Picasso's "Guernica"

My first exposure to contemporary writing and art came in eighth and ninth grade. I can’t remember what books we were assigned in English class (I don’t think we read Catcher in the Rye till tenth grade) but whatever they were, they were dark. The point of view was bleak and despairing.

That’s what I and my classmates came to think of as “literary.”

Movies were grim too. Dance was weird. Sculpture was industrial and monolithic. Fine art’s job, it seemed, was to mock fine art, to declare that the creation of art was impossible in an era of nuclear bombs and Cold War. Comedy was ugly then too. Four-letter words were coming in. The more avant-garde a piece was, the more disgusting its subject matter had to be.

This again was what I imagined art was. If it wasn’t repulsive or nihilistic or deliberately pointless, it wasn’t serious. An artist couldn’t seriously have a positive point of view. By definition, an artist who produced something beautiful testified only to her own state of delusion or denial. Her head was in the sand. She just didn’t get it.

I confess I still don’t have a handle on this issue. How dark is the world? God knows the news could hardly be more grisly. The human race seems hell-bent on destroying the planet, not to mention each other, as fast as it possibly can.

If you’re an artist or a writer, what do you say to this? What kind of art do you produce? What’s the point of producing art at all?

And yet …

And yet art demands to be beautiful. Even the sentences of this blog post are crying out to me as I write them: “Make us look good. Make us cohere. Make this whole piece interesting and fun and informative.”

You and I as artists are commanded to make beauty. The nature of the enterprise itself insists upon it. If we produce pure ugliness, no one will look at it.

Schindler’s List. Margin Call. Picasso’s Guernica. These pieces are examinations of the ghastliness of war and the horrors produced by hatred, of the capacity of the individual human to save his own ass and send everyone else straight to hell.

Yet these works are beautiful. Not a frame of Schindler’s List hasn’t been composed and lit with exquisite care and artistic passion. The characters in Margin Call (one of my faves) are morally despicable, yet their dialogue dazzles. And the movie looks great too. Even Guernica, depicting the slaughter of a town during the Spanish Civil War, is riveting in the rawness and audacity of its vision. It’s beautiful.

Do you know what this all means? I don’t.

But I know that you and I, whether we realize it or not, are in the business of creating beauty. Our art may depict horrors, and maybe these days that’s exactly what it should do. But those horrors must first be converted to art. And art is beauty.


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  1. susanna plotnick on January 21, 2015 at 5:44 am

    I think that in these instances the beauty is in the communication, not the subject matter. The beauty of the writing, the filmmaking, etc.,not in the bleak vision that may be communicated.

  2. Mary Doyle on January 21, 2015 at 6:11 am

    I remember Shawn’s “Go Dark” post from a few months ago. Being able to use beautiful language to create an entry into a world where dark and ugly things lurk is the challenge that most intrigues and inspires me. Thanks for this post!

  3. Joe on January 21, 2015 at 6:14 am

    “Even the sentences of this blog post are crying out to me as I write them: “Make us look good. Make us cohere.”

    You can feel it.

  4. Terrie Coleman on January 21, 2015 at 6:27 am

    It’s up to us to dig through the darkness, the shame, the horrors of human nature to find the beautiful, the innocent, the thing that’s full of life. There is still real goodness and beauty in the world, and inside of each of us. It’s up to us to shine and polish it and place it in clear view. Inspiring post. Thanks.

  5. Robin on January 21, 2015 at 6:27 am

    Great post!

    In my opinion, art’s purpose is to teach history to future generations. Artists may think that they’re “prettifying” the world or bringing a personal message to the public, but all they’re really doing is illustrating their time period for future historians. I’m a non-Spanish speaking white gal in Texas, painting in a Mexican style. Does that encapsulate the cultural shift happening down here in the Southwest or what? We artists don’t usually intend to be historians, but that’s what we are.

  6. Dora Sislian Themelis on January 21, 2015 at 6:35 am

    In art school back then, a sculpture professor told us not to be afraid to create beautiful shapes, despite all that ugly others were doing. I’ll never forget him because that statement allowed us to be free.

