logical consequence of the moral revolution that began, as you justly remark, in Germany, because of Luther.

            Mr Wright often points out that claim to moral high ground in his descriptions of the leftist-nihilist philosophy and the ensuing reversion of values.

            I sometimes comment in such threads on the need for the human conscience to pretend good is bad and bad is good in order to do evil without feeling the guilt. I took this idea from Pope John Paul II’s booklength interview with André Frossard, Be not afraid (1981).

            The original goes like this (my translation — please excuse the awkwardness):
            “The very notion of sin is linked to human dignity because human dignity requires of man to live within truth. Now, the truth is that man does evil, that he sins. Those who try so hard to obliterate the notion of sin from human language just confirm this truth in different ways. To destroy the notion of sin is to impoverish man on a constitutive human experience. The purpose of eliminating sin is to ‘liberate’ man from the necessity to ‘convert’ (that is, from the necessity of the sacrament of ‘penance’). However, this process ends in a vacuum, or rather, it burdens the subconscious with the idea that evil is inevitable, normal in a way. Hence follows the necessity not to call evil evil, but good, so that one can yield to it against the most fundamental moral requirements.”

            (The same quote is on my page at the article Hedonism, Sin and Truth.)

  8. Comment by Jose Luis:

    Greetings from Spain!

    (and asking forgiveness in advance for my English)

    I should confess I’ve only read Awake in the Night and Count to Eschaton. I really, really enjoyed those books (Spain über alles!) and think Mr. Wright could be both what CS Lewis was on his time, and what CS Lewis failed to be on his time.

    Agree very much with the gist of the text, but perhaps we could also consider that “art” is somewhat overpaid these days – there is no end of noveaux riches that want to define themselves as collectors, and so wanting to pay outrageous amounts for everything that could be classified as “art”, for several definitions of art. Another consideration is that when talent is lacking is easier to upset than to move the public, and scandal, unfortunately, sells.

    There is still a redoubt of classical fine arts that still resists, despite its needs of fresh, disciplined young people to be practiced: classical ballet. Even if, sadly, not a small part of revenue comes from the performance of Nutcracker in Christmas time in which could be considered an effort to de-Christianize Christmas.

    Now, Hollywood is the main driving force for current Classical music, but despite Howard Shore, Hans Zimmer, nor John Williams being new Wagners, Verdis, nor Mozarts, results are not too shabby.

    On painting, I recommend you gentlemen to google Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau, for instance.

    BTW, Mr. Wright, do you have any address to post suggestion about some Spanish spelling of words? I just have finished the first three books of Count to Eschaton, and there are some words that are a bit funny – for instance I went to school with a girl whose surname was Corominas, and perhaps you meant “pilluelo” instead of “pullelo” in pg. 348 (Kindle edition) of The Judge of Ages.

  9. Comment by Malcolm Smith:

    I am reminded of a guided tour I had of the Queensland Art Gallery in my hometown. This gallery is not large by international standards, but it does have some beautiful paintings (including a portrait of my aunt, which is not yet on display). However, the beautiful ones are nearly all old paintings.
    The guide pointed to a huge painting, maybe 20 feet wide, which has since been removed from display (and ceremonially burnt, I hope). It was hideous: just great pink, severed heads being kicked around on a black background. The guide said that even she didn’t like it but then, a lot of people said that about Rembrandt’s work in his day. (Did they?)
    “But,” I said, “people did buy Rembrandt’s work. Who purchases this type of work?” (It was obviously too big for a house, and any business who put it up in his building would soon face a workers and consumers revolt.)
    The gist of her reply was that a lot of modern art is purchased by investors who are complete Philistines, and are only interested in its resale value. The paintings are pushed by the artists, and some of the buyers simply store them in racks until the time comes when they can eventually resell them to a public gallery.
    “It seems,” I responded, “that once people bought paintings because the liked them. Now they buy them because someone else likes them.”
    ‘Nuff said.

  10. Comment by Montague:

    The simplest answer is that this is not an age of Christendom.

    Deny the rational nature of humanity, and you will deny them art and give them propaganda; you will deny them poetry and give them the howling of mad dogs.

    “The most precious, profound and important of the great ideas which the Left has raped from us is beauty.”
    …You can imagine my gratitude at someone (i.e. you, Mr. Wright) actually using that term properly.

