Afterthought on “Mondrian”
In the last issue, Marcel Knudsen traced the development of a certain attitude toward natural beauty as exemplified by the abstract artist Piet Mondrian. The view, roughly, is that “natural beauty” is an oxymoron, and that artists are fortunate to be free of merely representing natural objects, free to work in the pure medium of color and geometric form. Knudsen pointed out rightly that Mondrian, as much as the supposedly naturalistic artists he criticized, was painting what he saw around him; only what he saw were the sharp lines and right angles of skyscrapers and traffic grids rather than the flowing curves and chaotic mottles of rocks and trees and water. We were warned that such an attitude could be constricting, resulting in a stifling cycle of seeing only boxes and creating only boxes.
In this Afterthought I wish to bring another view to bear on the question of how a city can be beautiful. This view was expressed by another urban artist, the poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire, in the mid-19th century.
Theologically, the view goes thus: ever since the Fall of Man, the natural world, including the more natural aspects of humanity, is thoroughly corrupt. By nature humans are purely self-interested, evil, and barbaric. All moral goodness comes from reason and calculation, which has given rise to religions and moral systems commanding and inspiring people to look out for their neighbors. This is possible because each human has a soul, the seat of the rational and creative intellect. Likewise, beauty exists because humans have a supernatural ideal of beauty and the imagination to embellish themselves and the world around them. Baudelaire says that all fashion, of any period, is charming, because it represents one step further toward the ideal of beauty.
Baudelaire qualifies his declaration that all fashion is charming, in readiness against the objection that fashion is extremely relative, temporally. Seemingly essential to the notion of fashion is that it is considered beautiful or attractive now, and just a few years or weeks ago or hence, it did not or will not have its appeal, being quaint or confusing or ugly or boring rather than attractive. So he asks us to accept, at least, that any fashion was once justifiably charming, compared to what had come before.
But Baudelaire himself does embrace the stronger claim, does himself embrace the fashion of any given age, if it is viewed in the right light. The right light, we learn in “The Painter of Modern Life,” is that of historical particularity itself. Baudelaire explains here that any work of art has a double composition. The first component is whatever the work possesses of ideal, eternal beauty. The second is whatever reveals its historical particularity—the manners, fashions, tastes, moralities of the period in which it was created, which inevitably suffuse it. This second element is not something added on to—perhaps obscuring—the first, an unavoidable result of human artists (in the manner of some apologies for apparent barbarisms celebrated in religious texts: the text was divinely inspired and contains divine truth, but the human hands it passed through were bound to introduce some impurities). Rather, Baudelaire’s idea is much more Kantian. Being humans and persons of a particular age and manner, we always understand a work through its historical particularity or fashion. Fashion is what makes the eternal component at all digestible or palatable.
What use is all this? It may help us if we find ourselves trapped in a depressing dichotomy. On the one hand, the view that all beauty is found in the natural world, which makes cities seem like bleak, spiritually suffocating places, with only the consolation of city parks which can feel more like zoos for trees than anything else. On the other hand there is the view that art can only reach its heights by rejecting the imitation of nature: the downsides (and perhaps incoherence) of which Knudsen pointed out. Baudelaire, I think, offers a subtler and aesthetically profitable way of seeing the city. When we look at the Manhattan skyline or walk through industrial Gowanus, we are seeing layer upon layer of human creations, products of different historical points, individual aspirations, aesthetic tastes, moral pressures, fashions. It is through this lens of human richness that I suggest we view the city around us.