Love, Beauty and other Unfortunate Clichés

| October 6, 2014

Love is the fundamental necessity underlying the need to create, underlying the emotion that gives it form, and from which grows the unfinished product that is presented to the world. Love is the general criterion by which the rare photograph is judged. It must contain it to be not less than the best of which the photographer is capable. –Eliot Porter

In the fall of 1942, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, his wife and family were taken from their home in Vienna, transported to Germany and placed in a Nazi concentration camp. Two years later Frankl was moved yet again, to Auschwitz, separated from his wife and forced into slave labor. He was ultimately rescued in 1945, after three years of horror. He later recalled one experience in the camp:

“We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: ‘If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.’

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of Man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when Man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position Man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.”

Frankl’s wife, Tilly, his mother and brother were murdered by the Nazis. Viktor and his sister were the only survivors.

It is hard to reconcile such accounts of love at its most profound and dignified, with so many commercials about loving fast food or a teen pop sensation writhing and screaming about love to a bouncy beat. It is equally hard to consider the dignity and inspiration that may be found in beauty and to separate it from so many clichés. And yet, to dismiss all love, beauty, kindness, compassion and other elevated states of emotion as cliché is among the greatest misfortunes that a person may choose – and a choice it is. To do so is to surrender to the hijacking of what is most noble by the most base of human desires.

And yet, the prevailing view in today’s “art world” not only ignores beauty, but in many cases goes out of its way to debase and suppress it. The most elevated of human emotions and the most uplifting of life’s experiences routinely and casually are shunned, rejected, dismissed and ridiculed, drowned in “sophisticated” cynicism, incomprehensible artspeak and baffling abstractions. And, in the mindless pursuit of fame and greed, so many of us artists quiver at the thought of pronouncing that the current king has no clothes, nor much of a physique to look at.

I can think of several reasons for the dismissal of love and beauty in today’s art scene, but perhaps the most relevant in these times of cynicism, greed and fear is the fact that to truly love, to deeply revere, to be wholly inspired, to seek life rewards beyond the material, two preconditions are required: vulnerability and commitment. And the rejection of such elevated states has little to do with sophistication or intelligence, and a lot to do with cowardice, apathy, indifference and laziness.

As an artist who takes inspiration in wild beauty such bold statements are easier for me to make than they might be for an urban painter or sculptor whose livelihood depends on acceptance by gallerists and curators. I will leave it to these artists to find their own courage and humanity, but I will admonish them to consider how much longer such emotionless work is likely to remain relevant. In a Guardian essay, Jonathan Jones writes, “Today, though, it [beauty] is simply treated by the art world as a joke, a con, an idiotic, old-fashioned idea. This makes much art irrelevant, because beauty is everywhere and obsesses everyone (whatever your idea of beauty happens to be). Maybe this is why photography, professional and amateur, is the true art of our time. Photography has no objection to beauty.”

In mapping the evolution of art, it is easy to see the various styles, schools, fashions and movements branching off, tree-like, limbs reaching in many directions and branching into yet more genres and sub-genres. It is my contention, however, that the trunk of the tree is, and will remain, beauty. From beauty springs all art. In such characterization it is also easy to observe that, throughout history, anything branching away from beauty ultimately peters out and wilts, overshadowed by other branches or left to fall to the ground and be forgotten. Beauty endures. So long as the tree has life, its trunk remains its most powerful feature. This is because art, ultimately, has no value in itself. The value of art is  assigned to it by humans; and humans, by and large, understand and yearn for love and beauty, even if they dare not express it.

Some time ago I asked readers of this blog to fill a short survey about their favorite works of art. Among the respondents, I’m sure, were many schooled in the arts, and some who work in the arts. Overwhelmingly the works cited, whether paintings or photographs, literal or abstract, were ones of great beauty and skill. Even those who understand and appreciate other types of art, when asked to pick a favorite, reached for beauty.

In these times when so many of us are bombarded by cheap, easy and meaningless aesthetics, we should not take the easy and cowardly path of condemning all love and beauty as passé or cliché. Each of us has within our core the capacity to experience such noble, painful and eminently beautiful emotions as expressed by Viktor Frankl, with all their terrifying implications and near-unbearable weight. These may be the most difficult things of all for a person to contend with, and yet without having experienced them a life is that much poorer, that much more ordinary and numb and wasted. We must be ever diligent in protecting such things in their pure and powerful form, and in elevating them, separating them, holding them inviolate and defending them from the cliché, from the trite, from the cheesy, from the corny, from the fashionable, from the banal. Most importantly, we should not allow them to be discarded like so many fashions whose time had passed.