    “Have you, dear reader, read anything discussing beauty, putting forth a coherent theory of beauty, or even extolling beauty’s central importance of the human soul in a year? In 10 years? Ever?”
    It was for this reason The Dead Poets’ Society was so disappointing for me. Carpe Diem is not what an artist does, but a Caesar; an artist grasps at the eternities and gapes at the mysteries.

    “It is for this reason that a classical statue of a nude is not like a Playboy centerfold. One is selfish, as lust is selfish, and uses the other as an instrument; the other is selfless, as love is selfless.”
    I can’t remember where (I think it was a comic), but some fellow called the old nudes pornographic; I needn’t describe my indignant rage, since you share it.

    You have said what we have all wished to say on the topic.
    -Christian Boyd

  11. Comment by Zaklog the Great:

    Once again, I must preface this by saying this is not sarcasm or meant as an attack: So we know where you see ugliness in art in recent years (no argument about that from me, by the way); would you care to tell us a bit about if and where you have seen beauty in recent art, high or low?

  12. Comment by Jericho:

    When it comes to the divide between “high art” and “popular art” divide, the impression I’ve gotten from numerous places (including the dreaded leader of the Evil League of Evil, He Who Must Not Be Named) is that tie-in novels are looked upon with no small amount of contempt, usually considered as far as you can get from proper literature and still be able to call yourself a writer.

    With the mention of the tabletop wargame setting Warhammer 40K in the comments over at Everyjoe, I thought it would be relevant to take a moment to defend it.

    From the Imperial Guard novel Gunheads:

    His footsteps took him towards the wreckage of Frontline Crusader, and he stopped just a few metres from her. She was nothing but a black husk now. Her machine-spirit was gone. She was a corpse like the countless bodies that surrounded her. Thankfully, someone had removed Siemens’ remains from the turret. Wulfe hoped the bodies of the men inside had been removed, too. Throne help the support crew who had taken care of that. It was a miserable business. Wulfe had seen some terrible things in his time: turret baskets painted red with blood, equipment caked in bone fragments and gore, blackened bodies fused together by flame so that you couldn’t tell where one man ended and another began. Little wonder that infantrymen sometimes referred to tanks as “steel coffins”.

    Years ago, Confessor Friedrich had taken it on himself to deal with that kind of mess as often as possible, working quickly, quietly, and without solicitation or complaint. No one had asked him to take on such a burden, but it wasn’t right, he said, for tank men to have to see such things. Wulfe hoped the confessor had got down safely with the rest of the regiment. He was a good man. Given the horrors he put himself through, it was no wonder he drank so much.

    Despite the endless wars, despite the vast bureaucracy, despite the corrupt and incompetent leaders, despite the legions of demons and other foul things endlessly waiting for the opportunity to debase man and all of his works, despite the countless horrors capable of ending a mans life, despite all of the things which inspired the term “Grimdark” to begin with…

    Somehow, despite everything, the spirit of John 15:13 lives on even in the “grim darkness of the far future”. To sacrifice yourself for others, out of love.

    The above paragraph alone puts Gunheads closer to God than any of the utterly vile “modern art” installations you used as examples in your article.

  13. Ping from Beautiful Women Need Not Apply | Western Woes:

    […] C Wright has an article up on the value of beauty. He makes several good points, but one in particular stands […]

  14. Comment by Ben Zwycky:

    A soul deprived of beauty is a soul that atrophies;
    Bereft of numinosity, its zest for life recedes.
    No sense of its own dignity, no sense of its own worth;
    It can even be deceived into regretting its own birth,
    Can be mangled into advocating for a living hell,
    Despising all that’s innocent, all hope of getting well.
    Outraged by peace and purity, recoiling from the light,
    Wallowing in filth and mire and every kind of blight.
    All shriveled up within itself, it dare not lift its head,
    Since in place of all this ugliness, it might witness instead:

    A deep and leafy forest that is filled with rampant life,
    A strong and gentle husband as he treats his loving wife.
    Orange cloudy fingers that caress the setting sun,
    A faithful furry hound who simply wants to play and run.
    A grinning cheeky toddler announcing his new find,
    A great majestic creature that’s the glory of its kind.
    A creative work of genius that points to a higher way
    An exquisite floral banquet that exudes a sweet bouquet
    Reasons to be more than just a cynic or a sham
    Reasons that might lead you to the great and good I AM.

