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The Age of the Ugly

by Michael Knox Beran

Beauty’s decline is bad for the soul

C. S. Lewis used to distinguish sharply between what he called “Old Western” civilization and the civilization of the modern West that succeeded it. He attributed the division to the machine culture of the New Western man; I have sometimes thought that as distinct a fault line could be traced by contrasting the Old Western man’s passion for artistic beauty with the relative indifference of his New Western descendant.

Compare a modern shopping center to, say, the marketplace of Arles in Provence — it is now called the Place de la République — and the falling-off is incontestable. Where the Old Western man created beautiful forms instinctively, as a matter of course, we New Westerners as reflexively create ungainly ones. The Old Western man, the historian Johan Huizinga observed, insisted on having artistic beauty “in the midst of life”; the New Western man has “set art apart from life.”

Huizinga had a point. There is more artistic power in the façade of the church of Santa Maria — once the Temple of Minerva — in the heart of old Assisi than there is in some American states, if the sequestered art of museums and private collections is excluded from the calculation. We New Westerners build up our museums artistically; the Old Western man built up his communities artistically. Taking to heart Plato’s conviction that we are strung together by God “on a thread of song and dance,” he used music and poetry, and what is musical in architecture and sculpture, to organize his common life ritually and symbolically; artistic beauty, for him, was a begetter of civil harmony.

The New Western man, by contrast, looks upon art as a superfluous luxury: He shuts it up in little mausoleums of dead culture, in museums and concert halls, remote from his daily preoccupations. The rise, in the last few centuries, of institutions devoted to embalming the remains of displaced art is characteristic of a civilization in which beauty is ceasing to be a living force; labor that would once have been bestowed on new creation is devoted instead to sanctifying the relics.

If the New Western man delights to heap up, in his art mortuaries, fragments of Old Western plastic art — scraps of frieze and pediment, flèche and portico — he does not emulate his forebears by introducing this spatial poetry into his own everyday life; his schools, offices, and shopping centers are inartistic. Nor is he keener to resurrect the Old Western time-poetry, its festival and ritual infrastructure. Such rubrics as the Athenian calendar of sacrifices, the Roman fasti, and the Christian missal brought choral and dramatic arts (Attic tragedy, medieval mystery plays, the drama of creation embodied in the church year) into the heart of the common life of the community. A glance at The Procession of Saint Gregory in the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry, or The Piazza San Marco at Carnival Time, by Heintz the Younger, reveals how prosaic, by comparison, is the artistry of our own holiday culture. “The festival requires style,” Huizinga said. “If those of modern times have lost their cultural value, it is because they have lost style.”

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra was wrong: Not God, but beauty, is dead. We live in an age, George Moore said, that has outlived it. Except, perhaps, in matters purely carnal we cannot take it seriously as an object in life. The experience of C. S. Lewis in his East Belfast childhood is characteristic: “We never saw a beautiful building nor imagined that a building could be beautiful.” Rarely if ever before have Westerners gone about the everyday business of living surrounded by so much hideousness of their own contrivance. And yet far from shunning, we embrace the aesthetic wastelands in which we pass so much of our time, asphalt wildernesses in which the occasional crude attempt at ornamentation — the porte-cochère of a Home Depot, the pediment of a Pizza Hut — is more disheartening than the frank brutality of the concrete box it is meant to embellish.


CORBIS/ALAN SCHEIN PHOTOGRAPHY; CORBIS/SONNET SYLVAIN/HEMIS

That nearly everyone today pays lip service to art is merely another evidence of the practical disdain for it. When Mayor Bloomberg said that “nobody’s a bigger supporter of the arts than I am,” his tone was that of a man who might have been discussing waste disposal or snow removal. The idea that art is something vaguely “good” that we should be “supportive” of is one of our cherished half-truths, for, like every deep expression of the soul, art is morally ambiguous.

The Old Western man was alive to the uncanniness of the artist and the equivocal nature of his vocation. The artist’s inspiration, Plato said, was a “divine madness”; his art, Nietzsche averred, was a “witches’ brew” of sensuality and intoxication; his “seething brains” and “shaping fantasies,” Shakespeare believed, put him in a class with the madman and the infatuated lover. Goethe, on meeting Beethoven, found a “demon-possessed person,” but as a rule we New Westerners are sentimentalists where the artist is concerned, and are blind to the Daedalian hubris, the devil’s-party sorceries, of his demiurgy.

