Sunday, July 09, 2006

Background Noise #7

Artist/Album: Miles Davis/Kind of Blue
Drink: Straccali Chianti

I’ve been thinking a lot about beauty recently: its place in our world, our abilities to discern it and appreciate it, our fundamental need for it. The American Heritage Dictionary defines beauty as “a quality that gives pleasure to the mind or senses and is associated with such properties as harmony of form or color, excellence of artistry, truthfulness, and originality.” That’s a fully functioning and bland, if not aseptic, definition. But, what does it mean? Moreover, what does it mean for the practicing artist?

Since one of the major purposes of art is to capture beauty, a new definition for artists might be helpful. In that way, beauty, to me, not only encompasses that which is beautiful or aesthetically pleasing or artistically excellent, but also the polar opposites. Beauty also encompasses that which is ugly or abhorrent or distasteful. Beauty can be at once lovely and disgusting; awe-inspiring and despicable; gorgeous and hideous; calming and painful. Finally, beauty is all that is true. Or, for brevity’s sake: beauty is truth. And it is the artist’s job to successfully and poignantly relay this beauty to his audience.

Granted, some art isn’t about capturing beauty (as truth). A good number of poems and novels and songs and sculptures (and other forms of art) are nothing more than exercises in advancing the boundaries of the socially acceptable. This form of art is typically called “experimental” or “avant-garde” and is usually more concerned with shocking people or confusing them, or even angering and/or insulting them. Yet, beauty – in its newfound definition – is still a prominent theme in even experimental art.

But, for the rest of us – creators and/or audiences of contemporary art – beauty is the predominant theme. Artists struggle to properly convey the beauty they encounter around them; and readers, listeners, art-lovers all turn to the works of their favorite artists to better understand and appreciate the same beauty in their own world.

This modified definition – beauty as truth– is important to remember when creating art, or in partaking in art. It is important for artists to be honest, to tap into the truth of each situation. It is equally important for the audience to be equally honest with themselves. The beauty of a summer thunderstorm charging in from the ocean is just as important, and profound, as the beauty of a blooming thistle in a deserted parking lot. There is beauty to be found in a freshly-killed deer steaming in the pristine snow of a highway off-ramp, and in the detonation of a bomb on the distant horizon. Even the hushed conversation between two, young lovers on a park bench in the middle of spring is beautiful. Beauty and truth are everywhere; and, it’s the artist’s job to find and capture them in such a way that anyone can relate.

This is merely something I’ve been thinking quite a bit about in the past few days. It’s also something I would like to hear your thoughts on. Let me know what you think about beauty and truth, and the artist’s role in capturing it, etc.

And with that, I’ll leave you with two poems that relate to my point:

the carpet at the walmart while she tries on red pants

I am squatting down low
next to some blue and pink
it is late and
with a shock of white hair,
hangs up the discards
from a long day
of people's
she looks tired.

the carpet is grey.
as I look closer,
I see that it is made up
of impossibly tiny loops of
spun and hidden amongst the
overtones of dull grey.
there is
peach and purple and blue and
pale white and cream and
brown and black and even some
rare like a ruby in coal dust.
I see that it often takes
many colors working closely
to strip themselves of their
to reduce themselves in the
working of the great
to a wash of individual grey.

Gussie's white hair over her
black face shakes as
my girl comes out in her
red pants
and spins in the glare
of the fluorescent lights.

I stand up and nod,

it is up to us to make our colors
in this bright grey world.

--Christopher Cunningham
from Thru the Heart of This Animal Life, A Measure of Impossible Humor

Of An Otherwise Stark, Rural Highway

There's a
certain aching
beauty in a kitten
lying dead across
rural highway
as broken,
diagonal rows
of loblolly pine
and a lone,
stinging nettle
thrusts itself up
through the
accumulated refuse
graveled chunks of
carbon black
of the soft
proclaim its

But, the key
is knowing where
to find



Blogger christopher cunningham said...

short comment now, longer comment later:

you find it in the melancholy, "Michelangelo’s legendary terribilitá—the terrible beauty that is his hallmark."

the thing that can only be understood in fractal details.

2:15 AM  
Blogger christopher cunningham said...

and a great poem, really vivid images, j.b. nice work.

4:11 AM  
Blogger j.b said...

yes, melancholy is most definitely beautiful. i tend to gravitate towards the melancholy beauty in art, music and word.

look forward to your comments.
and thanks for the kind words regarding my poem. :)

9:53 AM  
Blogger Luis said...


I second Christopher's comment on your poem. Have I seen this one? If I haven't, it certainly feels like deja vu. Keep it up J.B. & that's a fine poem from CC's chapbook. Kinda Blue, hey, good music there. Beauty is many things and difficult to define sometimes.

10:51 PM  
Blogger j.b said...

no Luis, it's new. brand new. but it might've written before and is nothing more than an unintentional plagiarism due to cryptamnesia...hope not.

yes, beauty is all. beauty is ugliness. beauty is impossible to define, yet we all know it when we see it.

beauty is everywhere, and nowhere.

it is you and me.

it is us.

1:09 AM  
Blogger j.b said...

oh, and that poem from CC's book is just amazing.

my wife, jaded as she is and sadly rather uninterested in poetry, read it and said, "WHOA" which amounts to HOLY SHIT THAT'S THE GREATEST THING I'VE EVER READ.

i looked her and said, I KNOW, SEE. AMAZING HUH?

she merely nodded.

powerful, yet so damn simple.

profound, yet so damn smooth.

1:11 AM  
Anonymous MOM C said...

WHOA! my sentiments exactly on both poems. Of course I've read My Favorite Poet's poem but had not read J.B.'s, and at first thought it was another one of My Favorite Poet's poems that I had not seen. Both poems and poets are AMAZING. Thank you both.

A couple of things come to mind on beauty and truth.

"You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free" - John 8:32.

Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away.

If you had moments that have taken your breath away, you have experienced truth and beauty in my eyes - and I am blessed to have had more than any one person should have had.

12:39 PM  
Blogger j.b said...

Mom C-
thank you. you're too kind. of course, being mentioned in the same breath as Our Favorite Poet (yes, we share that) is flattering indeed.

well, said, too regarding beauty and truth in our lives. it's true. i can't count the times i've stood in awe. at a sunset across a wide valley as i stood on the ridgeline of a great mountain; at my wife after a few bottles of wine and a night of intimate conversation; at a night sky so black i was convinced we'd been captured in the lattice of a lump of coal, with stars so pinpoint perfect as if some poked a million holes through the outside of the coal.

7:02 PM  
Anonymous MOM C said...

WOW J.B. that was absolutely beautiful. What vivid pictures you paint. Of course, that is why you are the wonderful poet you are. Thanks for sharing.

9:55 AM  
Blogger j.b said...


thank you. it's true though, isn't it, that the beautiful things make all the ugly things worth it.

and the beautiful things are oftentimes so simple.

5:37 PM  
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