Post-binary Aesthetics

Roshanak Keyghobadi | 2016

Categories such as Western, Non-Western, Eastern, Primitive, Modern, Postmodern art are based on assumptions that there are intrinsic qualities to “Western” or “Non-Western” art that determine their unbreakable identity. But such interpretive practices, in which an artwork is assigned an “essential” identity, have lost their relevance for understanding the complexities of works of art.

Aesthetic essentialism is seen, for the most part, as a philosophical tendency that goes back to Aristotle who writes: “the essence of each thing is one in no merely accidental way, and similarly is from its very nature something that is.” [i] Historically, it has also been part of what Edward Said calls “Orientalism,” and its philosophical arguments presuppose binaries of dominant and other that are intertwined with the political and economic interests of governing classes. Said thus argues that “Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, ‘us’) and the strange (the Orient, the East, ‘them’).”[ii] Binaries such as Western/Non-Western and us/them are not simply comparisons but rather a set of power relationships. It is through the concepts, categories, terms and vocabularies of Western that Non-Western is interpreted. Positioning the West in the “center” of interpretation of artistic practices and as the point of reference, limits the multiplicity of interpretations, privileges the West and displaces the Other/Non-West.

If we imagine an artistic practice as a structure with a “center” (such as the artist, viewer, location, form, function, materials), we would be restraining and closing what Jacques Derrida calls the “play of the structure.” As Derrida argues the center constructs “Presence”—what gives the illusion of proximity to Truth without difference[iii] and of totality as Truth free from “otherness.” The function of the center, he writes, is not simply to “balance, and organize the structure” but “to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the play of the structure.”[iv] By “play” Derrida means a transgression of set limits, the emergence of the “other” in the “same.” In other words, this transgressive “play of difference,” for Derrida, subverts the hegemony of the center and marginalization of the other, by undoing the binaries on which they depend—there is no self-same identity, no “presence,” no essential truth. Each is divided by differences, transgressed by its other.

Post-binary aesthetics is aesthetics of play, of contingency, and mutations. It reads works of art not as “structures” with fixed identities (“center”), nor as simply different from another but as hybrid “events” different in themselves. It reads one artist’s work not as different from another artist but rather understands the same artist’s work at odds with itself, different in itself. Instead of seeking and fixing the difference of Western from Non-Western, a post-binary aesthetics unravels the differences of the Western and Non-Western within themselves. It demonstrates how an artwork can activate the transgressive play of difference, thereby breaking boundaries, disrupting the hegemony of the center and bringing forward the “other.”

An exemplary artist of such dislocating, mutating play is El Anatsui whose enigmatic, large-scale sculptures blur the borders of Africa and West. Discussing this in a conversation session at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2013 El Anatsui was asked to what extent he encourages or invites people to look at his work in terms of African art and African history as opposed to the context in which it is now displayed that is world art and contemporary art? His response was: “I don’t think that is a problem for me. I know as an artist I am trying to reach out to people, no matter where they live or come from. So whether that’s African or Western that just doesn’t matter to me. I regard myself just as an artist.”[v] His response dissolves any center of interpretation for his art: it is neither Western nor African but both, thus blurring the boundaries of international/national, contemporary/traditional.

This decentering is evident in El Anatsui’s complex and colossal sculptures. Although large in scale they are made to be flexible and hung in any configuration with no fixed direction. From a distance they appear to be unified shimmering textiles or curtains, which have been compared both to Venetian mosaics and Vienna Secession fabric designs. However, upon closer examination, they are composed of many discarded liquor bottle caps that are folded, flattened and connected together with copper wires. But these caps are not simply found objects; El Anatsui explains their transcultural and politico-economic significance: “Alcohol was one of the commodities brought with [Europeans] to exchange for goods in Africa. Eventually alcohol became one of the items used in the transatlantic slave trade. They made rum in the West Indies, took it to Liverpool, and then it made its way back to Africa. I thought that the bottle caps had a strong reference to the history of Africa.” [vi]

