Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Ugly poetry (part two)

be4 n after

No object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly – Oscar Wilde


Ugly poetry

“To write a good poem about an ugly thing, as Seidel does often, is not to write an ugly poem.”[1] That’s Molly Young writing in an article about the poet Frederick Seidel. I’d never heard of Seidel, so I did some research. What I found was what Larkin might have been had he been born a few years later; Seidel was born fourteen years after Larkin. Take the opening stanza to ‘Evening Man’:

The man in bed with me this morning is myself, is me
The sort of same-sex marriage New York State allows.
Both men believe in infidelity.
Both wish they could annul their marriage vows.

Seriously, Larkin could have written that if he’d changed ‘New York’ to ‘Hull’; for all his faults, failings and foibles he doesn’t seem to have been homophobic. He could also have written:

I for years was unable to decide,
Tits or ass? And don’t forget legs.
Which one do you think is the best?
My choice would vary. Who would you choose?
It was all too good to be true. Then came you!

(from ‘A Song for Cole Porter’)

but I suspect he might have done a bit better job of it. Or maybe not. For all Larkin’s poetry frequently dealt with the less than beautiful aspects of life, he was always at least technically proficient, but so is Seidel and in a rather old-fashioned way, too. (Have a look, for example, at ‘Climbing Everest’ – which you can hear him read here – or ‘Poem by the Bridge at Ten-shin’.) Both Seidel and Larkin are confessional poets – with a small c – although neither is under any illusions about what they see when they look in the mirror.

seidelSeidel has been called “the poet the twentieth century deserved”[2] – not sure if that’s an insult or a compliment – and there is no doubt that his poetry polarises opinion. “From one major anthology of poetry, the Oxford, he was excluded for 47 years, and he still won’t be found in another, the Norton.”[3] He “has been called by the critic Adam Kirsch perhaps ‘the best American poet writing today.’ Meanwhile, from other corners of that world, Seidel has earned different and more complicated epithets: ‘sinister,’ ‘disturbing,’ ‘savage,’ ‘the most frightening American poet ever’ and even ‘the Darth Vader of contemporary poetry.’”[4] The thing is, I wouldn’t call his poetry ugly. I wouldn’t call it beautiful either.

Close to the grave

The closer you get to the coffin
the more you abandon fiorture,
the beautiful hollow words.

(from Never and Nothing)

So writes the Greek poet, Elias Petropoulos. His poetry – or “non-poetry” or “anti-poetry” – stemmed from the fact that he, and everyone he loved, was aging and therefore dying. “I’ll have to write a Manifesto of Ugly Poetry,” he writes in In Berlin and then later:

Throw away the Poetry of Ideas and Symbols and of Colours
Prefer Everyday Images
and insignificant Snapshots, one after the other;
that is, Poor Poetry.

(from In Berlin)

Petropoulos is not the first poet for whom, with age, idealism veers to melancholy; and melancholy to disgust. Yet he is one of the very rare poets who, affected by extreme feelings, is willing to relinquish all ties to formal literary elegance. And although he has always taken great risks with his readers, never were the risks as great as in his late poems. For he shows that the very form of a poetry inspired by melancholy and disgust must necessarily be melancholic, even disgusting.[5]

In 2003 he died of cancer in Paris at the age of 75. According to his will, his body was cremated and his ashes were thrown in a sewer by his life-long partner. Nothing if not reminiscent of the intended ending Beckett’s Murphy intended for his mortal remains.

But is creating ugly art the correct response to an ugly world?

This is a bad philosophy because it ignores social duty. If our age has in it ugly features – and who will deny it? – the duty of the artist should be, not to add to the ugliness, but – for him specially among all men – to strive to redeem it by works of beauty.[6]


I think that Herbert Samuel is being idealistic there. Part of art’s duty is to bring to our attention what is going on in the world in a way that news reports simply cannot. What has more power, the Wikipedia entry for the bombing of Guernica or prints of Picasso’s painting commemorating the massacre? And the same goes for the Wikipedia entry for World War I. I read ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ when I was twelve, if memory serves me right, but we didn’t study the First World War in History until I was fifteen and those who opted for Geography as an O-Level subject wouldn’t have covered it at all – I don’t recall it being possible to take both subjects that year. But if you wanted to get across to someone how horrible war was in twenty-eight memorable lines I can’t think of a much better way. It’s not a pretty way but it is an effective one. Here’s a poem I wrote probably not that long after being introduced to Owen’s poetry:

The Rats

And in his sanguinary grave
the soldier lies
slumped like a pile of old rags,
shapeless, his eyes
staring blankly – as if he died
before he knew
what’d happened. He’d been in
many wars. Who
had seen more of death than he
had but even
he wasn’t ready when it came. Most
of his men
had died and he had seen them
die. Just that
night his corporal had been
shot like a rat.

