Only once we have properly grasped something can we begin to judge it. Likewise, only when we understand something can we know if it is beautiful.
So, beauty can only be found by trying to grasp the things before us, but also, approaching this idea from the opposite direction, we can say that understanding phenomena helps us to preserve the beauty of it.
Understanding is a method for transcending the essential ephemerality of existence.
Ugliness shares the element of discovery with beauty, but opposes it in the sense that it is that which cannot bear to be discovered, or that its discovery is an unbearable experience. Art can therefore use ugliness to amplify the impact of discovery – the feeling of rejection for something is more powerful and obvious than an attraction.
We want ugliness to be an ephemeral discovery and the prolongation of ugliness can have interesting psychological effects on the beholder that artists can manipulate and exploit. Likewise, as we saw with beauty, the impact of discovery is a waning phenomena and a lengthy exposure to ugliness begins to render it more bearable. To create horror, for example, the discovery of the monster must be as fleeting as possible. The more we are exposed to the beast, the more the discovery melts into a normality, taming the beastliness, and, if the artist wants to, the initial terror can be rendered even desirable. Perhaps the most classic example of this is the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, especially Jean Cocteau’s magnificent film version of that tale.
What is beauty? We’ve seen beautiful landscapes, have met beautiful people, and have experienced the awe of standing before a beautiful art object, but what do these examples of beauty have in common? Or is beauty an illusion? From an objective standpoint this can easily be argued, for beauty (and ugliness) are subjective judgements, opinions. Beauty is bestowed by us on the objects or forms that we perceive and so to say what beauty is we have to look at the nature of the judgements being made whenever we apply the term beautiful to anything.
Beauty possesses a positive value, and it is something worthy of being discovered or experienced, but it is through its association with discovery that we find beauty’s apparent weakness for, after the initial impact of discovery wanes, so does the beauty. Nevertheless, it is this flaw that provides us with a possible definition of beauty: Beauty is an awesome discovery, the impact of which begins to dissolve upon making that same discovery.
Nevertheless, the awesomeness of the discovery of beauty defies the ephemerality of the experience of its own nature. Beauty is a discovery that wants to be prolonged, although it itself is incapable of such a prolongation, it needs a psychological and emotional effort to preserve it through feelings like nostalgia and love, or the practical effort of preservation that comes through the process of art. The creation of beauty through art, therefore, is concerned with prolonging the impact of discovery. Through love and art, beauty challenges the ephemeral, as if it has a longing for permanence. Whether or not the romantic, the existentialist, or the classical theory applies, once the artist takes beauty into consideration during the process of creation, he or she is wrestling with the struggle between permanence and ephemerality.
BEAUTY AND ART
Is beauty an essential ingredient in art? When artists reject beauty, what they are doing is rejecting the idea of whether or not their work should be considered worthy of discovery. For such an artist this question is irrelevant as they are looking for something in the work that transcends the importance of its discovery. The aim of such a work is not to be exhibited or published, and its worth might lie quite simply in the process of the elaboration. Artists can, have, and do ignore beauty. It is not essential to art. Nevertheless, art and beauty are tied together in the fact that both of them are things worthy of being discovered or experienced. The work of art can be given the same definition we gave to beauty, but its relationship with discovery may not be the same as beauty’s.
Art can revoke the need for permanence and reinforce itself in the uniqueness of the moment of discovery. This can be seen in live theatrical performance, because the experience of seeing a piece of theatre is empowered by the fact that it can never be exactly repeated. Each night on the stage is a unique, unrepeatable experience. Theatre is as much a dialogue between the actors and the audience as it is a dialogue between the protagonists and antagonists of the drama themselves. Likewise, despite the efforts to preserve theatrical productions by videoing them, the filmed-theatre is never the same kind of discovery as the theatrical experience itself. Theatre is ephemeral art par excellence.
And because of the nature of beauty, ephemeral art could also be seen as that most faithful reflection of beauty’s character, which is that once it has been discovered its impact has already started to wane. In this way we find that the ephemeral art of performance has a direct link to emotions of loss like melancholy and nostalgia.
We all have our reasons for doing things, but what is our purpose? What is the purpose of anything? What is the purpose of the whole?
If we analyse purpose, we can discover the beauty of the thing. The beautiful is inspirational: it inspires purposeful activity – searching, discovery, creation and imitation of that which is purposeful and beautiful.
It is through beauty that we find the purposiveness of pleasures. All art is a searching for and a working within the purposes of pleasures.
A healthy person, well-equipped for achieving things in life, would not, under normal circumstances, want to die. The same should be expected to be true of a healthy civilisation or culture, or a healthy human outlook of itself.
The will for permanence has always been a powerful drive in the human psyche: it is the reason for religions, and it is embedded in all art and technology. It’s enemies are, what Freud called, the pleasure principle and the death drive.
From an aesthetic point of view, it could be said that the will for permanence brings out the best in us, and makes us beautiful. Permanence is our beautiful dream.
