Useless Beauty (All This)


Great song. I'm not a huge Elvis Costello fan, but every so often one of his songs hits it out of the park for me, and this would be one of those. Friend Heather, who is a much better devotee of Costello, introduced me to it. I'm not sure if I've ever discussed this here, but songs rarely resonate for me based on their lyrics. This is a thing that drives some people (such as Wife Megan) a little crazy, but I can't really help it. Or, I don't want to. I like being better attuned to the song than I am to the lyrics. I don't have a whole lot of clear, intuitive behavior that doesn't get second-guessed by my intellect (such as it is) -- I'm keeping this one. This is all just to say that words to this song are brilliant, but it's the feeling of the chorus that carries me away.

Last night I saw the Alvin Ailey dance company for the second time in my life, and they were just as affective as I remembered. Poke around the site a bit and you'll soon see that the company members are gorgeous, and I assure you that without seeing them move, you don't know the half of it. Their work is passionate and specific, and it is a real treat to spend time experiencing their artistry. The first time I saw them was some five or six years ago, and I didn't know what I was in for then, so was doubly appreciative. I wondered if the blush of first impression would have faded a bit for me this time around. It didn't.

Of course, their beauty -- physical and kinesthetic -- is far from useless. Even if one were to be stupid enough to see dance as a generally useless expression, Ailey's work and the work he's inspired since wouldn't be lacking in usefulness. It always expresses something about a specific culture or movement that we couldn't quite learn in any other medium. Watching last night though, immersed in all that keen beauty, I got to thinking about the supposed virtue of beauty. Or rather I should call it the disputed virtue, since beauty as either cause or effect in "good" art has been a hotly debated aspect of art since time-just-about-immemorial. I think about it quite a lot myself, in the context of an actor who can't help but notice that some very pretty, very untalented folks get rather far rather fast. But last night, engulfed by it, I started thinking in less jaded terms about the role of beauty in artistic expression.

A girl I knew in college and I were taking a walk in our fairly new home of Richmond, Virginia. I remember passing an old, decrepid brick building, with exposed and broken pipes and a fire escape, all various shades of red and rust. I wondered aloud what it was that was drawing me to ugliness lately. My friend replied, "What makes you think that's ugly?" And she was right -- it was beautiful. Thinking of that run-down building as ugly was a preconceived judgment on my part, based on ideas about good and evil as they apply to structure, society, prosperity, etc. It's an easy mistake, as beauty/ugliness is in itself about as subjective a concept as I can imagine. It has as much to do with an emotional response as with anything else, and emotions are not binary. I suppose part of what impresses me about Ailey's work is that I'm immediately confronted with stupidly beautiful people, and then that experience of beauty is surpassed in strides (literally) by the beauty of some particular movement or shape they create.

Of course, I'm sure there are some who will disagree.

Actually, the subjective nature of beauty and ugliness (and all gradients thereof) gives me some hope for capital-T Truth playing a significant role in our work. One of the most famous (read: most cliched) quotes about Beauty and Truth having a relationship come from poor, too-soon-departed Keats:

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

It's one of those that I can go on considering in different lights throughout my life, I think. (That has proven true thus far, anyway.) You've got to love that the essence of the argument is the only bit in quotes; the idea that it is all we (or it [the urn]) know, and all we (or it [you know: the urn]) need to know, is all Keats. In other words, it's up to us whether we know it or need to know it, but history itself tells us that that Beauty = Truth, and vice versa.

Why am I going on about a (beautiful) poem? Because it forms the basis of a relationship between Beauty and Truth that is key to my assertion. That is, the commonality between perceptions of beauty is founded on a more shared, communal sense of Truth. In other words, given just how incredibly individual is everyone's opinion about what is ugly and what is beautiful, it makes sense to me that there must be a contributing factor to all those disparate opinions that allows them to find common ground in some cases -- that common factor being Truth. In my humble opinion. Capital-T Truth, mind you, which has less to do with empirical facts and more to do with feeling, with instinct. I think an innate sense of this Truth is that in which we're all participating when we come to an mutual appreciation of Beauty.

Certainly one can have beauty without Truth (one can have it, thanks to advertising and such, any time one wants it); hence my capital-B Beauty. Otherwise known as Glory, Spirit, Love, etc. I wouldn't have called seeing Alvin Ailey a religious experience per se but, then again, it did rather feel like going to church ought. There were times I felt lost, others when I felt as though we were going through the motions a bit, then suddenly a time without a sense of time, when I felt lifted out of myself and part of a whole I had barely felt myself in just moments prior. Then it would end, as all things must I suppose, and seem just as brief as it had infinite when it was happening. It's difficult to define or even describe a unifying experience, even though all of us have at some time or another felt it, probably because most of our intellect comes of division, of making distinctions. So you have to live the moments of unity. And should we creators and makers and artists try to make Beautiful work?

Yes.
 
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