They lived like rats, it was only
fair that they
should die like rats, but if you’d seen
him in the grey
mud, his body torn to pieces,
perhaps you would’ve
had compassion for him but if it’d
been you he could’ve
quite easily have shot you a
few times just in
case you weren’t quite dead
and he’d grin
while he did it. You don’t know
the meaning of sin…

Okay it’s terribly derivative but you get my point. I’ve not set out to use clever metaphors opting for two crude similes – ‘like a pile of old rags’ and ‘like a rat’ – instead. That was poem #364. Poem #362 is called ‘The Virgin Soldiers’ – I’d not seen the film or read the book, I just thought it was a cool title. It’s not as good a poem as ‘The Rats’ but it’s worth mentioning because at the end of it I add a quote from ‘Dulce et Decorum est’.

Protesting ugliness

When Keats wrote "Beauty is truth, truth beauty"[7] he was being terrible naïve. When I wrote those anti-war poems I was adding my voice to thousands of others who have spoken out before and since. Langston Hughes said “that if some of his poems contained ugliness, it was to protest that ugliness rather than to dwell on it.”[8] A good example of that is:

A Dream Deferred

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Adam-and-eveUgliness is necessary. Without it you cannot truly appreciate beauty. You cannot appreciate truth without lies. If that had been the case would Adam and Eve not said to the snake, “Nu-huh, we’re on a gooood thing here.”

The poetry after Auschwitz is a poetry in extremis – a poetry at the extremities of language ... the extremities of thought & feeling. It was Creeley who spoke, elsewhere, of a poem "addressed to emptiness" (the anomie & anonymity of the modern and postmodern conditions), but I would speak as well of a poem addressed to ugliness – a counter not only to anomie's numbness (its loss of law or meaning) but to that other temptation – the temptation of the beautiful that we also feel.[9]

The poet Jerome Rothenberg concluded that address with a poem, the opening lines of which read:

Nokh Aushvits (After Auschwitz)

the poem is ugly & they make it uglier
wherein the power resides
than duncan did – or didn’t – understand
when listening that evening to the other poet read
he said “that was pure ugliness” & oh it was
it was & it made my heart skip a beat
because the poem won’t allow it no
not a moment’s grace nor beauty to obstruct
whatever the age demanded

“Whatever the age demanded.” That’s the key line here:

“After Auschwitz,” wrote Adorno, “writing poetry is barbaric;” but that poetry he singled out a lyrik. Another kind of poetry came to be our central way of speaking: our most human act. It was a poetry that Adorno also recognised, when writing of it some years later: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems.”[10]

Here, though, is where I find myself conflicted. Like most of us my knowledge of Owen’s poetry is limited. We only studied four at school, ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, ‘Futility’, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and ‘Strange Meeting’. My sister – unusually for her – had a collection of his poems (a little hardback) but I never read any more and it’s always the same ones that get reprinted in anthologies. So you can imagine my surprise when I came across his poem ‘Apologia Pro Poemate Meo’ which opens with:

I, too, saw God through mud, –
       The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.
       War brought more glory to their eyes than blood,
       And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child.

and also includes the verse:

I have perceived much beauty
       In the hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight;
       Heard music in the silentness of duty;
       Found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate.

God? Beauty? Maybe this is an early poem? Apparently not – it dates from 1917. The reason for the change in tone? Apparently at that time Robert Graves had recommended Owen cheer up and write more optimistically. There is certainly no other poem like it in his canon. He could, of course, be being sarcastic or ironic at least because at the same time (18th February) he wrote a letter home saying this:

It is a good thing no photographs can be taken by night. If they could they would not appear in the Daily Mirror which I see still depicts the radiant smiles of Tommies.[11]

And the next day:

We are wretched beyond my previous imagination.[12]

Peter Howarth has some thoughts on the subject:

