CONVERSATION ON BEAUTY WITH A FRIEND

Originally published in New English Review

(The image shows van den Broek’s, Venere e Amore. Photo Credit: The Author)

Shortly after the publication of The Birth of Venus, a friend messaged me. My friend and I have known each other for most of our lives. We attended the same college prep school in Connecticut in the northeast of the US. We both attended colleges in the Ivy League. Our intellectual grounding is identical; our tastes differ somewhat; personally, we consider each other much as siblings do. My friend's talents favored the sciences; mine, the arts, and we are both engaged in professions relevant to our talents. What follows is, word for word, our text message conversation. My unidentified friend (yes, this person exists) has permitted me to share it because I find it, and hope other readers find it, to be instructive, worthwhile reading.

Author’s Friend

Just read Birth of Venus, Not sure I fully understand it – need Mrs. [name of high school English instructor] to help with analysis. What inspired you?

Author

Inspiration? The story of the birth of Venus. Classical Greek myth, subject of much Renaissance art. Stressing the worth of Beauty in our modern age where ugliness is the preferred expression, in music, art, theater, etc. That’s why I wrote it in a classical-like style, to show it can still be done. If you read the myth itself, you’ll see the poem tracks the events of it rather closely.

Author’s Friend

Hmm. Is ugliness the preferred expression?

Author

Oh gosh yes. Walk through the Yale art museum. First walk through the Renaissance wing, then walk through the modern art section. The former works concern themselves with numinous notions of beauty and divinity. The latter preoccupied with distortions of the human form, even its defilement. Music very similar. From musical ideas that once concerned harmonious dignity and ideals, but in our age, loud and angry noise, generally speaking. Of course, there are exceptions. These ideas have occupied my mind for decades, but only now do I have the opportunity and capacity to express them succinctly and well.

Author’s Friend

I don't completely disagree. But of course "ugliness" is subjective. The Stones and the Beatles were once called loud and angry noise.

Author

The Stones certainly loved baseness. I thought them very crude and they were. That was their appeal, to the lowest they could go and still sell. But I mean, the trend over the last century has been towards defilement of Beauty. And what I see happening now in the West is a trend away from destructive, post-modernist emptiness to a desire for something richer, deeper, more life affirming and beautiful. I'm going to be a part of that trend. Young people, especially, there is a segment in the South (not in the Northeast or in California) turning away from the generation of 1968 and their crudeness. They're looking for something nourishing and finding real value in what came before. I'm very very hopeful.

Author’s Friend

Aha. Make America Great Again?

Author

That may be a political aspect to this larger cultural flip-flop. But it is much bigger than that.

The reason is, that the art, music, literature, theater, etc. produced under the post-modernist ascendancy is very poor quality and generally unsatisfying. Like potato chips. Once in a while, yes. But you can't make a diet off of that and still be healthy.

Author’s Friend

I suppose the challenge then would be to find "classical beauty," and richer, deeper, and more life affirming subjects in today's world, something perhaps more relevant than the Renaissance topic of the birth of Venus, something that speaks to the modern viewer.

Author

Yes and no. The modern reader is generally a lazy reader because he's read only conversational English. So one must push a bit, making the reader do a bit of work.

On the other hand, a more "accessible" form -- more result grasped with little effort -- can also be valuable. I've written a few of those as well which are soon to be published.

And when the person of today sees the grandeur of Michaelangelo, for example, up close and in person, it's hard to go back to Jackson Pollock.

Author’s Friend

Well that's very subjective of course. Art has to evolve. Great art can not only be from the 1500's.

And with Pollack and the abstract expressionists and the Impressionists, often the medium itself was the message. There was no grand story telling--purposely.

Today there may not be much audience for, or even appreciation of, the birth of Venus.

Author

That is the post-modernist theory. The so-called progressive ideology. Actually, in the arts, it has been entirely regressive. Rather than the traditional discovery of Truth and Beauty, which has been the sacred role of the artist for a millennium, instead the hack who hasn't any special insight just regurgitates the ugliness of the world. It's a spiral going nowhere (but down).

In other words, Marcel DuChamp's urinal and Piss Christ aren't Art. Rather, they are expressions against Art.

Author’s Friend

Perhaps. But in no way would I compare Pollack or the abstract expressionists to Piss Christ.

So where do you find truth and beauty in today's world, without regurgitating 500 year old themes? That's the challenge.

Author

Oh it's everywhere. Oh my gosh. The human form itself.