  7. Miriam Linderman on January 21, 2015 at 6:35 am

    One day, in my early 20s in Montreal, an old Russian painter was exhibiting at the then Saidye Bronfman Center. His paintings were joyous, full of primary colours.

    I’d been studying English literature and thought that all writers had to be drunk, living in an attic and pretty miserable to do any writing. Perhaps I was depressed.

    When I saw this man’s art (I wish I had retained his name) I decided that if I had a choice, I was going to contribute uplifting material to this world. Or at least, at that moment, I realized that I had a choice.

    You made words sing in this piece Steve. They are beautiful. They cause the heart to melt, the body to shudder. Thank you.

  8. Lynne on January 21, 2015 at 6:50 am

    Artists tread where others cannot, embodying fear, war, horror, heartbreak of every kind, saying/writing/painting/dancing/singing what’s deeply felt and often difficult to convey.
    I’m fine with having beauty on board to help with the task.

  9. Mandy Carroll on January 21, 2015 at 7:01 am

    I wrote a book about my childhood. It was GRISLY and a hard read. Yet those who read it said it showed them that the myth held towards those who are abused was lifted.
    My purpose in ways was therapy, to get it off my chest as they say. I wanted to show that those who carry or carried the label of abused are not these lunatics as they have been portrayed.
    And I am indeed horrified at the news and the rate we go to destruction. And I am also horrified in personal relationships and what they have come to. To see the way families treat each other and rather than lend a helping hand they punish and keep each other in cold cold places.
    I am watching on Netflix “Marco Polo”. Very good and very hard to watch in many ways. It talks about kings and rulers and foreigners coming into their space and world and how we can all profit from another view. It also shows the violence we do in the inept way of gathering to peace. In last nights episode they cut off arms and legs of Chinese POW’s to show their might and make them surrender.
    And I thought. really…why have we made ourselves believe that we must see the filthiest things before we can see beauty? Have we become so sick…?

  10. Debbie A. McClure on January 21, 2015 at 7:08 am

    Beautifully said, Steven. Perhaps more than at any other time, when the world is filled with hate, negativity, and darkness, the human spirit seeks to find order, lessons, and beauty in the world. If not for this, why bother? What purpose does humanity serve at all then? Thanks for the thoughtful start to my day. Have a great one.

  11. JD Eames on January 21, 2015 at 7:24 am

    Thank you, Steven! Your post is timely for me, as I’ve been pondering these questions lately (not for the first time). “What is the point of producing art at all?” It is our job, I feel, to create beauty out of all of it, dark and light. Again, just thank you.

  12. andrew lubin on January 21, 2015 at 8:09 am

    Steve – maybe ‘being beautiful’ is explaining the scene-the mood, so it can be shared and understood?

    Take the opening of “How Green Was My Valley”…”I am going to pack my two shirts in the little blue cloth my mother used to tie round her hair and I am going from the Valley,” or how Huw later describes finding his father under the coal “I saw the shining from his eyes, that came from a brightness inside them, and I was filled with a bitter pride that he was my father, fighting still and unafraid.’

    It doesn’t make any difference whether the topic is sad; there’s beauty in words and it’s our job to bring them out.

  13. Joel D Canfield on January 21, 2015 at 8:12 am

    Yes, one function of art is to make sense of the world, ugly or otherwise.

    Another function is to give us a place to escape from the world, to show us places we’d love to stay, or places we’re glad aren’t real.

    Ugliness and beauty can be the process or outcome of either approach.

  14. Wendy on January 21, 2015 at 9:50 am

    Wow, I deeply resonated with this post, as I did with Shawn’s Go Dark post a few weeks ago. Such an important topic that is no one really wants to consider seriously.
    There’s a place for darkness and horrors as a part of the human experience. I love the quote by Joseph Campbell, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” The art of illuminating the darkness to unearth the beauty buried in it, versus the topical sensationalism of the horror itself, seems to be fine line that artists walk.
    I’m writing a novel about the ancient Greek underworld and struggle with making sure that the events my characters experience in Tartarus are never horrific because it’s expected, but because there’s a greater purpose that can only be had through that experience. My hope is that I can adequately convey the beauty of their discoveries.
    These two posts help me remember why I’m writing what I’m writing and to always be true to it, even if I begin to fear that it will be more horrible than anyone will want to read. Thanks!

