Thursday, May 28, 2009

On perceptions of beauty - or, how the ugly truth ain't so ugly, after all!

What is your approach to "art"? How do you go about the creative process? What do you put into your work? What kind of responses are you hoping to get? Will this string of rhetorical questions ever end? Maybe? If they don't, would you leave? Okay, I'll stop now...but seriously, I do wonder how all of you artists out there (and I use that term very broadly as applied to artists, musician, writers, and mathematicians) view your works, particularly on that often-nebulous concept of beauty.

I won't go into all the philosophical hoopla that's been swatted back and forth about beauty for the past three thousand years; however, I think most of us agree that beauty is a prime directive for any artist hoping to live up to the moniker. Beauty is that wisp of emotion, that faint spark igniting the rush - however great or subtle - that eventually leads to fountains of praise, exaltation, or even a fair but glowing review. However you see beauty, however it's defined, it's always there, and it's respects must be paid for you to get noticed.

But hark! so goes a voice in the crowd. Surely, beauty isn't the force behind all art! Where lies the beauty of a war photograph, or the frantic, twisting bodies of the dead? Beauty has no place there - truth is their one true guide!

Hm...well, aside from flair for the dramatic (who uses "hark" these days?), our friend from the crowd does bring up an interesting point - what place does beauty have in a work clearly trying to tell a truth - one of either our violent natures, or our own mortality? For that matter, are the two mutually exclusive?

Way back in the year dot, it didn't matter - truth and beauty were wrapped into one seamless whole; the best storyteller was the one who relayed the "truths" of the tribe's history in the most pleasing and entertaining manner. Likewise, the visual arts have never been far from depictions of gods, great mortals, and other beings that peppered the thoughts of the ancient world. However, the past few centuries have seen great strides made for the sake of distinguishing "true" art (or art for art's sake) from "functional" art. Poetry, for one, is said to have fallen into two camps following the time of Shakespeare - one group lyrical, melodious, and beauty-focused; the other, intellectual, argumentative, and geared towards making a point.

Still, is it fair to draw such a sharp distinction? Can't art be both beautiful and truthful? Are the very distinctions themselves false, a dim reflection from binary minds obsessed with categorizations? After all, it's wise to make a distinction between the ugly and the grotesque - can't the truth, however ugly, still strive to beauty by another name?

Maybe. *shrug*. Hell, I don't know.

I'll probably go into much greater depth at a later date with what I believe is the connection between truth and beauty, but for now, it stands that I've always felt that the best artists are the ones who incorporated both ideals into their work. As a poet by inclination, this has lead me to believe that good poetry should be one part Ralph W Emerson, and one part Oscar Wilde. Emerson was a serious, instrumental philosopher whose works - while lacking anything resembling grace - got his point across loud and clear. Wilde, on the other hand, was the poster child of "good art is useless", and as such created works of great beauty and flow without saying anything remotely close to an argument. I've always been weary of either extreme, and sought a synthesis of the two in my own works.

Maybe later, I'll share my thoughts on how that went :). But for now, I would like your opinions: how do you approach art? Is any particular ideal in focus, or do you just move with the flow and not worry about those things?


  1. Your blog reminds me of a poem by Emily Dickinson called "I died for beauty but was scarce"

    I DIED for beauty, but was scarce
    Adjusted in the tomb,
    When one who died for truth was lain
    In an adjoining room.

    He questioned softly why I failed? 5
    “For beauty,” I replied.
    “And I for truth,—the two are one;
    We brethren are,” he said.

    And so, as kinsmen met a night,
    We talked between the rooms, 10
    Until the moss had reached our lips,
    And covered up our names.

    In this poem, it seems that she is saying that truth and beauty go hand in hand, and one cannot survive without the other. I personally believe that there is beauty in truth, and as artists expose the truth of life in a most creative way. What do you guys think?

  2. Thanks, Stacey! That poem is a lovely one - it reminds me of how near truth and beauty actually are, especially when facing death. I plan on making a blog someday on just how related truth and beauty are.