Tag Archives: art

The Unpleasant Can Be Beautiful

I’ve been thinking more and more lately about how artists make the ugly beautiful, how they keep it ugly but so artfully give an understanding of it. I’m thinking of those moments when I am simultaneously aware of how miserable or painful or revolting something is and also how skillfully and certainly I am shown a new way to see it.

There’s a scene in The Pianist, during the Warsaw uprising, when a woman is running down a street and she is shot, but she doesn’t just stagger and plop onto the pavement. She balletically folds herself down into a heap, and it’s a beautiful visual. The scene is a delicate collaboration between Polanski and his bit player. It doesn’t make what happened in the ghetto beautiful, but it makes her resistance beautiful in more than a philosophically prosaic way. It shows us there’s more than we have thought about those historic events. It makes us see them in new ways.

Recently, I read Down All the Days, by Christy Brown. Brown’s personal story is a hard one, and he uses it in this novel of Depression-era poverty. The father in this novel is a violent man, a drunk, who beats his children and his pregnant wife, blaming everyone else for everything, often making irrational connections between people and events. There’s nothing pretty about that. But Brown very bravely offers some of his pages to the father and allows him to show himself as a bewildered, defeated human being. Instead of milking the situation to generate a reader’s loathing for the father and sympathy for the mother, instead of taking that easy often-written road, Brown allows the father to speak.

As the man staggers home drunk, his belligerence is nowhere in evidence. He’s alone, and as he thinks about his life, about how he is confused by it, doesn’t control anything about it, didn’t get what he thought he would, Brown situates us with him and gives us compassion for him. We don’t excuse the things he’s done, the cruelty of his words and his actions, but we see how they have come about. We see that he is not solely to blame, that the powers controlling his society have set him up in some ways, and suddenly, he’s not a monster. He is to be pitied, too, as his family is.

Making the unpleasant and the ugly into beauty is a difficult thing, and I want to be able to do it. That has to start with knowing those things in an intimate way and confronting them when we really want to avoid and if possible forget. Look at them dispassionately and let them show their many aspects. I think it is hard to look them in the face for long enough, but the result is a kind of alchemy. It takes away their power and then gives them new power.

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Intersections of Print and Visual Art

Somebody somewhere remarked on how much a person learns about a subject in the process of teaching it. That may seem odd, since we hope that those who teach know the subject already. Well, we do–at least, we know more about it than our students do. But in every course I have taught, I have learned something new, often from a student, and it’s a thrill. Still, creating and teaching a new course is like a graduate mini-degree. It starts with an idea based on exposure to a representative body of materials. Once the idea is clear enough to be proposed, there’s a thesis. Then, the case has to be made in the form of the course outline, the assignments, the theoretical and creative primary resources.

That’s where I am right now. Presented with the necessity of creating a new course for an existing program, and needing to blurt out the basis for the course in under an hour, with seeming nonchalance, I explained that we’d engage with interdisciplinarity in Irish art forms, examining how a culture’s print and visual arts engage in storytelling about the culture, how they are part of a larger narrative about history and identity. It’s there. I see it everywhere. But I can’t just assert it. So there has to be a little foundation in interdisciplinary theory, a little bit of Claude Levi-Strauss, some Roland Barthes, and a bit of Walter Benjamin. There also must be some basic art theory, maybe a little Burke on beauty, Wilde on lying, Carlyle on symbols, and Hirsch on interpretation. After that, after presenting ways to think about things, bring on the art.

If the evidence isn’t there, it’s nowhere. House-end murals, high crosses, statuary, novels, speeches, poetry, paintings–in art, we find out what concerns a people, and we can read visual art as surely as we can read print. A bust of Constance Markievicz in St. Stephen’s Green can be read alongside her account of battle during the Easter Rising and her prison letters, and then she shows up in documentary footage and Roddy Doyle’s novel A Star Called Henry. We see it, and then we analyze it–assign meaning. Yesterday, I read in The Irish Times how the painter Jack B. Yeats was “an important influence on Samuel Beckett: the abstract spaces and isolated figures of Yeats’s late paintings are also those of Beckett’s late plays.” An intersection if I ever saw one.

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