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.


Anastasia said...

"Was totally drunk, absolutely apologise for entry of 14 November -- criticisms of programe all seem very reasonable." AHAHAHA


matthew collings said...

I'm not sure what AHAHAHA means, but when I say the criticisms are reasonable I mean they're reasonably argued, not that I think they have any real effect on the programme. However the reasonable tone is only superficial. For example, a still life of flowers isn't automatically beautiful. The category "still life of flowers" might be further defined as "a beautiful painting featuring flowers in a vase" but it would be a weak sort of definition. Surprise is a very reasonable expectation if you're thinking about what impact a still life of flowers might have. Van Gogh for example tries to surprise-up the genre. But even Dutch 17th century flower pictures have surprise as a powerful ingredient; something so innocent as flowers is given impact by surprisingly powerful abstract visual structures that underlie the illustrational element. The programme What Is Beauty? is concerned with definitions that are short but resonant -- so time periods, objects, artists, certain looks, etc, were picked because they worked, not because they happened to be on a convenient tour route. (Or I had recently read something about them, as -- apparently -- with the absurdly collegiate invocation of Socrates above.) Surrealism is expected to be surprising as in a bit shocking but it isn't particularly surprising aesthetically. Unlike Dutch flower painting from three centuries earlier, Surrealism doesn’t go in for a dynamic relationship between illustration and abstract structure; usually with Surrealism you're looking at illustration of a poetic idea. Surrealism uses a visual form, plain illustration, that is effective precisely because it has few surprises as a rule. (Surrealism's ideas are literary rather than visual or formal.)I chose Magritte to illustrate the notion of surprise as a factor of beauty in art because he's not someone you would necessarily connect to "beauty," other than the orthodox Surrealist idea that beauty must be "convulsive" or it isn’t worth bothering with (which is a sort of affected intellectualism that sounds good for a moment). But Magritte, especially in the 1920s, is a great master of grey, for one thing (one surprising thing). So there's a whole level other than merely the joke of mismatching signs and referents that Magritte can be appreciated on. The programme uses language both precisely and casually, but the above criticism from "theartdesk" is a queasy mixture of sentimental "I cried at Raphael") and sonorous (the sound of someone acting clever). As I say these don't fatally undermine "theartdesk"'s arguments, but as with the comment about budget restrictions and no sights of beauty in the USA, they provide clues to the essentially facetious nature of the effort. An earlier criticism, now no longer visible on the blog was a bit more revealing of the shallowness of the writer's attention-getting motivations.

Josh Spero said...

Dear Mr Collings,

Thank you again for your comments - I am very flattered that you're taking more time to engage with my piece.

I completely agree with what you say about the element of surprise in beauty, but that neglects my central point, which is that surprise is only one face of beauty, not beauty itself, as easily provable by looking at a 'conventional' or familiar painting which one also considers beautiful.

The point of my article is not that I disagree with your choices, just that they do not get to the heart of what beauty is in the same way that Roger Scruton's show tried to do. One could apply some of arguments to Waldemar Januszczak's programme (i.e. he picks aspects of beauty), but he does get interviews with artists and thus provides the requisite knowledge I believe is essential for beauty.

Best wishes, and do visit my blog again,