Historically a piece of aluminum was transformed into a bottle cap as a single object that functioned to seal the bottle of liquor involved in trade of objects as well as humans. Presently a discarded liquor bottle cap not only carries this history but also marks “other” histories, and at the same time it becomes part of many bottle caps that are trashed or recycled in different ways or transformed into flattened metal pieces that are connected together with wire to form immense sculptures by an artist (El Anatsui) to be viewed as objects of beauty and value. As El Antasui also reflects: “I return them [bottle caps] to use by giving them a different function – a higher function – maybe even the ultimate function. Each bottle-top returning as an object of contemplation has the capacity to reveal to us a more profound understanding of life than it ever did as a stopper (on a bottle).”[vii] Through the “play of difference” El Anatsui’s art transgresses binaries—Western /Non-Western, colonizer/colonized, oppressor/oppressed, global/local, fine art/craft, treasure/trash, far/close, stagnation/flux—weaving one into the other, dissolving any “essence” in a rich web of multiplicities.

Notes:

[i] Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book Gamma.

[ii] Edward Said (1978) Orientalism. (p.43)

[iii] Jaques Derrida (1974) Of Grammatology. (p. 43)

[iv] Jaques Derrida (1978) Writing and Difference. (p. 278)

[v] El Anatsui in Conversation with Susan Vogel, Brooklyn Museum of Art, February 10, 2013.

[vi] https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/global-culture/global-art-architecture/a/el-anatsui-old-mans-cloth

[vii] http://newafricanmagazine.com/el-anatsui-unstoppable-master-midst/#sthash.7EYaLjHp.dpuf

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2016. This essay cannot be reproduced, quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole in any format without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.

* This article was originally published in NESHAN magazine #36 | Summer 2016

Image: El Anatsui, Trova, 2016 (detail images), Aluminum and copper wire, 122 x 117 inches, 109 x 110 inches (installed).

©El Anatsui.  Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two Bowls

Roshanak Keyghobadi | March 2015 | New York

Currently a 10th century ceramic serving bowl from Iran resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. This bowl was probably made in Samarqand but excavated in the city of Nishapur (in northwestern Iran).[i] The bowl has calligraphic decorations in Eastern Kufic script[ii] that wishes its owners/users “blessing, prosperity, goodwill, peace, and happiness.”[iii]

Two years ago in Fargo, North Dakota (in north central USA) a ceramic serving bowl was made by the potter Michael Strand[iv] as a component of a project titled Bowls Around Town. This bowl was placed in a carefully crafted wooden box along with a video camera and a recipe journal and circulated among various individuals. In course of several years people would borrow the bowl and it would hold meals that each person has made, the camera will be used to record the process and the recipes, related memories and stories will be written in the journal. Bowls Around Town was part of Engage+Use project that “featured contemporary project-based work that investigated the processes of making, using, and living with bowls.”[v]

Although from different cultures and eras these two bowls have a number of qualities in common. Both bowls are made out of clay and their forms serve their purpose of holding food. They have also been tools for communication with their users – the writings on the bowl from Iran transmit positive messages of wellbeing and happiness and the bowl from Fargo becomes a tool for evoking and transmitting stories. Connection with both bowls from the beginning of their making to every time they have been or are used involves a collective effort. According to art historian Sheila Blair[vi] a team of skilled artisans was involved in making and decorating bowls such as the bowl from Iran. They were the owners/managers, throwing potters, people who did the clay preparation, throwing and turning, painted decoration, glazing, and firing as well as calligraphers, painters for the interior and assistants for the exterior painting. Although the bowl from Fargo has one maker yet it involves a team of facilitators and users such as various communities and groups, families, fire stations, public library patrons or anyone who has hosted the bowl. [vii]

