Glittering Translucence: The Glass Menagerie in Previews at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway

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The stage at the Belasco Theater was so empty it was naked. The set amounted to an ugly table with chairs, some cluttered shelves, and a phonograph. The backdrop was the stark brick wall of the theater itself. When Joe Mantello first appeared onstage, I mistook him for a techie until he began delivering his opening monologue, tackling a role usually played by a much younger man in a much better costume. I already found myself mulling over inevitable comparisons with the production of The Glass Menagerie at the Booth Theater in 2013 starring Cherry Jones (Amanda), Zachary Quinto (Tom), and Celia Kennan-Bolger (Laura). I wondered whether it was worth revisiting the play so soon after that great success, which was the first production I’d seen to portray Tom as a gay avatar of Tennessee Williams himself, adding new and unexpected dimensions to the proceedings; his arguments with his mother about where he was sneaking off to at night were never quite so poignant.

 

In that production, the tragedy of the Wingfield family played out on a literal island circumscribed by rippling ebony ooze. Laura seemed to materialize out of thin air, unexpectedly popping out of a couch with all of the suddenness of a half-forgotten memory that somehow intrudes on the consciousness again. This time, though, there was nothing but emptiness. In the shadows, Sally Field (Amanda) and Madison Ferris (Laura) were already visible as they waited in the orchestra to climb onstage. Bracing myself with the reminder that this was still in previews, I had no idea that I was about to be totally transported and enthralled.

 

A long silence ensued as the performers went through the cumbersome process of lifting Ferris’ wheelchair onto the stage. My heart skipped a beat. I had no idea that a performer with muscular dystrophy had been cast as Laura, who is described in the script as “crippled.” Out of her chair, back arched, and down on all fours, she moved with an indescribable elegance, flowing like water across the stage. I’d never seen a production before where the physical components of Laura ‘s handicap were explored with such nuance. Both the challenges and elegances of physical movement are so central to Ferris’ characterization that it almost feels at times like a dance performance (I was not at all surprised to read in the program that the Broadway newcomer has dance experience.) There is no awkwardness on display here, usually par for the course in performers’ interpretations of the shy and fragile character. Ferris’ Laura is long acclimated to the challenges of her difference. She owns them. And in her space, Laura moves confidently, uniquely, and even elegantly. Rather than her own inner demons, it is largely society’s cruel pigeonholing that forces her into the role of a pariah.

 

If Eugene O’Neill is the American Aeschylus and Arthur Miller some iteration of Sophocles, then Tennessee Williams is our Euripides. Both were celebrated for their multi-dimensional female protagonists, their powerful abilities as storytellers, their lines dripping with poetry, and their exploration of the forces of Bacchanalian wildness that always lurk just beneath the veneer of polite society. Needless to say, all of this is pure dynamite for actors. The Glass Menagerie is one of the great ensemble pieces in American theater, and the synergy between the members of this cast was particularly electric. I was initially unsure about Mantello’s interpretation of Tom, which in some ways couldn’t help but disappoint after Quinto’s revelatory queer reading of the role. Over time, though, the dichotomy between Tom’s maturity and the relative youth of his sister and mother highlighted that shimmering, slightly unreal quality that William hoped to capture in the play. If Quinto played Tom as the play’s author trapped claustrophobically in his own memories, Mantello portrays him something like the play’s director, separated from the past in time and space but putting on a show for us in the audience in which he selectively interacts with his former ghosts. The understatement of his performance attractively highlights both the intensity of Fields and the subtlety of Ferris.

 

Speaking of Fields, she is a force of nature as Amanda, a caged eagle. In her blind rage against the bars of her enclosure, she wounds herself and everyone around her. Now she is driven by a sense of rage over the isolation of her daughter and the selfishness of her son; a moment later, she is soft and maternal; at still other times, she’s lost in obsessive memories of better days. Fields’ Amanda channels the great heroines of world theater, echoing the rambling desperation of Blanche, the imperiousness of Lady Macbeth, and the spiteful wit of Hedda. There is a dangerous undercurrent to Field’s performance bound to her acute awareness of the desperation of her position. Her Amanda is nostalgic for the past but far from delusional about her present. She realizes that she is burdened with an alcoholic son who is about to abandon her and a handicapped daughter she cannot support. The prospect of a gentleman caller is the only hope that can save the Wingfields from themselves. But when her daughter balks in terror at this caller when he finally arrives, Amanda herself becomes the flirtatious center of attention. While she hosts him at dinner with her daughter quivering with embarrassment in the other room, there is an effect such as I have never seen before in any theater. The emptiness of the stage is suddenly revealed to be translucence, a fitting quality for a play named for glass sculpture. Without giving it away, I’ll say that it conveys the same idea of symbolic gulfs evoked in the previous production at the Booth Theatre where the family was literally trapped on an island.

 

The entire final act was illuminated by true candlelight, providing the scene with an ethereal, almost ghostly ambiance. Earlier in the play, Ferris portrayed Laura as a slightly spoiled young woman whose life’s meaning was reduced to subtle shows of rebellion against her mother’s will. Ferris obsessed over her glass figurines not with an air of insanity but one of triumph, lording over an imaginary world in which, for once, she could be in control and ignore the admonishments of the world around her. At last, though, she invites the gentleman caller into this world, where he finds that he has been set up as a kind of idol deified since high school. In this space, the way Laura moves and the way she uses her imagination are completely natural, and at least for a fleeting moment, he sees the beauty in her existence and not the stigma associated with it. The chemistry between Laura and her “suitor” (a bright eyed and bushy tailed Finn Wittrock) is sizzling, the most sexual of any interpretation I’ve seen. Their tender dance was the emotional climax of the night, symbolic of the themes of the entire production.

 

Like the casting of deaf actor John McGinty in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Ferris’ casting proves that physical difference or disability not only should be no bar to the display of talent, but can even bring new life to classic roles. As wonderful as Michael Arden was as Quasimodo and Celia Kennan-Bolger was as Laura (a sublime performance, in fact), there is something special about the truth that actors bring to parts when they share aspects of that character’s identity in real life. Many actors can try to imitate a limp, but few can move with the combination of grace and dexterity required by someone with muscular dystrophy, let alone one as gifted in physical storytelling as Madison Ferris.

 

Famously, The Glass Menagerie ends with Tom’s injunction for Laura to “blow (her) candles out.” Perhaps fittingly, this performance was the first I’ve seen in which she flat out shakes her head and refuses to do so. This production will linger in my imagination for a long time.