    Some flee from all that’s beautiful, rebel against its glow
    For fear that they might have to face their flaws and false ego.
    Seek beauty while it’s still at hand, enrich your soul and more;
    Imagine all the wonders that the faithful have in store.
    Reflect that great pure light that floods each point in time and space,
    Then when the time of trial comes, you’ll have the strength to face
    Agents of depravity, ambassadors of sleaze,
    Who ask you to degrade yourself for a life of ease.
    You’ll see through their empty promises, their temporary charm,
    And know their worthless trinkets will do your soul great harm.

    • Comment by Montague:

      Wow! Reminds me a bit of GKC’s The Modern Manichee:

      “He sayeth there is no sin, and all his sin
      Swells round him into a world made merciless;
      The midnight of his universe of shame
      Is the vast shadow of his shamelessness.
      He blames all that begat him, gods or brutes,
      And sires not sons he chides as with a rod.
      The sins of the children visited on the fathers
      Through all generations, back to a jealous God.

      The fields that heal the humble, the happy forests
      That sing to men confessed and men consoled,
      To him are jungles only, greedy and groping,
      Heartlessly new, unvenerably old.
      Beyond the pride of his own cold compassion
      Is only cruelty and imputed pain:
      Matched with that mood, a boy’s sport in the forest
      Makes comrades of the slayer and the slain.

      The innocent lust of the unfallen creatures
      Moves him to hidden horror but no mirth;
      Misplaced morality rots in the roots unconscious,
      His stifled conscience stinks through the green earth.
      The green things thrust like horrible huge snails,
      Horns green and gross, each lifting a leering eye
      He scarce can call a flower; it lolls obscene,
      Its organs gaping to the sneering sky.

      Dark with that dusk the old red god of gardens
      Still pagan but not merry any more,
      Stirs up the dull adulteries of the dust,
      Blind, frustrate, hopeless, hollow at the core;
      The plants are brutes tied with green rope and roaring
      Their terrible dark loves from tree to tree:
      He shrinks as from a shaft, if by him singing,
      A gilded pimp and pandar, goes the bee.

      He sayeth, ‘I have no sin; I cast the stone’,
      And throws his little pebble at the shrine,
      Casts sin and stone away against the house
      Whose health has turned earth’s waters into wine.
      The venom of that repudiated guilt
      Poisons the sea and every natural flood
      As once a wavering tyrant washed his hands,
      And touching, turned the water black with blood.”

      G K Chesterton.

  15. Comment by Gigalith:

    Like all heresies, there is an element of truth in the accusation that beauty is subjective. After all, tastes do differ, sometimes greatly. The difference is that not all tastes are equally valid.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      The other difference is that taste differ in three respects:

      The first is surface features rather than essentials: If I prefer Mary Anne to Ginger as my ideal of sexual attractiveness, that is a difference in taste regarding surface features: but someone sexually attracted to six year old Shirley Temple is a pervert. Again, if I prefer Vivaldi to Wagner, that involves surface features. But someone who calls atonal experimental noises ‘music’ is perverting his judgement. Likewise, here, a connoisseur who prefers Michelangelo to Leonardo da Vinci expresses a difference in taste; someone who prefers a an unmade bed or a can of shit to Leonardo da Vinci is a pervert.

      The second is a difference between art and entertainment. I may prefer J-pop to classical opera, because my tastes are plebeian, but this does not effect my judgment, which is more objective, which forces me to acknowledge there is more beauty, more craftsmanship, and more thought behind Wagner’s Ring, than behind the Anime theme song Space Symphony Infinite Love by Momoiro Clover Z (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TIokp4MonxE). The Left does not acknowledge any criterion of judgment aside from personal preference, which it takes as an absolute. Now, no matter how much I like seeing Japanese schoolgirls on space bicycles sing science fiction love songs, Space Symphony Infinite Love is a tune I listen to so that it can serve me. I am bigger than this song. No one is awed by the girl band Clover Z.

      Wagner’s Ring, particularly the first and third operas, is so profound and so sublime that I approach something bigger than I am when I enter into it, and I do to learn, and to be transformed, almost as one would approach a divine being. No one who is not awed by SIGFRIED is not listening.

      The third is that the Left conflates educating the taste with indoctrinating the taste. I could not understand Wagner when I was fourteen. It was simply over my head. On the other hand, there is nothing in any Beetle’s tune than cannot be understood by an average fourteen year old. I did not have to train or develop my tastes, or become sensitive to otherwise hidden nuances of beauty invisible to the novice, in order to get out of ‘I LOVE YOU YA YA YA’ everything there is to get out of it.

