When Is Art Beautiful? When Is It Just Boring?

To paraphrase art critic Peter Schjeldahl, beauty is a kind of action and reaction between the work and the viewer, or the listener, or the reader. Beauty happens.

Well after midnight, I sit on the back porch of the house, smoking. The temperature is around 17 degrees, the grass has been spray-painted with snow, the wind is feeble, and despite its ordinariness, the scene possesses austerity, maybe even beauty.

I'm thinking about beauty, thanks to the talk I heard tonight by Peter Schjeldahl, the art critic for The New Yorker. First he read an unpublished essay of his, "The Critic as Artist: Updating Oscar Wilde", in which beauty kept rising to the surface, sinking again, rising again, like a persistent and elusive fish. The biggest catch there is. There was a nod to Baudelaire's poem "Beauty", I think, in which beauty "flames and dies".

During the Q&A, when Schjeldahl was asked about beauty in art, he pounced, visibly excited. Beauty in art is an overwhelming event, he said. Instead of a static quality, and certainly instead of a formal element you can put your finger on, beauty is a kind of action and reaction between the work and the viewer, or the listener, or the reader. Beauty happens.

These days, whether in contemporary visual arts or even popular music, beauty is like pornography: everyone knows it's there, everyone looks for it, we all have our own preferences, but everyone is too embarrassed to actually talk about it.

Schjeldahl's enthusiasm was obscene and infectious: sitting on my porch, being the person I am, I ask myself what music this ordinary nighttime winter beauty reminds me of. First comes to mind anything by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, whose sacred choral works always seem to emerge from a midnight in the arctic. And then, a bundle of contemporary pop music, although that's more of a metaphorical stretch: the brittle, compressed smallness of sound, perfectly crafted and icy. Sia's new album, This Is Acting, is a perfect example, though there are times when her raw voice transcends the calculation of the chittering drum tracks and sweeping orchestral maneuvers.

Then I think of Sufjan Stevens' 2015 album Carrie and Lowell, a collection of hushed folk songs primarily about his absent and now deceased mother. A lot of people enjoyed it. A lot of people put it on their year-end lists.

I just thought it was boring.

It still sounds that way to me almost a year after it was released, but it's an undeniably beautiful album, isn't it? "Death With Dignity", the opening track, returns us to Stevens' acoustic fingerpicking -- a word too ugly for the sound or his talent -- and his isolated, echoing, usually multi-tracked tenor. These form the foundation of the album. The other dominant vocabulary is electronic: cushioned organ-toned keyboards, a handful of ominous surges, a bit of light percussion, but mainly sweeping cold skies, like the end of "Drawn to the Blood" and "Blue Bucket of Gold". The title song combines Stevens' vulnerable singing with a pattering beat, a banjo, marking-time throbs, and keening synths that sound like they could crack in half.

There are more mundane things to say about Carrie and Lowell, to its credit and detriment. Intensely personal, it suffocates. Stevens' lyrics are, as usual, evocative; they tell stories based on the smallest of details and slight turns of phrase, but their significance passes by before you can catch on. The songs lack distinctive melodies, move at the same pace, ride the same rhythms, and too often rely on the multi-tracking of Stevens' voice, by either studio mixing or overdubbed takes, and his habit of running a melody up a ladder into the fragile ether of his falsetto.

Still, Carrie and Lowell is beautiful. The question is what kind of beauty, and for me it's a static beauty, not ecstatic. It possesses the quality instead of bringing it to life in an event, an adjective instead of a verb.

This is a version of beauty we all recognize: order. The parts fit together without dissonance, without any severe conflict. Tension is quickly resolved and never disruptive. To me this is the antithesis of what Schjeldahl describes as the event of beauty. Instead, the event has already happened. It's like coming late to what was obviously a really good party.

