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The Postmodern Desire to Ruin Beauty
If the title of this post sounds like a comment on the tragic tearing-apart of our nation, it isn’t, although you are free to draw connections as you wish. Instead, this essay concerns a single complaint: namely the fact that too many of today’s creative artists doubt the power of beauty, and thus are unwilling to present something of beauty without messing it up.
The arts throughout history are charged with the duty to express a multitude of ideas, including ideas that are dark and difficult. Theater primarily is a venue for adults, so plays, operas, and ballets have always featured what were considered “adult themes.” (That phrase sounds quaint in light of today’s crude and sexualized society, does it not?)
Accordingly, attending an effective production of Edward Albee’s 1962 masterpiece Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, I expect to hold on to my seat as its bitter dialogue and dark emotions pierce my ears, eyes, and mind. Accordingly, I hope to emerge with a greater understanding of the complexities of human relationships as well as a greater appreciation of the power of love.
But The Merry Widow? An operetta premiered in 1905 by the fine Hungarian composer Franz Lehár? A work celebrated then and now for its charming music, including the “Merry Widow Waltz?” What would lead someone to drag this kind of work through the dirt?
Operettas of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (a period known as the fin de siècle) were not examples of serious drama. They did, however, invoke what I like to call “gently grown-up” material (e.g., indelicate liaisons or the foibles of the main characters). Most importantly, operettas functioned as vehicles for stylish dancing, gorgeous singing, sumptuous costumes, and comedic stock devices that date back to Renaissance commedia dell’arte like couples hiding in pavilions or frantic searches for potentially incriminating objects. Ultimately, the flawed characters do the right thing, the proper couples are united, the right virtues are proclaimed, and all ends happily.
Of course, before deciding to show the grandchildren a production of The Merry Widow selected from the Metropolitan Opera’s wondrous on-demand collection, I screened it. Had Act I opened with characters clad in gangster clothing and draped over hoods of cars, or figures floating in a futuristic colony on the moon (don’t laugh; this happens), I would have been concerned and chosen another opera.
But everything looked utterly traditional and gorgeous: everywhere I clicked my cursor, I saw a cornucopia of extravagant costumes, beautiful sets, and elegant dancing, all performed by a marvelous cast headed by Renée Fleming.
And so it was a vision of beauty … until the last act. Fortunately, both grandchildren had faded and been dragged off to bed with a promise that we would finish it tomorrow.
Yes, we will, but not this production. I knew the final act took place in a comic replication of Maxim’s, a famous Parisian bistro founded in 1893. I expected the set to explode in Art Nouveau décor appropriate to the fashionable Parisians who would have gathered there. And yes, Maxim’s bespeaks an era when colorful dances abounded such as the waltz, the gallop, and the “can-can.” The can-can indeed had been edgy when introduced in the 1840s, with its boisterous rhythm and dancers brusquely whisking ruffled, ankle-length skirts right and left as their legs kicked higher and higher.
But this had not been an edgy production! Quite the contrary. So what was the artistic imperative to turn the can-can dancers who open Act III into a group of quasi-pornographic figures, seemingly drunken or drugged up, engaged in robotic, gymnastic versions of pole dancing (sans pole)?
Oh, I’ve seen far worse things on the stage. Wait, we don’t have to go to the theater anymore to see such things, do we? We can see demeaning theatrics everywhere in today’s society. Dare I invoke the Super Bowl halftime shows? Dare I mention the obscenities flashing from T-shirts or blaring from the covers of magazines in the check-out lines of grocery stores? These are all things that would have caused previous generations to throw a sack over their children’s heads and flee.
My complaint goes beyond the vulgarity of it all. It is the stylistic incongruity that bothers me. What kind of artistic vision leads a director to disrupt a production characterized by beauty and elegance and insert an embarrassing effort to evoke historical “edginess” using contemporary crudeness? Does his decision stem from a belief that the contemporary box office demands at least a sliver of tawdriness? Or might it also be a post-modern distrust in the power of beauty?
Ironically, our most educated tend to be the ones unable to value the artistic force of beauty. These are the very people who sink appreciatively into a 90-minute massage enhanced by aromatherapy and minerals from the Dead Sea, or salivate over a Caramel Macchiato, Venti, extra shot, extra hot, extra whip. Are they really afraid to trust a two-hour stretch of beauty?
I, for one, have grown weary of those who take beautiful things and drag them down to levels of tawdriness. Of course, tawdry is as tawdry does. Think of how many people, especially young people, have rarely experienced beautiful things. From childhood on, they have been thrown into an ugly, noisy world where everything flashes, bangs, and screams its message. Everything they hear is amplified. Everything they see flies by like the wind. The words said and sung are shallow, unfulfilling, or demeaning. Concepts like contemplation, transcendence, and beauty are presented as undesirable, weak, or boring.