 

Fuck You, Scarlett O’Hara: Gone With the Wind’s “Prissy” Revisited

Just over three quarters of a century ago, Gone With the Wind had its premiere in Atlanta. Most industry experts were confident that the movie would flop. After all, it was a four hour long color film in an era of black and white flicks that were usually less than half its length; it was a narrative about the journey of a flawed female protagonist in a medium usually privileging the stories of heroic men; it was a war film without a single battle scene; it was hampered by the firing of the original director and cameraman and incessant conflicts between producer David O Selznick and his crew; it was one of the most expensive movies ever made; and it had spiraled dramatically over-budget. “I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper,” said Gary Cooper with a singular lack of prescience. Of course, Gone With the Wind proved to be the most successful film of all time in the United States despite the relatively low cost of tickets when it was first released and its incredible running length (“hard on one’s ass,” quipped Vivien Leigh). In fact, it became perhaps the most widely seen film around the entire world over the course of the twentieth century. Rhett and Scarlett have been immortalized in global discourse as archetypical tragic lovers no less iconic or recognizable than many of their Shakespearean antecedents. “Selznick’s Folly” proved to be a canonical text in the history of world film, and the story of its making emblematic of the entire history of Golden-Age Hollywood.

While academic and critical circles tend to regard Gone With the Wind as a great achievement in spectacular entertainment rather than exceptional film art per se, I think a strong argument can be made that in the eyes of history, it should be seen as one of the most important aesthetics achievements of the twentieth century: a film that literally invented the role of production designer, pioneered the finest color cinematography of the first half of the twentieth century, challenged the boundaries of censorship, set the upper time limit and two act structure for a host of subsequent epics, and included some of the finest music and costumes ever featured on screen, all the while faithfully interpreting a Pulitzer Prize winning story grounded in strong undercurrents of feminism, to say nothing of touching the lives of untold millions of people with its message of survival in the face of adversity. Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett is, in my book, the most impressive performance I have ever seen by an actor, male or female; the entire success of the film rests on her shoulders, since she is in 95% of the scenes for the entire four hour duration (why Cameron Crowe thinks that Gable is the one who does the “heavy lifting” acting-wise in the picture is beyond me.) Gone With the Wind’s perennial appeal and craftsmanship are so powerful that today, it is virtually the only popularly respected monument to the ghosts of a dead civilization, men and women who deserve to be mourned even if their culture does not. In short, it’s a true American epic set against the backdrop of the most dramatic moment in our national history.

But these days, the movie is in need of some rehabilitation. Its very popularity and political incorrectness have blinded mainstream critics to its artistry (though there are exceptions to the rule, like Molly Haskell, who takes the film seriously). Paul Thomas Anderson even recently boasted about never having seen it, nor having any interest in doing so. Spike Lee criticized George Clooney for celebrating Hattie McDaniel’s achievement when he won his Oscar (luckily, no one criticized Mo’Nique for doing so when she also gave McDaniel a shout-out.) The Oscars are beginning to highlight The Wizard of Oz every year instead of acknowledging the true winner of 1939’s race, the most competitive in the history of the awards. Too long and “popular” for inclusion on academic curricula and tainted with a legacy of alleged racism to boot, the film’s continuing popularity belies the fact that it is becoming somewhat taboo among the self-appointed judges and preservers of art history, and fading from the forefront of the popular consciousness as a living document. This is a great shame, however. An American masterpiece is being unduly neglected.

This will be the first in a series of articles reexamining the film. We’ll begin with its most controversial aspect: the performance of Butterfly McQueen.

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Malcolm X was not a fan of Prissy in Gone With the Wind. “When Butterfly McQueen went into her act,” he wrote, “I felt like crawling under the rug.” He wasn’t alone in his disapproval of the ditsy slave girl who sweeps through the climax of the first act of the film with no less force than the whirlwind evoked in the stanza of Ernest Dowson’s poetry appropriated by Margaret Mitchell for the title of her book. In an article written in celebration of Gone With the Wind’s 75th anniversary, for example, a first-time viewer recently described the role as “horrifying,” suggesting that McQueen is nothing but a “dim-witted girl who exemplifies every negative racial stereotype.”[1] But is the role really so horrendous? Roger Ebert, for example, called her “subversive.” I concur that there’s much more going on with Prissy than meets the eye. On close inspection, the character isn’t just subversive, but openly rebellious. However, as a slave at the mercy of others, she masks her aggression behind a false veneer of passivity and helplessness impenetrable enough to escape the notice of her oppressors, but also movie-goers too horrified by appearances to take a closer look at her. Yet if my reading of one pivotal scene in the film is correct, Butterfly McQueen may have even one-upped and preempted Clark Gable’s infamous “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” by mouthing “fuck you” to Scarlett O’Hara before explicitly singing about her hope for liberation from slavery.

Gone With the Wind’s racial politics are dizzyingly dated, no doubt. The opening intertitles literally dub the days of slavery “a dream remembered,” the florid prose inducing Margaret Mitchell herself to roll her eyes during the premiere.  Films like 12 Years a Slave remind us of the horrors of the so-called peculiar institution, whose existence was a disgrace to the ideals of American history. And yet, Gone With the Wind endures as a cultural phenomenon because the problematic racial issues, while present, do not form the underpinning of the narrative as, for example, in The Birth of a Nation, whose plot gets completely derailed in the second half of the drama by an obsessive promulgation of a message of hatred. For all of its political incorrectness, Gone With the Wind remains relatively popular in modern America while older plantation-bound favorites like Song of the South have fallen to the wayside. The latest anniversary of the movie was met by the creation of a new sequel, an umpteenth box set, theatrical revivals, and several articles online and in magazines. Of course, in most cases, critics are careful to qualify their praise of the dinosaur with trigger warnings about its naïve depictions of race relations. To his credit, Selznick eliminated references to the KKK and excised the n-word from the script (he’d entertained having the black characters say it to each other for “historical accuracy” and comedic value.) Nevertheless, slavery is portrayed as largely benign; the Yankees bring hardship rather than liberation; the former slaves are manipulated by the carpetbaggers during Reconstruction; Mammy doesn’t even have a first name. And worst of all, purportedly, is Prissy, described by Rhett as a “simple minded darky.”