      Because the Left fundamentally misunderstands the education process — at times they talk as if it is programming a blank computer or chalking up a blank slate rather than watering a rosebud to make it grow into a rose — they dismiss the idea that some tastes are educated and some are undeveloped. They seem to think that education is consent to some arbitrary act of the will, and act of the will by the artist which can make ugliness beautiful by an act of decree, not an act of exploration and discovery.

  16. Comment by Zaklog the Great:

    It occurs to me that almost every instance of human-created beauty I can think of is at least tinged with sorrow, if not awash in it. Have you experienced this as well, and if so, what do you think it means? (If not, I guess, why do you think my experience is unusual in this regard?)

    I have my own ideas, but I’d rather hear from others first.

    • Comment by Jose Luis:

      This is a Christmas carol sung by the great Pavarotti. It’s my favorite carol. For Christians is a work full of joy, and only joy, as it announces the birth of Our Savior.

      http://youtu.be/TbV3CrQ6Sa0

      Only related sorrow I could think of is that Pavarotti died, but so is the fate of man.

    • Comment by bear545:

      I find Beethoven’s Ninth, particularly the final movement, to be filled withan exuberant Joy. In almost every work of my favourite composer, JS Bach, I hear great joy. In the paintings of Reubens I see joy. However, in, say, Michelangelo’s Last Judgement I don’t see joy unmixed with sorrow (although I do love the joke of the figure of Minos, whom Michelangelo painted with the features of a Cardinal who complained about his painting), but with a painting like that- or, I should say that painting, as there is nothing else like it- we are moving away from the beautiful and more into the sublime, which is a whole other kettle of fish, and by definition undefinable.

      To Jose Luis and his Pavarotti clip, I would say that for me there is a sorrow, but on which has nothing to do with Pavarotti or his song, but the building in which he sings it. That is the Notre Dame Basilica in MOntreal, a church of staggering beauty. I have visited it a few times. When Mass is not being said, visitors are charged five dollars each to see the church. During those hours, the church is often packed with tourists and visitors. But, a few hours later, when Mass is being said and admission is free, it is empty. I find that terribly sad.

    • Comment by Joseph Townsend:

      I suspect that because Beauty reflects the Divine, that when we experience true Beauty we are glimpsing paradise lost, and that is what give every expression of it some tint of sorrow.

    • Comment by Montague:

      Well, in the absence of the salvation of God, the tale of Ecclesiastes comes into effect. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. And that produces sorrow, no?

      On the other hand, even God is sad: the Divine Christ speaks in sorrow of Jerusalem.

      Sorrow is only possible for those good enough to have desire (as in Dante’s Purgatory); and only unbalanced in those without hope. But it is part of the human thirst and hunger for God.

      This, on the other hand, is in no way sad: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MS3vpAWW2Zc

      I believe the Japanese (and likely, the Germans) have a term for the sorrowful beauty of ephemeral things (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mono_no_aware); and call no man a Romanticist who has not felt that sorrow, the sorrow of the passing things.

      But I like the Romance of Chesterton, that is to say, Christendom, even more than that sort of sorrow of transience. To whit,
      “But I will beat the bounding drum and I will fly the feather
      For all the glory I have lost, the good I never knew.”
      (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/31184/31184-h/31184-h.htm#LOST)

  17. Comment by Bird on a Wing:

    Dear Mr. Wright,

    What enjoyment you have given me with your essay, On Beauty! I apologize if my commenting here is a tad late in the discussion, but I wanted to write more than a drive-by love note on a topic that I adore.

    One thing I’ve noticed in discussions on this subject is that the natural environment is almost always used as a primary reference of absolute beauty. I am a landscape designer, and I hope you won’t think me too presumptuous if I ask if you are at all familiar with Biophilia Hypothosis and Prospect-Refuge Theory? I think these are two of the most intriguing concepts that I have heard to explain why most people almost always default to the landscape as the ultimate arbiter of beauty.

