Thursday, March 9, 2017

Being wrong about beauty

Elaine Scarry is commenting on the experience of being wrong about beauty. Her example: realizing that palm trees are, after all, beautiful. She writes:

Those who remember making an error about beauty usually . . . recall the exact second when they first realized they had made an error. The revisionary moment comes as a perceptual slap or slam that itself has emphatic sensory properties.

On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).
“The exact second”: that rings true for me. It reminds me of something I posted in 2000 to (remember newsgroups?), describing how I came to appreciate Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. Before 1999, the Beach Boys for me were trivial, nothing more than striped shirts, “Surfer Girl,” “Surfin’ Safari,” and a Sunkist commercial. But:
In January 1999 I happened to rent a videotape of I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times. I’d remembered reading in the New York Times that the film was well done and told the story of Brian Wilson’s life (that rang a vague bell). There was much in the film that I didn’t take in, but I was struck by — mesmerized by — the Van Dyke Parks song “Orange Crate Art.” (His name rang a vague bell too.) I rewound that section of the tape many times and started figuring out the tune on the piano (nice chord changes). Then I went to the library, where I always go to explore music I don’t know much about, and discovered that there was a CD called Orange Crate Art available through interlibrary loan. I figured I should get Pet Sounds too. Why not?

Listening to both was an incredible reeducation in music. I don’t typically listen to music with a lot of “production” — in old jazz and blues recordings, production amounted to moving the musicians toward or away from the microphone (the only microphone!). So it took me a while to get used to production, and to then appreciate it. And the songs on Pet Sounds seemed so short — they seemed to barely get started before fading out. But I can mark the first moments in the album that really hit me — the huge drum sound that stops the intro to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” the slowing down and picking back up at the end, the intro to “You Still Believe in Me,” and the low note on “me.” So I kept listening.
My account jibes with another observation in Scarry’s book: that the experience of beauty “seems to incite, even to require, the act of replication.” ”Beauty,” Scarry says, “brings copies of itself into being.” Which is just what happened when I listened to “Orange Crate Art” again and again and then began playing the song on the piano. The copies need not be perfect.

I would like to read accounts of other people’s errors about beauty, recognitions that something once thought not beautiful is indeed beautiful, or that something once thought beautiful is not. Is Scarry right that there is usually an “exact second” in which one recognizes the error?

Also from this book
“When justice has been taken away”

comments: 5

Elaine said...

I am recalling a visit with my parents in their CCRC (Continuing Care Retirement Center) where they spent their last years. Two meals each day were served in the dining room, and the wait-staff was drawn from the historically black colleges in the area, schools which benefitted from an annual scholarship fund created by the residents of the center.

As different servers visited the table, taking orders, pouring water (remembering that my mother wanted only one ice cube), and bringing our meals, I commented to my father on the handsomeness of the young people--and I meant beauty aside from the glow of youth and health, beauty imparted by symmetry, exotic features, rich colors, the infinite variety of human forms.

My dad gazed across the room and said, "Isn't it a shame that it took me until age 89 to realize that a black person could be beautiful?"

My father had always been silent on the subject of race (and the US military in which he spent his career had been desegregated the year I was born.) My mother had been more vocal, so I knew her views, but I was shocked to realize that my silent dad had been equally prejudiced. A mere idea can deprive humans of the ability to recognize what is in front of them, of 'eyes with which to see.'

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for sharing that story here, Elaine.

Fresca said...

A few years ago, I, a non-starter in music-making and music theory, learned something about how music is mastered (?) in layers (tracks?--I don't even know the language) from a musician friend. And I remember the shock I felt when I then listened to Bruce Springsteen's album Born to Run, which had been super important to me in high school, and heard for the first time, as it were, all the layers and thought, What's that stupid glockenspiel in there?

What I had loved I still loved (and love): the lyrics, the desperation, the energy (probably in the beat?), but the music all of a sudden sounded very… overmastered (?), messy sounding to me.

Michael Leddy said...

You had the reverse of my Beach Boys experience with “production.” That’s gotta be a Phil Spector influence with Springsteen, yes?

Frex said...

Yes! I think the Beach Boys came into the discussion with my musician friend, in fact---"Pet Sounds" being NOT messy sounding.
I don't know about Springsteen's influences--never paid much attention to him beyond listening to his music--but Phil Spector's wall of sounds seems right---in Bruce's case, more a pancake pile of sound? This was early on--he did some plain acoustic stuff that sounds better (but of course I still love Born to Run best).