Gone With the Wind is a film of the 1930s, and to a large extent it deals in a naive racist shorthand when presenting its black characters. As a white commentator, I don’t want to underrate the importance of the visceral negative reactions of many viewers of color to aspects of McQueen’s performance that they see as demeaning. I don’t know what it means to watch Gone With the Wind grounded in the lived experience of an African American still suffering from the repercussions of the era romanticized in the film. Gone With the Wind is not a masterpiece due to its insights into the nature of the experience of slavery by a long shot, any more than The Merchant of Venice is a great play thanks to its understanding of Judaism. But in this article, I do want to suggest that the filmmakers portray race relationships in a way that is more nuanced than it may first appear, and that the contributions of the African American actors to the richness and complexity of the final narrative should not be underestimated. Working from a script written at the height of the Jim Crow era just 75 years after the abolition of slavery itself, they nonetheless crafted three dimensional characters that were actually quite pioneering in their complexity by the standards of 1939. This idea is usually grudgingly acknowledged in the case of Hattie McDaniel’s Academy Award winning turn as Mammy, though a writer at Time recently called her work “infantilized” and worthy of inspiring “cringing.”[2] McDaniel’s character displays a remarkable combination of wisdom, understanding, compassion, shrewdness, and even, sometimes, repressed rage; she speaks bitterly and angrily more than once, and there is an undeniable aggressiveness brewing just below the surface at many times during the movie. Her performance weeping her way up the stairs after the death of Bonnie probably clinched the Oscar for her; it’s one of the most extraordinary long takes I’ve ever seen. Her love for the child and pain at her death are excruciatingly palpable. Bodily fluids ooze from her face. It is a totally uninhibited, raw moment.

But what about Butterfly McQueen as Prissy? Is she really such a disgraceful character? To many, she seems a mere stereotype employed for comic relief. But I think that to insist upon this reading of the character is to underestimate McQueen’s talents as an actress. To begin with, believe it or not, McQueen used her real voice in the film. She wasn’t affecting that unforgettably weird tone halfway between Walt Disney’s Snow White and Minnie Mouse. Of course, one could argue that she was cast because her ultra-high pitched voice inherently spoke to offensive stereotypes, but did it really? I’ve heard of stereotypes about slaves speaking in an exaggerated dialect before, but never stereotypes of slaves speaking as if they’d just inhaled helium.She was chosen because her voice was extremely unique and in fact the very opposite of stereotypical. No one in the world sounded like her, and Selznick believed that her voice and comedic talent would make the role memorable. It wasn’t easy to get a part in a movie in 1939 as a black woman in Hollywood, let alone one who sounded like Butterfly McQueen. But she took her opportunity and rolled with it. Perhaps she thought of Hattie McDaniel’s rejoinder to her critics that she’d rather play a maid than be one. At any rate, while McQueen’s voice is distracting and strange for many viewers, to assume that it in itself denotes stupidity in the character is to make a mistake.  Referencing her choices as an actress, McQueen later said, “I didn’t mind being funny, but I didn’t like being stupid.” In fact, Prissy is far from a simpleton. She is actually very sly.

I interpret Prissy as a a rebellious character. She dislikes working as a slave, and so she puts on an act that empowers her to abrogate responsibility whenever she can. She lies to Scarlett and Doctor Meade about knowing how to deliver babies, nonchalantly endangering the life of her former owner’s wife for the mere reason that she feels like boasting. As Melanie struggles in childbirth in a life-or-death battle, Prissy shuffles about Atlanta “as slow as molasses in January,” taking her sweet time finding the doctor. She whines and cowers  when Scarlett upbraids her, but becomes calm quickly enough as soon as her mistress’ back is turned.  In fact, the more that Scarlett screams at her and threatens her, the more she whimpers and whines, but the slower she works. The character is almost lethally passive aggressive during a time of great crisis, speaking to a form of rebelliousness less satisfying to a modern perspective than the cathartic overt vengeance of Django Unchained, perhaps, but representing something altogether more realistic. As the future emperor Claudius discovered, playing the fool could sometimes have its benefits.

Consider the scene in the clip at the top of this article. As Scarlett fans the dying Melanie while they both wait for the doctor, she hears Prissy’s voice outside the window. The slave is moving as slowly as possible, and she is singing—not just any song, but “A Few More Days to Tote the Weary Load.” Could she possibly be referencing the impending ending of slavery, or is she too stupid to know the symbolic implications of the lyrics? When she encounters Scarlett, she begins her interaction in a surly manner, casually explaining that she couldn’t find the doctor and was too afraid to look for him. When Scarlett presses her, she begins to weep and whine. Scarlett leaves to find the doctor herself. She threatens “Don’t you be upsetting (Melanie), or I’ll whip the hide off you.” And then, there is this magical moment where Butterfly McQueen ad-libs a line that shows she knew exactly what she was doing with the character. Prissy straightens her back, stops sniffling so promptly it is clear that it was all an act, and proceeds to linger so long on the F of “a few more days for to tote the weary load” that it actually looks very much like she is saying “Fuck you” to Scarlett O’Hara. Unfortunately, the pivotal moment takes place just after the ending of the clip, above. But revisit the film for yourself and look for it. It’s there. Audiences often even gasp at it. In that elongated “F” is an entire history of pent up rage behind a passive aggressive veneer in which incompetence and “stupidity” can be used as weapons to avoid hard labor. I don’t think that this was the director’s contribution. I have a feeling that it was all Butterfly.

In his otherwise very cogent and engaging essay “On Plantation Politics” in Gone With the Wind, Wesley Morris suggests that “as Prissy, Butterfly McQueen is giving the same high-strung performance as Vivien Leigh. To see McQueen falling down and squawking is to think there really isn’t a huge difference between her dithering emotionalism and Scarlett’s, except that Prissy is written as a fool and Scarlett as a superhero.” There is so much wrong here that I don’t know where to begin. Prissy is clearly faking most of her theatricality; Scarlett is always completely serious, and much less over-the-top. Behind her melodramatic veneer, though, Prissy is actually a different person behind closed doors. Selznick evidently understood this about the character in a way that the original director George Cukor did not. According to McQueen, Selznick visited the set one day while Cukor was shooting a scene with Melanie in childbirth. Prissy is supposed to say, “Ma says that if you put a knife under the bed, it cuts the pain in two.” Cukor wanted her to say it hysterically. Selznick told her to cool it down and say it more calmly, perhaps to draw more of a contrast between Prissy as she normally is and Prissy when she is being passive aggressive. Cukor was furious. A few days later, he was fired. In the movie, McQueen says the line calmly. Selznick always got his way in the end. He admired McQueen, and gave her work in his subsequent epic Duel in the Sun. She plays the servant girl Vashti, a much kinder and sweeter character than Prissy, and altogether less interesting. Prissy is more diabolical and hilarious. Really, for all of the problematic baggage surrounding the performance, Butterfly McQueen steals the show in the most pivotal part of the biggest and most famous movie of all time. For better or worse, “I don’t know nothing about birthing babies” is one of the most famous lines in film history. It is usually associated in the popular imagination with incompetence. It should perhaps be associated with masked rebellion.

