April 9th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Euthanasia: A truly counter-cultural perspective from history

CANBERRA OBSERVED Harsh realities a bridge too far for this election

EDITORIAL Malcolm Turnbull's election strategy emerges

FAMILY AND SOCIETY SSCA sets mines to basic building blocks of society

DOMESTIC AND FAMILY VIOLENCE Never mind the issue: this is the agenda

ASIA-PACIFIC AFFAIRS Taiwan, China find rapport over South China Sea

ART AND CULTURE Beauty and the beholder

OPINION Labor's princeling class licks dole plate clean

SEX ABUSE ROYAL COMMISSION Truth takes a back seat: scapegoating Cardinal Pell

POLITICAL HISTORY The Labor Split spillover

MUSIC Minimalism more than the sum of Arvo Pärt

CINEMA More like home than utopia: Zootopia

BOOK REVIEW Retrieving meaning

BOOK REVIEW Midget submarine op

BOOK REVIEW A Jewish view of universal ethics


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Beauty and the beholder

by Brian Coman

News Weekly, April 9, 2016

The provincial city in which I live, Bendigo, has just acquired (on loan) a three-storey-high statue of Marilyn Monroe that stands in our city park. On days of inclement weather, the citizens of Bendigo can take shelter under her flowing dress and peer up at her underwear. None of the local feminists has complained, as far as I know.

This “installation” is part of a Marilyn Monroe Exhibition being staged by the local art gallery. Gallery curator Tansy Curtin admits that “it does tread a fine line between fine art and kitsch”. However, she goes on to point out Australia’s “great love affair” with large sculptures, bringing to our attention the Big Prawn, the Big Crayfish, the Big Banana. In line with the exhibition, The La Trobe University Campus at Bendigo is offering a fully accredited elective subject, Exhibiting Culture: Marilyn.

No apologies to Andy Warhol.

I have no doubt that the Marilyn exhibition will be a great success. Previous ventures along similar lines have brought huge crowds to Bendigo. The art gallery people up here know how to pull a crowd. Whether or not they have the same acumen in relation to judging artistic merit is another matter.

To be honest I am in no position to pass judgement upon their choice, but then neither, I suspect, is anyone these days. For it seems to be the case nowadays that the only measure of artistic merit is popularity. And this brings us directly to that thorny question of how we are to make judgements concerning artistic merit.

We could start with a comparison. Not far from the Marilyn Monroe statue in Bendigo, perhaps 500 metres as the crow flies, is Sacred Heart Cathedral. Begun in 1896, the cathedral was not completed until 1977. Built in the gothic style it is, by comparison with the great European cathedrals, a dwarf. Nonetheless, its imposing spire, tipped by a three-tonne bronze cross, rises 86 metres into the sky and is visible throughout the city.

Like its European counterparts, it has its fierce gargoyles, its carved foliage, its impressive pipe organ, its relics and, above all else, its sacred geometry. Its great bells (a recent acquisition) ring out the Angelus each day to a largely indifferent or ignorant audience. It is filled with great works of art. The cathedra, or bishop’s chair, was hand-carved from Austrian oak by Tyrolese woodcarver Ferdinand Stuflesser of St Ulrich, Groden. There are beautiful tapestries hanging from the walls, chalices of silver and gold, and richly embroidered vestments. True enough, it attracts its quota of tourists, for it is part of the local touring circuit. But you may be sure that the Marilyn Monroe exhibition will attract a far greater number.

So, you are left to wonder just how a demountable steel and aluminium structure fashioned in the likeness of a 1950s film star and sex symbol, can not only measure up artistically to a cathedral, but can draw more public interest – especially on Sundays (and in Lent)!

Most modern treatises on aesthetics inform the lay reader of just about every aspect of the field except the very aspect the non-specialist wishes to pursue: namely, the possibility of objective standards in the appreciation of beauty. The difficulty in arriving at a shared conception of beauty is certainly not a new one: the phrase de gustibus non est disputandum dates back a very long way indeed, perhaps to the Middle Ages. Of course, back then, they may have limited their observations purely to what they might have termed “lower” tastes.

