Strange Beauty


The experience of beauty brings joy and as such it is soothing. This, however, does not mean that beauty blunts and blinds us to the problems of the world, as modern critics have maintained … Beauty brings joy because it institutes meaning, and its instituting of meaning is characterized not by closing, on the contrary, it is characterized by opening the horizon … This experience of meaning that it is, stirs up the profound question of what meaning is, while it critically puts in perspective all the lack of meaning in the world.

Dorthe Jørgensen


Now and then my two and a half year old grandchild moves into the cupboard in which I keep porcelain. The keyhole of the cupboard is right at the level of her face, and she can open the door by pulling at the key. Moving backward she places her diaper-padded bottom on the lowest shelf among plates and bowls. She sits for a while until she stands up again and closes the door behind her. She fetches her small toy animals, opens the door and sits down on the shelf once more. The animals are given a place, the horse here, no there, and the sheep there. Bowls, plates and dishes become their strange landscape of glass and porcelain: up in that blue bowl goes the white sheep and behind that flowered plate goes the brown horse.
The child sings a little and moves the animals around. Then she stands up and fetches more. Little by little sheep, horses, pigs, cars, balls and pieces from a puzzle inhabit the cupboard. She moves everything around from one place to another, from one bowl or pile of dishes to another, until something seems to fit. For a while and until it does not fit anymore. My things she leaves alone. She speaks and sings all the time, uncertain of what and to whom.
This play can go on for a long time. It develops within the rather fixed frame consisting of the key, the cupboard and its door. Apart from removing the porcelain standing in the way of her playing and which I would hate to see crushed on the floor, my role is to help if the key falls out of the keyhole; a small but decisive function, because without pulling at the key she cannot open the door of the cupboard.
I do not doubt that she is enjoying herself. As am I. The play moves me in a way I cannot quite account for. Could one call it beautiful?


The child plays concentrated and self-forgetting. I push to the side stories of functional development and motor skills of toddlers, as I do it with thoughts of what the play is about, of which I have no idea anyway. These are stories that do not play along.
It brings joy to watch her playing, and joy is contagious, one joy pulls forth another. The joy of the grandmother watching the playing grandchild is almost self-given, but there is more: there is joy in witnessing her effortless and exploring concentration. There is beauty in an absorption initiated by something that calls – and then answered. The small child plays. That is what I see. And from myself and from others I know that very little measures up to a play that almost plays itself.

The key calls: Are you there? The child answers: Yes! Here I am! The child and the key find each other and something happens. The key’s attraction to the child starts a process of exploration; what happens when one responds to the invitation of the key and opens the door?

If one has an eye for this call-and-response structure it seems like a way to characterize a basic condition, a listening desire of life ready to be talked forth and given a shape, moving us along. Where to? This is difficult to say: it is like steps taken in a fog. Perhaps this wordless calling and answering is a conversation lead parallel with the more direct conversation of language. Perhaps it is particularly discernible in the simultaneously rule-bound and rule-transgressing processes og playing and art making, where the right thing to do has to be acted forth each time.

This is exactly what I experience these days. I am learning woodcutting. As a beginner I fumble a lot. Woodcutting demands knowledge and training and so far I have little of both. It is a complicated craft with sharp tools, and I cut my fingers.
I could call myself a trained beginner by now, one who does not get a stiff neck all the time or cramp in the hand from cutting the hard wood. Even though I am unable to solve the difficulties that may appear, I am reasonably aware of them and they do not block up new attempts.
It is almost as if each newly won skill has to be won once more in the next attempt. Indeed I do slowly get better at it, but the difficulties seem not to become fewer, they just change into other kinds of difficulties. The moment I seem to have a certain understanding of what happens when I, say, print one color on top of another, the printing process develops differently next time. Perhaps the cut out figures and patterns are placed a little bit differently on the paper this time, compared to what I did a while ago, and that has an unexpected influence on the print result. The transparency or opacity of the color, the crudeness or fineness of the cut, the viscosity of the printing ink, everything matters to the outcome of the final print. Like in other works of visual art the interacting elements are so many that attempts at foreseeing the result are doomed to fail. It is as if each new attempt has a life of its own.

In spite of all the difficulties I keep going at it. Like the child in the cupboard I move my pieces of wood around, explore their possibilities on the paper and imagine how a print would look in this way and in that, most often without the appearance of a self evident solution. Nevertheless, it happens that a print makes me stop in surprise and wonder. Look, how fantastic! Imagine that this is how it comes out! In an instant the picture has metamorphosed from unsolvable task to unexpected gift.