No discussion of Butterfly McQueen’s role in Gone With the Wind would be complete without a discussion of Scarlett’s slapping her in the face after her admission about lying. It’s a jarring moment—the heroine of the film is actually beating her slave. Gone With the Wind is often criticized for glossing over the horrors of servitude, but here, at least, is an indication that the threat of physical force is always just below the surface. Of course, Scarlett has been called “an equal opportunity slapper” who beats a whole host of other people over the course of the film, and McQueen joked that she herself would love to have slapped Prissy. But the moment is absolutely shocking to  modern audiences. I’m glad it was included. I think the audience is meant to feel a sense of callousness on the part of Scarlett that is in part reprehensible—she is not portrayed as a “superhero” in this instance.

There is a distinct disconnect between the world of the black characters and the white characters’ understanding of that world. Earlier in the film, Scarlett meets her former slaves conscripted by the Confederate army and greets them enthusiastically, but does not seem to notice that they are singing the hymn “Let My People Go.” Later, her father chastises her for behaving too brutally to Prissy and Mammy, urging her to be more gentle with “inferiors.” In the final act, while Mammy is hunched over in misery complaining about her aching back, Scarlett breaks into song, completely (and glaringly) heedless of her surrogate mother’s plight. And when Rhett leaves Georgia for England, he walks gruffly into Pork as he passes him in the hallway, aggressively bumping into him without apologizing. These microaggressions against the black characters are deliberate inclusions by the filmmakers suggestive of the dehumanizing nature of servitude in the South, or at least the obliviousness of white characters to the inner emotional landscape of their house workers. The experience of slavery is not explored very deeply in Gone With the Wind, but the thematic gulf between the complete self-involvedness of the white characters and the hurt silences and passive aggressive tactics of their black servants is certainly highlighted. All of the slaves run away from Tara except two. When Ashley complains that he “will not make money from the enforced labor and misery of others,” even Scarlett has to laugh at him. He assures her that they didn’t treat their slaves like that, and that he would have freed them all after his father died. Scarlett tactfully changes the subject.

For all of the discourse about the simpering stupidity of her character, Butterfly  McQueen was actually the most rebellious member of the cast. She refused to be literally slapped by Vivien Leigh during her climactic scene, even against the violent protests of Cukor; she said that she would scream loudly if the slap was simulated, but would take it completely silently if her face was touched. Her insistence was honored. Later, she also refused to eat watermelon on the porch of Tara. The filmmakers compromised, and she carves it in the background in the final cut of the scene (she later jokingly admitted that she regretted her obstinacy in this case; it might have been funny to spit out the seeds nonchalantly, she said, while the other characters were engaged in their melodramatics all around her). When Hattie McDaniel first auditioned for the role of Mammy, she actually visited Selznick’s office dressed like a slave, showing him that she was willing to embrace the part in all its facets, and was not ashamed of it in any way. Hattie McDaniel told Butterfly McQueen during the shooting of Gone With the Wind that she would never work in Hollywood again. “You complain too much,” she said.

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[1]http://popwatch.ew.com/2014/12/18/gone-with-the-wind-75th-anniversary/

[2] http://time.com/10650/dont-applaud-jared-letos-transgender-mammy/

(One wonders if the author of the second article didn’t accidentally mistake the characters of Prissy and Mammy. Indeed, this confusion is all but confirmed by the correction at the bottom of the article which retracted the idea that Mammy was the one who delivered the famous line about birthing babies. The adjective “infantilized” is totally wrong to describe the part of Mammy; the idea that McDaniel’s no-nonsense and aged character is in any way immature seems bizarre.)

On Beauty and Taste: A Refutation of Kant’s Aesthetics

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Is there a fundamental relationship between art and beauty, and is there a universal standard of good critical taste in art? After some reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer to both questions must be yes. But neither Winckelmann nor Fry have satisfactorily supplied the standard to which I’m referring, and while my position speciously seems to evoke Kant’s concepts of “pure taste” and “free beauty,” my model in fact necessitates the very abrogation of these categories. I realize that I am tussling with giants here—the greatest art critics of all time, and one of the greatest philosophers. I also understand that attempts to do what I’m doing here have historically been associated with the application of rigidly judgmental regulations meant to limit what constituted “good art.” These stipulations were more often than not associated with hegemonic discourse that neglected and underrated the profundity of non-traditional arts, to say nothing of masterpieces from diverse cultural traditions. I am interested in accomplishing nothing of the sort here.

Instead, I want to examine the way that autonomous subjects experience beauty, exploring why they seem to derive pleasure from the mere contemplation of proportions, which is not obvious by any means. With so much done, in a future essay I’ll go on to investigate what the implications of my model suggest about whether or not the ability to recognize beauty is the fundamental feature of effective art criticism, and whether this suggests that there are certain universally applicable standards of good taste in art as I understand it. But the first thing to do is to define “beauty” and “taste” in terms that are useful to the discussion at hand, and this task will form an appropriate preamble to my forthcoming diatribe on the contemporary state of popular criticism.

We’ve heard that “beauty is that which inspires strong positive sentiment of its own accord thanks to an object’s proportions[1] in themselves rather than any appeal to rationality; beauty acts as a sort of unmoved mover.” This definition provides us with an interesting starting point. But perhaps we can be more precise. Beauty is a good in itself because the sensual experience of the proportions associated with beauty necessarily results in strong positive sentiment. But how can this pleasure derived from the sensual experience of proportions in themselves be described? And why should an object’s mere form inspire such stirrings in the first place? What constitutes “beauty” in the simplest terms? Is it some magnificent objective property that miraculously graces certain objects but not others? Or is it an imaginary phenomenon in the mind of a subject that only exists when it is perceived?

As I understand it, a subject experiences beauty as a kind of deeply satisfying imaginary symmetry between their unconscious preexisting idea of the good (shaped partly by biology, partly by past memories, and partly by internalized cultural discourse) and their conscious perception of the immediate object in question; the more closely that the object’s features conform to preconceptions[2] of the good, the more congruous the association between unconscious exemplary expectations and conscious perception becomes, and the more beautiful the object consequently appears to the viewer. It strikes me that if this schematization is useful, beauty can be philosophically understood as a kind of pleasing tripartite association between an object, our conscious perception of it, and our unconscious preconceptions about the standards that make it “good.”