    For ease of reference, I will quote from Wikipedia:

    “Biophilia hypothesis suggests that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. Edward O. Wilson introduced and popularized the hypothesis in his book, Biophilia (1984).[1] He defines biophilia as ‘the urge to affiliate with other forms of life’.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biophilia_hypothesis

    “The prospect-refuge theory of human aesthetics… states that taste in art is ‘an acquired preference for particular methods of satisfying inborn desires.’ The two desires are for opportunity (prospect) and safety (refuge). Tracing these two desires gives us a means of understanding successful and enduring aesthetics, and the ability to predict the same.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jay_Appleton

    I also wonder if you have ever heard of Christopher Alexander? I have read his book A PATTERN LANGUAGE. He is a proponent of traditional style architecture and has spent much time analyzing why traditional-style architecture speaks so strongly to the average person, and why modern-style architecture alienates people. His thinking is very, very deep on the subject of aesthetics and human response, and he has nothing good to say about modern aesthetics.

    One other recommendation that I offer for your attention is a colleague of Christopher Alexander, by the name of Nikos A. Salingaros, Professor of Mathematics, Urbanist & Architectural Theorist in San Antonio, TX. He has an extensive website archive which you can access here: http://zeta.math.utsa.edu/~yxk833/

    Prof. Salingaros has done extensive work using science and mathematics to describe aspects of nature that are traditionally regarded as being in the domain of art, and he frequently references Christopher Alexander’s theories. I would be doing his work a disservice to attempt to describe it myself. He has a free video lecture series describing the elements of Biophilic Design that is his main research focus. The first two videos describe the relationship between Biophilia Hypothesis, the Golden Mean, fractal mathematics and the Fibonicci sequence. I highly recommend the lectures. The videos can be accessed here: http://zeta.math.utsa.edu/~yxk833/algorithmic.html

    I would also present a comment from Prof. Salingaros, which might give the reader a taste of his ideas about aesthetics. I would particularly draw your attention to the last two sentences of the following quote, which can be found in its entirety here: http://zeta.math.utsa.edu/~yxk833/contr.carpet.html

    My interest in carpet studies was spurred by the publication of Christopher Alexander’s collection of early Anatolian Rugs. As a friend of Alexander, I regard his contributions to architecture and computer science as among the most significant of our time (Some Notes on Christopher Alexander). Reading a review of his book: A Foreshadowing of 21st Century Art: The Color and Geometry of Very Early Turkish Carpets (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), I felt that the reviewer had missed Alexander’s basic result, which was to formulate a quantitative theory of order. These ideas were presented in the following article:

    Nikos A. Salingaros, “In Defense of Alexander”, HALI: The International Magazine of Antique Carpet and Textile Art 78 (1995): pages 67-69.

    As a result, I was invited to give a talk at the 8th International Conference on Oriental Carpets in Philadelphia, entitled: The Life of a Carpet: an Application of the Alexander Rules. I applied Alexander’s rules for the creation of life to carpet design, and showed how traditional weavers must have followed a similar set of rules. Every carpet has some “life” as a result of following the rules, and the greatest carpets follow most of the rules to the greatest extent. In particular, I argue that modernist design is a threat to the continuation of the carpet-weaving tradition. The millenia-old rules that endow inanimate matter with life are the opposite of the rules for modernist design, as discussed in my paper: The Laws of Architecture From a Physicist’s Perspective. People are often confused on this point by the common misconception that Gabbeh carpets are “Modernist” — they are not.

    The word “life” is chosen for the following reason. Research in the last decade on complexity, fractals, and systems theory reveals the existence of structural rules that are followed by all life forms. These rules determine how components of matter are put together, which eventually results in biological life. Man’s creations before the twentieth century follow the same universal rules. The reason for this is that the human mind itself developed by following the same rules, so that they are “hard-wired” within our perceptive mechanism. These rules apply to link ideas together to form a mathematical theory, or in designing a house, or in weaving a carpet. By purposely violating these rules in order to follow some arbitrary design fashion, one removes something vital for the well-being of human beings.

    Christopher Alexander has emphasized how our age and culture is unique in not producing objects and constructions that have any degree of life. This is a legacy of the intolerant dogma (architectural as well as political) of the modernist movement. Even worse, we don’t seem to value those objects that have life, and we destroy them sometimes thoughtlessly, sometimes with perverse pleasure, because we identify them with the past. Lovers of oriental carpets know how a well-designed object such as a carpet can communicate with a person. In my papers, I try to analyze how this emotional connection takes place because of purely mathematical rules. I believe that scientific analysis offers the antidote to the great destructive movement in the arts during the twentieth century.

    In the final analysis, this work is not centered on the narrow topic of oriental rugs, but encompasses the traditional arts of mankind. It is all of these that are under threat from a nihilistic design fashion that is obsessively anti-art and ultimately anti-God.