If only we, in our creative work, could commit (or recommit) ourselves to expressing beauty! We really can teach children to recognize and trust beauty’s power. We can show them how to identify beauty, particularly historically. We can lead them to embrace beauty and plumb its depths.
And why not also help them learn to identify, judge, and appreciate stylistic consistency? A production of The Magic Flute staged in a futuristic dystopia where the Three Ladies enter as space creatures on a bicycle built for three, their heads encased in glass fishbowls, can actually work well. (I’ve seen this production.) But such a staging would lose a great deal if it were interrupted by a scene more appropriate to a hoe-down in Oklahoma.
Nothing valuable is achieved by fracturing the sweeping magic of a waltz-based operetta with ugly and crude gestures, other than, perhaps, gratifying the worship of incongruity so characteristic of our age. That aesthetic has masqueraded too long as “artistic genius,” masking what it truly is: a distrust of the elements of style and a foil for a deficit of creative ideas.Published in Culture
From my point of view as an Architect until the recent decent into”Deconstructionism” most people involved in the arts wanted to pursue “truth and beauty”. It was a twentieth century concoction where some art was done to show “this is art” even when most people could not see the art in it. That said even until recently those artists pushing this “this is art” meme also wanted to pursue and to find the truth and beauty in art.
But the “Deconstructionist” movement has changed all that where art is now. To be really considered “art”, it should only be done according to our Elite Betters where it pushes to destroy our most precious institutions; that is it must have the agenda of destroying society as we know it or it is a vehicle of oppression by the White Nationalist Patriarchy and must be slammed.
That’s a modernist obsession, not a post-modernist one, IMHO.
The modernist view is that any definition of beauty is non-falsifiable therefore beauty doesn’t exist, so people should focus solely on utility.
The post-modernist view is that definitions of beauty are prone to manipulation by those in positions of power, but not that beauty doesn’t exist.
Consistency of vision is important. Richard III has lent itself to a number of reasonable re-imagining, and if it’s done well, it manages the trick of being faithful to the original meaning as well as to the more modern premise (Chicago gangsters, or an alternative history fascist Britain of the Thirties).
But we’ve also seen inconsistent junk that exposes the limits of the director’s kneejerk, obvious ideas.
That’s the beauty of artistic freedom. Every theory of aesthetic value requires cautionary examples.
Sarah Hoyt, describing a trip to the beach:
We (Sarah and her husband) spent most of the day building the castle, which had arches and bridges, multiple towers, and a little village inside.
We built it just far enough from the tide line that it would stay up for a few hours. I don’t know about you, but periodically on the seaside I come across such constructions, and they always make me smile. I wanted to pass that “smile” on.
As we were finishing, a group of kids sat nearby and watched us. I thought they were just curious about what these English-speaking strangers were doing, and paid no attention.
However, no more had we finished the castle and — it being dinner time — started to walk away, than these kids ATTACKED the castle, tearing at it, and screaming in a paroxysm of hatred.
Her entire post, titled Sterile, is relevant to the topic of this post.
An interesting article. I think that she is half right.
I think that she correctly identifies resentment as the source of barbaric rage, both of the kids who destroyed her sand castle, and the rioters and protesters today.
I think that she is incorrect in claiming that the problem is a failure to teach people to think independently. I don’t think that this was done much in the past, either. Rather, in the past, people were taught to value their faith, culture, and country. Today, people are taught the opposite.
I was introduced to opera by Bugs Bunny (The Rabbit of Seville and What’s Opera, Doc?). Whatever it takes to get a kid interested in the real classics . . .
Art students have said to me that an artist should challenge the audience. I think this is self flattery, I think artists are preformers who are in an arena where there is a a competition. Being 72, I am old enough to remember when Janis Joplin drinking Southern Comfort on stage was a bit edgy, within weeks Jimmy Hendrix was lighting his guitar on fire. About the same time the play “Hair” opened with nudity, to get around the laws the actors had to stand totally still. Remember George CArlin on the seven words you couldn’t say on radio. And now in rap music we have singers praising the gangster life, great to be a gangbanger. To stand out in these arenas one must be better, or different, or the easiest of all more outrageous.
This is not entirely new, from “EScape from Reason” by Schaefer, we learn about Filippo Lippi (1406-1469) who painted a Modanna in 1465. Nothing big there but she was a pretty girl and more importantly she was his mistress and all of Florence knew the Modonna’s face was that of Filippo’s mistress. Quoting Schaefer, “In France, Fouquet, painted about 1450, the king’s mistress, Agnes Sorel, as Mary. Everyone knowing the court who saw it knew that this was the king’s current mistress. Fouquet painted her with one breast exposed. Whereas before it would have been Mary feeding the baby Jesus, now it is the king’s mistress with one breast exposed—“
I am not saying that our denial of truth, or beauty has not made art even more horrible, but that artist’s are not big thinkers, they are attention seekers and being outlandish is so easy. What is the Wilde quote, “There is no such thing as bad publicity”. I have exhibited my sculpture for better than 60 years, sculptors are not big thinkers, rather like the little-brained Stegosaurus they are extinct.