It’s worth dwelling on this model for a moment. It suggests that the pleasure associated with beauty is essentially a sense of deep satisfaction connected to the recognition and contemplation of associations related to the good; in other words, a beautiful object reminds us of our preexisting standards of the good, and we derive pleasure from the recognition of their actualization in nature. In fact, our pleasure subsequently seems to validate and confirm the original standards. After all, the contemplation of their flourishing embodiment in the form of the object under observation has just made us happy as if by magic, and the ability to inspire such spontaneous pleasure is the sole criterion of beauty. The true source of our pleasure, however, is hidden in our unconscious reasons for our personal taste. In our blindness to them, we ascribe the “beauty” to the object itself, and do not realize that it exists only as a relationship in our own minds between the object, our conscious perception of it, and our unconscious associations involving what it reminds us of.

The derivation of continued pleasure in an object’s fulfillment of unconscious aesthetic standards thus becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy—we consider certain features to be beautiful because they meet our preconceptions about what should make us happy, and their very congruity with our preconceptions when actualized in nature is enough to actually make us so. This is why beauty is an inexhaustible and endless source of pleasure in itself. The sense of free play in the mind as we dwell upon the pleasing relationship between the sum and its parts and all of the positive associations that it calls to mind produces a sense of fun and excitement. The object appears uncannily familiar to us because its constituent building blocks and the relationship between them call to mind the fulfillment of what we already yearned to see.[3]

Now, since every subject has access to a divergent store of memories and interprets and reacts to cultural discourse in radically different ways, a truly impartial or disinterested critical appraisal of beauty seems impossible to me, and here I must begin my quarrel with Kant. To make a Kantian judgment of “pure taste” is to be completely indifferent to all preconception, bias, and cultural discourse. Kant believed that such a judgment would be universally valid for all subjects. Yet if what I have said so far is correct, preconception, bias, and cultural discourse are in fact the very determinants of that which we find to be “good” in the first place, and consequently, what we consider to be beautiful. I could uncharitably compare Kantian “pure taste” to the experience of beauty from the perspective of a child, with access to few memories and little understanding of culture or history. The Kantian youth was never taught to be a sensitive judge of beauty. Their opinion is based on whims and first impressions, and they often render that which is gratifying to the sensual desires of the moment synonymous with that which is transcendentally beautiful. Indeed, as an adult, the child’s ultimate judgment of beauty will be partly informed by these infantile whims and first impressions along with a nexus of memories associated with individualized pleasures and pains engrained deep in the unconscious, structuring aesthetic taste. But the adult’s opinions will be moderated by the wisdom born of the old Confucian triad of experience, reflection, and imitation. Unfortunately for the Kantian model of a universalizing judgment of pure taste, however, this wisdom necessarily makes the child less disinterested and impartial, because prejudices and expectations are the attendant consequences of its acquisition.

To be fair, Kant distinguishes between free beauty and contingent beauty; the former can supposedly be understood through “pure taste,” and the latter is dependent upon cultural discourse and preconceptions that stand apart from the mere pleasure that the sensual experience of an object brings us in itself. It seems to me, however, that any subjective claim of beauty is necessarily contingent, insofar as the delight that we experience when we perceive an object is, as I have said before, derived from the recognition of an imaginary symmetry between our perception of an object and individualized standards of goodness grounded in highly personal memories and reactions to biological factors and/or cultural discourse brewing in our unconscious.

To explore whether or not this is the case, let’s look to some examples of objects that might be categorized as Kantian “free beauties” accessible to judgments of pure taste alone, examining how they might problematize or challenge the formula that I’ve just suggested. There are three potential categories of “free beauties” which might be thought to be universally appealing to all subjects capable of taste according to widely held human intuitions about beauty: geometric beauty, certain elegances associated with biological fertility, and the experience of the infinite, or sublime.[4] We will find that even in these special cases, drawn mostly from the world of nature, my descriptive model of beauty and taste will hold water.

I am indebted to Elizabeth Prettejohn’s book Art and Beauty for the idea that “free beauty” accessible to “pure taste” can perhaps most usefully be understood as the loveliness of geometric form in itself. There is a particular kind of beauty associated with simple shapes that might seem to be universally compelling to any subject capable of forming an aesthetic judgment. Human intuition seems to tell us that there is something transcendentally awesome about the grandeur of a perfect snowflake. Indeed, humans find the loveliness of fractals in general to be so intuitive that an aesthetic judgment of a snowflake as a beautiful object is completely uncontroversial in any earthly society. And the human imagination is stretched to the absolute limit by the idea of someone being able to find a pristine snowflake ugly; perhaps a terrible curmudgeon could call it banal, but never ugly. By its very nature, it exhibits a sense of delicate balance between rhetorical categories that are polar opposites to each other, paradoxically reconciling them in a single elegant unbroken shape. Fractals in general can be understood as visual representations of pattern on the brink of chaos. They exhibit impossibly delicate symmetries reinterpreted in infinite creative swirls. The mere contemplation of the complexity and evanescence of something like a snowflake inspires effervescence. We delight in its crystalline delicacy. Its very existence inspires wonder. The object is also completely uncontroversial; an appreciation for the elegance of its shapes threatens no discourse on power, and so discourse in general spares the snowflake from charges of ugliness. Even if the symbol of the Nazis were a snowflake, the shape itself wouldn’t be inherently offensive. It would still be beautiful in itself, though context could of course render it hideous by association.

Yet the matter is not so simple. It immediately strikes me that if an intelligent robot incapable of aesthetic judgment but eager to understand the concept of “ free beauty” were to read my last paragraph, they might charge that I did nothing but describe an object like a snowflake in language that was itself “beautiful,” asserting its relationship to “the good” but trying to prove my point only by using elaborate words and analogies to describe the object in question, adding no new information about it. Regardless of how strong a writer I am, I employed sophisticated vocabulary, rhetorical devices like parallel structure and alliteration, and anthropomorphic terminology: verbs like “exhibit,” “reinterpret” and “create” and nouns like “delicacy” and “elegance.” If my readers were convinced by my description that the snowflake is transcendentally beautiful, it was only because they found my prose to be “beautiful.”