Author’s Friend

Then I look forward to reading about it in your next endeavor.

Author

But one has to know, has to have discovered wherein truth and beauty consist. The post-modernist asserts that there is no truth, it's all relative. And Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, rather than an Ideal that overarches the mundane. Since they predicate all their works on this premise, they can never glimpse it, so they can never express it.

Even if that expression of it is only but a glimpse.

I loved discussing this with you. Finally, someone other than my brother (and one editor) intelligent and willing to think about it. I've been so starved for intelligent intellectual conversation these many years.

Author’s Friend

Well glad I could be of assistance. I enjoy it as well -- keeps the neurons lubricated.

I do believe that at least to some extent beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There can be no one simple definition of beauty.

Author

I don't mean by beauty what we consider good looking. Rather, that there exists an Ideal, which is beauty, much as there is an ideal of what is a chair. One can imagine the idea of chair without the actual expression of chair in its physical form. The ideal of beauty is "seen" or understood to be, the qualities of which are glimpsed, as it were, with aesthetic insight, and then in turn expressed in whatever form and content that takes.

Author’s Friend

Like the Impressionists, the Abstract Expressionists, Rothko, Picasso, the Minimalists, many others, and even Pollack tried to do – to get at the essence of the thing, the chair, the nude descending the staircase, rather than the thing itself.

Author

That is true but I don't mean it in that way. Beauty, not being a thing, but an ideal. In the sense of seeing the essence and communicating through the physical means what is ethereal and can't be sufficiently defined in concrete terms by the human faculties.

It's like trying to picture gravity.

It is there. We know it. We sense it everyday but we can't see it.

Mathematicians with insight discovered it and use it to great effect in our lives.

Author’s Friend

But we can't really see it -- observation alters the reality. Schrödinger's cat. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Perhaps that is why some have submitted a plain white canvas and called it art.

Author

Yes, we can't see it but we can know it. And when it is encountered, wow. Even more often encountered than fraud in financial advisors, is that in art. De Kooning whose paintings go for millions, total fraud. Incompetent, couldn't paint, not even that he lacked mastery, he lacked everything and, with the help of a famous so-called critic who bought his paintings cheap and then wrote up his paintings as great art, made many millions when he sold the collection.

Last month or so I saw a canvas in the Houston Museum of Fine Arts that was so fine and so moving, so extraordinarily beautiful, divine, I wondered how the artist, who lived when life was full of death and pain with few comforts, could see it. And express it.

Let me see if I can find the photo.

Hendrik van den Broeck, Venere e Amore

Idealized feminine beauty, maternal, child-like love (Cupid). I thought, who the hell needs Rothko's manic depression in all its bleakness when you can have this?

Author’s Friend

I don't necessarily see idealized feminine beauty in that painting.

You see bleakness and depression in Rothko? I do not.

Have you been to the Rothko Chapel in Houston?

Author

Yes I've been. Deathly silent. It is a representation of his internal negation of life. They try to pass it off as a place of meditation, but there is no life in it.

It is an anti-chapel. Another example of the fraud perpetrated on art.

Author’s Friend

Hmm. You're opinion of course. Wow. What a skeptic.

Author

I'm sure you've not heard many people speak about things in this way, but there are actually many of us. Really!

The academics are to a man all progressives when it comes to culture. They are a bloc.

No not a skeptic.

I've just seen through them. I understand what motivates them.

But those who think as I do are truly legion. You just don't hear from them unless you go looking.

And once you do, holy mackerel, there are many.

They all loved Madoff until he was found out. And no one but no one would listen to Harry Markopolos.

Author’s Friend

An Underground of sorts?

I'm just saying that beauty can exist after 1500. Not all modern art is fraud because you don't happen to like it. Money motivated Michaelangelo, too.

Author

Of course beauty is present even now. All over. But the general trend of popular culture is ugliness, defilement. That is what they even teach in the schools.

Author’s Friend

Of course still your opinion.

Author

There really is a right way to look at things.

Author’s Friend

Ugliness is as subjective as beauty i suppose.

Author

This is what the progressives teach. Because for them it all comes down to one assumption.

There is no truth.

From this, they claim there is no meaning. And if there is no meaning, there is no purpose. And we are just an assemblage of atoms, if we even exist, because they won't even assume that.

And what I have found is, that to discover truth, over must posit that it exists. Like the theoretical point and line in geometry.