On Carrie and Lowell, Stevens wraps the contradictions of his relationship and memories of his mother, the messy stuff of life, into a sonic cousin of Robert Ryman's white-on-white paintings, chilly work like Twin (1966), objects of contemplation that are never so ordered that they seem blank or perfect. But I doubt you'd think of them as emotional, either. They're experiments in light and control, drawing attention to each quality and what one critic described as "the fragility of things". That might be a description of Stevens' album, too.

My admiration for Ryman's paintings is similar to my admiration of Stevens' album. It goes beyond the appreciation of technique or form, but not much further beyond. I'm not moved. Appreciation, in the end, is boring.

Boring, when it comes to art, is the absence of engagement with the work in the passage of time. If hardly any time passes, it's self-pitying to say you're truly bored. But there's also the matter of control. With a painting, the viewer sets her own pace, her own limits; when the pace grinds to a halt, when the limit is reached, she moves on. Music sets its own pace. The listener forfeits some control to the musician's song -- I think this is connected to what Schjeldahl means by being "overwhelmed", a kind of losing control -- in the hopes that she'll be rewarded.

Sufjan Stevens isn't the only one out there crafting coldly beautiful music. The entire spectrum of what's called indie-pop is filled with bands that avoid, like Stevens, sentimentality and easy pleasure in their pursuit of frozen beauty.

The recent Beach House album, Thank Your Lucky Stars, despite the occasional distorted keyboards, is music for an Estonian cathedral. (Admittedly, I've never been to one. Hope to one day. Also, "Common Girl" is a major exception to the quiet tendency.) It has a different sonic palette than Carrie and Lowell but a sibling's heart. Each line sung by Victoria Legrand is measured and spiritual with a silent grin behind every word, even the sour ones. Legrand and bandmate Alex Scally expertly get the most out of the least -- single-note leads, repetitive downtempo beats, chords that last forever -- but the layers of synths and Legrand's breathy croon are what truly create a sense of beauty.

Still, it's a sense. Something is missing: tension, conflict, a sense of overcoming limitations. These aren't even rumors on Stevens' album; Beach House at least toys with them. In a recent live performance filmed in Paris, each song proceeds like a ritual. We call the music "dreamy" or "trance-like" because it aims to suspend time, but each note, each beat, each word is so neatly placed in time that the music doesn't have to make much effort. There's never a threat of time not being suspended, no real life, no interruptions, no risk, no contrast to the beauty of art's design.

At least "All Your Yeahs" has a memorable melody.

All of this is to say that there's a different kind of beauty brought to life by the way it overcomes some limitation, some obstacle, by the way it moves. Beauty in spite of. Beauty that catches you off guard.

Schjeldahl mentioned one example of such a surprise: Aretha Franklin's recent performance of "(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman" at the Kennedy Center Honors event. "She just killed it," he said, and I'll go him one better and say she killed it and brought it back to life.

Franklin walks onstage to an overture wearing a long fur coat. Here to honor Carole King, author of "Natural Woman", she sets her purse down on the piano, blows a few kisses, and goes to work. Seventy-three years old and having fought off illness now for the better part of the decade, Franklin plays the opening notes of the song and her voice just opens up. I can hear her age and experience and skill in her understated approach, the way she flexes "morning rain", the way she stretches, briefly, the word "another" in "another day." Her voice is weathered and tells the story, in each note, of how she kept going.

Beauty in spite of… or because of?

The performance keeps expanding, her authority growing. At the bridge, she stands, taking her voice to its limits -- again, you can hear the rasp, which is just the flavor -- and taking hold of the word "alive", rocking it, riding it into the chorus at which point she sheds the coat like it's holding her back. Carole King is urging her on. The audience is ecstatic.

It gives me chills every time I watch it.

That's the difference. One kind of beauty, the object, is to be admired and appreciated. It has its uses, its pleasures, but you stand at a distance, and when it's over, it's just over.

Another beauty, the event, takes you, gives to you, causes a bodily reaction: the chill through your neck, the closing of your eyes, swaying, singing along, a surge in your chest. It overwhelms. It rewards what you give it, long after you turn off the porch light, go back inside, and try to go to sleep.

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