"Pleasure need not be less keen because there will be centuries of springs to come, their blossom unseen by human eyes, the walls will crumble, the trees die and rot, the gardens revert to weeds and grass, because all beauty will outlive the human intelligence which records, enjoys and celebrates it.”
"I don’t feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens. The stars may be large, but they cannot think or love; and these are qualities which impress me far more than size does… My picture of the world is drawn in perspective, and not like a model drawn to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings, and the stars are all as small as threepenny bits.”
“Obviously, you can’t say something is beautiful if you’re not willing to say something is ugly. But there are more and more taboos about calling something, anything, ugly. (For an explanation, look first not at the rise of so-called “political correctness,” but at the evolving ideology of consumerism, then at the complicity between these two.) The point is to find what is beautiful in what has not hitherto been regarded as beautiful (or: the beautiful in the ugly).”—As Susan Sontag points out in her essay An Argument About Beauty - beauty has come to be equated to haughtiness. Caring about aesthetics is essentially out of vogue and something to deride. Contemporary consumer architecture and aesthetics is the definitive statement that the vast majority of Americans venerate the ugly. There is nothing beautiful about the strip-mall. There is nothing inspiring about the sea of pavement, the parallel yellow lines that denote parking spaces and the tiny islands of destitute young saplings that hopelessly try to shade a single car. It is a tribute to functionality, convenience and precaution. The dimensions of a suburban parking lot always exceeds the use, as if a big-box store is preparing itself for the day that the entire community descends upon it and frantically searches for a place to put their vehicle. It is a triple-crown of functional triumph over ocular nuance; excessive size to compensate for poor planning, structural expediency over aesthetic.
This is absolutely the fabric of American throw-away materialism and yet to show such fervent disdain for it is at best divisive and at worst dismissive. Those that live around it certainly would find the sentiment elitist. It’s because the problem at hand hasn’t been caused outright by consumerism. The issue is that people that care about aesthetics spend too much time ridiculing the rest of America and not enough time promoting a more beautiful social good.
There is an economy for the tasteful. Not every product sold is made in China. Not every house built is cut from the same mould as the previous ten. The economy is based on aesthetic and craftsmanship is measured by human-instilled value and not complex financial instruments and political manuvering. At the root of cheap products are exploited workers and filthy fossil fuels sold at artificially controlled prices. What man and woman make by hand is beautiful and will be treasured from generation to generation, not just thrown away.
In the end, the exploited will organize, fossil fuels will no longer be politically and economically viable and beauty will win. If people don’t always reject the ugly outright, they do over time.
A day ago I posted a picture of Gerhard Richter’s painting Zwei Candles (see previous post). I re-familiarized myself with his work at the new Modern wing of the Chicago Art Institute and was struck by his light-diffused photorealism. To my surprise the post turned out to be very popular - much more so than the other portrait entered on the same day, Richter’s beautiful Lesende. After a bit of deduction I realized people were interested, consciously or not, in his familiar relationship to Sonic Youth. The seminal noise-rock band used a similar candle painting by the same artist as the cover of their album Daydream Nation.
The popularity of the image is absolutely apparent on Tumblr.com - the site which provides about 25% of the overall traffic to my journal. For those who are unaware, Tumblr is basically the framework for this journal and hosts all the content that I post. Tumblr itself attracts a media-conscous group of users because it is designed to easily display and disseminate various artistic pursuits - photography, music and popular culture being the most common. The demographic is largely socially liberal, urban and educated. They are the type of people who would know who Sonic Youth is.
This got me thinking about the cross-pollination of memes - the units of culture that grow and mutate through our collective consciousness. Sonic Youth itself a meme. Sometimes it’s difficult to draw a direct correlation between them and hundreds of bands that claim to be influenced by the group but that’s just how memes travel. Just like genes, the most dominate traits aren’t 100% guaranteed to be visible but they remain important as transmitted from generation to generation.
In this case, there isn’t an obvious corollary between Sonic Youth and Gerhard Richter to the uninitiated. Many fine art buyers (the people that support an artist like Richter) wouldn’t have a clue who Sonic Youth is. Many Sonic Youth fans don’t know Richter. Quite honestly, the economic barriers to entering the world of fine arts collecting virtually ensures some level of obscurity (Andy Warhol, pop-culture icon, an exception). However, all it takes is a familiar image like Zwei Candles to propagate amongst fans of Sonic Youth for Richter to consciously exist to a larger audience.
The quick organic dissemination of memes is what makes the world wide web an essential component of human evolution. It literally creates a complex collective conscious with lightning speed. Twenty years ago it would have cost a fortune to have the reach of internet phenomenons such as lol cats or Rickrolling. In fact, I would argue it wouldn’t be possible at all. Now all it takes is a familiar meme mutated in a slightly unfamiliar way for it to have the potential to propagate.
Finally, it points to an issue with the journal you are reading. It is concerned with aesthetics and not memes. It doesn’t exist to react to and modify established culture. Instead, it obsesses on the physical world that is so familiar that we take it for granted. It is interested in the invisible reality and our species’ closest relations to it. Sub-conscious motivations, the early humanities and spirituality are the compelling roots which carry the writing here.
I like Sonic Youth. I like Gerhard Richter. I’m glad others did too. However, in this case - as in many others - the power of Richter and Sonic Youth the meme was more compelling the art of Richter or Sonic Youth.
Last weekend I was mowing the lawn on my parent’s farm with my father. He was on a small tractor pulling a rear finish mower. I was using a push mower. The clouds rolled in gradually, almost unknowingly. The sky in the hilly river valley along the Illinois river is not that large, so troublesome clouds in the distance are often obscured.
My sweat was washed away by drops of water from the sky. It felt good. It was refreshing. The drops themselves were huge; they exploded when they touched any surface. What was a sparse shower developed into a steady rain and then quickly turned to a torrential downpour. I loaded my mower into the bucket of the tractor. Steam was rising from the torrid motor as it was deluged by water.
I ran out of the field and into the forest for cover. The usually solid, mossy earth was just mud. I waited for the tractor to catch up and listened. There is something absolutely spiritual about a downpour in the forest. The earth itself is alive and powerful. All insects, birds and roaming animals are quiet and take shelter.
It’s antithesis is a beautiful snowfall. The ground is covered by a white blanket. All creatures are silent. The all encompassing spectrum of visual white light - red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet - and audible stillness is paralleled by a downpour’s all-encompassing sonic spectrum of 20 Hz - 20,000 Hz - otherwise commonly referred to as white noise. Heavy rain is without pattern - it is noise by definition.
The effect of all-ecompassing, lively white noise is no better experienced than in a forest. I rarely enjoy a downpour in an urban area. The sound of cars cutting through wets streets have little appeal to me. On the other hand, the sound of water hitting an infinite variety of surfaces all around me, above and below me, is totally immersive and overwhelming.
“Black-noise phenomena govern natural and unnatural catastrophes like floods, droughts, bear markets and various outrageous outages, such as those of electrical power. Because of their black spectra, such disasters often come in clusters.”—
Fractals, Chaos, Power Laws
For those wondering about coincidence and serendipity….