But is there any relationship between the form and function of these two bowls and do they have any aesthetic value? The debate about form and function in art frequently points to the architect, Louis Sullivan[viii] and his famous statement about form following function. Sullivan believed that the purpose of a building establishes the form that it should take. As the continuation of Sullivan’s philosophy Frank Lloyd Wright[ix] proposed the idea of “organic architecture” which believed in the close relationship between human and nature by designing integrated and unified sites and spaces. Walter Gropius[x], who founded the German art school Bauhaus in 1919 and was one of the pioneers of modern architecture, believed in “total architecture” and “total work of art” in which various forms of art are combined to create a singular experience. Iranian philosopher Seyyed Hossien Nasr[xi] believes that Islamic architecture and art have transcendent forms and qualities. Nasr (1973) has stated that: “…men live in forms and, in order to be drawn toward the transcendent, they must be by forms that echo transcendent archetypes.”[xii]. Also Nader Ardalan[xiii] and Laleh Bakhtiar[xiv] (1973) have explained that the function of traditional Iranian art is achieving aesthetic and spiritual Unity. They believe that: “the traditional artist creates the external art form in light of the spirit; in this way the art form is able to lead man to the higher states of being and ultimately to Unity.” [xv]

The shape, color, organic lines, decorations and calligraphy on one bowl and the proportions, form, texture and glaze on the other not only make each bowl sophisticated and beautiful but also offer unique visual experiences to its makers, users and viewers. As philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey[xvi], points out “a work of art is created every time it is esthetically experienced.” [xvii] Dewey believed in the transformative nature of the aesthetic experience and stated that: “art throws off the covers that hide the expressiveness of experienced things; it quickens us from the slackness of routine and enables us to forget ourselves by finding ourselves in the delight of experiencing the world about us in its varied qualities and forms. It interprets every shade of expressiveness found in objects and orders them in a new experience of life. Because the objects of art are expressive, they communicate.”[xviii]

The makers of the bowl from Iran have created an expressive vessel that communicates through words, which transform its users eating experience. When the food is gradually consumed and the words are revealed an ordinary bowl becomes an object of beauty and contemplation therefore according to the Islamic thought revealing meaning (mana) through form (surat).

The maker of the Fargo bowl Michael Strand explains that his art practice and mission is to create objects (cups and bowls) which are meant to function as tools for visual, verbal and human interactions. He states: “I make objects that extend beyond the walls of the museum or the confines of a gallery. Without this restriction I work to build bridges between people through shared experiences with functional objects and ideas. Relationship is my content. Working in collaboration is my process. Human connection through art, craft and design is my mission.”

Ultimately although the bowl from Iran and the bowl from Fargo function as practical vessels they are also “objects of art” and vice versa. And most importantly these bowls function as “objects of inquiry” that are expressive and open to new and contemporary aesthetic experiences. The two bowls “build bridges” between makers and users, past and present, meaning and form, form and function.

 

Images:

Bowl. Late 10th–11th century, Iran, Nishapur; present-day Uzbekistan, probably Samarqand. Earthenware. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, U.S.A. 35.6 cm x 10.8 cm.

Bowl. 2013, U.S.A., Fargo, North Dakota. Ceramic. Made by Michael Strand as part of Bowls Around Town project. 36 cm x 14 cm.

 

Notes:

[i] Nishapur and Samarqand were under Samanid rule in the 10th century Iran.

[ii] “Eastern Kufic” script is now referred to as “new style script.” It is a script most often associated with the Eastern Islamic World.” Maryam Ekhtiar. (2015)

[iii] “Bowl with Arabic inscription [Found at Iran, Nishapur, Tepe Madrasa]” (40.170.15) In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/40.170.15. (July 2011)

[iv] Michael Strand (b. 1970 ).

[v] Engage+Use project and Bowls Around Town were part of a larger exhibition titled Object Focus: The Bowl that was curated by Namita Gupta Wiggers at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, Portland. Object Focus: The Bowl: March 07, 2013 – September 21, 2013. Engage+Use: May 16 – September 21, 2013. http://mocc.pnca.edu/exhibitions/5412/

[vi] Sheila Blair (b. 1948).

[vii] Blair, S. (2013) Text and Image in Medieval Persian Art. Chapter 2: The Art of Writing:A Bowl from Samarqand. P. 13.

[viii] Louis Sullivan (1864-1924).

[ix] Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).

[x] Walter Gropius (1883-1969).

[xi] Seyyed Hossien Nasr (b. 1933).

[xii] Nasr, S.H. (1973) Islamic Art and Spirituality. p. xi

[xiii] Nader Ardalan (b. 1940).