This experience keep me going, particularly when the desire to continue mutates into its opposite; I don’t want to, I can’t. More important things call me. This is how I distract myself. If no outer pressure existed, like a deadline, I am not sure I ever would accomplish much.

What is this mountain of reluctance setting in the very moment there is time enough and I have moved other duties out of the way deciding it is now? Is it a reluctance to face failure, watch a promise of something vanish between one’s fingers, stand by while something is lost because one followed a track leading to nowhere and simply got disoriented among the innumerable possibilities which open each moment? Made a hopeless mess of things, mixed everything into a grey-brown hotchpotch, color on everything in the vicinity; something that is really possible with printing ink, rollers, spatulas and prints upon prints. There is only one thing to do, experience tells: keep going. Keep going even when break downs lurk and the whole process wobbles along.

The artistic process consists of doing something without knowing how. It is like placing one self in the middle of a paradox; on the one hand submitting to a discipline and on the other hand breaking away from that same discipline.
One hardly ever knows beforehand if something works, even when one does the right thing in the given situation, because what is the right thing to do? Almost from one moment to the next the tools get rusty, as Søren Ulrik Thomsen says. Without jeopardizing the ability to discern and see the difference between this and that, one submits to a discipline that may be boring as well as, in the worst case, leading one astray. There is nothing to do but continue until the right thing to do as reinvented itself. Then a certain lightness may emerge. No more tense clinging to the wish of making a good picture with one’s dignity at stake, meaning that if the picture is no good, I am no good. In most cases the result is decent anyway. And this, then, is where it gets difficult in a new way; because why would I want a decent picture, when what I long for is beauty?
If beauty, this strange an un-decent quality, is the purpose of a work of art – and of course, this can be discussed, and it is discussed – it seems to be fitting that the artistic process cannot be described without contradictions.

*


There was a time when one approached the beauty of art through an examination of its form and idea. A kind of beauty’s system of rule existed, one which changed over the centuries, but what did not change was an understanding of beauty as objectively founded. Beauty was connected to the idea of the work and its formal execution, based on established norms anchored in something eternally true.
Particularly after the Renaissance a contrary perspective emerged, maintaining that beauty was depending on the subject. It was depending on the eye of the beholder. The experience of the individual was the defining factor, and what appeared as beautiful to one person may not do so to another. Beauty was considered relative. Times and taste changed and so did beauty. Individual abilities, personal experience and socio-cultural background were the determinants of beauty.

During the last couple of centuries these contrary points of view have more or less existed side by side, and perhaps they still do outside the discourse of art theory. But the limitations and contradictions were and are difficult to ignore.
On one side, even though beauty for obvious reasons is connected to something shaped in a material and thus connected to form, it is also apparent that many works of art only with difficulty be characterized as beautiful through an analysis of their form and idea. As we cannot reduce a work of art to what it is about, we cannot capture it through a formal analysis.
On the other side, even though it is evident that the situation of the subject plays a role and that mood and atmosphere color experience, also the experience of beauty, it is a big step to maintain that beauty is something that only happens inside the subject. It becomes an absurd reduction, refusing to relate to the outer object of experience. We could ask, then, if is it only in reverence of tradition and custom that we still look at pictures and listen to stories several thousand years old? Or is it only out of respect of history and forefathers that we still play music from the Renaissance, or do the long lives of these old works of art rely on something less subjective, so that they give rise to a sense of beauty even today?

Seemingly unchallenged, but not uninfluenced by this conceptual antagonism, beauty happens now as before. Earlier, the guiding question to beauty was: what makes beautiful things beautiful? Today, the interest converges around the reality that it happens. From being a quality inherent either to the beautiful ‘thing’ or the experiencing subject, beauty as an experiential possibility stands centrally. Something happens between thing and person.

