Terrible Beauty

By Wylene Carol

            When I heard, “I don’t want to see something that upsets me, I want to see something peaceful, something tranquil,” you could see my face in the Edvard Munch’s The Scream. And when the speaker happened to be a museum volunteer, I wanted to scream LOUD and launch an attack. This was my experience at a recent dinner party. Unaware that I represent an artist whose canon includes politically charged work, this person launched his own attack – this one against artists who “have the audacity to think that museums should show work that makes everyone uncomfortable and angry and miserable. People don’t want to be hit over the head with everything they don’t want to think about; they want to see something pleasant” – as if engaging the mind could not be a pleasant experience.

When it comes to discomfiting art, I can think of no better way to express its significance than does Barbara Kingsolver in her novel The Lacuna. In a conversation between the protagonist writer (Harrison Shepherd) and his typist (Mrs. Brown), Shepherd confesses that he’s a writer of meadows and buttercups, but Mrs. Brown argues for expressing ugly truths:

            Mrs. Brown: If you’re standing in the manure pile, it’s somebody’s job to mention the stink.

            Shepherd: Well, suppose the artist’s job is just to keep everyone amused? Maybe get their minds off the stink, by calling it a meadow. Where’s the harm?

            Mrs. Brown: Nobody will climb out of the pile. There’s the harm. They’ll keep where they are, deep to the knees in dung, trying to outdo each other remarking on the buttercups. (page 337, paperback version 2009)

Consider, for instance, the “pile of dung” that Floyd D. Tunson illuminates in his painting Rape.

60 x 84 inches   

However, given the tragic subject matter of, say, Rape, perhaps T.S. Eliot is right: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” When all the news is bad, anyone can reach a saturation point. But why must that saturation point occur in a museum? Why can’t it arrive during the nauseating repetitions of sound-bites on CNN? The point is that saturation is no justification for that volunteer’s wanting the institution to be nothing more than an amusement park, a la-la land for patrons who want a social experience more than an engagement with art.

But saturation is not always the issue. Sometimes it’s simply ignorance about what’s going on in the world that renders engagement impossible. This was not the case, however, when Rape was exhibited at a local museum. Always eavesdropping when a patron stands in front of a Tunson work, I overheard a couple’s conversation:

                       She: Oh, my god, what a stunning piece! I know it’s a strange thing to say, but it’s…well, beautiful.

            He: Yeah, I know what you mean. But, I don’t get it. I mean, I don’t see any rape going on in the painting.

            She: Let’s just look a minute. Isn’t that a Tintin character down there?

            He: I think it is. Yeah, it is. Why would he put a storybook character is in this painting? What does it have to do with rape?

            She: Well, think about it: There’s more than one kind of rape – you know, the rape that always occurs in war, and rape when one country robs another of its resources.

            He: You’re right. Maybe that’s what Tintin is about – something to do with colonialism…

Their conversation continued for at least fifteen minutes: The more they looked, the more they saw, and they seemed to be finding great pleasure in looking and questioning and sharing observations. Then I knew that this couple could appreciate the concept of Yeats’ term “a terrible beauty.” The exquisite execution of the terribleness of the subject seems to be an oxymoron, but is not. It’s a coherent, unified view of the world that is understood by people capable of holding two contradictory positions in the mind simultaneously and acknowledging that, that’s simply the way it is, that truth, executed by the hands of an imaginative and skilled artist, is beauty. This is how film fans react to the elegantly choreographed scenes of brutality, such as the killing of Bonnie and Clyde in the movie of that name and the bus wreck in Frida. It’s what readers can say about Karl Shapiro’s Auto Wreck – that the poem is a perfectly executed description of the aftermath of a car crash. It’s akin, to what the physicists at Los Alamos might have felt when they saw the mushroom cloud that validated their work – that it was beautiful.

But back to the dinner party. Out of courtesy to the host, I abstained from attacking the premise of the museum volunteer. But it was negligent of me not to invite that volunteer for coffee one day so we could discuss art at a different time in a different context, after my boiling blood had cooled. After I forced a saccharin smile from the inner scream and said my thank you, I thought, all the way home, about how our society can be a victim of its own comfort because, sooner or later, in one way or another, denial will catch up to us and we will rue that day. John Dewey’s haunting words articulate the point precisely: “As long as art is the beauty parlor of civilization, neither art nor civilization is secure.” Great artists can offer us a hand to rise from the dung heap.