[xiv] Laleh Bakhtiar (b.1938).

[xv] Ardalan, N. and Bakhtiar, L . (1973) Sense of Unity; The Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture. p. 7

[xvi] John Dewey (1859- 1952).

[xvii] Dewey, J. (1934) Art as Experience. p.113.

[xviii] Dewey, J. (1934) Art as Experience. p.108.

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2016. This essay cannot be reproduced, quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole in any format without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.

* This article was originally published in NESHAN magazine #34 | Autumn 2015

دو کاسه

روشنک کیقبادی | فروردین ۱۳۹۴ | نیویورک

در حال حا ضر یک کاسه متعلق به قرن دهم میلادی از ایران درموزه ی هنر متروپولیتن نیویورک مسکن دارد که به احتمال زیاد در سمرقند ساخته شده ولی در نیشابور (در شمال غرب ایران)۱ پیدا شده است. این کاسه که با خوشنویسی تزیین شده نوشته ای به خط کوفی شرقی۲ برویش دارد که آرزوی “برکت, کامیابی, حسن نیت, صلح و خوشبختی”۳ برای صاحب و استفاده کننده خود می کند

دو سال پیش در شهر فارگو درداکوتای شمالی (در شما ل مرکزی ایالات متحده امریکا) یک کاسه به دست سفالگری به نام مایکل سترند۴ ساخته شد که جزو پروژه ای به نام “کاسه های پیرامون شهر” بود. این کاسه در یک جعبه ی چوبی که مخصوص ان درست شده بود همراه یک دوربین ویدئو و یک دفتر برای نوشتن دستورغذا قرار داده شد و بین افراد دست به دست به گردش درآمد. درطول چند سال آینده مردم این کاسه را قرض خواهند گرفت و کاسه هرغذایی که هر فردی درست کند درخود جای خواهد داد ,از دوربین ویدئو برای ثبت روند کار و دستور غذاها استفاده می شود و خاطرات و داستانهای مرتبط به هرغذا دردفتر یادداشت خواهند شد. “کاسه های پیرامون شهر“ قسمتی از طرح “سهیم شدن+استفاده” بود که ” کارهای معاصر و پروژه ها یی را به نمایش می گذا شت که روند ساختن ,استفاده و زندگی با کاسه ها را بررسی می کرد .”۵

با اینکه این دو کاسه مربوط به دو فرهنگ و عصر متفاوت هستند ولی از چند جنبه به یکدیگر شباهت دارند. هر دو کاسه سفالی هستند و کارشان را که نگه داشتن غذاست انجام می دهند. این دو ابزاری برای ارتباط با استفاده کننده های خودشان هم هستند — نوشته های روی کاسه ای که از ایران است پیامهای مثبتی چون سلامتی و خوشبختی را انتقال می دهد و کاسه ای که از فارگو است وسیله ای برای فراخواندن وانتقال داستان هاست .

ارتباط باهردو کاسه از ابتدا ساخته شدنشان وهربارکه استفاده شده اند یا می شوند یک کوشش گروهی است. همانطور که متخصص تاریخ هنر شیلا بلر۶ می گوید یک گروه هنرمند ماهرکاسه هایی مثل این کاسه که از ایران است را می ساختند. این جمع شامل صاحبان/مدیران ,افرادی که خاک رس و گل را آماده میکردند ,سفالگران ,لعآب کاران و همینطور خوشنویسان و نقاشان تزیینات داخل و خارج کاسه بودند. با اینکه کاسه ای که از فارگو است را یک نفر ساخته بااینحال یک گروه به او کمک کرده اند که شامل انجمن ها ,دسته ها ,خانواده ها ,مراکز آتش نشانی ,کتابخانه های عمومی وهر کسی که میزبان کاسه بوده می باشند. ۷