What about the snowflake wouldn’t the robots understand that seems so intuitive to humans? I would suggest that the fractal pattern reminds humans of the very structure of their unconscious associations between concepts and memories by way of visual analogy. To use a simpler shape than a fractal as an example, a subject might find an abstract painting of triangle without a base to be beautiful because the three points of the figure can stand by symbolic analogy for three ideas, with the lack of the base representing the lack of a connection between two of the concepts—perhaps someone might think of her husband and her best friend from grammar school, two people who both loved her, but have no relationship to each other. The shape might also remind the observer of a sharp surface like the tip of a dagger, which might call to mind stories of romance or adventure, depending on one’s mood. You see the point. The geometric object’s beauty comes from the way that we humanize it by investing its qualities with symbolic overtones that are interesting to humans because they speak to our memories and experiences. But if this is true, then only subjects capable of reasoning by symbolic analogy are capable of finding a snowflake to be beautiful. Other animals care nothing for its symbolic overtones. For them, it is at best striking, or visually arresting. However, though the ant finds no snowflake to be beautiful, it does in fact experience beauty in other contexts in the form of the elegances of its mating games. In the same way, the ant lives in a society governed by rules, but would never be able to understand the concept of abstract justice. Humans are different from other animals because we were able to transfer our delight in the byzantine intricacies of our own mating games (the original biological locus of our idea of “beauty,” as we will see, below) to a delight in abstract representations of geometrical complexity in general by means of analogy. The word “elegant” can be used to describe a snowflake, but the terminology tellingly evokes concepts associated with sex and reproduction.

Thus, the contemplation of the snowflake only reveals beauty because the sight of the object leads to a free play in the mind as we personify its features and play about with psychosexual analogies inspired by its constituent parts. Our preexisting standards are nevertheless still structured by biology, our memories, and cultural discourse. Biology provides a tendency to associate the qualities of being intricate and symmetrical with healthfulness in the mating game. Memories associated with the close observation of shimmering, delicate, and harmless objects are likely to be positive or innocuous. And cultural discourse proverbially enshrines the idea that a snowflake is something beautiful; to be insensitive to its intricacies is to declare oneself barbarous and close-minded. But in fact, the pristine snowflake is no more inherently beautiful to all subjects than a filthy hailstone is. Consider that when it comes to mere form, any object can inspire a wealth of potential symbolic analogies, from a crack in the sidewalk to the Mona Lisa. What makes an object “beautiful” is our anchoring of those series of analogies in a sense that the object we are looking at is making us spontaneously happy, drawing us to continue looking at it. Something about it inspires us to linger and imagine. Beauty can be found in some measure in all things by a sensitive viewer, particularly when an object is viewed in close detail. Under a microscope, divorced of contaminating context, all things are beautiful. But only to a viewer capable of reasoning by sophisticated symbolic analogy, and one preprogrammed with standards of the good whose fulfillment results in a feeling of pleasure.[5]

So much for geometric beauty. Now, let’s consider the elegances associated with biological fertility more closely. Human intuition suggests that there is something inherently beautiful about a thriving rose in full bloom. Its vivid scent and colors were shaped by evolution to attract animals to spread its seed. So too the magnificent plumage of a peacock, or the intricate courtship songs of several different species of insects. Could Kantian “free beauty” be associated with an identity as a thriving member of a class exhibiting healthfulness rather than sickliness? To put it another way, that which is “flourishing” can be defined as the most likely of its class to reproduce in beauty. So if we recognize a flourishing state, do we inherently recognize the transcendentally beautiful? The strongest affirmative argument might be presented in the following way: All flourishing members of a class are necessarily beautiful, because the concept of “flourishing” necessarily involves the concept of the “good,” and if something is comprehended to be flourishing on the basis of its proportions alone, then the “good” must be evoked in the subject’s mind automatically, and the object is thus necessarily beautiful according to the Kimelian definition.

But the argument does not hold water. In the first place, we should remember that truth and beauty are distinct categories: they can both be conceptualized as inherently “good” in themselves, but the truth is not necessarily universally beautiful. We must not mistake the comprehension of the truth (such as the recognition of the fact that something is flourishing and exhibiting traits associated with being healthy) with a universalizing aesthetic judgment of beauty. We can take intellectual pleasure in our awareness of the truth, which is a good in itself, without reveling in the proportions of the object that we are scrutinizing. An appreciation of beauty is something deeper than mere understanding—we not only recognize the truth about an object, but associate that truth with pre-programmed ideas about what is good for us individually on the basis of taste. The elegances of a flourishing cockroach might be beautiful to other cockroaches but are not inherently so to human subjects, even if they recognize that the beast is flourishing according to the aesthetic standards of other monsters. Moreover, that which constitutes a flourishing state is very much shaped by context. A white coat might make it difficult for a certain species of rabbit to stand out in the mating game, but when climate change brings about colder winters, their brightly colored rivals will appear no different, but no longer be flourishing.

However, even if the elegances of the mating game do not redeem “free beauty” and “pure taste,” they are still of great importance to my conceptual model of aesthetic judgment. The first and murkiest experience of beauty must have come into existence among animals who preferred sensory displays in their mates that were associated with healthfulness (symmetrical features, a powerful voice, etc.) to sensory displays that were associated with sickliness and weakness (the original form of “ugliness”). Tellingly, we did not evolve in such a way that we automatically associate all sources of pain with the ugly. Fire is inherently harmful, and so is looking at the sun, but neither the sun nor a flame are at all ugly to human perception, though they are both dangerous. At the same time, the most lethal plants can be vividly colored; the wing of the butterfly, one of the great masterpieces of nature, evolved to advertise toxicity. The brilliant colors did not delight other animals; they only startled them. The upshot of all of this is clear. Animals did not evolve to find the dangerous to be ugly, or the striking to be beautiful. We evolved to find the sickly and that which leads to contamination through direct contact to be ugly. And we evolved to find those proportions and characteristics associated with the attributes of flourishing and healthy members of our own kind to be beautiful.

Thus, it seems to me that only the evolution of mating rituals distinguishing between the healthy and the weak provided animals with the possibility of experiencing beauty, though preferences for different kinds of foods might have been an earlier antecedent of aesthetic taste. Before these rituals came into existence and were abstracted by intelligent analogy to other dramatic and elaborate displays in nature, no animal could possibly find the wing of a butterfly to be beautiful, except for another butterfly. At best, it was visually striking. That which is striking often constitutes beauty, but is not necessarily synonymous with it. To the fly, a corpse dies in beauty—the aroma is intoxicating, and the greens and blues and purples of the rotting flesh teem with new life in the form of maggots. But to us, the condition of a corpse essentially delineates ugliness.

There is a final category to consider: the sublime. The lone wolf howls at the moon and feels the wind against its snout as it peers over a valley, hungering for something indescribable. Objects or images called sublime are diverse, but often have this unifying element in common: they involve the juxtaposition of grand opposing categories, such as the very large with the very small. The sublime is the feeling of a man staring out over the ocean on a snowy cliff as he contemplates his microscopic place in a mysterious universe. Perhaps the vista ennobles him because it reminds him that he is a part of something grander than himself. But lovely as the image might be to human intuitions, the idea that the grandeur of such scenes should necessarily be synonymous with Kant’s “free beauty” is not at all compelling. There exists inherent conceptual tension when the finite meets the infinite, it is true. But to put it more bluntly and less romantically, small animals feel a sense of awe and intimidation in the presence of things that are larger than they are. That which we call the sublime seems to me to be nothing more than this same feeling masquerading under a more highfalutin moniker. The vista overlooking the misty ocean is associated with the concepts of the infinite and the large, but not necessarily with the good. The lone wolf might well have looked over the valley and felt a sense of deep repugnance rooted in its loneliness being trapped alone and without his pack in a terrifying dark void; dens and closed spaces are more comforting than punishing dramatic mountaintops.