Certainly, from the 18th century onward, the question of objectivity in the judgement of art – which I here equate with the judgement of the beautiful – becomes a very problematical one indeed. And yet there is an obvious difficulty in deciding that beauty is merely a subjective thing, for in that case the very concept of beauty would not be communicable. Whatever the theorists might say, each of us does have some notion of beauty and, to some extent at least, we can communicate and share that notion with others.

The key concept that differentiates the modern view of beauty from ancient views lies in what famous 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant calls “disinterestedness”. Kant wants to draw a sharp distinction between moral judgements and judgements relating to beauty. To judge an action to be morally good is to become aware that one has a duty to perform the action, and to become so aware is to gain a desire to perform it. But the awareness involved in judging an object to be beautiful is a disinterested awareness because it does not involve us in any consequent action of duty.

Other 18th-century moral philosophers took much the same view – David Hume, the Earl of Shaftsbury and Francis Hutcheson being prominent examples. They differed from Kant in that they viewed all pleasure as “disinterested”, even the pleasure of some virtuous moral act.

This move of the 18th-century philosophers had the effect of cutting off the metaphysical base which had, hitherto, underpinned the notion of the beautiful for, in earlier times, the contemplation of Beauty was anything but disinterested. In the West, that metaphysical base dates back to ancient Greece and it continued throughout the Christian era up until the Reformation.

We could begin with the Pythagoreans, for whom Beauty was intimately associated with mathematics – ratios and proportions and, indeed, numbers themselves. Even today, you might hear or read of a mathematician who praises another for his or her “elegant” or “beautiful” solution to a particular mathematical problem.

With Plato, the concept of the beautiful is clear – Beauty is one of the Forms. However, beauty in art and poetry is another matter altogether. Indeed, Plato has a very low opinion of poets, artists and playwrights, and the most that he might say of their productions (on a positive note) is that they are very poor imitations of those Forms which they struggle to represent. For all that, we might say of any earthly scene or of any artistic production, that its merit or otherwise consists entirely on its ability to transmit to us the boundless beauty of that Form which it struggles to represent.

The medieval Schoolmen, following Aristotle, based their theory of beauty on the concept of Being. A thing is not fully beautiful until it achieves all that its nature calls for: that is to say, until it fully realises its kind of being. In his Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas identifies three attributes required for the full realisation of beauty – integrity (or completeness), clarity and proportion. Clarity refers to the degree to which an entity – a being – is able to radiate its brilliance of form; while proportion refers to the harmonious arrangement of parts within a being in relation to its end.

Now these older conceptions of the beautiful stand in stark opposition to the more modern notion of “disinterestedness”. The former require of the recipient an active involvement. The contemplation of the beautiful is a means of achieving the ultimate goal of union with the One or, for Christians, a portal for Grace and, ultimately for union with Beauty itself in the Beatific Vision. All beauty has a Divine referent. This is as true for Homer as it is for Aquinas. All of Homer’s images of nature shimmer with the Divine and all of nature operates through Divine intention.

Within a tradition, be it early Greek religion or medieval Christianity, the concept of beauty was, therefore, a shared understanding that relied on an objective truth. Beauty did not reside in the eye of the beholder but came from elsewhere, and it was the business of the human intellect or human soul to discern that beauty and render it intelligible to us.

One of the unintended consequences of the Reformation was to destroy this earlier notion of metaphysical Beauty and to replace it with a more sterile and puritanical view of nature. The aesthetic and the moral, hitherto closely aligned, now opposed each other. To take wilful pleasure in nature or human images of nature was almost sinful. This was the Reformers’ reaction to what they saw as the excesses of medieval and renaissance Christianity. Greek philosophy was to be shunned for, in their eyes, it had infected the pure simplicity of the Gospels and led humanity astray. It is from this base that the 18th-century philosophers proceed. Their new theories of aesthetics do away with metaphysics and in its place they seem to imagine another sense organ, not unlike those dealing with smell or sight, which receive and transmit Hume’s “tastes” or “sentiments”.