Jon Stallworthy’s edition of the poems notes that Owen’s ‘Apologia’ is indebted to Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, which claims that ‘poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted … it marries exultation and horror.’ Evidently it is a marriage made in ‘the sorrowful dark of Hell’, but the reference is a helpful reminder that Owen is defending his own poetry rather than his own actions or feelings. His tactic to defend his poems’ ugliness, however, was not to reject beauty outright but to redefine it. ‘I have perceived much beauty / In the hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight’, and the question of who is swearing indicates how the question of beauty itself is caught up with Owen’s problems with his own agency in the war.[13]

Tim Kendall’s reading of it is that the reversals of the poem appear excessive and that Owen is sending up Jessie “Pope’s inflated rhetoric of soldier-tourists, boys eager to be matched with death in the ultimate test:”[14]

They’ll take the Kaiser’s middle wicket
And smash it by clean British Cricket.

(from ‘Cricket’)

Hidden beauties

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Where does the beauty in poetry lie? I think it has to be in its ambiguities. Owen’s ‘Apologia’ is framed in that Romantic tradition, leaning heavily on metaphors as opposed to plain speaking. Because of that its message is veiled. The ugliest poetry tends to be the poetry that does not mince its words. Robert Penn Warren has some thoughts on the subject:

Poetry wants to be pure, but poems do not. At least, most of them do not want to be pure. The poems want to give us poetry, which is pure, and the elements of a poem, in so far as it is a good poem, will work together toward that end, but many of the elements, taken in themselves, may actually seem to contradict that end, or be neutral toward the achieving of that end. Are we then to conclude that neutral or recalcitrant elements are simply an index to human frailty, and that in a perfect world there would be no dross in poems, which would, then, be perfectly pure? No, it does not seem to be merely the fault of our world, for the poems include, deliberately, more of the so-called dross than would appear necessary. They are not even as pure as they might be in this imperfect world. They mar themselves with cacophonies, clichés, sterile technical terms, headwork and argument, self-contradictions, clevernesses, irony, realism – all things which call us back to the world of prose and imperfection.[15]

Then the question arises: what elements cannot be used in such a structure?  I should answer that nothing available in human experience is to be legislated out of poetry[16]

Does that mean that ugly poetry is, effectively, chopped-up prose? It’s what Warren seems to be suggesting here. He’s not the only one. John Crowe Ransom differentiated between a “prose core” and “the differentia, residue or tissue, which keeps the object poetical or entire.”[17] The conflict seems to be between “logical structure and poetic texture.”[18] Clearly this is nothing to do with content but rather structure. Warren uses the term ‘pure’ but I think we can regard this an a synonym for ‘beauty’ (or at least ‘poetic beauty’ if you feel the need to differentiate) and, as such, a poem such as ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ could hang onto its poetic purity whilst describing horrendous things. Or maybe not.

Look at it any way you like, a poem is an artificial construct, a made thing. In his book The Idiom of Poetry, Frederick Pottle has a crack at defining a doctrine of pure poetry implying that…

…the effect would be more powerful if we could somehow manage to feel the images fully and accurately without the effect diluted by any words put into it to give us a ‘meaning’ – that is, if we could expel all talk about the imaginative realisation and have the pure realisation itself.[19]

He admits that a poem can contain “certain ‘innocent’ impure elements, which he called ‘prose,’ if the element, be it background or narrative, in Pottle’s words, “serves a structural purpose. Prose in a poem seems offensive to me when … the prosaisms are sharp, obvious, individual and ranked co-ordinately with the images.”[20]

I don’t know much about Warren but I do know he didn’t shy away from ugly subjects, for example:

In the last, far field, half-buried
In barberry bushes red-fruited, the thoroughbred
Lies dead, left foreleg shattered below knee,
A .30-30 in heart. In distance,
I now see gorged crows rise ragged in wind. The day
After death I had gone for farewell, and the eyes
Were already gone—that
The beneficent work of crows. Eyes gone,
The two-year-old could, of course, more readily see
Down the track of pure and eternal darkness.

A week later I couldn’t get close. The sweet stink
Had begun. That damned wagon mudhole
Hidden by leaves as we galloped—I found it.
Spat on it. As a child would. Next day
The buzzards. How beautiful in air!—carving
The slow, concentric, downward pattern of vortex, wing-glint
On wing-glint. From the house,
Now with glasses, I see
The squabble and pushing, the waggle of wattle-red heads.

