issue fifteen

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(1800 words)
Beauty's Truths:
Me, Keats, Modigliani and the pope
Stephen Kessler
[Updated monthly on the full moon]
Originally seen at:

The Redwood Coast Review

Re-published with permission from
the editor/author
       Pope Benedict and I don't often see eye to eye. On issues like gay marriage, birth control, abortion rights, and the alleged divinity of the Jewish prophet from Galilee, we have deep differences of opinion. But recently the pope invited some 500 artists to the Sistine Chapel to give them a pep talk about beauty. Only half that number showed up, but like a poet reading gamely to a disappointing turnout, the pontiff pressed on with his homily, cajoling his guests to be "fully conscious of your great responsibility to communicate beauty, to communicate in and through beauty."

It must have felt strange for the assembled "artists, architects, musicians, directors, writers and composers" (as reported by The New York Times) to hear a lecture on esthetics from the pope. Perhaps in emulation of the high priestess of television, Oprah Winfrey, Benedict feels it is time for him to give his imprimatur not to any particular work of art or literature (and thus ensure its commercial success) but to a principle, a conceptual standard that any artist can strive to abide by.

Beauty, for John Keats, was both an ideal and a reality often encountered - and in my own romantic experience, I am with him: living for beauty, in awe of the Beautiful, ever alert for its surprises, recipient or victim of its random gifts or ruthless cruelties, servant of its majesty, aspirant to its realization in my work. And so, as far as beauty is concerned, for once the pope and I appear to be on the same page.

But what is beauty? The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "that quality or combination of qualities which delights the senses or mental faculties; esp. that combination of shape, colour, and proportion which is pleasing to the eye." It can manifest in a human face or body, in the grace of an animal, in a landscape or a cityscape, a piece of music or a dance performance, a sentence or a line of poetry, or in an unexpected perception of visual harmony - say, streams of headlights and taillights snaking along a freeway seen from the air one evening when your plane is landing in a city where your mate awaits you.

Like pornography, beauty is something we know when we see it. But in the same vein, what we perceive is often a reflection of ourselves - our own predispositions, perversions and desires. Our subjectivity colors our understanding. A rose may be ravishing to one person, while a motorcycle engine excites another. So when the pope asks artists to make beautiful things, he's asking them, in effect, to faithfully serve their individual muses. And I'm not so sure that's what he really intended.

My guess is that he meant to promote a certain kind of beauty, like the Chopin preludes my mother and her boyfriend used to put on the turntable at cocktail hour to accompany their Scotch, the kind of delicate background sound that calms one down at the end of the day and offers an antidote to the world's cacophony; the kind of music played on classical FM stations to soothe you through the rush-hour commute, a gentle, dignified alternative to the nonstop babble of news and opinion and rehashed information issuing relentlessly from radios everywhere. This sort of soft-focus, smooth-jazz, tranquilizing art - boring as it may be - is in some way preferable to the blabbering noise of contemporary culture, not to mention the dispiriting spectacle of politics and the neverending cycles of violence and corruption and all-around agitation.

Beautiful art, however tame, can serve as a corrective to the aggravations of everyday life. And great art, however unsettling in its representation of reality, however strange or disturbing it may strike us, almost always embodies the beauty of felt truth. Perhaps this is something of what Keats had in mind when he wrote, in his "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."

If more people listened to Mozart than to Rush Limbaugh every day, the world would surely be a more pleasant place. If somehow, through an angelic act of digital sabotage, Modigliani nudes would appear on their screens when teenage boys fired up their video games, maybe a few would be diverted from violent fantasies into reveries of tenderness and delight in what William Blake called "the human form divine." If people could slow down enough to read a Wordsworth ode or a Lorca ballad, or even listen to such language on their private e-media instead of whatever other trivial message is coming in, surely the psychic economy would improve.

These are the kinds of beauty (except for the Modigliani nudes) of which the pope would probably approve. But what about other kinds? When he was a youth in Nazi Germany did he aspire to and honor the Aryan ideal of the robustly athletic young man or woman who marched with their rucksack through the lovely countryside marveling at the splendor of their nation and their exalted race? Has he been able to appreciate the paintings of Jackson Pollock? Has he ever paused before a Robert Rauschenberg assemblage to marvel at the way, out of what at first glance looks like garbage, the artist has constructed not only something formally harmonious but a subtly witty commentary on our time? Has his Holiness ever listened to the edgy sounds of Bartók or Schoenberg or Charlie Parker or Ornette Coleman and found there the kind of beauty he seeks in the works of current artists?

