A friend and I had a disagreement about what art is. She said, “Art is not always about painting a pretty picture or giving people a pleasant tune. Art must be free to convey the gamut of emotions, including the ones that make us uncomfortable.” We weren’t really disagreeing about art, it was something else. But I was struck by this claim which one hears everywhere.
There is nothing controversial about what she said, so far as it goes. I think of Rembrandt’s Blinding of Samson. (Ouch. That’s gotta hurt.) But this oft repeated formula has morphed into something about which we should be very suspicious. That art is sometimes about “uncomfortable things” has developed an equals sign. It’s become serious art = edgy/shocking/uncomfortable/indecent/violent/fill in negative value here.
Umm, I just don’t think so. True, nature is sometimes tooth and claw, but it’s also fields of daisies and sometimes it’s hamsters. As I wrote in the previous post, mathematicians find that nature leans toward the aesthetic. When it became fashionable to question whether beauty was necessary, somebody forgot to do the math — which is to say, no one said, “hold on there, not so fast, since when is creating beauty easy? Indeed, are we sure we even know what beauty IS?”
I find that painting a pretty picture is so darned difficult — I want to ask what sort of thing beauty is — how does one recognize it? You can respond to beauty in things and have beauty resist you to the nth degree when once you attempt to catch its likeness. Beauty is still a high calling. It’s still a hard gig to get. Many try, few succeed. It’s Everest. It’s a mirage. It’s a dream that fades upon waking.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That, if I then had wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I wak’d,
I cried to dream again–
Caliban does himself fit perfectly into the art=ugliness formula but his cry, his dream, that’s all gauzy beauty-and-splendor floating in one’s gaze. When I look at my koi, I am stalking beauty. I know it’s out there in the world somewhere. I intend to persist. I will relentlessly search. The fishes have hid it around the edges of their shapes and inside the spaces that separate them from each other. Sometimes it peeks out from the corner where one shape intrudes upon another. Sometimes it catches you between layers of paint, between this-that-was-a-mistake and this-that-I-painted-above. In the lines, in the color patches, in the differences between big and little, in the topography of ideas and forms, beauty lives.
Like a hamster hidden inside a pile of wood shavings, like the most commonplace flower, like the plain daylight streaming, like the gnats hanging in the air, like so many other quite ordinary and decent and indifferent experiences, beauty lifts its head and gazes out into one’s face. I’m still going out on a limb, and I’ll define “art” as the electric and ephemeral contact with reality that happens by chance and by desire. Before I lumber off in search of edginess, I will stake my claim on ordinariness.
It’s hard to accept that somehow we trump reality.