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Poetic Thinking 2016 | February 26, 2020

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On Beauty

On Beauty
  • On February 3, 2016

The Yamamura film that Andrew shared, along with Richter’s work, along with the entire scope of this class has made me wonder about beauty. I think I used to believe that art’s main purpose was to be beautiful. So easy for me to see that as naïve now; but also, so easy to see that as a belief many still have. And as a belief that has been held by many great thinkers throughout history (I’m thinking now of Plato, and our brief discussion last week regarding the Beautiful and The Good). Even the phrase “poetic thinking” has, to me, something beautiful about it. It conjures up images of lightness, of the sacred, of (dare I say it) grace.

I’m reminded of an essay from playwright Sarah Ruhl’s recent book of essays, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write. Essay 18, “Calvino and Lightness,” begins thus:

“Italo Calvino has a wonderful essay, ‘Lightness,’ in which he honors lightness as an aesthetic choice and a difficulty, rather than as something to be easily dismissed. You cannot, after all, get something airborne on a mere whim, no—it requires careful patience and some physics to get a plane in the air” (Ruhl 36). She continues, “A suspicion that lightness is not deeply serious (but instead whimsical) pervades aesthetic discourse. But what if lightness is a philosophical choice to temper reality with strangeness, to temper the intellect with emotion, and to temper emotion with humor. Lightness is then a philosophical victory over heaviness. A reckoning with the humble and the small and the invisible.”

When I think about the work I make, I still have this yearning for it to be beautiful. And I’m not certain that is wrong, but I am almost certain that it could be wrong, and it all rests on the precise way I define “beautiful.” So often I think about how difficult the world is, and I think about giving people a space (big word for our class), but not like a temple sort of space—a space for restfulness. Not restful as in sleep, or hibernation, but a place where one’s soul can find peace. Solace. The world is full of contradictions and things that are problematic and—this is especially true for the academy—there is always something more to protest, rail against, complain about, to critique (I’m thinking of the Felski book Amir mentioned in a previous post, and his echoing that book that we be suspicious of a compulsory hermeneutics of suspicion). And while I do believe that all art is political, I do not think this means that all artists are or must be activists—cannot some art not look toward the future, but merely be a celebration of the present, and still be poetic?

I’m not sure if there is a contradiction here or not, or if I’m merely tripping over my own thought patterns. I’m also reminded of how, a few weeks ago, we briefly discussed the perhaps false binary of art and entertainment. Amir said he thought that what is considered “entertainment” today will be considered “art” tomorrow, and “high art” the day after that. But, he drew a distinction between that which invites engagement, and that which invites escapism. I think I am now wondering if those two are so easily separable.

We spoke a lot about memorials last week, and their efficacy, or lack thereof. The conversation quickly turned to whether or not such a memorial can be efficacious if those who visit it “deface” it in some way. That question aside, I want to point out that I think the underlying assumption we were coming from (in the conversation, at least) was that these memorials ideally look toward the future—striking a cautionary note that if we forget, we will be in danger of repetition. But also, I find it crucial that we not forget the other, perhaps more obvious purpose of the memorial: to look to the past. To remember what did happen, to honor those who have died, to not look towards the future in a near-instrumentalization of the past’s atrocities, a way to find redemption in these deaths, however bleak. I am thinking of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ line from Between The World and Me, now:

“You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—not matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this” (Coates 70).

Could we describe a memorial as an escape into the past where one’s loved one is not dead? Is that not also engaging with that loved one? Does this then move beyond the realm of art, into something else?


  1. Conor Lauesen

    hey audrey
    i appreciate your sensitivity to language: lightness, beauty, art. It is so interesting to think of the ‘function’ of art–questions of the narrative, history painting, the beautiful or the sublime, issues of presence and absence–and our discussion of poetic creations, intellectual history and art-making,

    it is the set of terms–absence and presence–that seem inextricably bound with your own insightful contemplations on levity, calvino and art. I also think it would be interesting to read more of Nietsche on this idea, namely because he is an avid and unabashed champion of Laughter/Humor, Levity and the power of drifting/Being with Lightness.

    For me: The ideas of Lightness and their philosophical ‘weight,’ (no pun intended), offer something effervescent, perhaps mesmerizingly so, in the ghostliness of absence and ephemerality. I agree with you that a certain shade of lightness–something akin to delicate levity, sublime laughter or contemplative floating–is undeniably crucial to the work of art. Perhaps our conversations in class have unfairly tended to focus only on the pathos, gravitas and thick critical ‘work’ art does. Their is always, or almost always, a kind of gentle balance or dialectic ebb/flow between both pathos and lightness.

    While i don’t think ‘The Beautiful’ ought be a kind of idiosyncratic cuteness, a self indulgent ‘beautiful’ aestheticism, or vulgar gratuitous obsessions with ‘prettiness,’ I do very much think the ‘Beautiful’ may a helpful mode of looking and being with the world of art. Maybe their is something about lightness/humor/grace imbued in the beautiful and thus often embedded in successful pieces of art.

    Art need not only be the presence of something religiously dense, profoundly prophetic, or rich with a melancholic pathos of loss and longing. Often successful art projects–paintings, poems, music A final thought: the case of memorials and monuments seems to possibly offer a unique case of approaching/living in the space of art. How so? Because the monument or memorial is a priori ‘Historical,’ the temporal register is ineluctably attenuated–in other words, the experience and meaning, form and content, pathos of the work is unabashedly situated in historical time and space. Maybe this is one of the many salient theoretical/ethical issues works of memory and monuments pose to viewers/witnesses/spectators.

    thanks so much for your thoughts.
    excited to look at the pieces about Calvino and Essays without enough time to write

  2. Andrew McLeod

    Thanks for the great post, Audrey. If I may add my thoughts to the mix: while it certainly isn’t necessary for art to aspire to beauty, it can surely act as a sufficient raison d’être regardless of one’s definition of beauty. I also share the connotations of ‘poetic thinking’ being light and sacred, and would add playfulness and ephemerality (I can see grace possibly operating in a few different ways here so I’m not sure if I share this notion with you, although I find its inclusion fascinating). I also agree with you, Conor, that Nietzsche has some interesting things to say in this vein—but I’m a firm believer that most of what is said by Nietzsche can be found in an inchoate form in William Blake (which is not to say they always agree), so I thought I’d share a few relevant Proverbs of Hell:

    “He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.”
    “No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.”
    “Every thing possible to be believ’d is an image of truth.”

    The above discussion of Calvino also induced me to pull Invisible Cities off of my shelf and revisit a few of the fantastic destinations therein. I think the chapter on Argia perfectly illustrates the type of lightness I take him and Ruhl to be talking about (but really I just want to share it because I think it’s a stunningly beautiful depiction):

    “What makes Argia different from other cities is that it has earth instead of air. The streets are completely filled with dirt, clay packs the rooms to the ceiling, on every stair another stairway is set in negative, over the roofs of the houses hang layers of rocky terrain like skies with clouds. We do not know if the inhabitants can move about the city, widening the worm tunnels and the crevices where roots twist: the dampness destroys people’s bodies and they have scant strength; everyone is better off remaining still, prone; anyway, it is dark.

    From up here, nothing of Argia can be seen; some say, “It’s down below there,” and we can only believe them. The place is deserted. At night, putting your ear to the ground, you can sometimes hear a door slam.”

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