(from ‘Dead Horse in Field’)

This is from a later poem from the collection, Rumour Verified: Poems, 1979-1980, a long time after his essay ‘Pure and Impure Poetry’ was published (1958) and an even longer time after he was associated with the Fugitives (practitioners and defenders of formal techniques in poetry) in the mid nineteen-twenties. So maybe, with age, his ideals have become less important to him. I don’t know; I don’t know the man.

Real chocolate

british chocolateThe problem with all of this is that we’re talking about something abstract: what exactly is poetry anyway? Let’s talk about chocolate instead. In Belgium and France chocolate isn't chocolate unless it is made exclusively with cocoa butter. This isn’t the case in the UK where manufacturers add a small amount (up to 5%) of noncocoa vegetable fat to their chocolate. For almost 30 years attempts to rename British chocolate (to Vegalate) or ban it outright were repeatedly and successfully fought. Ironic when you note that in 1847, the Fry's chocolate factory, located in Bristol, England, folded the first ever chocolate bar suitable for widespread consumption.

The thing is I’ve grown up with Cadbury, Mars, Rowntree's and other British confectioners. It was years and years before I ever tasted Belgian chocolate and I was not impressed. Now I could compare that to being brought up on a diet of books by angry young men and then being handed Proust. Just because Alan Sillitoe isn’t Proust doesn’t make him a bad writer; in fact I’d bet that Sillitoe sold a lot more in the 1950s than Proust (who only died six years before Sillitoe was born, incidentally) did. Times change, tastes change. Music now accommodates discords, art embraces non-figurative painting, and poetry has learned how to be ugly.

Perhaps the poetry we read nowadays isn’t pure poetry. Maybe it’s time for a name change. Maybe what we write are proems but we’ve always called them poems and we’ll continue to and I don’t think it makes that much difference as long as they make a difference.


[1] Molly Young, ‘Good Poems About Ugly Things’, Poetry Foundation

[2] Calvin Bedient, Boston Review

[3] Wyatt Mason, ‘Laureate of the Louche’, The New York Times, 8 April 2009

[4] Ibid

[5] John Taylor, Into the Heart of European Poetry, p.172

[6] Herbert L. Samuel, In Search of Reality, p.129

[7] John Keats, ‘Ode of a Grecian Urn’

[8] Laurie F. Leach, Langston Hughes: a biography, p39

[9] Jerome Rothenberg, ‘Nokh Aushvits (After Auschwitz)’ in Jonathan N. Barron, Eric Murphy Selinger, Jewish American Poetry: Poems, Commentary and Reflections, p.144

[10] Ibid, p.140

[11] Quote from letter dated 18 February 1917, ‘Apologia Pro Poemate Meo’, The Wilfred Owen Association

[12] Ibid

[13] Peter Howarth, British poetry in the age of modernism, p.187

[14] Tim Kendall, The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry, p.127

[15] Robert Penn Warren, 'Pure and Impure Poetry', New and Selected Essays, p.118

[16] Ibid, p.133

[17] John Crowe Ransom, Criticism, Inc., quoted in Sacvan Bercovitch ed., The Cambridge History of American Literature: Poetry and criticism, 1900-1950, p.574

[18] Sacvan Bercovitch ed., The Cambridge History of American Literature: Poetry and criticism, 1900-1950, p.574

[19] Charlotte H. Beck, Robert Penn Warren, Critic, p.50

[20] Ibid


Marion McCready said...

There's only one poem I can think of that, aesthetically-speaking, I really can't stand - Edwin Morgan's In the Snack-bar. I think it's a horrific poem, ugliness doesn't cover it. Obviously it's a very good / well-written poem and very effective (and I can appreciate that now) but it is ugly, depressing, verging on soul-destroying. If there was one poem that we studied at school that could have put me off poetry for life, it was this one.

Danish dog said...

Nice posts, Jim!

For many years I tried to write a poem about how beautiful Venice is. The two poems I managed were awful. Then, out of the blue, in difficult circimstances, this line came to me: "For all its beauty, Venice has been cursed." And three hours later I had a sonnet. Soon afterwards I changed two words and added a comma. It's a very rare event for me to rewrite so little. Perspective is what makes poetry.

Jim Murdoch said...