Rodrigo Garcia’s performance collage (see part one of this series) is an example of artistic autarchy. It creates its depth in an interior way, with inbuilt references: self-references created by its use of the mirror and the fold. Garcia’s own texts mirrored against Luigi Nono’s opera ; the Vietnam War reflected into critical contemporary texts about our consumer society. But where is the connection between war and consumerism? Why is this a mirror? The mirror is not reflecting a specular image, or at least not until we see the images channeled together. The tenuous link that Garcia has found needs something to clarify it. So Garcia introduces a bridge – Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point.
In Garcia’s theatrical work, two scenes from Antonioni’s film are projected. The first, is a scene in which executives of a real estate company are watching a cheesy advert for the desert paradise they are planning to construct at Zabriskie Point. The colours and plasticity of this scene immediately build a bridge between the 60s film and our own 21st century consumer society reflected through Garcia’s own kitsch aesthetics. But what has this to do with Nono’s opera?
On the obvious level: the film is a 60s film, released in 1970, and therefore a near contemporary of Nono’s 1966 work. On the less obvious level, at least to an audience member who has never seen Zabriskie Point, Antonio’s film includes scenes of anti-Vietnam war protests and police brutality. Anti-Vietnam protest becomes an anti-consumerist symbol. Vietnam is a violent projection of the capitalist will for the ultimate power of globalisation and at the same time an area of equally violent resistance to that projected hegemony.
The second scene that Garcia projects is the film’s almost final sequence of the exploding mansion on the cliff face: the violent fantasy of ultimate resistance through annihilation of the enemy. We have an enormous “what if…” or “if only…” raised by the artist to stand against the reality which was the real historical progression of the narrative. In reality capitalism’s advance was not curtailed, despite the Vietcong’s victory; despite the destruction of the mansion in the desert the real estate project at Zabriskie Point would still have gone ahead. And the result of this unstoppable narrative sequence is the kitsch culture of consumerism we have today. A culture in which Nono’s opera seems to have no place, is absolutely ‘out of place’. In the autarchy of Garcia’s creation we also have a tremendous self-criticism: Why represent Nono’s opera in a place and time that could not possibly appreciate it? His answer: it is precisely the demonstration of how disassociated art is from our reality that justifies the representation.
Now Garcia folds back to enfold himself in associations with his own earlier work: an echo of his Golgotha’s Picnic. That piece was about violence and art. In essence the same theme, in which, after hours of hurling violent images at the audience he stages a baroque piano concert, provoking an exodus from the audience who, after stomaching, perhaps even enjoying the excitement of the violence, seem to find the beauty of the music unbearable. Or are our audiences now incapable of appreciating the beauty of the piano piece?
Garcia’s statement is that it is the saturation of imagery flung at us by the consumer society that is making us impervious to the beautiful in art. We are the products of nihilism and a positive, purposeful concept like beauty is anathema to us now.
We are often told that we live in the information age, but is this a limited and insufficient description of our times? Hardt and Negri used the terms “immaterial” or “biopolitical” to describe the type of production that we are moving towards today. According to Hardt these terms combine: “the production of ideas, information, images, knowledges, code, languages, social relationships, affects and the like… (that) designates occupations throughout the economy, from the high to the low, from health-care workers, flight attendants and educators to software programmers and from fast food and call-centre workers to designers and advertisers… Industry has to informationalise; knowledge, code and images are becoming ever more important throughout the traditional sectors of production; and the production of affects and care is becoming increasingly essential in the valorisation process.”
In the industrial age capitalism was a very tangible thing: production was carried out in factories, that were the symbol of the industrial revolution. For the anti-capitalist/communist revolutions the key was therefore to take control of those factories as well as the factory-like farms and mines that produced the materials that the factories processed.
But now, in our “immaterial” age, capitalism has taken hold of a very different kind of production, which capitalism itself finds it difficult to trap. The question for capitalism today is: how do we manage to take and maintain a control over information, knowledge, codes and images, as well as affects and care, and turn these things into profit? Likewise, the most pressing question for the anti-capitalist must be: how do we prevent the control and exploitation of these things taking place?
For us, the main problem here is in the effects socially, culturally and psychologically (or spiritually, if you like) that the capitalisation of the immaterial has had and will have as more and more of our immaterial world is converted into profit making commodities. The mind-set of today’s entrepreneurs is the following: people fall in love – how can we make a profit out of it; people need each other – let’s exploit that need; people hate and fear some other people – there is definitely a profit to be made there; people get ill and die – we can make money from that… etc., etc.. But the essential ingredient in the capitalist system is: people want to measure themselves against other people; people see a lack in themselves measured according to what others have and what enjoyment they have and they want to obtain that lack and that enjoyment for themselves.
But what capitalism has to sell us is not quality, but quantity. And if we demand quality it must be paid for, it must be made more expensive. But how do we quantify the immaterial which is mainly differentiated according to its quality? Does the quantification of it diminish its quality? If you sell love how do you put a price to it? If you mass produce beauty what happens to the quality of that beauty? If the real quality of lives needs to be measured by immaterial things, what happens when the immaterial loses its own features of quality?
If we do live in an immaterial age, shouldn’t our fulfilment come from a human embracing of the immaterial itself, rather than the perverted image we have of it that is created by capital?
 Michael Hardt, THE COMMON IN COMMUNISM – from THE IDEA OF COMMUNISM, edited by Douzinas and Zizek, Verso, 2010