Tag 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.

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.

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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?


The error rate of the average professional concert is low. Astonishingly low, in fact, not counting barely noticeable errors. Astonishing especially when musicians play complex music from memory: they perform the double task of reproducing the score, and ‘interpreting’ what they reproduce. In most cases however this interpretation is part of what they have stored in memory. This may reduce spontaneity and freedom in performance. That a musical performance has to stop and start again is altogether exceptional. With good reason, since continuity belongs to the essence of music.

The average soccer match, on the contrary, is halted every other minute for some misdemeanour. An offense during a soccer match affects the whole course of the game. So, one may demand that the match will start all over again at every offense. If this is put to practice, flawless soccer will soon occur. (Not that I would care).

Even the best tennis players make numerous miscalculations during a match, often mistakes of the very same kind as made by beginners. Of course, on average they calculate better, move faster and hit harder. Since the ball enters the field anew at every serve, a mistake has no further consequences. It just makes watching less enjoyable. Flawless tennis might occur when players care less about immediate hits and more about playfulness. (And stop grimacing and making obscene gestures.)

More aesthetics would be good for sports. A little less pressure on correctness might be good for music.