Category Archives: Aesthetics

The Bad, the Ugly, and the Shameless

Aesthetics and ethics. If ever there was a time to rethink these concepts and how they relate, it is now. As it was yesterday, and will be tomorrow (if we’re still here).

One thing baffling about Trumpian anti-culture is its utterly shameless inversion of values — of transforming vice (lying, denigrating, boasting, bullying) into a kind of anti-virtue. But even more striking is the way bad morals, bad taste, and shamelessness are perfectly aligned. The bad taste of gold plated office buildings, golf courses and pageants. A caricature of the nouveau-riche, even though the man is old-riche and has had ample opportunity to better his judgement.

De Efteling (2014)In The Netherlands a little row has occurred these days over a news blog called GeenStijl (roughly translatable as Bad Taste). ‘Tendentious, unfounded and needlessly offensive’ by its own definition, it attempts to convert vice into a kind of anti-virtue without altering its substance. Not so much a channel of free, anti-establishment speech, as a depressingly sordid puddle of racist and sexist abuse.

When this newsblog attacked a critical female journalist by inviting its readers to submit rape fantasies (a call promptly answered), 130 of her colleagues responded with a manifesto that was printed in two national newspapers, calling upon the site’s advertisers to withdraw their sponsorship.

A sensible and fair action. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. It’s just a pity that the action should be female-only, since that tends to confirm the opponent’s stereotypes (‘broom riders’).

Among the (sometimes unwitting) advertisers are McDonald’s, Rabobank, the Dutch Tax Authority and Ministry of Defence, De Efteling, and bol.com webshop. De Efteling is a fairytale theme park designed in a kind of neo-Biedermeier style. It is curious that its spokesman should find no major discrepancy between the site’s rapist hooliganism and De Efteling’s own ‘ideology’ (gedachtegoed). The Ministry of Defence initially saw no way of recruiting 4000 young males per annum without addressing the site’s typically male young adult audience (arming rapists with Brownings?), but has fortunately revised its position.

My personal dealings are limited to bol.com as a book supplier. So I let them know that I intended to suspend my patronage. Their answer: that they had one campaign running, and would reconsider only afterwards. Not good enough.

Bad style, bad taste, bad morals. The scary thing is that with its nearly 2 million unique visitors per month the site is not an obscure and negligible fringe phenomenon. As a branch of media company TMG it is firmly embedded in the right-wing commercial mainstream, which indirectly receives such encouraging support from the White House.

Is the fight against bad morals a fight against bad taste? Is there some common ground of shared — preferably, permanent — values between morality and aesthetics, some kind of ethical-aesthetic imperative? Does the Enlightenment idea of a morally uplifting cultural education, of improvement-through-art still have any validity?

If a pathological lack of shame is the clue to Trumpian politics, general behaviour, and aesthetics, maybe we should recommend a healthy sense of shame and good-natured modesty as ethic-aesthetic counter-attitudes. An old-fashioned virtue that is hard to cultivate in a society which constantly urges individuals to engage in bloated self-promotion.

Doggy Sentiments

Dog wet and freezing © Lodewijk Muns 2014

I’ve known a man who hated all living things that bore a human imprint — from cultivated landscapes to house plants and pets. An unlivable state of mind, of course, and probably not quite sincere. But understandable: the craving for the wilderness, the feeling that being human is a curse.

We can’t escape from our humanity, and can’t escape from our own imprint upon nature, which in the grand perspective belongs to natural history too. Parks and pastures, cows and horses, cats and dogs can be beautiful, moving or charming, within bounds (excluding lap dogs, daffodils and feral pigeons). Despite the fact that their likableness is largely the product of our own making them to our liking.

Why do we (or most of us) like dogs? — Because they have been bred to live with us and milk our sentiments. It’s not their fault if large-eyed and furry they may look like a Disneyfied version of themselves. We should, I suppose, admire nature’s adaptability to us and try to improve our own adaptability to nature.