I imagine that humans only found the visual experience of the sublime to be beautiful around the same time that we first found fire to be beautiful. Rather than cowering from the flame, we looked into its shimmering movements and took delight in them because our ability to reason by analogy had grown to be so powerful that we could read the best things about our own world into the moving inferno—in the flame’s flickering, we could perceive the elegant movements of a writhing, flamboyant dance that we could not join, but could at least control so that we could gaze at it at our leisure. It brought us warmth and light. And when it washed over our food, it made it more delicious. It added beauty to our lives thanks to its proportions in themselves. It became worthwhile to care for it and nurture it at the hearth, like a child. The bestial values of physical attractiveness and the pleasurable satiation of hungers had been transferred onto nature by means of analogy. For the first time, fire, that embodiment of danger, was in fact perceived as a beautiful object to be tamed and nurtured. And human nature would never be the same again. The will to conquer the sublime in the same way that we capture mates and control our children (and for the same psychosexual reasons) became foundational to the progress of the species. Fire was the first pet, the first slave, and the first tool of civilization. The ability to find it beautiful by analogy to the human experience transformed the human experience.

***

[1] By “proportions,” I mean relationships between wholes and their constituent parts—whether spatial, thematic, etc.

[2] The constellation of these preconceptions brewing in the unconscious constitute individual taste.

[3] It is a fascinating philosophical question, whether the most dramatic alien landscape in outer space can be described as beautiful even if it is never beheld. Regardless of whether the vista would contain features that humans would unanimously find beautiful, it seems to me that beauty only exists when it is perceived, and that all things are potentially beautiful depending on the viewer’s perspective and proximity. The fact remains, though, that a beautiful object provides pleasure principally because it reminds us of what brought us pleasure in the past, or because cultural discourse tells us that certain standards should be held valuable, or because our genes have programmed us to find certain features automatically attractive.

[4] Kant himself does not mention these examples, but they are the closest things that I can imagine to objects that might speciously seem to be universally beautiful to all subjects.

[5] An intelligent robot might find the snowflake interesting because it inspires visual and conceptual analogies. But it only finds it beautiful when it is preprogrammed with aesthetic standards whose fulfillment is synonymous with the “good,” leading it to preference the object over others. Otherwise any abstract shape could have served just as well to inspire analogies. There is nothing special about the snowflake, except the intuition that delicate ordered existence in the face of the enormous indifference of the universe is something precious and inherently beautiful. This is an important intuition, and the origin of much good in history. But according to this standard, all things that exist are beautiful, and the snow flake is no better. A robot would find a diamond no more inherently beautiful than a pebble.

A Debate Judged By Hume Between Kant, Winckelmann, Fry, and Kimel On Art and Beauty, Part 2

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Kant: Oh no you didn’t, Fry. Get ready to be schooled. I have the final word on aesthetics.

You began with a string of ad hominem attacks on Winckelmann, if memory serves. All that I’ll say on this score is that we don’t have to psychoanalyze Michelangelo to appreciate the beauty of the muscular forms of the Sistine Chapel. You shouldn’t attack Winckelmann’s theory so hastily just because you think that you’ve contextualized his reasons for holding it.

With that being said, for all of the arrogance of your speech, it seems like you didn’t actually listen to Winckelmann at all. He acknowledges that art inspires aesthetic ideas. The difference is, he insists that these aesthetic ideas are separate and distinct in nature from the work of art itself, to say nothing of our evaluation of it on a gut level. You mentioned Picasso, didn’t you? Well, there’s good reason to find many paintings by Picasso perfectly hideous. In fact, I dare say that the artist deliberately employs ugliness to inspire aesthetic ideas in his viewers. But this doesn’t change the fact that his paintings are ugly.  Your theory of formalism purports to provide a revolutionary new mechanism by which to evaluate modern art.  In the end, though, you’re just like Winckelmann. You analyze the piece closely and describe in exhaustive prose the way it makes you feel. The only difference is, you don’t dismiss works that are ugly on face, because even they can inspire rapturous prose if something about them excites your intellect. Perhaps the uglier the better–in your eyes, your worth as a critic increases the more you can persuasively convince others to be blind to what they seem to see.

But at some point, your theory devolves into absurdity. For consider this–over yonder is the piece of shit that you inadvertently stomped upon when we were on the way here. We can all agree that it’s hardly art. And yet, I can describe it as art according to your theory of formalism in perfectly serious terms. “The pungent odor is meant to represent the horrors of the modern condition. At the same time, the spontaneous way that the coarse, brown material is strewn and smudged left and right symbolizes the diffuse nature of post-modern man.” Clearly, something has gone wrong here. Your theory, purporting to dismiss beauty, instead renders all objects equally valid as art if they can be rhetorically interpreted according to some sort of aesthetic standard. Your philosophy led directly to a world in which museums came to exhibit trash and call it treasure, duping the gullible populace with hype and shock value.

Now, let me enlighten you about the true relationship between art and beauty, and explain why your theory is really an inferior corruption of my original argument. I contend that the greatest critic of art should necessarily be the most disinterested one–a lack of bias should be the universal standard that grounds taste. When we make a judgment of pure taste, taste alone is involved in the process. Rational notions–aesthetic ideas and all–must not come into the matter. After all, the only reasons that our past experience might influence our perception of beauty have nothing to do with our inherent faculties of sense perception. We react to beauty differently, of course, but we all recognize it universally. If I make a judgment of pure taste, all of the secondary ideas extrinsic to the object itself should be set aside. I want to approach the work from as disinterested a vantage point as possible.  By which I mean, if I am to be a pure and unbiased subject, I must set aside all the quirks which individuate me, and approach the object as an impartial viewer from a neutral vantage point. Any judgment of beauty according to this standard is necessarily universalizing–after all, if others approach an object from a truly impartial perspective, as I did, they must reach the same conclusions, because I reached them first, and I was similarly completely disinterested. And so I contend that it is the critic with the least bias who is closest to an understanding of the true and catholic beauty to which all great artists aspire.