ولی آیا هیچ ارتباطی بین شکل و کاربرد این دو کاسه وجود دارد و آیا این دو دارای هیچ ارزش زیبایی شناختی هستند؟ مباحثه درمورد شکل و کاربرد در هنر غالبا اشاره به لویز سولیوان۸ آرشیتکت دارد و گفته معروف او درمورد پیروی شکل از کاربرد. سولیوان عقیده داشت که هدف یک ساختمان شکل ان را تعیین می کند . فرنک لوید رایت۹ درادامه طرز فکر سولیوان اندیشه ی “معماری ارگانیک” را مطرح کرد که عقیده به ایجاد رابطه نزدیک بین انسان و طبیعت از طریق طراحی فضاها و مکان های یکپارچه داشت. والتر گروپیوس۱۰ که مدرسه هنر آلمانی باوهاوس را در ۱۹۱۹ تاسیس کرد و یکی از پیشگامان معماری مدرن بود عقیده به “معماری کلی وتام” و “هنر تام” داشت که در ان اشکال مختلف هنر با یکدیگر ادغام میشوند تا یک تجربه واحد پدید بیاورند.

فیلسوف ایرانی سید حسین نصر۱۱ بر این عقیده است که معماری و هنر اسلامی اشکال و کیفیت های افضل دارند . نصر میگوید :”انسان ها در شکل زندگی می کنند, برای این که به سمت افضل کشیده شو ند باید با اشکالی که الگو ی افضل را منعکس می کنند احاطه شوند”.۱۲ همینطور نادر اردلان۱۳ و لاله بختیار۱۴ توضیح می دهند که کاربرد هنر سنتی ایران رسیدن به وحدت زیبایی شناختی و معنوی است. آنها عقیده دارند که : “هنرمند سنتی شکل هنر بیرونی را در پرتو روح و معنی خلق می کند؛ از این طریق شکل هنری توانایی این را دارد که انسان را به مراتب بالاتر وجود و در نهایت به وحدت برساند .”۱۵

شکل , رنگ ,خط های ارگانیک , تزئینات و خوشنویسی بروی یک کاسه و تناسبات ,شکل ,بافت و لعاب در کاسه دیگر نه تنها هر یک از این دو را زیبا و پیچیده کرده اند بلکه تجربه های زیبا شناختی منحصر به فردی را برای سازنده ,استفاده کننده و بیننده فراهم می کنند . همانطور که جان دیویی۱۶ فیلسوف و اصلاح طلب اموزشی اشاره می کند: ” یک اثر هنری هر بار که از طریق زیبایی شناختی تجربه می شود دوباره خلق می شود.”۱۷ دیویی عقیده به طبیعت دگرگون کننده تجربه زیباشناختی دارد و می گوید: ” هنر پرده ای را که بیان گری چیزهای تجربه شده را پنهان کرده کنار میزند. به ما در مقابل رخوت روزمره گی نیرو می دهد و ما را قادر می سازد که خود را فراموش کنیم و خودمان را در شوق تجربه کردن دنیای پیرامون خود با کیفیت ها و شکل های متفاوتش پیدا کنیم . هنر انواع تجلیات یک شیء را تفسیر میکند و به یک تجربه جدید در زندگی تبدیل میک ند .از ان جائی که اشیاء هنری بیانگر هستند ,ارتباط برقرارمی کنند.” ۱۸

سازنده گان کاسه ای که از ایران است ظرفی گویا خلق کرده اند که با کلمات ارتباط برقرار می کند و تجربه غذا خوردن را برای استفاده کننده اش دگرگون می کند. وقتی که در این کاسه غذا خورده می شود و به تدریج کلمات آشکار می شوند یک کا سه معمولی تبدیل به چیزی زیبا و قابل تعمق می شود یعنی طبق نظریه اسلامی معنا را از طریق صورت آشکار می کند .

سازنده کاسه فآرگو مایکل سترند توضیح می دهد که کار هنری و ماموریت او به وجود آوردن اشیا یی (فنجان و کاسه) است که کاربرد ابزاری برای ارتباط دیداری ,گفتاری و انسانی دارند . او میگوید: “من اشیا یی می سازم که ورای دیوارهای موزه یا محدوده گالری می روند .بدون این محدودیت من سعی می کنم که بین مردم پل هایی از تجربه های مشترک با اشیا کاربردی و اندیشه درست کنم . ارتباط محتوای من است . کار از طریق همکاری روند کار من است. رابطه انسانی از طریق هنر, صنعت و طراحی ماموریت من است .”