Stories about smart dogs following hikers are common enough. I’ll add my own to the lot, for sentimental reasons.

In August 2014, hiking the Tour du Queyras in the French Alps, we passed the hamlet Les Fonds. A hairy, brown and white spotted dog (bouvier, I guess), followed us from the village. Pleasant company, remaining close without being obtrusive. We thought he shouldn’t be allowed to wander too far from home, though, and when we left the main track we decided to send him back (Allez à la maison). He obeyed — after some insistence, looking back several times (Are you serious?). We were serious, at least my partner was, and I half heartedly concurred. As he must have noticed — for 15 minutes later I felt a warm and wet touch upon my thigh, and there he was again, slyly wagging his tail (See, you can’t get rid of me so easily). Allez again, more sternly.

Dog in fog © Lodewijk Muns 2014A near-vertical rock with iron footholds looked undoable for a dog, so we were sure we had got rid of our amiable stalker. With the sun setting and a fog coming up, we pitched our tent and started cooking dinner. Out of the forest appeared our dog again (wagging: Look how smart I am to have found you!). He didn’t risk coming closer, though, and at a safe distance of some 200 m he watched our bed time preparations, his snout slowly vanishing in the darkening fog.

After a cold night we found him crouching wet and freezing in a hollow right behind our tent. Realizing, finally, that we had no choice but to accept his company, we shared our bread and sausages. We continued our hike with Malrif — as we had now baptized him, after the local topography — as our guide. At one somewhat steep and uncomfortable ascent Malrif was at the top first, watching attentively, and it seemed, with genuine concern, for each of us to make it safely.

In the afternoon we met a family heading for Les Fonds. With regret we asked them to take Malrif back. No regret on his side though — he walked as happily with them as with us, and didn’t look back.

Bred to milk our sentiments — and hurt them.

On to Cape Wrath (3)

Daffodilia Is Everywhere

A garden and a landscape are different things, obviously. A city garden is an enclave, an artificial miniature habitat where plants meet that never meet in nature. But outside the city gardens are often open to the landscape, or part of it.

One might hope that people who choose to buy a house in a spectacular setting –  Scottish highlands, Dutch polders, wherever – have an eye for it. That looking out of their windows they enjoy the hills or moors or pastures, and shape their place in harmony with its surroundings.

But often this is not the case. It is above all the commercially averaged aesthetics of the garden centre that dictates garden design, a standardised vision of what a garden ought to be. Situated in the landscape, such a garden often looks like a petty act of protest.

Cottage, Glen Achall © Lodewijk Muns 2016

Cottage, Glen Achall

And in spring it is the daffodil that dominates the scene.

As a product of nature it is beyond criticism. But in its garden varieties it has lost whatever charm it may originally have had (like the tulip and so many other flowers). The garden daffo is a crudely coloured bugle that waddles spastically on an overlong stalk (“fluttering and dancing”, in Wordsworth’s flattering description). Mute fanfares in a show of shameless self-celebration.

Given the bloated reputation and popularity of this flower, it might be interesting to organize a Worst of Narcissist Excesses photo contest. There were some precious places on the trail that I failed to shoot (much better than the modest patch pictured here). I still hesitate to collect the characteristically ugly and unlikable.

The winning contribution might as well be Dutch, for this nation has not only a strong tradition of growing and exporting the daffodil bulb, but its obsession with planting it all over the waysides may exceed even that of the Brits.

Shapes Moved With Sound

Or the Birth of the Animated Cartoon from the Spirit of Music
Tönend bewegte Formen oder die Geburt des Zeichenfilms aus dem Geiste der Musik. 

Listening to Chabrier’s Joyeuse Marche (in a 1919 recording conducted by Eugène Ysaÿe) it dawned upon me: before there was the animated cartoon, there was animated cartoon music. In fact the piece dates from 1888 (the original four hand piano version from 1885) – that is, from a period when the animated cartoon was just developing. The first public screening of an animated projection (by Charles-Émile Reynaud) took place in Paris in 1892, but his Pauvre Pierrot does look poor and suggests that, indeed, the spirit of the cartoon was there musically before it took shape graphically.