*


To speak of beauty is to speak into a metaphysical tradition of beauty, Dorthe Jørgensen says, one that today is in danger of being lost. Nevertheless, we can follow it from its source in Homeric ‘theory’ to the thought of modern man; in Dorthe Jørgensens work, The Metamorphosis of Beauty, we follow it from the Archaic idea of inspiration of a divine madness as the source of art to the less otherworldly sense of a more in contemporary aesthetics. The experience of beauty ‘is engaged with forces larger than the human being, and with the self manifestation of these forces in the shape of beauty’, she maintains. The core concept by which she traces and characterizes the metaphysical tradition of beauty she calls the experience of divinity.
The experience of divinity is not a concept in the ordinary sense. It cannot be captured by a definition. It is a border concept, referring to a border experience. An experiential border is crossed, and exactly in this transgression or transcendence one finds the source of art and aesthetics.

Evidently, the experience of divinity belongs in a religious context. But not exclusively so, and not at all when the experience of divinity is connected to beauty, e.g. the beauty of art, Dorthe Jørgensen says. There is no divine ‘object’ of the experience. It does not refer to ‘”something” of which we can predicate something else.’ The experience of divinity is universal. Its appearance in a religious or metaphysical context lies outside the domain of aesthetics, and what she researches is precisely the aesthetic experience.
Taking the experience of divinity as a point of reference is to take ‘serious the phenomenological condition that even modern people may experience the world as meaningfully coherent and characterized by the collaboration of truth, goodness and beauty(.)’
With this statement, Dorthe Jørgensen reaches back in time to classical Antiquity. By focusing on the universality of beauty as the aesthetic experience of divinity, she bridges experiences from the antique world with those of modern man. She does so in spite of the fact that the world experience of modern man is often characterized by a sense of fragmentation and meaninglessness. Nevertheless, parallel to this we find the changing but clearly discernable traces of the experience of beauty as an experience of something more, connected to art and aesthetic experience.
Over time, the sense of beauty has moved through phases of change. Beauty metamorphoses. In her work she describes in detail beauty’s many shapes through the history of aesthetic ideas, and she argues that the fact that beauty as an area of discourse has almost disappeared today does not refer to the disappearance of beauty. It refers to the near disappearance of a particular discursive tradition.

We do, however, still talk about it. But whereas beauty once was anchored in an eternity beyond this world, the experience of beauty refers to something inherent to the world. In the experience of beauty the world seems to transcend itself without referring to something beyond it. ‘The divine of reality is the fact that it ‘is’ … the being of reality is the essence of reality.’ Walter Benjamin calls it an ’aura experience’, the paradox of experiencing the ’un-experience-able’; referring to a dimension of more reaching beyond the known and graspable, and which cannot be tamed, conjured forth or maintained by explanations. But it does happens.
Beauty is not the same as the pleasing, and it does not point to perfection. An attention beyond the moment slides off the smooth surface of ‘no faults’ and rather dries up, while beauty needs something to ‘root itself in’. The notion of ‘making faults’ is also primarily connected to the idea of fixed rules and norms telling what is right and wrong, something the arts have no unambiguous relation to, as we have seen. From being a guiding help they became a prison, which obviously is not the same as ‘anything goes’.

That something happens between person and ‘thing’ is an event; thus, beauty is event and depending on events, while reaching beyond them. It is call and address: something speaks to us. The work of art as object changes into a subject, ‘equipped with the use of speech; suddenly it gains dignity and appears to have something on its mind.’ If we are open to be spoken to, it happens that something comes close and concerns us. The poet says:

Beauty happens when the poem starts to talk back to me. I ask myself: why do I keep reading it? I do so, because the poem possesses something that is not in me … There is a blind angle from which more meaning keeps pouring out.


The beautiful poem tells more than the poet can tell himself. Its form opens to something that goes beyond form, while it is totally depending on its form.
Beauty’s event is secretive, says Ole Fogh Kirkeby, a secret that cannot be disclosed, because what is it? It is an event filled with signs, which we do not know how to interpret. No key is attached. It consists of signs that do not refer to anything beyond themselves, but that present themselves, are put out there and thus allow us to sense a more, which a rational logic cannot capture alone. It demands that we invest ourselves, mobilize thoughts, feelings, body and mind, memories and images of a future.
It is an ephemeral and fragile experience, says Søren Ulrik Thomsen, so fragile that we can neither define nor keep it, while it at the same time is the strongest experience we have. With equal selfevidence beauty carries the wonderful and the cruel. Is not beauty, then, a refuge from the cruelty of the real world? After all, we can turn our backs to it and walk away. No, says the poet, precisely because we can walk away it enables us to live with it without perishing.

