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.


[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.