Thursday, November 26, 2009

What Is Beauty?, BBC2

From May I recommend you look at the comments under the original post, from the bottom up?


As questions go, "What is beauty?" is quite possibly only second to "What do women want?" in the frequency of its asking and in the difficulty of its answer. As the first programme in BBC Two and BBC Four’s Modern Beauty season, What Is Beauty? features Matthew Collings skirting around the edges of an answer and in doing so inadvertently hitting upon one.

Collings tries to identify ten different components of beauty with reference to some of his favourite artworks. Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto from Monterchi is beautiful because of its simplicity, Robert Rauschenberg’s Charlene because its components are carefully selected, Norman Foster’s Millau Bridge because it returns to nature.

He travels around Europe (presumably the recession put paid to an American jaunt), from the new Brandhorst Museum in Munich to the gilded Norman Monreale Cathedral in Sicily, to illustrate these points.

From a technical perspective, there is not much wrong with the show, although he does tend to over-address the viewer ("you" should do this, "you" can do that), as if we actively need to be engaged.

But it is his argument which is pointed in the wrong direction. When Socrates asked people, "What is bravery?" and they responded (according to Plato) with examples like "running into a burning building to save a child" or "fighting well in battle", he pointed out that they were giving him accidents of bravery, not a definition of it. It is exactly the same here: Collings’s ten factors are accidents of beauty, not a definition of beauty.

Magritte_-_Reckless_SleeperSo Magritte’s Reckless Sleeper (in the Tate) may be beautiful because it is surprising (another factor), with its sleeping man and the banal tokens of everyday life in an amorphous grey dream below, but what about a work that is not surprising (eg a still life of fruit)? Collings says something is beautiful because it tries to (or just does) imitate nature, but what about the unnatural idea of acceleration? Art Deco is concerned with mechanics, rejecting the natural.

The problem is that for every factor Collings suggests is beautiful, its absence or its opposite can be equally beautiful. He implicitly admits this too. At the end of the programme, he urges you to make your own list of what is beautiful, but what I find beautiful may not fit into his categories, or if it does, it may be entirely opposed to them. There are limitless categories, and we all find different things beautiful. Collings does not address or even seem to understand that we will not all agree with him: beauty, if it is anything, is relative.

Despite the relativity of these factors, Collings does help us to answer "What is beauty?" What he is doing is asking questions, which in turn cause us to know more and thus gain a greater appreciation, which is surely what makes something beautiful: our understanding of it. The more you know about the technique Monet used or the subject of Guernica or the materials of the Parthenon, the more likely you are to understand the work and find it beautiful because you comprehend its complexity and the intelligence behind it.

large_pollock8So, instead of saying that something which adheres to nature is beautiful, he should say, "What was the artist intending to say about nature with this work?" The answer could be something or nothing, but in asking it, we learn a little more and will think more about the picture. Don’t ask "Is this Jackson Pollock patterned?" (as he does) but "Why was Jackson Pollock trying to create (or avoid) pattern?"

The answers to these questions cannot necessarily be found in the pictures – a study of history and biography and art history and psychology and pop culture will help us answer them. This then leads to the perhaps perverse conclusion that the question "What is beauty?" is best answered not by looking at beautiful things (such as in a TV documentary) but by reading: the surface becomes deeper when you know more.

But what about when one first looks at a picture and is struck dumb by its beauty? For example, new artists I know nothing about can stop me in my tracks with the appearance of their work. A Raphael Christ made me cry. If this is anything, it is art touching our emotions. We do not consider its spontaneity (another factor) or relationship with nature but there is an almost atavistic reaction: this is emotional, mental, psychological – not words which get much play in Collings’ film. His factors try to intellectualise these emotional experiences, but their intellectual dimension is not quite enough either.

One further complaint is that he also hardly touches on any art form but painting: there is the Laocoon sculpture and Matisse’s paper snail, but what about photography and film? Do these have their own kinds of beauty? If we follow Collings, we could find different types of beauty in them: the truth of a photo (but a staged one can be beautiful too), a film of a meadow (but not one of a city?).

Collings sets out to answer "What is beauty?" but the best answer to this that he provides is implicit in his questioning, not explicit in his answers.

Today's Mother Courages

I've never seen an entire row of people leave during a play. Singles, couples, parents with screaming brats in tow, but never ten people at once. They were quite clearly a coach party, or corporate hospitality gone wrong. Mother Courage and Her Children at the National evidently proved too much for them.

And why shouldn't it? Brecht's 1939 play features a woman (Fiona Shaw storming the stage) who drags her caravan of provisions to sell across the battlefields of the Thirty Years' War, accompanied by her children, who are gradually conscripted, raped or killed. She sells because she wants to and because she has to, and every move she makes takes her closer to safety and to ruin. Her choices are impossible, and we feel pity, anger, grief and love at the same time. It is a complex masterpiece.

It also a prime exponent of Brecht's Epic Theatre, which tries to convey moral messages through a variety of unsubtle ways, so Mother Courage had scene titles on canvas flags (which were read out by Gore Vidal) and plenty of rock songs. It was during one of the songs - which were by no means discreditable or unlyrical - that the row got up and left. It's a little too in-your-face for those more used to revivals of My Fair Lady.

One of the best things about the show was the light Mother Courage shed on today's banking crisis (much more, to judge from critical reaction, than the speed-written reaction to the recession, Power of Yes). What we see is a woman who ploughs on much further than she ought to because she feels that she cannot stop: there is money to be made, even if you do have to cross (not metaphorical) minefields.

This is surely not unlike what those who followed derivatives pioneers experienced: with some knowledge of the danger, they kept going. Perhaps that is too kind to the bankers - most people would propose that they had no knowledge of the danger, which gives Mother Courage one up on them. The play stands for our appetite for risk and our stomach for failure, and how well we can ever reconcile the two.

What happens to Mother Courage in the end? I don't want to ruin the play, but suffice it to say, bankers ought to look around themselves before deciding that forward is always best.