But what makes this music cartoonish? – Chabrier called his piece Joyeuse Marche, not Marche Joyeuse, and I’m not sure what that word order implies to the native French, but it seems to me that the composer thought of a walk (a silly walk) rather than a march. Listen to it (preferably in an early recording), and I bet you won’t be able to stay in your chair. You’ll start walking around in a funny way – jerky, angular, and a trifle too fast, like an early cartoon character. Not with those rounded corners, those stereotyped retards, that make modern computer animation look like swimming in syrup.

Music consists of animated forms, the 19th century music critic Hanslick thought, but he was at a loss what to do with the idea: what does it mean, animated? – The answer came from the movies.

Duck Family Values

I don’t know when it started to bother me; not anyhow until I was past the age of reading Walt Disney’s Donald Duck (subtitled Een vrolijk weekblad in its Dutch version, a merry weekly). There is a strange pattern of incompleteness in this family. Neither the grandmother, nor the rich uncle, nor Donald or his niece have living partners; and all the children (two sets of triplets) are orphans, of uncertain parentage.

This seems to be a preferred pattern in comics. Try to imagine Tintin with a boy- or girlfriend. Intimacy doesn’t rise above the level of his problematic friendship with an aging single man, a drunken sailor. Duck-type family relations dominate Suske en Wiske (known in English as Spike and Suzy/Willy and Wanda). Like the Duck triplets they live with a second degree relative, their aunt Sidonia, whose strongly emphasized sexual unattractiveness seems to block more intimate relations with the story’s true antihero Lambik (Ambrose).

The life of the greatest Dutch cartoon character, Olivier B. Bommel (Oliver B. Bumble) is overshadowed by absence – that of his “good father”. His friend Tom Poes (Tom Puss) is too sexless to have a mate. That the elderly OBB develops a belated, prepubescent infatuation with his widowed neighbour may suit his quixotic character. But that his very last adventure ends in marriage is, to my feeling, a serious break of the story code (and I prefer to leave this episode unread).

There may be something disconcerting, oppressive, constraining in the image of the regular two parents family. Having been raised in an incomplete family myself, I feel familiar with this perspective. But the popularity of the story pattern suggests that there is an orphan in every child. And adult.

Not only do most readers unthinkingly accept the Duck family’s pervasive incompleteness; they also go along with its incestuous sexuality, implied in Donald’s dating his niece Daisy (Katrien in the Dutch version). An official reading calls her a non-relative, but this is not what I remember from my merry weekly. It also leaves her family name unexplained (a widow? – unlikely).

It is the subject of a longstanding debate in aesthetics: how does fiction make us accept (in some sense) not only counterfactuals, but also inconsistencies, contradictions, and what we might call counter-ethics? I think the explanation must be sought in the fact that we accept all these together: they all piggyback on our playful acceptance of the counterfactual qua fiction. The trick (the magician’s and storyteller’s trick) is sleight of hand, to make it happen in degrees, to lure the attention away from any factual, logical or ethical offense.

What goes for ducks doesn’t go for people. But it remains amazing how much we allow those ducks.

A Hermaphrodite Virgin

Its slanted wall and its roof like a stranded ship I’ve known from pictures for most of my life. A hike through the Jura hills finally provided an opportunity to visit Le Corbusier’s famous chapel of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp, 15 km west from where the GR5 trail crosses the road to Belfort.

Built at the top of a hill and visible at large distances, the chapel yet remains tantalizingly invisible to the visitor who climbs towards it. From the (far too obtrusive) car park to the chapel, he is guided along a kind of cattle walk, part of Renzo Piano’s recent and controversial restructuring of the site, which includes a visitors center and a convent. Paying eight euros at the reception is not a sacrifice, but it does diminish my feeling of entering a sacred realm.

