RECENTLY I found myself standing in a big hangar next to a jet fighter. (I won’t mention which fighter it was as I don’t want to make the other fighters jealous.) The jet fighter I was standing next to, I realised, was an artefact of great elegance: its sleek assurance, its sinuous, vanishing lines, the overwhelming sense of self-confidence it exuded. In combination, in what seemed perfect proportion, these were beautiful. I admit I was a bit love struck.
I made the mistake of telling the air force colonel in charge I thought his plane a thing of great beauty. He was miffed. That’s not how he saw it. ‘‘ What would you say if I said you were cute?’’ he asked accusingly. Well frankly, I thought, I’d say you were barking mad.
His point, I suspect, was the fighter was not meant to look elegant. To enemies, it was meant to convey menace, to friends, reassurance. Cute? Pretty? Elegant? No no no no.
Nonetheless, I persist in my view that this was a beautiful plane. The colonel’s mistake, I think, was to confuse beauty with prettiness. They are not the same thing. Of course, beauty is an elusive and complex quality. Our old saying that someone has a face only a mother could love captures some of this mystery. Beauty is a two-way street, so to speak, needing someone or something to be beautiful, and someone to appreciate that beauty.
GK Chesterton once remarked, in a formulation that today would be regarded as politically incorrect, that the chief chance of happiness for the ordinary man came from believing a small house grand and a plain wife beautiful. So I accept there is something subjective about beauty. But it is not entirely subjective and the belief that it is is one of the great mistakes of modern culture. The whole wrong turn modern aesthetics took was to substitute the pursuit of beauty with the pursuit of intensity.
It is natural not only to seek beauty but to seek intense beauty. The mistake is to think what we are really after is intensity alone. That way leads to ruin. For it is difficult to find and appreciate intense beauty but easy to create mere intensity. Nothing much is easier than intense ugliness.
You see this mistake played out across much elite culture and increasingly in popular culture. Thus much modern architecture, from brutalism to postmodernism, is fairly ugly. The Sydney Opera House is a supreme accomplishment because it is an unmistakably modern building that has a clean and successful ambition to be traditionally beautiful, pleasing to the eye and inspiring to the spirit.
You come across the same confusion about intensity and beauty in music. Have you ever sat through a concert of atonal music? It’s horrible. You can of course surrender to it, suppress your revulsion at the assault on the yearning of your senses for order and melody, and regard it merely as a physical sensation to be experienced, like jumping into a freezing pool, which is unpleasant but can be thrilling. But you have to train yourself to find ugliness thrilling. In the visual arts, this training is all too obvious. You find the same syndrome in many modern novels in which the death and dismemberment scene is a cliche. In these cases the artist is taking the easy road to intensity instead of the demanding path to beauty.
Of course, a thing can be pretty and evil. That is not normally the way in nature, for nature tells no lies. But as George Orwell remarked in one of his typically mordant observations, you could build a pretty fence around a death camp. This paradox should not, however, lead us to think that minor beauty is mostly a betrayal, a false step.
The desire to create intensity for its own sake is something like the central and ancient temptation to evil, which is always at heart a temptation to a fraudulent sense of power. By creating intensity we feel as if we are gods. We have transcended the normality of human experience by creating something unnaturally intense and ugly. Look on our works, ye mighty, and despair.
Whereas I often take refuge in plainness (yes, I know, easy when you look like me), which is altogether different from ugliness. For years I rejoiced in the dagginess of the cars I owned: an eight-cylinder Leyland, a purple Valiant, a tiny Hyundai. They were not beautiful, but nor were they ugly. Long companionship rendered them, if not fetching, at least agreeable. That was good enough.