Beauty in the Age of Deconstructivisticism

An Interview with Addi Somekh and Professor Emerita Mary Holmes

Addi Somekh: When I see the art that people my age make, it seems like they skip straight toward the avant garde and deconstructionism before learning the fundamentals of craftsmanship.

Mary Holmes: Yes, I know it…

AS: And it's to the point now where that is all people do. They're so many people alive now, and there's the idea that everyone can now express themselves artistically, but not everyone is equally talented, so it leads to a lot of deconstructing and bad art.

MH: Because actually the word beauty and the idea of beauty itself has been debased so terribly. And it's hard for anybody who is trying to do something serious to accept the fact that beauty does exist, and has an enormous value. There is no doubt in my mind that if you told a (modern) artist you thought his picture was beautiful, he would be angry.

AS: And why do you think the idea of beauty has become so debased?

MH: It seems to me that one of the reasons is that beauty got on the wrong track. From the 18th century on, it became something that was largely decorative, and also it lacked depth. Real beauty has a great depth. So that the kind of thing we think of as 19th Century sentimental painting was aimed entirely to be beautiful, but was actually shallow. The urge toward refinement can go so far that the thing lacks all vitality and all erupted strength of life. It turned out not to be appealing to people because it was shallow, and it was only a surface charm which was taken to be beauty. It's the same thing you have with beauty pageants. The kind of beauty that is given precedence at a beauty pageant is not beauty with much depth–it's surface.

So I think that much of the 20th century has been aimed against the surface. The feeling of a great many modern people is that surface is a kind of deception, which, in a way, it is.

AS: And the deconstructionists in the beginning of the century came in and tried to tear all that apart...

MH: Yes. They felt it was false, and it wasn't the real thing. I do think that human beings are always trying to get at the truth. They may not reach it, but there is a longing for the true thing that all people have. They come to different conclusions, but the present feeling is that the surface is not the truth, and the beauty of the surface is not real beauty. But beauty of the surface is beauty, if it's accompanied with some reality and depth and deep harmonious truth that its surface will reflect. But when it's only surface, it tends to be kind of saccharine. It lacks guts. People think that beauty is such a let down, so they turn against it, and they usually turn too far. Then ugliness has got to be the thing, because they think at least it's real. We turn to ugliness because at least it has a sharpness and reality to it that seems to us truer than beauty.

AS: So there is some serious confusion about what beauty is, even though we as people and as a society are always thinking and talking about what is beautiful. What do you think is real beauty?

MH: Real beauty is mysterious. I think there's always a kind of unexpectedness to beauty. We realize that it's a marvelous and rare thing. We feel as though we've never seen it before, in that particular form. So it gives us great joy.

AS: Like a beautiful sunset–it never gets old. Every time you see one, you stop and are marvelled by it.

MH: And in that sense, the arts have a mystery to them. A beautiful painting has the same quality, because it's there. There's no way to get around it. We can never really grasp how it was done or why it has the power it does.

AS: Most people would agree that harmony is an important part of beauty–the balanced or appealing combination of elements–a kind of synergy.

MH: The funny thing is that the harmonious quality in music can be a terribly easy one–not very demanding, not very searching, not very strong. Perfectly easy and harmonious, but not on any profound level. But when you get something like Mozart, the harmony is not easy. It comes as something fresh and something not easily discovered.

AS: Anything we value, we want at least to feel that it has some depth to it. And I think the most insulting thing you can say to a person is that they're shallow. It's a deadly thing to say to anybody. Because we don't want anything that is shallow. We want something that has some depth to it, some strength.

It seems like we are in a strange period right now because we still have a superficial sense of beauty, with plastic surgery and imitation Greek sculptures for example, yet at the same time we are surrounded by abstract deconstructionist art which aims to be harsh and even ugly. Do you think people are still sensitive to genuine beauty in life?

MH: Everything that tries to show people how to live, whether it's a religion or a psychological theory, the idea of living fully, in pure real consciousness, is almost everybody's ideal. The more fully conscious you are of what's around you and what you know and see, the richer your life will be, or your experiences will be.... People who go through taking everything for granted, not seeing the marvelous workings of things, have a sense of the flatness of life. It seems to them all perfectly obvious, no mysteries at all. And real beauty is never tiring. It will always have a profound effect on you.

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