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Meditatio 1: A Thirst for Beauty

Published on 28/02/2020
28/02/2020

The Pain of Ugliness

For my first official blog post on this site, I would like to write a bit about myself by way of an introduction. I could start by stating my age, my place of residence, my occupation, but I think what most accurately describes me is the fact that I spent my childhood in a North American town, somewhere south of the 49th parallel. More precisely, I grew up in a small, suburb-like town in the province of Québec, Canada, which probably resembles a vast number of other small towns in North America. What also best describes me is to what degree I remain scarred by the pain caused by the ugliness of this place, and of North American suburbs and cityscapes in general. Row upon row of cookie-cutter houses painted in nondescript colours formed the backdrop of a town whose inhabitants seemed to move about in a haze of unknowing.

To be fair, Québec has its fair share of historic city quarters and quaint residential streets. But to my eyes and to those of many others, I suspect, the prettiness of these areas are all too often marred by a haphazard collection of mostly concrete buildings that owe much to bad zoning laws and capitalist greed. One insightful comment I happened to hear from an Italian designer during my time working at a museum was that even Montreal looked ‘as if it had been bombed and rebuilt’…

A Suburban Quotidian

I suppose one is free to agree or disagree with these assertions. But one indisputable fact is that growing up in a small North American city made me thirst for beauty in a way I could never have been fully conscious of as a child. One telling clue, however, was the absolute fascination I had, as a young girl, for a particular Japanese anime (or animated series), which was set in pre-revolutionary France, at the court of Versailles. The title of the series was Lady Oscar and, despite the heroine being forced into donning military dress, the rest of the colourful cast of characters were attired in the most beautiful costumes my child’s eyes had ever seen. The evanescent musical score, the elegant scenery, the palpable sense of history, all of these things seemed completely new and wonderful to me. This foreign animated series seemed to embody a set of realities that simply didn’t exist in my suburban quotidian.

As an adult, I continue to suffer from the painful lack of beauty in my surroundings. Perhaps a European reader would be tempted to interject that North American natural landscapes are splendidly beautiful and, in some cases, still pristine. But I would argue that these landscapes are not ‘pristine’ in the sense that they have long been touched by the hand of man in the form of native American cultures but that these cultures, like so much else in North America, have been all but forgotten by modern-day societies. In a word, North Americans have no sense of history. ‘’The ecological crisis is a crisis of aesthetics’’, wrote the late American psychologist James Hillman. I believe this is particularly true of North America’s contemporary crisis of aesthetics and of the way it circles back to environmental destruction on an epic scale.

The Aesthetic Delicacy of a Car Crash

My modest hope here is to write about the desire on my part to explore what this modern-day ‘’crisis of aesthetics’’ looks like and means to us, and what artistic vision is needed to counter its destructive ways. I aim more particularly to explore the importance of revisiting history as a means of understanding our predicament, and of learning to appreciate anew the timeless beauty and comfort of more classical forms of art.

Indeed, have you ever wondered what happened to the art scene in the waning years of the 20th century and the early decades of the 21st? Or why much of contemporary art has the aesthetic delicacy of a car crash? Art critics, academics and artists have debated the issue back and forth but one thing is quite certain: the story of modern and contemporary art is rooted in the refutation of classical art forms and, at bottom, of a certain ‘feminine ideal’. This idea is one which has been explored by various authors in recent years and most notably by Canadian academic Wendy Steiner in her wonderful book The Trouble with Beauty (Venus in Exile). Her main thesis is that the modern avant-garde’s take on the ‘Kantian sublime’ rejected the traditional understanding of beauty that had informed European art for centuries and that this rejection was fundamentally alienating to the self and the Other.

A Journey of Discovery

This idea was the driving force behind my first book, A Bloody Song: How Anime and Literature Collide, which was released in February 2020. The book also seeks to examine one particularly fascinating alternative to our Western understanding of what is beautiful: it is called ‘wabi-sabi’, and it is an age-old Japanese concept which I explore through the lens of that fascinating series I fell in love with as a girl… Indeed, it is this heroic ‘Lady Oscar’ who, I now realize, first gave me a clue as to what the nature of beauty truly looked like. On this blog and in my future books I will be writing the sequel to that childhood story. I hope you will choose to follow along on my journey of discovery…