It’s interesting that you should mention that poem, Marion, because I had it in mind last week when I wrote a love poem would you believe of all things. The imagery in the poem has stayed with me when so many other poems have long been forgotten. Perhaps ugliness is more memorable than beauty as pain is so much harder to forget than pleasure. We never did any Edwin Morgan at school but this one would have made me sit up and pay attention as did Larkin. I equate beauty to entertainment—we like to look at pretty things but they’re so often insubstantial or at least ephemeral. Ugliness is like meaning—and so many meanings are let’s just say not pretty—and that’s why I read, to dig inside things.

I’ve never seen Venice, Duncan. It’s not a city that calls out to me, none on the Continent really do; I don’t really feel very European that way. I do know that every time I’ve tried to write a poem to commemorate or celebrate something it’s fallen flat on its face. Prose I can force but I’m a bit precious about the poetry and just wait for the mood to come which it does at all kinds of weird and generally inopportune moments. I don’t think beauty is well served by words actually. They never do what they’re trying to describe justice. Ugly things are so much easier to translate into words.

Ken Armstrong said...

Ugly is good, I think.

It's like physically, the perception of what is beautiful is perpetuated by the beautiful people.

Perhaps what is considered ugly is only different and different is such a good thing, really, I think.

Jim Murdoch said...

Beauty is a matter of taste, Ken, and tastes change. Women used to walk around with parasols hiding from the rays of the sun and the next thing you know they’re stripping off and lying out in it all day long. People are sheep. I’ve watched fashion trends come and go over the years: this is the way you must dress to be “normal” and then overnight people are saying to you, “Are you still wearing that old thing?” It’s true what you say about different but as soon as some celebrity is caught on camera being different a [whatever the collective noun for designers is] is sitting down, frantically copying the design and rushing them into production so that we call all look different. Laughable really.

Tim Love said...

"Poetry wants to be pure, but poems do not. ... but many of the elements, taken in themselves, may actually seem to contradict that end" - It's easy to believe that in the old days Paintings had to be of beautiful things painted beautifully (adding gold leaf to make sure). Words though are always grubby, second-hand, so there might often be a contrast between the effect of the whole and its parts - irony? transcendence?

"poetry has learned how to be ugly" - Maybe in the "sounding ugly" was the first step. There's also the "Pylon poetry" idea - the discovery of beauty in what others might think ugly. A wrinkled face for example, or a scrap-yard.

Jim Murdoch said...

Pylons have lost their ugliness—or at least a substantial degree of ugliness—because of familiarity. It’s like smell, Tim. You see them on all the cop shops, the novice steps into the crime scene, retches, covers their mouth and, on occasion, rushes from the room to vomit whereas the pros are just getting on with their job. I doubt there is an uglier smell—if smells can be described as ugly (I don’t see why not)—than a dead body and I doubt even morticians and forensic pathologists ever get to the stage where they consider it beautiful but then I’m reminded of Peter Greenaway’s film A Zed & Two Noughts where twin zoologists Oswald and Oliver gradually become obsessed with images of growth and decay, watching videos on the origins of life and creating time-lapse video of decomposing life forms. But is it art? Reaction to the film was certainly mixed. Bugs are ugly and as a kid my initial reaction was always one of revulsion but that really does fade quickly and after a while I was more interested in observing them—albeit at a safe distance—than treading on them. I suppose it’s like colour. I remember a young boy being asked to identify a man in a group and he said something like, “The man with the blue jumper on,” which was right; it also happened that he was the only black man in the group. He can’t have been ignorant of the fact that the man’s skin was a different colour but that wasn’t what he saw first. Now had that boy lived in the States at the start of the century it would have been a very different repose. I wonder if Keats of Shelley would even recognise Edwin Morgan’s poem—the one Marion mentioned in her comment—as poetry?

Art Durkee said...

I've got one or two of Seidel's books on my poetry shelves, and recall reading them with interest, although I haven't looked at them recently. The thing that has to be remembered about Seidel (and also about Roethke, come to think of it) is that most of his critics confuse "beautiful" with "pretty" the same way most people confuse those two rather different things; and also that most of Seidel's critics fall into that category of literary and existential Pollyannas who never like to even admit that life has a dark side, much less investigate it. Seidel is hardly the darkest-minded poet on the block, and not even the most sinister.

So much for that.

