Where the beauty?
We share 99% of our genes with chimpanzees. We are almost the apes that we are not. In six million years, perhaps as little as four million, in the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, we evolved from apes needing food and mates into persons seeking love and beauty. A creature who is still an ape yet now a person is the mystery and enigma of the human. The link between these two dimensions of ourselves is the imagination, for when our animal inheritance which is now largely unconscious surfaces into consciousness it does so in images. The transformation of these images from biology into beauty is the work of artists. A woman nursing her child becomes Raphael’s Madonna, a woman grieving over her dead son Michelangelo’s Pieta. A handsome youth becomes a Greek kouros. A sun-drenched cornfield is turned by van Gogh into the mind rejoicing in blazing light. Sibelius seems to have grasped the very soul, the DNA, of those gloomy and bleak northern forests and harshly calling wild swans. Not that art is always concerned with beauty per se. Its task is to call up the darknesses in the soul, to recognize them and bring them into the clarity of consciousness, into the realm of truth and beauty, for it is the energies of our animal nature that the artists transform. The horrors of Dante’s inferno are framed within the broader scheme of The Divine Comedy. The terrors of hell in the Medieval doom pictures are balanced by visions of heaven. Even when we look at Grunewald’s hideous crucifixions we know that the resurrection is only two days away.
Yet the great artists of today – and surely they are as great as artists ever were – seem to be wholly pre-occupied with meaninglessness and ugliness. Damien Hirst’s dead shark is called ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’. For Hirst, and for all those millions to whom his image has spoken so eloquently, death is a blank, a complete enigma. Compare that with the worship of ancestors, almost the love affair with them one might think, to which so many ancient monuments testify. Even more disturbing is his mother cow and calf chopped in half. It is as if he has taken one of Raphael’s canvasses and sliced it into two Or his grinning skull jeering at us silently beneath its brilliant encrustment of jewels. Tracey Emin’s unmade bed is as pathetically repulsive as the artist intended it to be. The Chapman Brothers’ hells are The Inferno brought up to date, their hideous mannequins a knowing mockery of all those celebrations of the human form by artists down the ages. Where is the beauty? How often do you hear a sweet chord in modern music? These are very great artists. Their images reach deep into our souls, as the images of the great artists have always done. Hence why we are so fascinated by them. They are telling us of the people we do not know we are. How often do the abstract pictures of artists today become the enacted politics of tomorrow? When we look at these hideous, disturbing and terrifying images we should be afraid of ourselves, very afraid.