  15. Anne Marie Gazzolo on January 21, 2015 at 10:56 am

    I just finished reading The Book Thief the other day and some months ago saw the wonderful movie based on it (refreshingly faithful to the magnificent book) and years ago watched more than once Life is Beautiful. These deal with dark times, but they are so powerful and affirming and yes beautiful. I think The Lord of the Rings also teaches us to hope and to still believe in light in the midst of such dark times. I am glad to have these witnesses that defy the darkness while not denying its existence. God bless all artists who do this!

  16. David Y.B. Kaufmann on January 21, 2015 at 11:28 am

    I am reminded here of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” especially the last couple lines. This post tackles some of the issues Keats did.

  17. Faith Watson on January 21, 2015 at 2:11 pm

    To me, art is discretionary life. So is sport, and spirituality, too. And even war, I suppose. It all happens after surviving and adapting. When you have extra time/energy/ability/interest/desire…

    So yes, ART is beauty, for those who see LIFE that way. Because art is an extension of life. A perspective on it. A judgement of it, even.

    It seems that a bunch of us are born to feel there is “more to life,” which is basically my point.

    As well as the view of my kinda crazy main character, Libby. lol

  18. Nik on January 21, 2015 at 3:11 pm

    I like HR Giger. I like the nightmarish images of almost indescribable horror, the human flesh grafted onto machines, disembodied heads kept alive by crude-looking wires and ducts, human organs lashed into webs of cybernetic machinery.

    It’s disgusting, it’s difficult to look at, but there’s nothing else like it and I find myself imagining how such things could come to be, what worlds those nightmares could exist in.

    That’s the same feeling I get from Poe’s Tell Tale Heart, or an especially well crafted horror movie. I’ve read our bodies produce rushes of dopamine during those experiences, and my personal theory is that it allows us to experience emotions and mindstates of real danger, the kind our ancestors used to face, without the actual consequences of being in a dangerous situation. That fight or flight response is like a vestigial organ nowadays, for those of us in first-world countries where there’s almost no chance of being violently victimized. But it’s still there, still a part of us.

    But I think the distinction between good ugly and bad ugly is what Steve was getting at: Gore for the sake of gore, without context or meaning, is not art. But a movie like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead *is* art, in the way it’s presented and the ideas it’s trying to convey.

  19. Siri Karlsen on January 22, 2015 at 12:34 am

    Thank you Steven – your words relieve and encourage.

  20. Visitor from Elea on January 22, 2015 at 8:15 am

    Superb entry for Writing Wednesdays. Much appreciated insight and inspiration. Thanks.

  21. Tesia Blackburn on January 23, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    Thanks, Steve for another thought provoking post. I spend almost every day pushing circles and squares around on canvas trying to find the “sweet spot” – that place where harmony and color and texture all come together and you go ahhhhh. I did go through the ugly phase as a young painter, and maybe it’s necessary. But I couldn’t sustain it for long. It was just too painful. Am I naive to believe that my “beautiful” paintings will bring joy to viewers? I hope not. Kandinsky believed that color and form and shape had inherent qualities that could raise up the viewer. I’m in his camp. Spot on post. Loved it!

  22. Lee Poteet on January 28, 2015 at 8:10 am

    Art is work and reality and the job of the artist, the writer is to bring order and beauty out of chaos and ugliness, truth, real eternal truth out of lies. One of my early English professors was quick to point out to me that although almost all the characters in The Revenger’s Tragedy were immoral, the play was about morality, an argument for morality.
    I will admit be being addicted to beauty. I have been since my earliest years because beauty leads to Truth and Truth returns us to greater beauty. We may well be living in the ruins of what was once the glories of Western civilization but our task as simple human beings, saying nothing of our role as writers and painters, is to preserve and build and rebuild with as much of the totality of our being as we are able.

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