در نهایت اگر چه کاسه از ایران و کاسه از فارگو کاربرد عملی دارند آنها اشیایی هنری هستند و برعکس. و مهمتر این که کاربرد این دو کاسه این است که “اشیا پرس و جو” هستند , بیان گرند و آماده تجربه های زیبا شناختی جدید و معاصر. این دو کاسه پلی ساخته اند بین سازنده و استفاده کننده, گذشته و حال, معنی و شکل ,شکل و کاربرد.

:پا نوشت ها

۱. در قرن دهم میلادی نیشابور و سمرقند جزو حکومت سامانی بودند

۲. “خط کوفی شرقی در حال حاضر به نام خط سبک نو شناخته میشود که خطی است متعلق به شرق جهان اسلام.” مریم اختیار-۲۰۱۵

۳.”Bowl with Arabic inscription [Found at Iran, Nishapur, Tepe Madrasa]” (40.170.15) In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/40.170.15. (July 2011)

۴. Michael Strand (b. 1970)

۵. طرح “سهیم شدن+استفاده” و کاسه های پیرامون شهر اجزا یک نمایشگاه بزرگتر به نام تمرکزروی شی بودند که نمیتا گوپتا ویگر در موزه هنر معاصر پورتلند هماهنگ کرده بود
Object Focus: The Bowl: March 07, 2013 – September 21, 2013. Engage+Use: May 16 – September 21, 2013.
http://mocc.pnca.edu/exhibitions/5412

۶.Sheila Blair (b. 1948)

۷. Blair, S. (2013) Text and Image in Medieval Persian Art. Chapter 2: The Art of Writing:A Bowl from Samarqand. P. 13

۸. Louis Sullivan (1864-1924)

۹. Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959)

۱۰. Walter Gropius (1883-1969)

۱۱. Seyyed Hossien Nasr (b. 1933)

۱۲. Nasr, S.H. (1973) Islamic Art and Spirituality. p. xi

۱۳. Nader Ardalan (b. 1940)

۱۴. Laleh Bakhtiar (b.1938)

۱۵. Ardalan, N. and Bakhtiar, L . (1973) Sense of Unity; The Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture. p. 7

۱۶. John Dewey (1859- 1952)

۱۷. Dewey, J. (1934) Art as Experience. p.113

۱۸. Dewey, J. (1934) Art as Experience. p.108

تصویر ها :

کاسه. اواخر قرن ١٠ تا ۱۱,ایران , نیشابور؛ ازبکستان امروزی ,احتمالا سمرقند. سفال. موزه هنر متروپولیتن
, نیو یورک, ایالات متحده امریکا. ۳۵.۶ سانتیمتر در ۱۰.۸ سانتیمتر.

کاسه. ٢٠١٣.ایالات متحده امریکا. فارگو, داکوتای شمالی. سرامیک. ساخته مایکل سترند جزو پروژه کاسه های پیرامون شهر. ۳۶ سانتیمتر در ۱۴ سانتیمتر.

. این متن در مجله نشان ( شماره ۳۴) ویژه‌ی کارکرد و طراحی به چاپ رسیده است
.چاپ وتکثیر این متن به هرشکلی بدون اجازه روشنک کیقبادی ممنوع است  © 

Unveiling of the ugly by the beautiful

Roshanak Keyghobadi | February 2015

Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Is it relative or absolute? Is it a quality that only higher beings posses and humans are incapable of comprehending? Is it sublime? Is it pleasurable? Is it sentimental? Is it just? Is it moral? Is beauty related to the type of experiences that we have in relationship to an object, person, place or time, etc.? For example “beautiful” has varied meanings for each of us. Sunset may be breathtaking and beautiful to those who have experienced joy and pleasure viewing it (walking with a loved one at sunset) or unbearable and not beautiful to those who have experienced sorrow and pain viewing it (burying a loved one at sunset).