Most images of the chapel on the internet suffer from wide angle distortion. With a regular building one may correct this subconsciously, but the chapel’s backwards slanting front (south) wall does not allow this. The building is actually more square than one might have thought.

The less familiar north façade is very much a backside, a feature hard to explain from either the building’s function or the site. This contrast between front and back, the open outdoor chapel on the east side, and the rear towers like stumped limbs – this looks like a cubist deformation of the human body; but this comes to my mind only when I see the huge waterspout on the short west wall, a definitely masculine underbelly. It provides an outlet for the masses of rainwater that the roof – with blatant disregard for function – collects in its hollow inside.

Ronchamp-09A disregard that seems to pose severe problems of maintenance. Visiting the hill on a clouded day after heavy rainfall, I find in the interior a puddle in front of the confessional, three shy niches carved into the underbelly’s inside (and visible outside as a suggestive bulge below the waterspout). With over 10 million spent on Piano’s shelter for a dozen elderly nuns, the chapel’s state of disrepair is shocking. It also, maybe, reflects negatively upon the architect’s vision. Unlike so many buildings which gain charms with age, the chapel’s concrete surfaces decay ungracefully.

In an unintended and chaotic fashion, this puddle on the chapel floor enhances the theatrical setting of the southwest altar, lit from above through the tunnel-like tower. Le Corbusier may have been no catholic believer (rather a vague kind of spiritualist), but he could hardly escape from the kitschiness of the creed. Neither beautiful nor ugly, the building strikes me as profoundly ambivalent. Much like its creator presumably, whose recently documented fascist sympathies stirred the press just before my visit. Vague spiritualism and utopian radicalism are likely to produce dubious alliances, as well as ambiguous buildings.

Animated Wallpaper

Grand Salon, Palazzo Barberini, Rome © Lodewijk Muns 2014

Hanslick’s essay on ‘the musically beautiful’ (Vom Musikalisch-Schönen, 1854) is a remarkable piece of work. Neither coherent nor illuminating, it yet manages to maintain itself in the centre of almost any discussion of music aesthetics.

This is confirmed once more by Mark Evan Bonds’ recent Absolute Music: The History of an Idea (OUP 2014). Not because the author stands up for Hanslick’s ideas (he doesn’t), but because he presents a whole history of music aesthetics, from mythic origins to 1945, as leading up to VMS and continuing in its wake. At the same time, he cites ample evidence that hardly any of Hanslick’s ideas was original, or duly credited.

Maybe it’s just the aplomb with which Hanslick has pushed his vision of music as a kind of animated sonic wallpaper. Or, more precisely, the idea that its value – its ‘beauty’ – derives from its being, in his notoriously obscure and untranslatable phrase, “patterns resoundingly put into motion” (“tönend bewegte Formen”).

Of course there are kinds of music (the more saccharin type of Minimal Music) to which his image of the swirling ‘arabesque’ applies. But it is hard to think of the thundering rhetoric of Brahms’ D minor concerto as an ‘arabesque’.

By untying the value of music (its ‘beauty’) from expression, emotion, and all other connections with the world-outside-music, VMS has given music theorists an excuse (if they needed any) not to think about such matters. But the excuse itself drifts in a void. It vaguely relies on associations between ‘beauty’, ‘abstraction’, ‘purity’, and, in the German Idealist context, ‘the Absolute’. It also draws from the ancient tradition of Pythagoreanism, which for centuries has related music to cosmic harmony, or ‘the harmony of the spheres’. But this applies to an abstract substrate of pitch relations (intervals), not to the music we listen and dance to. Its ‘beauty’ resides in simple numerical relations. We may still recognize this ‘celestial harmony’ in the fact that numbers allow us to find order in the universe, even though this order is much more complex than ever intuited – maybe infinitely.

Most writers on music aesthetics offer a solution without the puzzle, silencing questions rather than asking them. Paddling along from quote to quote, Bonds’ curiously skewed history of aesthetics does little to penetrate beyond the surface of its numerous sources. What remains in the dark is the key problem they all hover around: What animates the patterns?