Sunday, September 30, 2012

The ugly question of Kitsch

Beauty is the point at which the two meanings of the word “sense” come together, the body-sense of cognition and the mind-skill of understanding the meaning of signs. When we leave the sensual aspect to beauty and start to think about it in the abstract terms of logic, we arrive at the science of aesthetics as the modern science of cognition. This science tries to find out what we mean, when we say “beautiful” or “ugly” and why. The main question is: Are there any universal and timeless criteria for beauty? If we watch an old Greek sculpture or an Indian mandala, a Japanese garden or a Russian icon, we begin to suspect that there could be. But as we all know, every time has its own taste. And after a while every aesthetic fashion returns - as a retro-revival! (No matter, whether this means columns at the house entry or gothic tales.) But this magic power of our universal beauty instinct leads us directly to the urgly question of kitsch... (a German word with universal meaning).
 The human ability to spontaneously recognise natural beauty demonstrates to us the problem of KITSCH (a non-translatable German term that means simple aesthetic stereotypes, trashy art-clichés that do not exist in reality). When we, me and my younger sister, were children (at the age of 8 or 10 years), my father, a teacher for arts and history, had a simple but wise system to teach his students to distinguish “real beauty” and “Kitsch”. He gave us a wild mixture of art-postcards with reproductions of famous paintings and kitschy pictures that we had to arrange into two piles: art and kitsch. We always managed our work very well without saying a word: The pile with the postcards that we children liked was Kitsch, what we did not like was “real art”. Our beauty instinct was infallible. We never made any mistake! Kitsch is simple, easy to understand, it shows a simple, symmetrical order, something we love in an ideal state – how beautiful! It is completely international because it is the answer to the lowest level of our beauty-instinct. In his famous essay On Naive and Sentimental Poetry the German poet Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) gave a warning not to take the pleasant already for the beautiful and not to mix up a “cute mind” with the beauty of the soul. He explained that “cute minds” become banal when they have to work on or write about a complex and huge object, the easy-going paragons of virtue turn to the materialistic, but only the truly beautiful soul becomes “sublime”.[1]
  We have to consider: There are two kinds of beauty – the natural beauty of our senses and the aesthetic beauty as a construction of our mind. (The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, father of Critical Philosophy, distinguished between beauty and the sublime: A landscape, a flower or a body can be beautiful; a poem, a painting or a cathedral are sublime.) In modern and post-modern art (including literature), the low-level art of Kitsch fortunately is no longer discriminated against as worthless. It is, on the contrary, integrated (as trash or pop) in the collage of our aesthetic concept! Nevertheless, it is useful for every professional artist to know the difference between “real art” and Kitsch. (If you are in doubt in which category your own work belongs, ask some children whether they like it…) Here we have, surprisingly, found a path to the bridge between the aesthetic category of beauty and our fascination for horror…

[1] „Wie in dem handelnden Leben, so begegnet es auch oft bei dichterischen Darstellungen, den bloß leichten Sinn, das angenehme Talent, die fröhliche Gutmüthigkeit mit Schönheit der Seele zu verwechseln, und da sich der gemeine Geschmack überhaupt nie über das Angenehme erhebt, so ist es solchen niedlichen Geistern ein Leichtes, jenen Ruhm zu usurpieren, der so schwer zu verdienen ist. Aber es gibt eine untrügliche Probe, vermittelst deren man die Leichtigkeit des Naturells von der Leichtigkeit des Ideals, so wie die Tugend des Temperaments von der wahrhaften Sittlichkeit des Charakters unterscheiden kann, und diese ist, wenn beide sich an einem schwierigen und großen Objekte versuchen. In einem solchen Fall geht das niedliche Genie unfehlbar in das Platte, so wie die Temperamentstugend in das Materielle; die wahrhaft schöne Seele hingegen geht eben so gewiß in die erhabene über.“ - Friedrich von Schiller: Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung (quotation: naivsent.htm).

Saturday, September 15, 2012

What means, what is - Beauty?

In our times, „...the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence...“  Walter Benjamin wrote in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. The title already tells us how art gets its power today: By mass-reproduction. The question “What is beauty?” has been democratised by the possibilities of the industry. Today, the charts of the consumers decide on the real effects of art on society. The media are ruled by the taste of the masses. Neither artists nor critics decide what beauty is but the market. Independent of the intentions of the artist or a cohesive theory of aesthetics, the decision is made by the senses, not by sense. The merging-together of arts and technology is turning the question of beauty and horror into something that every person has to think about in daily life. The personal decision for one of the aesthetic norms and concepts on the market has become part of our individual existence. Now the question is: Do we have a choice in what we think is beautiful?

Some interesting aspects of what beauty means to us can be learned from scientific Face Research: By systematically showing especially prepared photographs of different faces to hundred thousands of people all over the world, connected to the question “Which face is more attractive to you?”, the researcher found out that people all over the world think the same: The most average and symmetrical faces are the most attractive ones! The rule of human beauty, no matter in which place and for what kind of person, seems to be: The more average and the more symmetrical something seems to us, the more we call it beautiful. What we can learn from this is: Beauty is not always a question of individual taste and education. Beauty to us seems to lie in the right measure. Some aspects of what we call beautiful are obviously biological. There is a human instinct for beauty. 

The question of beauty is of course more than a visual one - it touches our basic thoughts about the world and our existence. In the ancient philosophies, in the Jewish, Christian, Islamic and other old and new religions, the beauty of the world and our astonishment watching the greatness and diversity of the universe is taken as a proof for the existence of (a) loving creator/s: "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…” (New Testament, Rom 1,20) . Also Islamic theology teaches: “God shows himself to us trough the beauty of the universe. His beauty, his qualities and his laws are everlasting, no man can ever change it.” - Allah as the invisible, but eternal god of beauty. The elegant verses in the Holy Quran and the astonishingly symmetrical mathematical structure of its text count as a clear proof for every Muslim that the origin of this book must be divine (and could not have been created by any human).  Every human religion is connected to the aspect of beauty, and so is our whole culture today (as a follower of religious rites = cultus). There is something in the world that impresses us and makes us adore it. Everybody is looking for it. It is not about wellbeing, because even when we are cold, hungry or tired, we are able to appreciate the beauty of a sudden flashlight, a surprising colour or a well-made poem. Maybe beauty is no outside-fact but an inside-aspect of our cognition, something planted into our brains. Maybe beauty is a state of mind.