Sunday, January 01, 2006

On the Good, the True, and the Beautiful

Right before signing off, SpearBearer Down Left wrote:

And what's all this talk about truth? Recently Scott Walters posted a manifesto of Frederick Turner (which irritated more than a few) which contained this phrase: "The experience of truth is beautiful," a phrase which I think has incredible importance in the study of art. Art should put us in contact with what is true. Now immediately I can hear the reaction: "whose truth? who is to decide?" Well that's easy: mine, and me, of course.

Seriously though, each one of us decides, because art is not science—it's not exact, it's not description. It suggests something which rings true. People may be squeamish about the "t" word — worrying that fascism follows shortly behind—but I would argue that the experience of truth is what enables us to call a play "insightful." It's because something in it strikes a chord—we recognize something that's true, even if we can't always articulate it.


As always, SBDL was articulate and thoughtful. I think all too often, we have let the crazies co-opt useful words and concepts. Truth is one; morality is another. We allowed Jerry Falwell and Bill Bennett to grab that one, and now if someone says something about morality we all get the heebie jeebies and we mumble something about fascism while we glower darkly.

But what is it if not morality that allows us to say that intercepting people's phone calls and emails without a warrant is wrong? What is it that allows us to say that it is wrong for corporations to destroy the environment, or to buy goods from sweatshops, or to invade Iraq for its oil, or to lie to the American people about all manner of things? What is it that allows us to say that peddling political clout ala Tom DeLay is wrong? Most of our stronger, and most valuable, opinions are based on a sense of morality, and the fact that we don't put those beliefs into words doesn't make them any less morally-based.

Another word with a bad rap is "beauty." We have allowed Madison Avenue and Hollywood to corrupt that one. Now it means either sentimentally pretty (ala Thomas Kinkaid) or sexy (ala name-whatever-sultry-starlet-you'd-like). But beauty (George Hunka might prefer "sublime") has a long and noble history that we have ignored at our peril.

The Good, the True, and the Beautiful. How could we, as artists, have given up our claim on those old and noble ideas? It seems to me that we must reclaim, and reinvigorate, these concepts in our vocabulary and in our aesthetics. We musn't let the narrow-minded and the hateful redefine those terms in ways that make them untouchable, but we must wrest them back and make them our own again. For without them, our world will continue to slide toward dystopia.

1 comment:

MattJ said...

"We musn't let the narrow-minded and the hateful redefine those terms in ways that make them untouchable, but we must wrest them back and make them our own again. For without them, our world will continue to slide toward dystopia."

I want to say yes. And I completely agree that we cannot lots the "narrow-minded and the hateful" define them. The act of defining a word is an act of power to be wielded. With mass media as a tool for deployment, "truth," "beauty," and "morality" can act as weapons with significant clout.

That said, call me postmodern, but I'm not so sure that it is our job as artists to "reclaim and reinvigorate" the words. Art doesn't own these words any more than politics or religion, or anything else. To reinvigorate, or to breathe into a word you have to define it first, a process of power.

But I do think that as artists we have a particular responsibility to opening up these words and processing them. Knowing that we won't find answers/definitions to truth, beauty, and morality, we make art in the name of discovering things in ourselves as human beings which will lead us on our own respective journeys towards them. It is the journey that guides us, not the destination.

Maybe it is this process of discovery that art needs to take back. Instead of proclaiming a supreme right as artists to define our world, I think that it is more in our interest to observe, experience, and understand it.