Thursday 27 February 2014

searching for beauty

as i was playing with my lens to have the frail dry leaves in focus, curiously glued unto the windowpane because of the extreme condensation in the room, i accidentally changed the depth of field and suddenly got an image of the outside world, where, rummaging through the garbage behind the block of flats, two homeless people were collecting plastic bottles, or so i imagined (they usually do this, taking them to plastic collection centers where they get paid a couple of cents for each bottle). the first, instinctive response was irritation: their ugly apparition had ruined the perfect composition for my image! then i stopped and pondered the entire situation: the sheer ridiculousness of my attempt at "capturing the beauty" of two deep red leaves against the frame of a winter window, when outside people were dying of hunger and cold that very minute. only by a generous twist of fate had i been allowed to be inside, to enjoy the warm room and all the other privileges going together with it, allowed the luxury of "searching for beauty"...

i remembered Sei Shonagon's dismay at the view of moonlight ruined by the shabbiness of poor people's huts (dwelling for a moment on the plausibility of my being her late 21st-century avatar):

Snow on the house of common people. This is especially regrettable when the moonlight shines down to it.

as Jeffrey Angles stresses in his comment of these lines, it is not only class-based elitism which motivates such a view, but her appreciation for the ability to produce poetry, art, out of this scene: "the beauty of moonlight on a snowy roof would be wasted on a poetically unskilled member of the lower classes". this moral naïveté is of course justified by the social conditions defining class and class behaviour at that time. but we still perceive poverty and suffering as "ugly", don't we? thus the mixed response to Salgado's photographs, Susan Sontag writes, which portray the lives of the powerless in images which are nevertheless compelling works of arts which seem "beautifully staged": "Transforming is what art does, but photography that bears witness to the calamitous and the reprehensible is much criticized if it seems "aesthetic"; that is, too much like art. The dual powers of photography—to generate documents and to create works of visual art—have produced some remarkable exaggerations about what photographers ought or ought not to do. Lately, the most common exaggeration is one that regards these powers as opposites. Photographs that depict suffering shouldn't be beautiful, as captions shouldn't moralize. In this view, a beautiful photograph drains attention from the sobering subject and turns it toward the medium itself, thereby compromising the picture's status as a document. The photograph gives mixed signals. Stop this, it urges. But it also exclaims, What a spectacle! ..."

(Regarding The Pain Of Others )

is it possible to accept the paradox of such an existence where contemplation of a red leaf and aesthetic pursuits go hand in hand with the awareness of the pain of others? mostly, we end up living by closing our eyes and turning our backs to this essential issue, otherwise living wouldn't be bearable at all. Brecht's lines sum this up, as actual now as they have been in 1938, as they have always been:

It is true: I still earn my keep
But believe me: that is only a coincidence. Nothing
Of what I do entitles me to eat my fill.
Only coincidentally am I spared. (If my luck fails, I am lost.)

People tell me: Eat and drink! Be happy that you have!
But how can I eat and drink, if
What I eat, I take from the hungry, and if
My glass of water deprives the thirsty?
And yet, eat and drink I do.

(To our posterity, trans. by Arden Rienas)

Levinas is quite radical on this: "There is something vicious and egoistical and cowardly in aesthetic pleasure. There are times when one should feel ashamed of it, as if one celebrated during the plague". 

and yet: what if such celebration were the only possible way of surviving, without - to put it simply - going mad?

Thursday 20 February 2014