Beauty, like love, can change lives, in deep and meaningful and important ways. I know this because it changed mine, more than once. It changed the quality of each of my days, it changed my philosophy and my beliefs and my politics and my attitude. It changed me. And I am forever grateful for being so changed.

The weight of the world is love. Under the burden of solitude, under the burden of dissatisfaction
the weight, the weight we carry is love.
–Allen Ginsberg

Until Spring...

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (9)

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  1. pj finn says:

    Excellent.

  2. A tip of the hat Sir. Very well written. Spot on with “vulnerability and commitment”.

  3. I agree with these notions, Guy — that expressing beauty (and love) can be deep and meaningful to us personally, and to those with whom we share our ideas, work, and art.

    Of interest, I recently read a powerful essay entitled False Idyll, by J.B. MacKinnon. Curated by Siddhartha Mukherjee into the 2013 Best American Science and Nature Writing collection, it provides an important perspective on ‘nature’ — something many of us have a proclaimed passion for.

    I’m still processing how it applies to my own ideas about wild places (speaking as a landscape photographer), and though it addresses “beauty” in a different manner than what you’ve shared here, I think you’d find MacKinnon’s perspective interesting and even familiar. Worth a read.

  4. I have my theories, and this as a person who once (in music) drank the Kool-aid of “that” kind of art — though, in my defense, at my core I always wanted to find some form of beauty in what I did.

    I’ve long wondered about that part of the world of arts (not just visual) that seems to reject beauty while knowing, if they stop to think about it, that art the endures is almost always beautiful in some way — not “pretty,” but beautiful and moving in ways beyond just the cerebral.

    What is going on? Greater minds than mine have, no doubt, worked on this question, but I have some thoughts.

    We often hear the notion that art is iconoclastic or that it must be radical or that its job is to upset and overturn. Sometimes this is taken so far that merely being different or making observers uncomfortable is seen as being enough to make what a person does into art. Art _can_ do these things, but I disagree that they define what art is.

    Art should provoke emotional response, and the more powerful the better, in some ways. Of all the intense emotions that we might try to evoke, anger might be the easiest, with responses like discomfort and confusion being close behind. So it is easier, I think, to go for these easier targets if one understands that provoking an emotional response is important.

    There is, with good reason, a vast intellectual edifice devoted to explaining and justifying art. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and worthy explanations and ruminations can help people approach and understand art. However, there is a part of this world that has perverted the value of commentary and explanation into its own art form, one that supplants the actual art upon which it should rest. It is no surprise that work with an obvious conceptual, philosophical, systematic, or political basis lends itself more easily to those whose abilities to write about art tend in this direction.

    And, perhaps most important, beauty is hard. (Yes, “pretty” is easy, but that’s not what we are interested in.) It is hard in so many ways. You can’t create beauty by dabbling — it requires a great deal of time and focus and technique and failure. Beauty exposes the person of the artist, and creating it means dealing with that vulnerability. (“If you don’t like the concept of my conceptual art, we have a disagreement about a concept. If you don’t like art that expresses what I think is beautiful, you reject me.”) There are no rules or underlying conceptual processes that will lead to beauty — ultimately it must come from the internal vision of the artist.

    I’m not a complete stick in the mud about this. I enjoy some art (including photography) that is highly conceptual in nature. I also understand that over time some work that is not initially understood does come to be seen to be beautiful.

    Dan

  5. Andrei says:

    Brilliantly put, Guy! Thank you.

  6. Dan Baumbach says:

    Just Wonderful.

  7. Misha says:

    Wow, agreed, wonderful essay. I hope I’m still kicking when the wheel comes back around in the mainstream art world.

  8. rafael rojas says:

    Excelente Sr. Tal.

    When we add the word “world” at the end of something, we talk about money. More often than not, the art world revolves around those who buy art for the investment, and not for its experience. If your interest about artwork is led by your wallet and not by your soul, the least thing you want is to get stirred, enlightened and moved by art. Doing so would put a mirror in front of your face, showing an ugly face…

    Wonderful essay Guy.

  9. Gerald Emery says:

    Love is All