The Revolt Against Beauty

I’ve saved lots of images I’ll never look at again, but there’s one I didn’t save that I wish I had. This image was a photograph of graffiti spray-painted onto the wall of some crumbling and dilapidated building. The reason I wish I’d saved it is so I could recall the exact wording, which not only suited the physical context exquisitely, but contained a thought so revolutionary that I was both offended and intrigued.

The words said something like: blah, blah, blah, and then one day we took beauty out behind the barn and shot it.

It was, I’ll say, a strangely powerful and deeply irritating idea, but my idea of beauty was too limited to quite say why. My idea of beauty at the time was dominated by those images of female physical beauty that obsessed me with feelings of desire and guilt. Perhaps my mind is broadened, or perhaps I’m just growing old, but whatever the case, my idea of beauty opened enough today to let a little light in.

Amateur Hour

I’m in the process this week of designing a website for a client. If designing websites were like my personal projects, I’d abandon them for long periods of time, after hitting some aesthetic wall. An aesthetic wall consists of the recognition that something is ugly, accompanied by an inability to understand how to fix it.

Ira Glass released a video, perhaps a decade ago, describing why artists are so prone to hitting aesthetic walls. I’ll embed it below, but the gist is this: a person aesthetically sensitive enough to be seriously moved to become an artist will be keenly aware of their own lack of aesthetic skill.

There is a whole complex of behaviors that arise from this reality, but I’ll stick to the main line of this story, which means to describe how it is that I came to have a moment of deep sympathy for the revolt against beauty.

Thing is, I hit aesthetic walls all the time; and my habitual response is to internalize their sense of limitation. This internalization leads to inaction, but building websites forces me to engage with these limits in a sort of ongoing, if episodic, conversation/argument. I’ve engaged this conversation/argument with one client in particular, who is not coincidentally also a frustrated musician who went to BARD College.

We are, in deep and subtle ways such as would require great art to script, like yin and yang. Not in an absolute sense, with each playing the part of a single gender; but rather in a complex sense, where the polarities are distributed through different domains of our lives. He, for example, is commercially driven, and turned this drive into a successful vocal coaching career; I, on the other hand, am culturally driven, so – for what it’s worth – I’ve followed through on performing and recording as a singer-songwriter. If you think about that polarity a moment, it’ll make perfect sense to you that he’s the one hiring me, rather than the other way round.

And really, as an aside, that’s the deep issue at stake in our conflict: who’s hiring whom? I met him as a vocal coach, but for the most part, I’m his web designer.

He, being the frustrated artist, struggles to relinquish control of the design; and I, being the frustrated executive, struggle to just let the whole project be what it is, and with the fact that I’m the one taking the orders and dealing with all the details. We’ve each gotten better over the years.

Anyway, that relationship – significant as it has been for me – is just a step toward illustrating what the Revolt Against Beauty is all about. I brought it up because I had a sudden flash of empathy toward what I take to be his experience. Previously, I’ve only thought of his experience as his damn problem.

He’s very aware of subtle distinctions of emphasis and meaning in music. More than that, he knows how to speak the language. He knows how to make beauty within that sphere. He just doesn’t know how to do it visually, and takes a deep if muted offense at the system of graphic norms. These are the norms that confront his ideas and find them lacking. By this point, these norms speak in his mind with my voice.

So again, anyway, I was just designing a website for another client… Or rather, I have been designing a website over the last few days; and as is commonly the case, I’ve been confronted by what is my usual, amateurish, struggle to make something beautiful.

Of course amateur is something of a relative distinction. I do support myself, poorly, doing graphic design work. I am, however, a reluctant and uneducated professional. Fortunately, people call me and ask if I can do such and such for them. And I have, in fact, developed at least the requisite skills to serve their need. So, I get to work as a “graphic designer” without ever having to claim to be such. Crisis of conscience solved! Except, of course, on the real level.

That aside: Looking at one of the pages I’ve been mulling over, I was suddenly struck by the fundamental premise that design depends on establishing a visual hierarchy. And beauty is the condition that marks this hierarchy. Beauty is what comes into focus, by putting things in their place.

This, of course, is a notion that is completely offensive to the emotional ideology that is sweeping through the Western world. This newly – if incompletely – dominant ideology rejects the premises of beauty and hierarchy together. And while I’m not generally sympathetic to this ideology, I had a flash of sympathy just now, in recognizing the sort of euphoric freedom that can come from dropping concern for the Hierarchy of Beauty.

The picture I didn’t save communicates this euphoria. It’s a statement of people who’ve stepped outside the beauty matrix. Not just in words. The spray painted letters on a decaying built surface captured the whole human drama, from that point we became symbolic creatures, deep in the belly of the Earth. I mean, in caves.

So I’m looking at this page I’ve been working on, and it strikes me that the problem I’m having is not establishing a gentle hierarchy among all of the elements on the page. The page, in short, is an aesthetic whole; so it’s not enough to just make sure the text color is legible on the background color, because both of them are in conversation with the picture off to the right, and the menu area on the left. And I thought, I can see why he hates this. It’s just so complicated and subtle, and it’s so much easier to have an aesthetic response than to speak aesthetically. And the thing is: Everything we do is judged against the collective aesthetic standards of the mass of digital humanity. It makes perfect sense that we’d want out of from the Beauty Matrix: the Matrix of Judgment.

The Revolt

The tree of revolt has two main branches. One branch attacks the Beauty Matrix on the grounds that it is unnatural; the other branch attacks it on the grounds that it is unnatural. The unfair branch would deny beauty outright as a mere figment of social consensus. Beauty, from this perspective, is all about control. It is authority masquerading.

From the perspective of the other branch, beauty artificially fixates on a particular part of the natural process and consequently rejects, alienates, and shames everyone who falls outside that artificial and destructive standard.

These two branches share a single trunk, but can nonetheless become antagonistic toward one another. The radical deconstructionists deconstruct nature, and so the grounds on which the naturalists are standing. Similarly, this natural grounding invalidates the presumption of subjectivity that is unifying thesis of deconstructionism.

Not to spoil the series, but it’s Beauty alone that might hold them together, but a beauty regenerated by intercourse with living reality. Thus, for example, the subtle beauty of the picture I didn’t save, with the words written in spray paint on the crumbling wall.

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