When the doctor carries the stretcher to the camp hospital in Sarajevo he must stare directly into the open abdomen of the injured person, so that he immediately can assess what has to be done; but he must turn away his inner face, so as not to drop the stretcher in horror and be unable to help; therefore, ethically we are demanded at all times to make ourselves master of the concretely present horrors, but only on the aesthetic level are we able to look cruelty directly in the eye, because art is a beauty one cannot take one’s eyes off: “It is so beautiful that it hurts the eyes,” as a friend of mine said of Tarkovskij’s movie The Victim .

Beauty comes as a foreign-ness, a strangeness, says Fogh Kirkeby, and it creates strangeness.
Something similar was said by Merleau-Ponty about 50 years ago; art makes the world appear strange. Art breaks in and throws an unexpected light on the familiar world, and its less known and strange sides appear. That which could be said before now calls for a muteness or a fumbling for the right words or for the realization that there are no right words. To speak we have to speak anew. The world appears un-familiar.
The different ‘speech’ of the work of art makes us stop. Perhaps. The encounter with art is not helped by concepts, categorizations and systems, because ‘art scrambles the categories’. The habitual conceptuality shows its limitations in the encounter with a reality, which extends beyond it. After all, if art has a function, it could be to point to the limitations of the factual, empirical world as dominant ‘world-interpretation’, says Merleau-Ponty. It does so by questioning the principle of functionality itself.
A sense of meaning has to be kept alive all the time. This happens by allowing the familiar world to be challenged by the unknown, the strange, that which we do not master by ‘understanding’ and maybe never will. If this does not happen we are seriously in danger of losing any sense of meaning beyond the meaning of utility. And did we not allow ourselves to be challenged by the strange we lost beauty as well. The arts speak of something to somebody, which cannot be described sufficiently in hard facts.

The experience of beauty belongs to the kind of experiences that ‘keeps up the world’, as K.E. Løgstrup says in his characterization of love. All it offers is itself. And that is enough. It surprises us and ‘makes us think and as such it is a way to knowing … it allows me to glimpse the fact that there is more.’
This tells us that something has a value in itself and cannot be made a means of something else, ’at least not without doing damage.’ It tells us that something demands recognition. And it tells us that there is something to take care of in a time when the tasks may appear either too overwhelming or too insignificant and inconsequential. Is the experience of beauty one of the areas of experience where the ethical and the aesthetic cross borders? Where a call not only demands a response, but responsibility? Does beauty relate to what Emmanuel Lévinas calls saintliness?

*


Lévinas is a philosopher of ethics. To him, ethics is the first philosophy. He is in no way engaged with the arts or aesthetic experience. Like Merleau-Ponty he is engaged with the notion of strangeness. While the strange and foreign to Merleau-Ponty is aesthetically based, Lévinas has an ethical perspective on it. Holding this difference in mind, it may be interesting briefly to look at Lévinas.
Whereas we use much of our lives to make a ‘home’ to ourselves in the world, enjoying its warmth, there are aspects of life that we cannot ‘domesticate’, Lévinas says; there is a strangeness inherent to life, so radically strange that it will never be encompassed by our understanding. It is exterior, always outside. It has a quality of infinity and is, essentially, ungraspable. However, we encounter it in the shape of something finite and everyday-like. We encounter it in the shape of the stranger, the other person.
To encounter the other person is to encounter his Face. The idea of the Face goes beyond the literal face of the other person. It carries traces of Infinity. The Face is an absolute, it is as Lévinas says, revelation. The Face breaks into my closed world with its call. An appeal exudes from it, which I must respond to. The other person, the stranger, is the radical disturber of my life. I must let him into my world without first understanding or knowing him.
This unique stranger, the other person, will never fit into my categorizations, rather, they dissolve in the encounter with him. Thus, the other person is also always the new and inexplicable, which fundamentally transcends my world. It is exterior to it, and it cannot be conquered by explanations.
The Face is expression. The eyes see and the mouth speaks, but ‘the facial expression cannot be caught like a thing I can survey in space. It cuts right through my life space and calls me as no sensory content can do it: by appealing to me.’ The appeal comes from its transcendent infinite more.
The Face is fragile; I can annihilate it with physical or psychological violence, but fragility gives it an authority I must obey to. Thus, I am obliged to the unique other person, to his particular appeal. I owe him to respond. Responding becomes an ethical obligation, responding becomes a responsibility.
What is this call, what does the Face say?
It says: you must not kill.
The mute appeal of the face lies prior to anything else. It is, Lévinas says, pre-phenomenological, metaphysical and it is saint-like. It points to an inherent ethical Vorbild or ideal of life itself, one we cannot reach but must strive for nevertheless. This is how Lévinas talks about it in an interview:

