Daily Prompt: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty …’

(Some thought-fragments about art with a small a and Beauty with a capital B.) (Or vice versa.)

The title is from the final lines of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which the poet ends by telling us that the centuries-old vase he has been describing serves as a reminder that, “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'” Earlier the poet also says, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter … .”

The ones I can not hear, because I am a mere mortal and what I hear on Earth is all I need to know, those are the sweeter ones. O, vile mortality!

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Some experiences are almost universal: without sharing a common language, audiences will laugh at many of the same things. A person slipping on a banana peel. The fish-slapping dance. Analysis of comedy kills comedy (unless one is making fun of analyzing comedy) because laughter is more than a feeling, it is a reaction; when honestly expressed, it comes in an instant. Conversely, some experiences are unique to each one of us: all of us experience physical and/or emotional pain, but the best any of us can do is talk around it in an attempt to almost come close to describing it. Pain management specialists present their patients with a chart of a series of faces and ask the patients to circle the grimacing face that “matches” how they feel. It is simplistic, but it does something important in that it asks us to leave language, which can be misinterpreted, aside.

Language. The most vile and hateful sentiments can be expressed in sentences that might sound pretty when they are spoken. There is probably a language in which the sentence “I am going to kill you” would make me swoon just before I got shot.

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What makes me laugh might make you cry (if you were the person who slipped and fell) and what makes me cry might make you laugh. There is much ugliness in this world and someone somewhere finds harsh and violent things funny.

I find the sentence on that poster at the top, “We all have within us our own …,” which is a piece of typical Facebook inspiration-stuff, a poster that is designed to elicit a hopeful gaze or something, to be clunky and, worse, empty. Sunsets are nice and all, but why put words all over one? (I would rather the Kadampa Center had just put a picture of their temple on there.)

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To the best we can tell, birds are singing shopping lists to each other. “Seeds over here, seeds over here; nice sturdy branch I’m standing on.” The most boring and necessary stuff, but pretty to our ears, a sweet unheard melody to Keats.

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alainWe teach each other what we find beautiful. The cartoon at right captures, without words, something of this. Artists in a class learn to depict reality, but what about the world made Egyptians in the era of the pyramids and pharaohs depict things and humans as they did? We look the same now as we did then, but the art seen in the ancient (and beautiful) monuments does not look like our twenty-first century reality. Did life in the ancient world look all that different to eyes that are biologically identical to ours?

Certainly not. The same cartoon could be drawn about art classes from other eras: the flat crowds with identical faces in Giotto’s scenes, the extraordinary gowns and suits that probably rendered most people who wore them immobile for longer than the time it took to to sit for just the start of a portrait.

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Someone might bring up the Cubists, Picasso specifically. At different points in the cultural history of art, the visual and the performing arts diverge from mass notions of “pretty.” They always seem to reconvene, usually when the mass notions of pretty start to include the works of art the masses once rejected. Rocks were thrown at the orchestra during the debut performance of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” because it sounded so odd. You might hear snippets of it in television ads during NFL games now.

I can tell you that for me, Picasso’s drawing line is voluptuous and his color scheme, well, beautiful. And the intellectual challenge the Cubists presented themselves and attempted to conquer: to include time and time’s passage in a static form, painting (which is why two eyes will appear on the same side of a human head—think of any photo you have taken in which someone turned away just as the camera snapped); I find the intellectual challenge and game and the attempt to meet and match it exciting and, well, here is that word again: beautiful.

Here is one of David Hockney’s “joiners,” a type of photo-collage that he explored in the 1970s and ’80s. It is made of 77 Polaroid photos of a swimming pool taken as the sunlight shifted through the day, photos taken over the period of time that it would take to make 77 Polaroid photos with one camera and one artist. Pretty as a sunset but with time added as a design element as important as color in the image. It is a Cubist sunset. It is a beautiful attempt at one. hockney-sun-on-the-pool

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for September 16 asks, “We’ve all heard that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Do you agree? is all beauty contingent on a subjective point of view?” The answer is a definite and thus easily questioned simultaneous yes and no.

There is a famous “Twilight Zone” episode that I am sure someone else has referenced in their response, titled “The Eye of the Beholder,” in which a world that culturally dictates notions of physical beauty sends away people that we Americans of a certain era might find beautiful. We live in neither a world of only sunsets and platitudes and easy listening music nor in one in which we force one precise, single idea of beauty on one another, and that, that in itself, is beautiful. (Sadly, this is not true in every country, not right now; in some countries, Rod Serling’s script might seem to present a pretty good idea.)

Please comment here. Thank you, Mark.

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