Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Surface Depths

Forgive me if I get the details a little bit wrong, but it was a little while back that I read Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. I should probably read more Heinlein, from the things I've heard about him, but as yet that's the only Heinlein book I've read. It's actually a really neat story about (among other things) a religious cult that incorporates casual nudity and open sexual liaisons that I found to be very inspiring to my own social philosophies. I don't remember enough to give you a detailed plot description, and anyway, that's unnecessary. One thing I do remember is a little character detail - an almost incidental side note - that nevertheless left an impression on me, about art appreciation.

As I said, I can't remember all the details exactly, but it involved an important character's preference for one sculpture (Rodin, I think) depicting a frail, elderly woman, possibly supporting a heavy weight with her shoulder (or maybe that was another one), over a more traditional sculpture depicting a young woman in her physical prime. Although the sculpture of the young woman had a more direct aesthetic appeal, its value was largely superficial, as compared to the depths of meaning contained in the statue of the elderly woman, which spoke of the inevitable decay of age, and the weight of time that bears down on us heavier and heavier as the years pass. Its draw - as a work of art - is more intellectual, more emotional than the purely physical and appreciative appeal of the sculpture that depicts the beauty of youth.

As Heinlein describes it*:

“Anyone can see a pretty girl. An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become. A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl she used to be. A great artist can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is . . . and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be . . . more than that, he can make anyone with the sensitivity of an armadillo see that this lovely young girl is still alive, prisoned inside her ruined body. He can make you feel the quiet, endless tragedy that there was never a girl born who ever grew older than eighteen in her heart . . . no matter what the merciless hours have done."

These are two very different - and both legitimate, and popular - approaches to art. And I can, personally, see the appeal in both of them. In fact, I think both angles are important, and the best art is that which can achieve both goals of being aesthetically appealing, and intellectually or emotionally stimulating. The appeal of beauty is, I think, obvious, in that it invokes a very direct and pleasant reaction upon viewing it. But there is another side to art that taps into the pathos of life, existence, and humanity, even if that involves the dark and depressing side of things. I'm not entirely sure why this is (although I have speculated in the past), but I have a deep appreciation for this kind of art - and this is especially true for me in other artistic media, like music and movies, if my fandom of horror and the blues is any indication.

And yet, when it comes to visual art - in particular, photography - I find myself drawn as much if not more to the superficial/aesthetic/beautiful works. I would choose the statue of the young woman in her prime over the old woman with the weight of the world on her shoulders. I can't say why this is (either), but I have a deep appreciation for visual beauty. I like to joke that I am very vain and superficial, to make myself feel more comfortable about my preference in this matter, but the fact is that I am not truly superficial (a fact that I should like to think the writings in this blog attest to). As I said, I think superficial beauty and intellectual/emotional depth are both important, and the best art contains each.

But I do not necessarily subscribe to the belief that "superficial" beauty is not significant, nor that it cannot incite a powerful emotional reaction in a/the right viewer. Neither do I believe that the pursuit of aesthetic beauty is less valuable than that of intellectual depth, nor that to pursue it is necessarily indicative of a "lazy" approach, calculated to appeal to base, prurient interests, while avoiding the difficulty of creating a piece of art that can affect people in a more complicated and less straightforward way. Certainly, different people will have their differing opinions, and different artists their different approaches. I'll be satisfied if both remain common and popular, if among different audiences. In the meantime, I am every bit as much a sucker for a beautiful form as I am for a compelling story, but I tend to give more weight to the former in the visual medium, if the latter most everywhere else.

* Relevant to the topic of this post, I found this passage extremely moving. Maybe Heinlein possesses an appreciative quality I don't, but I don't necessarily get all of this just from looking at the sculpture. The passage itself - Heinlein's reaction to the sculpture - is beautiful. More beautiful than the sculpture alone, I think. It's fair to say that it's the sculpture that inspired the passage, but I find the latter to be a separate piece of art from the former, and a much more interesting one, in my opinion.

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