... with the emergence of human nature – and herein lies my whole philosophy – something is more important than my life and that is the life of the other person. This is unreasonable. The human being is an unreasonable animal. Most of the time my life is dearest to me, most of the time I take care of myself. But we cannot avoid admiring saintliness; that is, the person who in his being is more bound to the being of the other person that to his own being. I believe it is in saintliness that human nature starts; not in what saintliness achieves, but in its value. Even when somebody says something derogative of saintliness, it is done in the name of saintliness.


When the experience of divinity emerges as aesthetic experience and ‘institutes meaning’, as Dorthe Jørgensen says, it opens the horizon. And when she emphazises that the experience of beauty shows that something has a value in itself, she opens an ethical door. The experience of beauty is an experience of value.
Could we call Lévinas’ infinite appeal of the Face an experience of divinity, now not aesthetically but ethically based? There is a parallel between aesthetic and ethical experiences when they are of the divine kind, a parallel between phenomena that point to certain experiences as irreducibly valuable in so far as they cannot be used a means of something else, ’at least not without doing damage’.

When beauty works, does it have a share in what Lévinas calls saintliness? The saintliness, in which human nature starts, and which nonetheless is as removed from our daily lives as beauty is ephemeral and passing? The poet says that beauty does something to us, which we cannot do to ourselves. Does it help us sharpen the attention on the life of the other person, if not in immediate action then in thought and imagination? Does the experience of beauty help us to see the Face of the world as well as that of the other person more clearly?

*


The child of two and a half years talks almost all the time she is awake. She talks to herself and to persons and things around her.
Today she speaks mainly to the horribly ugly Barbie doll with the yellow nylon hair. The child has an eminently bad taste. With great self evidence she chooses the ugliest and most plastic-like things among her toys. The Barbie doll lives in the pink plastic castle that the child got as a Christmas present and it is as hideous as the doll itself. Like she did with the things in the cupboard she moves the doll around, puts it to bed and takes it out again. One of her teletubbie dolls is part of the play.
Quickly a world is established around her. She cooks for he dolls, moving cups and pots around, pouring and stirring. Several square meters of floor have been seized, and around her blankets and pillows are occupied by gadgets, the use of which I do not exactly know. I move around at the edge of her space, not too far away. She prefers that I am within sight. Maybe there is also a need for raisins.
As a passing witness I think once more: these dolls are really ugly, they look like a bad advertisement for cheap hair shampoo. Imperceptibly, however, my critical glance at the toys is softened and something else is brought to the foreground. I am watching toddler theater. It is a piece about being put to bed. Barbie and the teletubbie doll play the main characters. They do it not at all badly.
I go to the kitchen and fetch raisins even though I have not been asked to.

*


1. Dorthe Jørgensen: Skønhed. En engel gik forbi (Beauty. An Angel Passed by), p. 58 – 59. Aarhus Universitetsforlag, 2006.

2. Dorthe Jørgensen: Skønhedens metamorfose. De æstetiske ideers historie (The Metamorphosis of Beauty. The History of Aesthetic Ideas), p. 26. Odense Universitetsforlag, 2001.

3. Ibid. p. 21.

4. Ibid. p. 29.

5. Ibid. p. 387.

6. Walter Benjamin is quoted in Skønhedens metamorfose (The Metamorphosis of Beauty), p. 371.

7. Skønhed. En engel gik forbi (Beauty. An Angel Passed by), p. 51.

8. Ibid. p. 57.

9. From a TV show in DRTV 2, Nov. 2007.

10. Søren Ulrik Thomsen: En dans på gloser – eftertanker om den kunstberiske skabelsesproces (A Dance with Words – Afterthoughts on the Artistic Process of Creation), p.100. Vindrose, 1996.

11. From the above mentioned TV show.

12. Dorthe Jørgensen: Skønhed. En engel gik forbi (Beauty. An Angel Passed by), p. 52. Aarhus Universitetsforlag, 2006.

13.Ibid. p. 7.

14. Emmanuel Lévinas: Fænomenologi og Etik (Phenomenology and Ethics), p. 47-48. Gyldendal 2002.

15. Ibid. p. 49.