Ultimately, what I find beautiful is beautiful for everyone, or else what you call “aesthetic ideas” have come into the picture, and we are no longer dealing with a judgment of pure taste at all. And ultimately, because we cannot help but react first and foremost to beauty or its absence when we view a work of art, the nature of beauty is fundamental to the nature of art itself. Indeed, all other considerations are secondary, and mired in critical bias.

Ultimately, Fry, there’s no salvaging your case. You begin by approaching a work of art from a disinterested perspective, as I did, and then consider it in terms of its geometry alone, on the hunt for “significant form.” And by “significant form,” you really mean “the beauty of the aesthetic ideas that this inspires in my imagination.” Consequently, no matter what you do, you are evaluating the piece according to the presence or absence of beauty. But instead of considering the beauty of the thing itself, you vainly deify the beauty of your own imagination as you react to the piece. Yet this soon devolves into absurdity, since according to this standard, anything can be interpreted according to aesthetic standards, and art loses meaning; its greatness exists only in the mind of the critic describing it. To make matters worse, your judgment is not one of pure taste at all, since it is completely contingent on your secondary impressions. And so, I rest my case.

At this, Kant was silent, and the three men turned to me in anticipation of my speech on the matter.

“Gentlemen,” I said, “what do I know? I’m only an anthropomorphic lawnmower!”

A Debate Judged by Hume Between Kant, Winckelmann, Fry, and Kimel on Art and Beauty, Part 1

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Some years ago, I dreamed that I was an anthropomorphic lawnmower chugging through rolling hills. I happened to meet Kant and Winckelmann, who were having a picnic and discussing the question, “What is the relationship between art and beauty?”

Kimel: Gentleman, when I heard that Kant and Winckelmann were going to be debating aesthetics and that I was invited here as the honorary judge, I rolled here as quickly as I could, even though I’m a busy appliance and have a lot of weeds to mow. So by all means, have at it, but try to hurry if you can.

Kant: But we didn’t invite you here as the judge. That’s Hume’s job. He’ll be here any moment. Winckelmann is my debate partner tonight. He’ll be the first speaker, and I’ll be the third. Pick a teammate of your own, and let’s begin as quickly as possible, before you wake up. My only request is that you record this dream, if you remember it.

Kimel: Alright, then. I choose Roger Fry, father of modern art criticism. He’ll be the second speaker, and I’ll be the fourth. But what’s the topic?

Kant: Whether all great art aspires to beauty, and if there is a universal standard of taste.

Hume and Fry presently materialized out of thin air. We took our places on opposite sides of the picnic table, and then we began the round. Winckelmann was the first to speak.

Winckelmann: The issue we’re considering is the relationship between art and beauty. Well, I’m confident that there can be no real debate on this question. All great artists aspire to create beauty, and they can accordingly be judged according to universalizing and objective standards concerned with how well they achieve this end. I would go so far as to say that any society which fails to recognize that art is fundamentally in the service of beauty possesses no sense of the superiority of balance, harmony, and proportion over their degenerate opposites immoderation, dissonance, and excess.

Now, during golden ages, technical standards of artistry are high, and authors produce finely tailored works of art marked by the features of balance, harmony, and proportion, which are, as I’ve already mentioned, the very hallmarks of beauty. At other time periods, though, these technical standards fall into precipitous decline. When hideous art is produced, on at least some level, viewers will invariably find themselves repulsed, though they might deceive themselves into calling an abomination a masterpiece, or lie about their true impressions to impress other people.

But when they make such a judgment, they aren’t evaluating the art itself; far from it! Instead, they’re weighing their own ideas associated with the piece—what the artist might have been saying, why he might have been saying it, and how he might have been saying it. These concepts, however, only exist in the imaginations of the viewers. In other words, they are extrinsic to the object itself, which can only be judged for good or ill on its own merits according to the sole criterion of beauty. And by beauty, again, I mean that which inspires strong positive sentiment of its own accord thanks to its proportions in themselves rather than any appeal to rationality; beauty acts as a sort of unmoved mover. Don’t blindly disagree with me just because your own society might produce inferior art—subconsciously, you must realize the horrible ugliness of your era, a world in which the inventor of the photograph dealt a death blow to all standards of technical craftsmanship, and utilitarian concerns rendered every urban cityscape a labyrinth of bombastic rhombuses. You call giant utilitarian boxes “architecture” and gory spectacles of violence “theater.” But history will have its say in the end, and expose the aesthetic standards of your era as degenerate.

Fry: Fuck Winckelmann, that took a long time. Your conclusions are totally misguided. Maybe because you were always subconsciously on the hunt for male beauty, you found in art criticism an outlet that empowered you to wax lyrically about it, discovering the one niche in your society where your desires could be discussed with poetic rapture yet moral impunity—the realm of nude Greek and Roman statuary. God knows that you wrote long and florid descriptions of ancient sculptures, describing them with a kind of scientific accuracy. So they call you the father of art history. But your theory that all artists are blindly groping at beauty, and that some geniuses have better eyesight than others, is preposterous.

In your time, the vast majority of Greek and Roman statues were undated. Trying to impose a chronological framework on the chaotic surviving evidence, you developed the theory that the art you found most beautiful was associated with the periods of the greatest human freedom. And so, the statues which you thought the best (usually exhibiting toned physiques and the balance and proportion associated with athletic male forms) were all said to come from the 5th century BC, the period of ancient democracy at its height. But the problem is, your theory was totally wrong. You arranged the statues completely arbitrarily. The true chronological sequence is often totally different from what you expected. You deified your own subconscious ideas about beauty to the point of claiming them as the foundations for an objective standard, but actually failed to create a universal paradigm useful to critics in all times and places.

Now, let me enlighten you about the true relationship between art and beauty, and teach you not to tussle with real philosophers. Beauty is not something objective–it exists in the eye of the beholder, as every schoolboy knows. What you think beautiful is not necessarily universally appealing to everyone.  There is no consensus when it comes to beauty, only a chorus of impressions. What is universal is the free interplay of ideas that comes about in the imagination when an observer experiences art. Why is a painting by Picasso a masterpiece? Because it has significant form. The arrangement of shapes inspires the mind to reflect on aesthetic ideas, though the piece itself might be disharmonious and turbulent. Beauty has nothing to do with the matter. Before the invention of the photograph, painters were praised for technical proficiency. But now we’re free to embrace art that is not necessarily harmonious or balanced or true to life, including non-western art, to which Greco-Roman naturalism is foreign. The aesthetic ideas the thing inspires are infinitely more important than the object’s beauty. And so I rest my case. My theory of formalism has completely supplanted all of your ideas, and is the final word on the interpretation of art.

At this point, Kant stepped forward…