Monday, March 23, 2009

On Beauty...

Fascinating debate in The Observer yesterday, springing from a live one at the Royal Geographical Society as to whether Britain has become indifferent to beauty.

I have a few things to add and invite you to do the same...

First, I reckon people in general love beauty. But today's decision-makers and creators in art, architecture, music and more have a narrow idea of what popular beauty constitutes and they don't like it: it is out-dated, being associated with the 18th and 19th centuries. An attitude derived from Socialist Realism has dominated everything from TV to concert-hall design for the last 50 years or more. If and when a semblance of beauty exists, it often seems suspect because it's associated with the wrong kind of politics: those of the first half of the 20th century. Thought process: beauty=conservatism=evil.

This, though, confuses beauty with prettiness. Beauty, genuine beauty, has nothing to do with politics, isn't skin deep and on the surface may not be pretty in the slightest. Personally, I think that beauty is what results when a work of art spirals into more than the sum of its parts, telling us a startling truth about the human condition, mainly through compassion and empathy. I found the film The Lives of Others beautiful, because it carried a powerful message about feeling, suffering and sacrifice. Even Apocalypse Now has a strange and terrifying beauty to it. There's nothing pretty about either film; nor about Salman Rushdie's overwhelming novel Midnight's Children, full of beauty that springs from the power and gleeful originality of the man's virtuoso imagination.

The performing musicians I most admire share qualities that make their playing beautiful: attention to the detail of tone, shape, colour, but most of all to the soul beneath the music. Bashing the hell out of a piano has nothing to do with this (unless a composer has specifically requested it); nor does playing a violin in strict metronomic time with banned vibrato just because it is deemed 'correct'. It's about empathy, intuition, humanity. It's about understanding the composer, the work and and the instrument, about knowing how to bring out the best in all of them.

As for new music, beauty exists, but it is certainly undervalued and bizarrely feared. It was the profound and very unexpected beauty of Gorecki's Third Symphony that made it so popular; of course it was criticised for that. Yet it does contain beauty, wrought by digging deep and opening up a ravine of intense humanity. And James MacMillan's opera The Sacrifice, the little of it I heard, struck me as incredibly beautiful, but certainly not pretty.

Meanwhile we had to have The Minotaur on primetime TV, which probably put a bunch of people off modern opera for life. It wasn't either pretty or beautiful. It was powerful in its way, but noisy, upsetting, and, overall, a jolly nasty experience. Just because something sounds hideous, that doesn't mean it automatically contains beauty; but equally just because The Phantom of the Opera is gentler on the ears, that doesn't make it beautiful either.

It can seem as if everyone is terrified of beauty, but actually what they're frightened of is prettiness, or the version commonly termed "mawkish sentimentality". Even that idea needs to be gently prodded: is there perhaps a danger of going too far the other way, denying any semblance of human feeling for fear of - well, of what? Feeling something? Being thought uncool? Being bullied in the playground for wearing a baseball cap with the peak at the front instead of the back?

So in terror of one potentially twisted emotion, we run a mile from another and desperately espouse its reverse. But the reverse isn't appealing either, so everyone scarpers from that too and the result is...empty chairs.

There's a problem with real beauty: there isn't much because creating it is too damn difficult. Nothing gratuitous is ever really beautiful; nothing that sets out to copy beauty is likely to succeed in reaching us at the gut level on which beauty works its magic. It's an opening of the channels, a freeing of the circulation from specific to universal to mystical. When, with infinite care and compassion, a great artist shows us the humane inner essence of the image or the sound, and we stand back and gasp - that's beauty.

Ideas, folks?