With the right assumption, wow, what we can discover. It's true for the arts just as in the sciences.

Author’s Friend

"A right way to look at things?" Now hold on there, Orwell.

"All animals are equal but some are more equal than others."? Some entity, some elite, perhaps the State knows what is beauty and what is ugly? So you know better?

Author

I love Orwell. I've read literally every word that he is known to have written.

Yes, I know better. The state knows nothing.

You, for example, are an expert in the medical field, a specialist, due to training, experience, intellect, intuition, you've got it all.

Author’s Friend

So you are a Fascist? Because you know better than anyone else? Your opinion is the correct opinion?

Author

What the progressive mind wants us to accept is that no one knows better. Except them, of course.

A fascist is one who compels others by Force to submit to the power of state control. I don't have any prisons in my house. At least, not that I know of...

My take on this is a total contradiction to the current, century old trend.

And golly there are many who have come to the same conclusion.

Author’s Friend

Agree about the Libs. But you said there is a "right way" to look at things and that "you know better." That is a fascist philosophy

I believe.

Should a government adopt that philosophy, there would inevitably be prisons for improper thought.

Author

Roger Scruton, an absolutely brilliant Englishman, philosopher speaks on this topic of beauty eloquently, explains it much better than I can.

Yes. There is a right way. Or at least a better way.

We could drive on square tires. But a wheel is far better. And we see what is right by virtue of what is produced by it. Like for example, the quality of pork. Feed the animal junk and abuse it and the meat tastes poorly. Feed it the best quality acorns and wash the animal, etc, let it roam, and it tastes fantastic and with better texture.

The discernment, our discernment, that is what shows us what is better.

That is an aesthetic judgment.

THE CONVERSATION THEN TURNS TO MUNDANE MATTERS...

POST-SCRIPT

One may tend to think that aesthetic ideals and ideas have been relegated to discussion among academicians when actually much of the worthwhile conversation is going on elsewhere. (Neither my friend nor I are or ever have been academics.) But, in the academy, as far as I can tell from the pronouncements of professional intellectuals, there seems to be little substantive discussion of the Ideal. Rather, it would appear that the post-modernists engage only themselves in an intermural jousting with jargonized rhetorical weapons about the edges of a battle they believe they've already won.

I think they have lost. The evidence is to me plainly evident, apocryphal or anecdotal though this may seem. It must be, at the moment, because this vast cultural transition is at an incipient moment when examples of its blossoming are as yet few. But everywhere even the ordinary man on the street – many I have met – is witness to this transition. We (I and people like me) see everywhere bankruptcy manifest in each and every one of their creations. The products of their -ism, emanating from their One Great Principle – that there is no Truth – are routinely crude, crass, false, fraudulent, profane, unsatisfying: poison. Yet these creations and their creators have been, for decades, accepted as whatever they have held out their creations to have been. And, of course, we are to ineluctably praise them for their genius!

Thus we have music that is unmusical: amelodic, repetitive and dissonant soundings of barely organized noise; “art” that defies traditions of skill and the enlightened eye to repulse the viewer with a celebration of the grotesque and the perverse; prose without rhyme or reason labeled poetry; political propaganda masquerading as theater; the dreaded “performance art” of the narcissist-hack who claims exalted status as “artiste;” and on and on. This cultural depravity is founded upon the post-modernist academic's intransigent NO! Theirs is not an ideal: it's an anti-ideal.

While the academics apparently seem to thrive in this morass they have contributed to the world, many of us on the outside of the proverbial ivory tower have seen through them. Our rejection of their fraud is precisely what enrages them, for their dastardly destructive intent has been recognized for what it is. The ruse has been scored through. This intellectual Ponzi scheme they've been playing at is a South Sea bubble of thought that has burst. It's over for them. Even my friend senses this somehow.

We are poised on the crest of a new aesthetic. Perhaps the better analogy is that seedlings of great promise have popped up under the detritus. I see young people looking back beyond 1968, especially in the south of the United States, for sustenance. I keep meeting them. They, unlike that generation which brought the Cultural Revolution to America, do not see much value to be gleaned from the Revolution – simply because there is nothing there of value. This is why Beauty – which human beings are naturally attracted to from the earliest age – is so important. The ideal of Beauty grounds the artist, the writer, the performer, the poet, the playwright, the sculptor, in a nourishing soil without which none of us can sink roots. This is what we must restore for our sake, and for the sake of our children and theirs.

END OF ARTICLE