Innovative creators, often using their knowledge of tradition as a base from which to subvert the very traditions they're building on, frequently are greeted with critical scorn or abuse or are just ignored by the guardians of established cultural norms. It is only later, after they're gone, that their apparent barbarism becomes iconic and sets a new standard or expands the notion not only of the acceptable but the beautiful. (Vincent van Gogh comes to mind as such a creator.) So in asking for beauty Benedict may get more than he bargained for.

       Still, I sympathize with the desire to find esthetic alternatives to the almost continuous (and almost always electronicmediated) assaults of popular culture. A huge proportion of the outflow from our computers and TVs and radios and iPhones and other portable instruments is just static and distraction we'd be better off without. A walk on a country trail or city street with unplugged ears, a stroll through a neighborhood attentive to the styles of its front yards and to the smells of dinners cooking or domesticated flowers - not even "nature" but human husbandry - can be richly restorative of one's equanimity. A movie that doesn't insult the brain but bathes us in the visual magic of cinema while engaging us in a plausible human drama, even with dark themes, can be an invigorating escape from the onslaught of opinionators on cable TV or the catalogs of crime on your local network affiliate.

Beauty, when it speaks to us, or touches us, or catches our eyes or other senses, somehow stimulates our psychic chemistry, our mix of emotions - it gets the dopamine or serotonin going - so that we actually feel better physically. Moved to tears by a happy or sad story on the big screen, or by a Walt Whitman poem or a Dvorak symphony or Billie Holiday singing "You Don't Know What Love Is," we find release otherwise available only through orgasm - a flying out of ourselves into momentary oneness with the world (the lover). Not to get too misty or mystical about it, this kind of esthetic body-soul connection works better for some people than institutional religion in keeping us attuned to the sublime, the transcendent, the divine.

But too much of a good thing can be sickening. Stendhal Syndrome is named for the French novelist who famously became ill, during a visit to Florence, from looking at too much Italian Renaissance art. And what of the effete connoisseur wealthy enough to retreat to a private collection as a way of avoiding engagement with the world beyond the estate's perfectly manicured grounds? Beauty can be abused, like any drug. Yet its greatest potency derives from its appearance in relief against a contrasting background. A gorgeous girl or boy seen on the street will outshine a model on a runway every time.

Philosopher Elaine Scarry, in her beautiful little book On Beauty and Being Just, writes of the scene in The Odyssey where Odysseus catches sight of the young Nausicaa: "The beautiful thing seems - is - incomparable, unprecedented; and that sense of being without precedent conveys a sense of the 'newness' or 'newbornness' of the entire world." It is the sense of newness that can awaken us to the world in a way that makes us want to perpetuate whatever it was that brought us alive to its wonders - we want to spread the beauty - and so we are moved to make art, and if that makes the pope happy, all the better.

       Of course the academic postmodernists have long since disposed of beauty, dismissed it as a colonial imposition of the artist's vision when it is really the critic (or theorist!) whose vision counts. But tell that to Borges about a pink store he saw on a walk in predawn Buenos Aires which revealed to him a vision of the Eternal; try to tell him beauty is a figment of the romantic imagination.

The oasis of calm and solace created by a beautiful work of art or a handsome face can be located and cultivated in such a way that we may not need to visit a museum or strap ourselves into earbuds or even read a book in order to receive our daily dose of the gorgeous. The way a room is arranged, or a meal is prepared and served, or the random fragments of overheard talk in a public place can be mined for their fleeting lines of unwritten poetry - these are the kinds of everyday gifts that make life not just bearable but a source of secret delight if we pay attention. Perhaps the pope should encourage people, artists and civilians alike, to indulge in this sort of noticing.

To contribute something to the universe, to create an object - a book, a picture, a song, a sculpture, a crafty artifact, a visionary building - is also to do spiritual work, to perform an act that affirms, if not a deity, at least the living breath that's continuously flowing through our lungs, brightening the blood and providing the most immaterial yet essential means of animating us. Inspiration - this is how even a smell can hit us with unexpected force, evoking a rush of feelings and memories we'd forgotten. And so, even air can be beautiful; invisible, weightless, yet bearing our whole lives.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Stephen Kessler. All rights reserved.