  18. Comment by Bird on a Wing:

    Dear Mr. Wright,

    I enjoyed your essay On Beauty so much, that I posted yesterday in your comment thread. It was a long post, with links for reference. I very much fear that my post was lost to the spam filter, and I apologize for the inconvenience, but would it be possible to retrieve it? If it is too long, I can break it down into smaller bits for better digital digestion. Perhaps the number of links were too much for a single post, but I wanted to give proper credit where it was due.

    Thank you very much, sir.

  19. Comment by trisboyd:

    Wright, I’m a huge fan of your writings, and I think you make some salient points here. As a studied musician myself (bachelor’s and currently working on a master’s in performance) I can personally attest to the use of “high art” as a means of creating an atmosphere of pretentious superiority among those who wish to elevate themselves. It’s a crime of pride, and one I think many of us in that sphere struggle with.

    However, I have a few points of contention that I wish to raise.

    1. It seems your thesis avoids the value ugliness can sometimes have in art. If we were to capture a random still frame from the Lord of the Rings or some similar fantasy movie we might be faced with a scowling and horrendous orc. Frame that and hang it on a wall and we get a pretty nasty image that serves a very real purpose: distinguishing the enemy, giving a face to our struggles, realizing pain. Now the orc enjoys the benefit of context, it exists in a story with an overall hopeful message. Independent pieces of art sometimes don’t enjoy this same context since they exist within the confines of their frame or musical duration. This doesn’t excuse them from holding value for their dark nature. Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death extols the horrors of the black plague. Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony is a dark and even sarcastic tale of Soviet Oppression. While this may not excuse a culture of ugliness, certainly we can accept that credence can be given to individual works for their ability to remind us of the human condition.

    2. In the article you talked about the value education has for understanding massive works such as Paradise Lost, then in the comments section dismissed education that purports to teach the value of abstract art and certain types of music. I must ask why such education must always be ignored. (Mainly I speak about music since this is where I have focused myself.) Until the 20th century there was a hierarchy in music placed on harmony rather than form, timbre, or rhythm. The dismissal of this led to atonalism and similar techniques, but how does this equate to a perverted sense of beauty? I find it difficult to believe that harmony alone can be the indicator of truth in art. Some modern music is truly awful, but some is well structured, rhythmically inventive, formally engaging, it simply follows different tonal rules than Bach handed down (although it may still pay homage to him and others if one is studied enough to recognize them). The study of composer’s processes often gives a new understanding to the inventiveness of these works and a further study of composition and history reveals a strong honoring of canonized composers through the works of some post-tonal artists.

    If we find this music unappealing, fair enough. But to equate it with evil seems unfair. Beethoven’s late string quartets were criticized in his own day for being formally and harmonically strange. Vincent Van Gogh’s post-impressionist art was thought trash as well. Now both are sometimes considered the best of all time. I find Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to be a brilliant work of rhythmic creativity and reworked folk song (folk songs that also did not always follow tonal harmony rules). Iannis Xenakis’ set theory inspired percussion works are fantastically exhilarating. Having spent much time in prayerful contemplation of my enjoyment of these works, I believe my tastes for these to be unperverted.

    3. The creative process often lends itself to a completed work far different from intentions. I’ve heard of numerous tales of artists beginning a work one way, then finding a totally different product. Maybe the product ends up being far darker or more abstract than they intended. This may mean that deep down they have darkened thoughts or pain that is fuel for such works, but that hardly seems a reason to indict them for trying to overthrow beauty.

    Perhaps your point was more so to denigrate a left wing that is using art to destroy beauty, and with that I may not disagree. But my purpose is to redeem many artists and appreciators who create and enjoy according to ideas that could be used for this purpose but who do not themselves believe in a culture of ugliness and death.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      “It seems your thesis avoids the value ugliness can sometimes have in art.”

      You will please forgive me if I react with impatience. The last twelve times (and I have been counting) someone used the words “it seems you said” the next words were always something I had not said and do not believe.

      I made no comment about the use of ugliness in art one way or the other. I did not say anything about gargoyles on Cathedrals.

      I reply to your other points later, time permitting. In the meanwhile I would like to understand whether you understood what I said and what I did not say.

      • Comment by trisboyd:

        Point noted and apology offered. I will readily admit that your essay did not advance the idea that ugliness can have NO part in art. I will also consider that a reasonable answer to my first contention.

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