Most people DO confuse "beautiful" with "pretty." They like pretty (sentimental, shallow) things, and avoid unpretty things. They prefer paintings of pretty country scenes to "Guernica" or any of Goya's paintings. They define anything that doesn't make them feel nice as being ugly. These are the people who reject any art that pushes them to think or feel things they don't want to think about, or feel. And let's be honest: that's most people, most of the time, including many artists. While we're being honest, let's remind ourselves that most clichés in art and literature alike are seen as "pretty" by most people, which is why they keep getting used. Only artists seem to actually dislike clichés in art.

Most people also prefer not to think about death, especially their own. But it's art that addresses the ephemeral nature of life that has been recognized for centuries as among the greatest art ever made. From Basho to van Gogh, from Rilke to Andrew Wyeth, it's art that addresses those things in life that are universal and permanent (love, life, death) that is the art that endures.

As for the artist's duty to society, the idea that artists should only make uplifting art is again the Pollyanna narrative. In fact, the artists' duty to society is to reflect events and meanings as they exist, to be mirror, not to make them pretty or palatable or safe. As you say, part of the social duty of art is report truths about life that the news does not. Art can get at what we all think about something in ways that the news cannot. Interpretations and meanings beyond the facts of the case.

Nonetheless Keats was exactly correct when he wrote "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." That's because Keats did NOT make the common mistake of equating beauty with pretty. If you read his poetry and letters, that's obvious. In no way is Keats' "beauty" the superficial beauty raised up in opposition to ugliness. His "beauty" was the beauty that comes from knowing the truth, regardless of how ugly the truth appears to be. Keats was not afraid of the dark, nor of the dark side.

I don't give a damn about prettiness. I never have, especially in my own creative work. What I try to go for, and often get criticized for doing, is going after the truth, which has its own inherent sublime beauty whether or not it's pretty.

Art Durkee said...

Here's a longish quote from Alan Watts (from "Om: Creative Meditations") that says it all rather well:

Lao-tse says, "To be and not be arise mutually." The yang and the yin principles create each other. They are likened to the southern and northern sides of a mountain: the north side, the shade; the south side, the sun. Obviously you cannot have a mountain with only one side.

Human beings who do not perceive this principle are always trying to have the yang without the yin. They want the light without the dark, the good without the bad, the pleasurable without the painful, the life without the death. This, of course, is profoundly illogical. . . .

The fellow who complained to God that the stars were badly arranged lacked an adequate perspective on this galaxy. We are in the galaxy and close up it does look as if the stars are randomly scattered. But if we were to go away to a tremendous distance we could see that this galaxy is beautifully formed as a double helix. . . .

The universe is a self-surprising arrangement, so as to avoid the monotony and boredom of knowing everything in advance. And you and I have conspired with ourselves to pretend that we are not really God.

But of course we are.

We are all apertures through which the universe is looking at itself.

Perhaps because artists were beginning to have a glimmer of this, at a certain point in the development of painting, they began to tire of copying people, trees, clouds, and water, and asked themselves why THEY could not create works of nature.

And so they did.

JAckson Pollock, in dripping paint on canvas, actually let this watercourse thing happen without copying anything. The artist must be in a certain state to do this, because there is something fundamentally different between fine abstract painting are mere mess.

A lot of people thought that any child could do abstract painting, so they set out to make abstract paintings that no one found interesting because they were just terrible. And some people took typewriters and him them several times with a sledgehammer and then mounted them on blocks of walnut and called them "Opus 14" or whatever. And they were completely phony.

But it was obvious that Pollock and many other abstract artists were not phonies, though it was impossible to explain why.

In the same way it is impossible to explain why the patterns in water, clouds, or mountains are beautiful. . . .

Jim Murdoch said...

And yet dark is popular, Art. I listen to actors talking about the upcoming season of whatever show they happen to be plugging and they all eventually say something along the lines of, “It’s much darker this year.” So ‘dark’ sells. Is ‘dark’ the same as ‘ugly’ though? I think that it is essentially. Batman was a joke for decades thanks to Adam West & Co and then overnight he was transformed from ‘Caped Crusader’ into ‘The Dark Knight’ and he’s never looked back. The Batman Miller envisaged was not pretty or even handsome. He was still principled but those principles had taken a battering. It was the same with some of the Watchmen and the public lapped it up. And all you have to do is look at recent trends in filmmaking to see that it’s not just pretty that sells. I’m thinking here of horror films like Hostel, Saw and The Human Centipede. I’ve seen none of these and am highly unlikely too. There are ugly things people have to get used to and there are those we don’t. I can’t imagine horror poetry. I’ve seen people try to incorporate gothic elements into their poetry and it is, to use Stephen Fry’s graphic term, “arse dribble” of the lowest order.

