O Beauty, Where Art Thou?

©2014 By Bob Litton

The Purpose of Canyons

Three men who had been classmates in high school greeted each other joyfully at a school reunion. They had been good friends all the way through their public school years but had since moved to separate sections of the country and had lost contact with one another. Now in their thirties, all had entered different career fields: one was a college science professor; one, an artist; and the third, a cowboy.
They decided they wanted to spend more time together, so they agreed to meet a couple of months later at an Arizona resort town near the Grand Canyon, which none of them had ever seen. The day following their arrival in Arizona, they spent several hours drinking wine (the scientist and the artist) and beer (the cowboy). Although a bit woozy after that binge, they nevertheless wobbled late in the afternoon out to the canyon’s rim.
The science professor, wide-eyed with awe, exclaimed, “Just imagine how many eons are evidenced in the strata of that wall across the chasm!”
The artist, observing the purple, red and golden hues of the sunset as the fiery globe rested upon the canyon, said dreamily, “What a beautiful painting I could create here!”
The cowboy, squinting and gazing, gazing and squinting, as he tried to fathom what his friends were talking about, finally sighed wearily and muttered, “What a hell of a place to lose a cow!”
After pausing a few seconds to guess what was going on here, the three friends began to quarrel over which man’s vision was actual. Then they fought. Then they rolled in a wild knot to the canyon’s rim. Then they fell.
— BL’s extended version of an old joke of unknown origin

I just wrote a check donating a small amount of money to an FM radio station in Arizona that plays classical music twenty-four hours a day. The station ended their fund drive yesterday. However, I did not pledge anything during that drive because I don’t like making pledges I might not be able to live up to and because I shrink from surrendering my bank account information to Cyberspace. I will, though, continue to contribute occasionally what I think I can afford to the station because I have been listening to it for several months now and feel guilty about receiving and not giving.

Any of my readers who share with me an appreciation of classical music are probably as aware as I of the threat to that genre on the radio because of its relatively small audience and its resultantly minimal sponsor roll. While residing in my hometown of Dallas, Texas, I listened nearly every day to WRR-FM, the City-owned station at Fair Park which played classical music all the time. Every other year, it seemed, the City council’s agenda included an item regarding the possible sale of WRR. The sale proponents’ argument was that the City should not be sponsoring a radio station in competition with other radio stations, all of which were rock-n-roll, C&W, or talk show sites. The local intelligentsia always loudly retorted that WRR did not survive on tax money but on its own advertising and sponsorship incomes.

Concert hall venues are in about the same condition; some orchestras have disappeared. I don’t know if that is because there are too many orchestras for the population or because classical music is too incomprehensible for mass audiences. (Classical country has experienced a similar decline.) It occurs to me that, as with modern rock-n-roll, modern C&W is indifferent to the production of the poetic and often humorous lyrics that used to spice them (e.g., “Ode to Billy Joe” and “The Race is On”).The “moderns” prefer unintelligible mumblings about the cliches of dusty roads and tractors that are supposed to attend a repetitive beat designed for the “Texas Two-Step”. Beat conquers melody!

Even I do not enjoy the works of some classical composers as much as I used to enjoy them. Gioachino Rossini and Richard Wagner were early favorites of mine — back in my early twenties — for the obvious reason that they were often boisterous and manly, but Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune, a very quiet piece, was also a favorite. I guess whatever was a favorite with the crowd was a favorite with me. Debussy still ranks high on my list of admirable composers, but Wagner has declined considerably; and I am not quite sure why, although I have my suspicions. Whenever they play Ride of the Valkyries — a piece I used to thrill to — I now can hardly wait for it to conclude. The Russian composers, especially Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Borodin, have since monopolized my sympathies; but I appreciate several others almost as much. And I have become a fanatic for adagios, regardless of the nationality of the composer.

This slide from one style and mood to another has been cause enough for me to ponder the shapes and tones of beauty. Well, let me be honest: I have almost always wondered what are the attributes which excite the response within our minds and/or souls which we denominate the aesthetic sense “beauty”. In elementary school we were warned by our teachers to avoid words like “beautiful”, “wonderful” and “interesting”, because they are “worn-out adjectives”: the alternative for our written compositions (restricting the present remarks to “beautiful”) are words like “poignant”, “seductive”, “comforting”, “colorful”, “charming”, etc.; that is, more particular, pointed terms.

Most of us are cognizant of the supposedly emotional associations of colors, particularly red (anger, anxiety) and blue (cold, melancholy). Yet, red roses are often considered delightful gifts of appreciation and a blue sky is usually seen as a welcoming invitation to joyfully stroll down some country lane. Nearly three decades ago, the Dallas Fire Department changed the color of its fire trucks from cherry red to amber because the latter color reputedly grabs people’s attention more immediately. It has been supposed that the “beautiful” colors set in flower blossoms are meant to attract pollinators; but are the insects really appreciative of beauty per se, or are those blossoms’ colors perceived merely as glyphs designating the species beneath? How do the various colors of objects and scenes get emotionally separated and catalogued in our minds? I wondered.

As for myself, while still using crayons in grade school, before the era of “political correctness”, my favorite color was Indian red. Next in line was a sort of blue-green: cannot recall its name now. Somewhere along the path to adulthood I took to pastels, virtually all of them. Why did that change occur? The nearest I can fathom is that as I aged I became mellower — much less aggressive; I had learned the cost of belligerency.

I also learned that the generally preferred form for illustration was the human body, not tanks and airplanes. Animals and trees of various species could be rendered to appeal as well. But what was there about any of those that justified their characterization of “beautiful”?

I have discussed directly — and slantingly — in previous blog posts some of the issues concerning aesthetics, particularly the question of whether beauty is in the eye of the beholder or whether there is some abstract, socially accepted, ideal beauty that is relatively eternal (pardon the oxymoron). We humans have, I believe, an irritating urge to want demarcations in various areas of life, e.g. aesthetics: lines that will set off against each other the ways of viewing any phenomenon. (We do seem to be evolving into a blurrier manner of seeing in the areas of race and sexual orientation; there is now a budding debate over what is called “asexuality” to confuse matters even more.) Now I have reached a point where I can intellectually accept the non-reality of such strict borders, although I still cannot repress the emotional desire to draw them: consequently I keep returning to this issue of whether distinguishing palpable appearances is possible or whether they in fact slide into and blend with one another. Is there a sufficiently valid scale of perfecting to justify the careers of critics, or are we all just marooned on our little islands of individual preferences, each as valid — and as invalid — as the other? Does what we classify as beautiful occur to us out of an innate knowledge or have we been taught what is beautiful for so long that we now accept it as the “real beauty”? And why does anything have to be beautiful anyway?

That is as far as I have gotten in my cogitations to date. I apologize if any of the above leaves my readers frustrated; it could well be argued that I should have waited until I have some persuasive resolutions of these questions before sending them out into Cyberspace. However, I am beginning to doubt that that day will ever come. Anyway, more than half the fun from such musings derives from the questions, not the answers.


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