Thursday, July 24, 2008

"Beautiful Conundrum": Some musing on "ugliness" in art

The other night I was listening to iTunes when Sigur Rós' exquisitely beautiful "Ágætis byrjun" came on. As you listen, please read the following by my bloggy friend Camille of 327 Market (from here):

The model was so beautiful that he was difficult to draw. Artists often prefer drawing ugly things because then no one is going [to] judge us for failing at some standard of beauty. We love the fat, the rolls, the dimples, the hair and the scars. No inner voices are going to accuse us of misrepresenting that mound of flesh. But when we have something beautiful, all of a sudden, it is Eric Satie falling at the Altar of Beauty. Auguste is staring over our shoulders snorting derisively. Not only am I uncomfortable joining the worshipers, but I have enough doubts about my own skills. The horror of coming up short is something that can't even be looked at in the face. Just think of all the terrible, hack portraits of beautiful women floating around, at the garage sales, behind people's couches, on the walls of adolescent boy's rooms-- its a ring of Art Hell that should remain unspoken. (my emphasis)
I got to wondering, with respect to the song, if sometimes viewers and listeners are drawn to "ugly things" as well--though in a different sense. Is not "Ágætis byrjun" made more beautiful by the quite-loud sound of the fingers moving up and down the steel strings of the guitar? It comes between the notes of the melody, breaking the surface of the tune and causing me to re-focus my attention on the music once the sound goes away; in my case, I then find myself sort of listening ahead, wondering about, anticipating, the next time we'll hear that sound, exactly in the same way that one listens ahead when anticipating the rhymes in a poem--but in this case also listening closer to this gorgeous melody made all the more gorgeous by that impending irruption of sound into that for which we traditionally listen to music.

If not for that sound--that "ugliness"--I would not hear the song's music quite so clearly, or appreciate it nearly as much.

[UPDATE: Edited to correct the spelling in the title. Sheesh!]


Kári said...

The prominence of fret noise on that track is indeed striking, not to mention unusual for the band. Rather than a question of beauty/ugliness, though, I'm more inclined to see it in Brechtian terms. Sigur Rós are a band with a very phantasmagoric sound, in that it's quite often impossible to tell exactly what instrument is producing what sound or sounds. The fret noise on "Ágætis byrjun", on the other hand, foregrounds (deliberately, since it's clearly being amplified separately) the materiality of the music.

The lyrics themselves are about a group of people getting together in a room and singing songs, so the do-it-yourself quality is manifest there too (that is, if you speak Icelandic).

John B. said...

Thanks for this. The other way to get at this, I suppose--and your comment leads me to say this--is that the fret noise creates an intimacy, maybe a trying-out . . . even a sort of fragility (the noise, when it occurs, covers up almost everything else). Every time I hear it, it feels like I'm hearing its first-ever performance.

I don't know, really. I just know I dig it.

jmsloop said...

Hi John B.

I came here from XARK, where you left a comment. Very nice blog. Great insights.

I don't know that I have a lot to add here, but I've always been taken with the way "ugliness" or disruption can work this way. In "On Photography," Susan Sontag noted--as almost an aside--that no one ever takes a photo of something ugly unless they find the "ugly thing" beautiful (p. 85). I was always taken by that comment because it seemed to be endlessly translatable to any sensory response (e.g, your bloggy friend's discussion of drawing imperfect bodies, the Sigur Ros song). It's the same thing that makes all Thelonius Monk solo piano endlessly fun, endlessly delightful. There's something sublime in the way such a sound doesn't fit and yet the melody itself carries on along.

I have no idea how to parallel sound with sight, touch, smell on these levels, but surely there must be ways in which ugliness, or a certain type of discordance, works in all the senses.

John B. said...

Thanks for the kind words.

I missed your comment here; I responded to your other one, here.