I agree with Lao-tse. As the Book of Common Prayer puts it: “In the midst of life we are in death.” When I try and explain abstract art to people I generally point to nature: where are the straight lines in a sunset, eh? “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” may not explain why but it does acknowledge that we all see things differently. I gave up a long time ago trying to work out why I found one woman beautiful whilst another—who clearly was good-looking—did nothing for me. Apart from having the requisite number of body parts I really don’t have a type. Every now and then in a shop or walking down the street someone will catch my eye and distract me for a few seconds and they’re usually not especially beautiful in the conventional sense but they have a certain something. I don’t think I’ve ever been stopped in my tracks by anyone’s ugliness though. I don’t know why Pollock’s art moves me and Rothko’s doesn’t. I don’t hate Rothko’s paintings but when I listen to people go on about them I scratch my head. I don’t think they’re ugly but I don’t think they’re beautiful either. What I am willing to say about them is that they’re sincere. I’ve seen documentaries about Rothko and so I know he wasn’t a con artist unless he was also conning himself and there will be those who will believe that he was. I’m not that cynical. I think he was broken in that way all true artists are and that gave him a unique perspective on what he saw in the same way that no one I imagine, not even another synesthesiac, could hear Messiaen’s music the way he could. That’s the challenge in art be it visual, aural or written down.

Art Durkee said...

But that's not really dark, Jim, that's FAUX (false) dark, or Hollywood dark. I mean, they think "Twilight" is dark, when it's about the fluffiest teenage romance series to become popular in decades. It's shallow dark, not real dark.

Real dark is Goya, is "Guernica." Real dark is Auschwitz.

Faux dark is popular precisely because it pretends to be dark but isn't really. It's just titillation. There's no real threat, no real danger. There's no real jeopardy because in most TV shows or movie series you know that the heroes are going to survive no matter what, so that they can return next week. It's just shallow shivers.

That BBC series "Touching Evil" was more dark by far, for example, than any of these current shows that claim to be going darker this season; that's because it got really into the deep psychology of the dark side.

Most contemporary horror films keep getting more gory and explicit (the current wave of post-Japanese horror is the goriest ever, including "Saw") because it's all about titillation. You have to keep making them worse because people do develop tolerance. That's been known in horror move making for decades. After awhile, people just laugh. After all, even if they jump from fear in the theatre, they know they're still going to go home afterwards, and still be alive and unmaimed when leaving the movie house.

So that's fake, too.

The scariest movies I've ever seen are the ones that rely more on suspense, on psychological terror, rather than gore. Some of those still stick with me years later. It's what you DON'T show that's most frightening.

Horror movies are ridden with clichés for the same reason that the Pollyannas like clichés: they're shallow, they're not really threatening, and so forth.

All of this is faux. Even the ugliness and horrific makeup you see in horror films is faux, for these reasons. It's meant to shock, but not really to scare. Not to REALLY be dark, just to pretend to be. That's why it's still just entertainment, rather than art.

Jim Murdoch said...

Art, I agree with you especially regarding the fact that people become desensitised but that happens with all things and not just horror. There will be kids who hid behind the sofa when the daleks appeared on Dr Who but I still think that despite its fauxness the fact that people want to look at horrible things says something about how they view ugliness. Ugly is ugly. It doesn’t matter that there’s a man on the inside of the costume. There was a man on the “inside” of Joseph Merrick. People—those who flocked to the freak shows at the time—didn’t see that; they only saw the deformities. We are fascinated by variations on the human form whether that be the girl with three breasts in Total Recall (who wasn’t ugly) or John Hurt’s performance in The Elephant Man which despite all his efforts to present Merrick as human couldn’t do anything but present his deformities as they were. I’m not really concerned about drawing a distinction between entertainment and art here—that only indicates the motives of those involved—it’s the fact that anyone would want to incorporate ugliness in their project; they do it because ugliness matters. There was a time—I’m thinking fifties science fiction—where aliens were ugly creatures with monstrous intentions towards humanity. Now that’s not always the case and the first reaction when the kids see a monster is to try and communicate with it rather than immediately looking for a means to destroy it before it destroys us.

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