A few ideas come to mind about the loss of beauty, or its redefinition. I’m trying to work through them.
I grew up in the 90s when grunge came of age and a collection of images comes to mind: Calvin Klein ads for CKOne with rail-thin, androgynous men and women (black, white and asian, actually- by today’s standards the ads were diverse in everything except weight but that’s not the point here) slouching around in wife-beater tank tops and low-slung jeans, Courtney Love’s smeared red lipstick and crown, Kurt Cobain’s unwashed t-shirts and dirty jeans, greasy overgrown hair, scruffy beards, beat-up sneakers. They made the music that was popular and the characters in hit films had the same look- “Reality Bites” was populated by characters with this aesthetic. They were cool, they read books, made bitter sarcastic jokes that made them seem clever and generally seemed more interesting in their aimlessness than their more contemporaries. The scraggly, unshaven loser Ethan Hawke played in “Reality Bites” ultimately won Winona Ryder over Ben Stiller’s clean-cut type. Stiller’s character might have had a job and a real career, but that was boring compared to his rival’s passion and culture, even if he also came with no discernible work ethic.
Beauty, with its standards for aesthetics and excellence, is no longer of interest to the younger generation because it seems elitist. In some ways social media has widened the possible interpretations for beauty- there are greater audiences for it now, and yet now there is a greater audience to critique and call for cancellation. This narcissistic age of social media requires the focus be on the self. More than ever companies highlight the social causes they are fighting for because when you wear their clothing or makeup, you represent their mission. Grunge didn’t last forever and was replaced over time by companies like American Apparel who made a name for themselves with often unflattering clothing that is androgynous in spirit and shot on models who range in sizes from the CK heroin-chic to plus-sized in poses that are just shy of soft-core porn. The selling point of the clothing was the social mission- made in LA by Mexicans who got fair wages and English lessons. The same thing for the companies that sent messages about George Floyd and donated money to bailout funds. If you support these companies, you are virtuous by association. You are the companies you support- that’s what beauty is supposed to be and it’s meant to be a more inclusive, less elitist message than the “old” standard.
A nice pile of ideas to sort through…I’m still thinking:)
I think this is possibly the crux of the whole diminution of “Beauty,” especially in the visual arts.
There is a phenomenon that probably started in the visual arts and possibly still infects that sphere of arts the most. The idea that someone can put a few random brushstrokes on a canvas and it can be deemed a brilliant masterpiece of art.
I became an artist of what you might call “old-fashioned pictures,” or pictures that look like actual things in real life. I even figure that I was born with the best genes possible for that, having two professional artists as parents, but I can tell you it was a long, hard, and intensive slog that takes many years to learn how to paint pictures of high skill. The temptation to bypass this onerous learning process in our modern short-attention span world is enormous.
The painting and sculptural arts are unique in that each original piece created by the artist is the valued commodity. In all the other arts, the artist creates a “recipe” or a script to be copied and carried out by other people. For instance, a writer has his work published into books that are sold at affordable rates to many consumers and a composer writes the notes that an orchestra follows and performs for many people who can afford the ticket price. Aside from the print market, a visual artist makes his living from selling that one original painting or sculpture to one other person who is rich enough to afford it. The costs are usually not split up between many customers the way they are in the other Arts.
Hence, the enormous money values put on original works of art make them appear more lofty and intimidating than they really are compared to the other Arts’ products, like a book or a live performance. In turn, the average viewer is afraid to voice criticism over an object worth thousands or millions of dollars for fear that they will appear ignorant or stupid. I’ve never been in a museum and overheard someone say “Boy, that sure is a piece of crap!” It doesn’t matter that they were looking at actual dog doo-doo posted on a stick. People just stare in dumb silence, no doubt, while bizarre thoughts run through their heads.
All this opens up the opportunity for charlatans to sell anything and everything imaginable as “Art,” and for artists themselves to claim that anything and everything imaginable they produce is Art. Just so long as dealers can convince rich people who might otherwise have common sense, that “Doggy Doo” is a brilliant masterpiece that only one particular artist is capable of creating.
Years ago a colleague of mine was a grad student in a very well regarded music department. Her specialty was a particular genre of Japanese music, which she performed at a high level. She had begun her studies because she, you know, loved music and found it beautiful.
It dawned on her that she had no career path in academia (which is what she wanted) if she maintained that outdated notion of beauty as a high value in art. She left her program.