The question is whether it matters. Does it do human beings any good to be surrounded, as the Old Western man was or sought to be, by artistically begotten beauty? Freud said that beauty “has no obvious use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it.” He spoke for our age: Our dominant philosophies put very little stock either in beauty or in the art that creates it.

For Charles Darwin no less than Adam Smith (to name our two most influential philosophers), beauty is a hoax, one of the fraudulent inducements with which nature (a con artist) gets us to do her bidding. Darwin’s nature uses beauty of the flesh as sexual bait, to promote procreation. But she uses it sparingly; anyone who studies human courtship must be struck by how small a part beauty plays in the regulation of the sexual economy. Because beauty is so much rarer than its opposite, most people cannot afford to insist on it in the competition for a mate; they are obliged to settle for something less. And they do settle for it. We go on reproducing in spite of the fact that the demand for comeliness of the flesh exceeds the supply, and we would no doubt continue to do so even if (as part, say, of an egalitarian experiment in the eradication of unfair advantage) carnal beauty were to be abolished entirely.

Adam Smith had not much more use for beauty than did Darwin. Nature, for Smith, uses beauty to entice men to exert themselves not in sex but in work. Those who “live laborious days,” Smith argues, do so because they hope to obtain beautiful prizes (splendid houses, pretty paintings, trophy spouses, and the like). But the beauty they pursue is sham-hollow — “mere trinkets of frivolous utility,” which, after the first ecstasy of possession has passed, give them little pleasure. Beauty, for Smith, is like a painted woman on the other side of the street. She looks good from a distance, but should you cross the street and inspect her charms more closely, you will find them to be counterfeit. In the meantime, however, you have crossed the street; and this for Smith is the point. It “is well that Nature imposes upon us in this manner,” he says, because it “is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind.”

It is evidence of how far the modern disparagement of beauty has gone that artists themselves, whose vocation is to create it, have implicitly accepted the dominant dogmas. Théophile Gautier’s cry of “Art for art’s sake” is an artist’s admission that the modern philosophers were right to dismiss beauty as little more than the motor oil with which nature greases the wheels of sex and commerce. It is precisely because Gautier himself can give no better reason for creating beauty through art that he urges us to pursue art as an end in itself, and not to bother ourselves about whether the pursuit has a rational justification.

There can be little doubt that Gautier’s formula has itself done as much to marginalize artistic beauty as the skeptical philosophies he opposed. Wherever the cry of L’art pour l’art is heard, art has an ever smaller part to play in everyday life. It becomes the precious amusement of dilettantes, while the artist himself becomes an alienated bohemian, the romantic rebel of familiar stereotype, who in his estrangement from the deeper currents of his civilization learns to cater to a small class of metropolitan decadents avid, in T. S. Eliot’s words, for “one more quiver and giggle of art debauch.”

To be sure, no civilization has ever perished from hideousness of style, as some cultures are said to have expired from boredom. If warped taste could destroy a civilization, surely our own would have given up the ghost in the reign of Queen Victoria. Yet there is reason to think that a people that has lost the taste of beauty will be stunted and incomplete, and it is at least arguable that something went out of our civilization when it ceased to honor the ideal Aristotle expressed when he said that a man should “take possession of the beautiful.”

Victor Hugo pointed to another aspect of the loss when, in Les Misérables, he put into the mouth of his saintly Bishop of Digne the Old Western sentiment that the “beautiful is as useful as the useful. . . . More so, perhaps.” Probably no one will ever be able to define precisely in what this usefulness lies; Aristotle’s theory of katharsis — the notion that those who are exposed to certain kinds of art will be “in a manner purged and their souls lightened and delighted” — is merely an inspired guess, as is Nietzsche’s belief that only through art can we know the “primeval joy” of shaping and reshaping the world to make it conform more nearly to our dreams.

Huizinga may have come closer to the mark when he argued that the Old Western man’s artistic virtuosity was closely connected to his love of play. Huizinga believed that art enabled men and women to protract beyond the season of childhood the playfulness of the childish imagination, with its very nearly hallucinogenic power to transform the world. It was for this reason that every Old Western community had, in the center of it, a kind of art-encrusted playground, the seat of a ceremonious culture brightened by such costumed, theatrical exuberance as Veronese exhibits in his Marriage at Cana and Feast in the House of Levi — a place where, under the inspirations of art, grown-ups could experience the civilizing unction of play. An Egyptian priest is said by Plato to have remarked that the Greeks remained always childlike. If Huizinga is right, the artistic culture that nurtured their childlike play continued to flourish in the West until the dawn of the baroque.