Even in the ugliest reality, beauty bubbles up spontaneously is the title of an essay by John Rockwell.[i] Rockwell writes about the movie Girl with the Pearl Earring[ii] and how he found it absolutely beautiful and perfect although it was just a series of pretty pictures. This movie brings Rockwell’s attention to the subject of beauty in film and in the arts. He mentions Cappola’s Lost in Translation[iii] and also Antonioni’s Red Desert[iv]. Then he describes an Afghan movie named Osama[v] and summarizes it as such: “a girl disguises herself as a boy named Osama to support her female family in the harsh years of the Taliban (all the men have been killed fighting.) Eventually she is exposed, and her punishment, dispatch into sexual slavery to lecherous imam with a harem.” Rockwell acknowledges that although the story is cruel, harsh and with no happy ending it is rich with breathtaking images and states that “we need beauty; it doesn’t so much distract us from horror as counterbalance it.” In response to Rockwell one can ask whether beauty can be used not a distraction but as a “tool”? For example in Osama beauty becomes a tool, which leads us to the ugliness in the life of a helpless child trapped in a hopeless situation. When watching Osama the “beautiful” striking pictures demand the viewers’ attention and in a strange way the beautiful leads to the ugly. It unveils Osama’s reality and transfers her horror, extreme emotional pain and sorrow to the viewer. One can feel her desperate state of being trapped like a sparrow in a constantly shrinking cage.

Also Arthur Danto in his essay Beauty and Morality[vi] states that beauty can transform grief to “tranquil sadness” and pain into “muted pleasure.” In the same essay Danto states that beauty has a way to “touch the heart”. He discusses Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial’s[vii] beauty of concept, color and form and how it “folds together in an angelic embrace” the dead and the living. Danto mentions that the site of all the names of American soldiers written on the wall denotes them and brings tears to visitor’s eyes. He compares Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial to Chris Burden’s The Other Vietnam Memorial.[viii] Burden’s piece bears the name of the fallen Vietnamese and Danto remarks “The difficulty with Chris Burden’s piece is that it merely reminds us the enemy died as well, without in any interesting way acting upon our hearts. His work is not beautiful, and in fact, it is difficult to say what aesthetic qualities it has. It, in any case, does not touch the heart. It consists of several wings attached, like those of a bulletin board, to a central pole. Each one hold a sheet of metal on which are etched, in letters too tiny to read without glasses, the names of Vietnamese.”

Does beauty work as a device which can lead us to more beauty, or to the ugliness, or maybe all the other gray areas in between beauty and ugliness. In my view beauty in art can unveil the ugly and has transformative qualities. It can touch the viewers’ hearts and become a tool for reflection, contemplation and healing. As Somerset Maugham states: “beauty is something wonderful and strange that the artist fashions out of the chaos of the world in the torment of his [her] soul. And when he [she] has made it, it is not given to all to know it. To recognize it you must repeat the adventure of the artist. It is a melody that he [she] sings to you, and to hear it again in your own heart you want knowledge and sensitiveness and imagination.”[ix]

[i] Rockwell, J. (2004) The New York Times. Friday, August 20, 2004.

[ii] Webber, P. (2003) Girl with the Pearl Earring. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIcrCFh0aM8

[iii] Coppola, S. (2003) Lost in Translation.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sU0oZsqeG_s[iv] Antonioni, M. (1964) Red Desert.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0uVPQG01JHk[v] Barmak, S. (2003) Osama.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpFJJd3ZNPo

[vi] Danto, A. (1998) Beauty and Morality, In Beckley, B., & Shapiro, D., Uncontrollable Beauty, Towards a New Aesthetics, p. 25-37. New York, Allworth press.

[vii] Lin, M. (1982) Vietnam Veterans Memorial. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_Veterans_Memorial

[viii] Burden, C. (1991) The Other Vietnam Memorial. http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1992-06-26/features/1992178135_1_vietnamese-names-rolodex-lannan-foundation

[ix] Somerset Maugham, W. (1919) The Moon and Sixpence.

Image: Marina Golbahari (b. 1990) as Osama in the movie Osama.

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2015. This essay cannot be reproduced, quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole in any format without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.