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Cinema Room General Pretty vs beautiful
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Pretty vs beautiful
The discussion about appreciating modern art made me think of the following question. I would like to define an artistic representation (a painting, a sculpture, a piece of music, a film, clothes, make-up, a way of talking...) "beautiful" if it communicates some kind of emotions to  the people who experience it. A very broad and vague definition, and so I want it to be. It is not beauty I want to talk about. I define an artistic representation "pretty" if...well, here the problem begins. I will try to explain what I mean by pretty, and maybe you will help me to give an abstract definition.
Assonance, harmony, symmetry is pretty. Balance, grace, smoothness is pretty. Charlie Chaplin's characters are funny, even hilarious, always in a pretty way. Woody Allen's usually aren't. Haydn is pretty, Bartok isn't. A clean face is, a piercing isn't. Still, a representation of pain can be pretty, a starving dog (Giacometti) can be pretty, a tragic drama can be pretty.
Contemporary art and fashion seem to distance themselves more and more from prettiness. I agree that this witnesses an expression of freedom, against hypocrisy, shallowness, imposed rules, and so on and so forth. I don't want to discuss the historical reasons which brought us here. Least of all I want to write an apology of pretty art and the good old times: I enjoy immensely a lot of very non-pretty artistic expressions.
Yet, I cannot help to wonder why it has to be the rule nowadays for an artistic representation to be shockingly ugly (here, the opposite of pretty). I understand the novelty of the message, art does not have to be pretty, but aren't we already beyond that? Haven't we made our statement clear enough? Aren't we decreasing the impact of the message by over-using the concept? I'm beginning to be bored with all this ostentation of ugliness.
Hi Layla,
Though this perhaps used to be the case I don't think it is like this for quite a while now, and I would guess it has more to do with some examples you recently saw or have in mind. I'm not a great connoisseur of modern art, but I think that actually lately prettiness has taken a more and more crucial role. If you look at people like Matthew Barney, who I dislike but is very considered, it is both disgusting, but also very pretty. (You can say he shows the deformity of pretty or whatever, in any case he cares about it being pretty. As I said, I don't like him). I don't sadly remember the names of most modern artist I've seen to give examples, but a lot of it, even most of it, is very pretty. If anything I would say that prettiness has moved to be more crucial.

But, like you say, they need to be "shockingly ugly". Why? Well, you define beautiful as communicating some kind of emotion, and this is the easiest and most sure fire way to do it. How else would they create an emotion in you rather than by disgust, by the ugly. It is simply much easier.

On the other hand what can we expect. They can't create a greek vase, that would be ridiculous at the moment. They can't paint a simple pictorial image as again it would simply be ridiculous. So they need to do something. But, if you look at paintings by Gerhard Richter for example, they are magnificent, extremely pretty I would say, at least some of them.
What then am I saying: I think your distinction has more to do with good art and bad let's-call-it-art. Like you describe Giacometti's dog as pretty, when art is good it does not only communicate an emotion but is also pretty, at least mostly so, though actually not always, I think.
It is true that most art which is done nowadays is simply very bad, and then seems ugly to us, but to repeat, I think it is because it is bad art.

I'll give you an example. I don't know if you've seen the movies of Todd Solondz. I can tell you that in all his movies, and increasingly so with every movie, after about 10 seconds into the movie a deep feeling of disgust takes over me. Not a shallow disgust but a deep revulsion, and I feel my body shivering (more than in any other movies I've seen). It keeps this feeling throughout the movie. I will also say I find him one of the most riveting of current filmmakers. He is simply brilliant and his films, even though they are disgusting, are actually quite pretty I would say.
I would also recommend seeing Palindromes, which is his last movie, and is also about how our reaction to what is said depends so much on the body which says it, and how pretty it is. (Also would like to  recommend Storytelling, as I would all his films).
(As an aside, regarding prettiness, I just looked and saw he is currently filming his new film and Paris Hilton is rumored to be in it).
Films Discussed

Hi Virginia,

I liked your reply, because you put something else on the plate, an issue that I didn't have the courage to address (but since you started it...): the suggestion that the point is not really pretty vs beautiful, but rather good vs bad art. That's difficult to discuss: I do think that there is something called bad art, but I really wouldn't know how to come up with a definition. Something that does not communicate? But everything communicates something to at least somebody. Something that does not communicate deep emotions? But then, what's deep...Something that gives emotions to the majority of people? Terrible definition!

So I'll ask directly the concrete question I had in mind: how should I interpret the fact that I find people with piercings impossible to look at?
First interpretation: I'm a nostalgic bourgeois, who is pathetically unable to live in her own century.
Second interpretation: Piercing is just a form of bad art.
I was hoping, in my original post, to be able to support a
Third interpretation (the compromise): Piercing is a form of art, with a message and an idea behind it, but it's just not pretty. Hence, I'm entitled to find it repulsive, without this implying any further aesthetic judgement.

Can anyone save my third interpretation, or do I have to fall back on one of the first two?
Hi Layla, Virginia,

Well, your question makes a lot more sense now. I think you jumped a few steps ahead of us, or at least me. Let me see if I am correct in retracing your steps.

I don't like how people with piercing look. Why do they pierce themselves? I guess they want in a way to not claim the place of beauty, and to deface themselves as to be ugly. I guess this is a movement of modern art. Why couldn't they grow out of it by now. Or should I be the one growing up?

Assuming it went something like this (did it?)  I'll try to respond. 

My first comment is this: Aren't you pierced? At least most women I've met are pierced from a very young age, and wear piercings - on their ears. I doubt you find that so ugly.

So now, why do other piercings bother you more?
 I will say that  think the reason many people wear piercings is much more social than esthetical. They wear it as a symbol that they belong to a certain group. They wear it to symbolize, even to themselves, that they are not bourgeois, like you say, that they are rebels. And some do it to feel their body. I think many people simply don't feel a connection to their body unless they feel it aching in some ways (one could parenthetically, jokingly, say: they are called Christians). But all these are the psychological reasoning behind wearing them and though they are related to your original question, they are less so to your elaborated one.
Well, yes and no, as I suspect part of the reason you don't like them is the group who wears them and, to use your words, "the total package." 
To test the last suggestion - do they bother you similarly with tribal women, or men?

As for the 3 options: I don't really think of them as a form of  art, good or bad, nor do I think it has so much to do with living in your own centrury, so neither of the 3.
Regarding art - you don't have to like the cloth people wear either, and you can find much of it ugly, but you probably don't get the same feeling of repulsion you mention. That is, I don't think it is the aesthetics which bothers you but, perhaps, the physical tarnish. Hence your feeling that they have to do it on purpose, which brings us back to the beginning o f the post.
More a psychological response to your question than a philosophical one though.

Oh, and as for not being able to live in your own century - perhaps you are simply ahead of your time, and are a person of the 21st century, not the 19th.
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Latest Post: February 2009
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