Most modern commentators in aesthetics produce weighty tomes on “intentionality”, “response theories of art”, “art objects”, etc. There are long discussions on Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, and on Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. (a cheap reproduction of the Mona Lisa upon which he painted a moustache and beard). I find the stuff pretty much unreadable. It opens the floodgates to the banal, the ugly, the offensive and, yes, the satanic. Beauty has long been banished and we might, like St Augustine, cry out in our loss: “Too late have I loved you, O Beauty of ancient days.”

One of the most curious consequences of this loss is the fervour of disbelievers when it comes to the appreciation of Beauty. Militant atheists are almost always at great pains to let you know just how much they love Bach’s B Minor Mass, or the great icon paintings or the “numinosity of the night sky” (as Phillip Adams once exclaimed). They want, nay, demand that you appreciate just how redundant any metaphysical view of Beauty is. They are perfectly capable of experiencing the highest feelings of emotion, passion, etc. without any need of some higher referent.

But this, it seems to me, is entirely false. The experience gained from listening to, say, the St Matthew Passion must surely be of a heightened order for a serious Christian believer. When we come to that passage where Peter denies Christ for the third time, then repents his actions, the words and music of the aria Erbarme dich, mein Gott must surely evoke a response from a believer that differs from that of an unbeliever. The former deals with a real and personal sorrow and repentance, because the subject matter is a revealed Truth, not just a story. Peter’s is the very predicament of the believer, who so often denies Christ in his or her own life. And this, surely, is Bach’s very position too. For goodness sake, it is why he wrote the work! This, of course, is vigorously denied by many non-believers.

It is easy to see why this position of the more militant unbeliever is so rigorously expounded because it gets to the very heart of the issue at stake. If there is, indeed, a real inspiration (taking that word in its original meaning) involved in great works of art and a metaphysical reality at work in our appreciation of such art – the Form of Beauty – then the whole modern approach to art is on very shaky ground indeed.

But that is not all that is at stake. If we are to accept Beauty as an expression of the Good, then how are we to interpret so much modern art that seeks actually to deface the Good? I am thinking here of works like Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ, or of those who fashion their “artwork” in horse faeces.

Those who do believe in the reality of the Good must, I think, entertain the corresponding reality of the satanic, however it might be represented. If, for instance you believe with Aquinas that Beauty involves clarity, proportion and integrity, then the exhibition of a blank canvass (or, as in one case, a blank studio) as art is a deliberate attack on the notion of Beauty. You are urged to contemplate the very negation of Being.

Of course, it is unfashionable to speak of Satan these days. “Enlightened” Churchmen give him a wide berth and he is pretty much reduced to a comic strip character with horns and an arrowhead on his tail. The difficulty arises, of course, when we attribute reality to the Good, for then the Socratic idea of evil as mere ignorance will hardly account for deliberate attacks on the Good.

“But surely,” you say, “the Marilyn statue is just a bit of fun.”

That depends entirely upon your perspective. Looking down from his cathedral tabernacle, the Author of Being and of Beauty might very well have another image in mind when he sees Marilyn. He might see your delight as similar to that expressed by those onlookers who enjoyed the sight of the bull of Phalaris and the charming music emitting from its mouth. The brazen bull of the tyrant Phalaris, so the story goes, was hollow and, inside it the tyrant’s victims were slowly roasted alive. By ingenious contrivances, the screaming of the agonised victims came out of the bull’s mouth as a pleasant melody.

But, if you are a “modernist”, I don’t want to frighten you. Think of this essay as just another “expression” or “representation”, and all those nasty thoughts will evaporate. Disinterest – that’s the ticket!

All you need to know about
the wider impact of transgenderism on society.
TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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