The difficulty, for those of us who today are ill at ease in Philistia, is that Old Western arts that might enable us to resist the prosification of life cannot be easily grafted onto the contemporary cultural rootstock. The Old Western man sought to experience in the interplay of art and life sensations not merely of a material but of a spiritual beauty, and it simply may not be possible to reconcile the blessings of a (New Western) secular society with those (Old Western) artistic traditions that cast over the rawness of practical life the veil of spiritual beauty. Macaulay said that as civilization advances, poetry almost necessarily declines, and it may be that we have no choice but to put up with the coarser prose of progress.

Nowhere perhaps is the spiritual impulse that supplied the motive for so much Old Western art analyzed more memorably than in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Marcel, the narrator, is an aesthete who devotes his leisure to isolating the qualities in works of art that have stirred him most deeply. Eventually he concludes that what sets the work of genius apart is its ability to recreate a world we have lost. This lost world, he says, is

based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there — those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer and which are invisible only — if then! — to fools.

To afford even a fleeting glimpse of this lost world “is the quality in life and art,” Marcel says, “which moves us most deeply,” and the means by which every great artist “makes his song eternal.”

At the end of the novel, Marcel, who is dejected by his own want of this supreme conjuring genius, experiences a moment of illumination. During a reception in the Hôtel de Guermantes in Paris, he discovers that certain sensations — the striking of a foot against a mislaid flagstone, the sound of a spoon striking a plate, and more famously, the fragrance of the madeleine dipped in herb tea described in the first volume of the novel — have the power to resurrect buried memories that illuminate the “permanent essence of things.” Of these, none are sweeter than our recollections of early childhood, when we are nearest to the lost world for which we never cease to yearn; for Proust no less than for Plato and Wordsworth, our birth is “but a sleep and a forgetting.”

Marcel is transfigured by the discovery in the Hôtel de Guermantes. The processes of involuntary memory have, he believes, supplied him with the key that unlocks not only the mysteries of art but also those of the “lost fatherland,” the “unknown country,” the “age of gold,” which lies buried in each of us under an accumulation of mental debris, the sediment of the lead-and-iron epochs of consciousness through which we have passed in growing up. It was, he says, “the most beautiful day” of his life, “when a great light suddenly shone, not only on the gropings of my thought, but on the unique purpose of my life.” He trembles on the threshold of paradise, “the only true paradise” there is, “the paradise we have lost.” Standing beyond time, he discovers that in the contemplation of eternity his earthly anxieties vanish, and he ceases to dread mortality itself. It is only natural, he says, that the “word ‘death’ should have no meaning for him,” for being now “outside the scope of time,” what could he possibly “fear from the future?”

More clearly, perhaps, than any other modern writer, Proust understood the nature of the fault line that divides the Old West from the New. We are in the habit of speaking of a continuous, unbroken Western civilization, stretching back to Solon or King David, if not to Jubal and Orpheus; but although there are many continuities to be traced in this history, particularly where the rule of law and the dignity of the individual human life is concerned, the persistence of these traditions should not blind us to those that have been lost. Proust helps us to see that the Old Western man suffused his ordinary life with works of artistic beauty not only to endow it with wholeness and coherence, but also that he might apprehend, however faintly and imperfectly, the undiscovered country that lies on the other side of its frontiers. And indeed the classic works of art that did so much to order the life of the Old Western community — the sculpture, the columns, the music, the liturgies and the poetries — have in common with Proust’s art the power to illuminate our passage through nature to eternity.

Diotima, the instructress of Socrates, said of the truly noble man that “he is in love with the eternal.” The words sound odd to modern ears, embodying as they do a sentiment that has a much smaller place in our own culture than it did in the Old Western one. Nor is it our practice to place, at regular intervals along the path of our life’s journey, artifacts of beauty that temper its prose with the poetry of eternity. The old arts that created those forms have to a great extent died away. With the decline of the beauty they once carried into the marrow of life, a light has gone out in the West.

– Mr. Beran is a lawyer and a contributing editor of City Journal. He is the author of, among other books, Forge of Empires, 1861–1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.

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