The Cult of Ugliness, or
Beauty as a Necessary
Condition for Mankind
by Helga Zepp LaRouche
Helga Zepp LaRouche presented the following keynote address on Feb. 18, 2001, to the annual Presidents' Day weekend conference of the Schiller Institute and the International Caucus of Labor Committees.
The reason I decided to speak about the subject of the Cult of Ugliness, and Beauty as a necessary condition for mankind, is because it is very obviously a cultural question, how society will come out of this crisis. After we have seen yesterday and this morning, the beautiful performance of our musicians, you have gotten a real taste of what true Classical Beauty is.
Therefore, permit me to say, that it is very obvious to everybody in the whole world, that many, many aspects of American culture are very ugly. Just think of the images of the drug culture, hard metal rock, many Hollywood movies, or the whole area of the "new violence." But, in a certain sense, once can discount that, because it's obvious.
But, Ugly, and the most disgusting Ugly, is that which represents itself to be the morally Good, but which is, in reality, the worst evil. Since this is the immediate problem we have to deal with, I really refer to the bigotry of the political base of John Ashcroft and what he stands for: the religious right, with their support, not only in this country, but in the whole world, under the name of Christian fundamentalism--which really has nothing to do with Christianity.
Most of you will know this movie "Elmer Gantry." Just for those of you who don't know it, I'll briefly recall the story. There you have the real crook, the not-so-honest used-car salesman, who has really nothing in his mind about real religion. One day he meets this female preacher, who has developed this mesmerizing technique to, in a cosmetic way, confront people with their sins, and she has developed a whole following. So Elmer Gantry sneaks around, he watches what this woman does, how she mesmerizes the masses. Very quickly he learns this technique, and becomes much better at it than she. So the following grows, and people are totally mesmerized. The highpoint of the movie is how Elmer Gantry falls on all four, barks in a Pentecostalist way, and gets people in ecstacy. Then, soon, a fire breaks out. Large tents, which they use as a church, burn down, the woman dies, then Elmer Gantry says, well, that was it. He goes back to being a used-car salesman, and all of this "beautiful religion" is out of the window.
I think this is, in a certain sense, an image of what is wrong. Then, you ask yourself, why do people fall for this charlatanry? How came it, that people did vote for Gore, or did vote for Bush? Bush, who goes around and says "I want to have the maximum peace in the world," and then he bombs Iraq. Don't people see that there's a slight problem?
The reason why people don't understand things and do not look through, is because they are affected by the disease of emotional Romanticism. People have lost the ability to look through, to differentiate between true morality, and that which only attempts to be morality. That has to do with the fact that they have lost the judgment, that Truth, Beauty, and the Good, and Reason, are one and the same thing.
The symptom for the very far-reaching destruction of the general education today, is the fact that almost nobody knows what the word "Romantic" means, or how destructive Romanticism has been historically. If you ask a normal person, "What do you think is Romantic?" they will have very naive clichés and say, "Oh, Romantic is a candlelit dinner for two, or it's the sunset at the ocean." Especially in California, people will think probably that that's Romantic. Basically, they think Romantic means just being emotional.
Then, if you go to New York, you find some rare intellectuals (because intellectuals have become a very rare species these days), and they say, "No, no, Romanticism had a very positive role in the evolution of individuality and the creation of the modern nation-state."
Just look at the world as it is. Anybody who is not completely emotionally crippled, can see that this global civilization is finished, and that everything people believed in--all the foundations of what they took for granted--is disintegrating. The everlasting boom of the "New Economy," which was propagated in the election last year, is out of the window. Globalization, free market, democracy, human rights--they've all turned out to be terrible frauds.
We have a terrible catastrophe going on in Africa, where the death rate is already on the level of the 14th-Century Black Death in Europe--a mixture between AIDS, epidemics, antibiotic-resistant drugs, which have created a global health crisis. Europe is in a state of panic, which, I noticed has not reached the United States, but the World Health Organization has put out a report that BSE, in beef, is in 100 countries, not only in Europe.
Then, if you look at the nightmare, that many parents no longer have the slightest idea what is going on in the minds of their children: the unprecedented cases of youth violence.
I also note the fact that even The London Financial Times, on the 16th of December, had an article by its writer, Richard Tomkins, on "A Dark Age, or a New Renaissance." Tomkins makes the argument that individualism was always the goal of the free market, that it has spread through globalization, but it led to the erosion of the traditional structures of society; that it completely destroyed the sense of the common good; and that the triumph of the individual is now there, and we have reached this "Utopia." But, if that is the good news, there is a little problem, namely, that this "Utopia" completely stinks. Tomkins says, further on, "high culture," meaning the Classics, is on its death bed, because nobody anymore has the authority to insist on an artistic standard.
Now, yesterday, you had some people who do insist on an artistic standard, but this unfortunately not the common rule these days. Tomkins says, therefore, the alternative today is a Dark Age, or a new Renaissance, which, for The Financial Times , is a rather remarkable conclusion.
Indeed, if you look around, the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, stinks. Our modern culture is completely ugly. Most theater productions are terrible; they are just obscene exhibitions of bad taste. Most modern and post-modern paintings are absurd. Culture is mostly meaningless. You have all seen these strange figures standing in marketplaces. Architecture is mostly disgusting. If you go to Houston, you have only ugly architecture, not one nice house in the whole city! Most newer musical compositions are an insult to the ear. Art is not great anymore. In any case, it is not beautiful.
Then, in the so-called counterculture, you see the morbid fantasies of the Romantics exaggerated to excess. For example, you will remember certain advertisements on TV for designer clothes, or certain necrophile pop video spots of Eros Razamotti or Jennifer Lopez, which are indeed games with death.
In Europe, there is a TV series called "Big Brother," which has reached the lowest level ever. They take nobodies, absolute nobodies, out of the lowest level of the gutter, let them live in containers, and have them watched by TV cameras 24 hours a day, in all the functions they perform, and people like to watch this.
So, if you look at all these different symptoms, and I could name you many, many more, the big question is, what went wrong with our culture? How could this "Cult of Ugliness" reach such forms?
Romantic Attack on Weimar Classics
My thesis, which I want to present to you today, is that it was primarily the attack of the Romantics on the Weimar Classics in Germany, which was one of the most devastating influences which is today, among other things, reflected in Hollywood. The Romantics aimed to destroy the high ideas of the Classics, and that fitted exactly the motives of the Holy Alliance and the oligarchy at that time, as it does fit the aims of the oligarchy today.
Schiller, who was the most developed of the Weimar Classic poets and artists, writes, in his Aesthetical Letters, "The most perfect of all arts is the building of true political freedom." In the Fourth Letter, he says, "Every individual human being carries, according to his potential and vocation, a pure and ideal human being in him, and it is the big task of his existence, to bring himself into cohesion with its unchanging unity in all its changes and developments."
But, to accomplish this harmonic development of the individual, the ennoblement of his character, beautiful art is the most important medium, says Schiller. Beauty is irreplaceable for the perfection of man, and all culture proceeds from a clear notion of what Beauty is.
In Kallias, or, On the Beautiful, Schiller defines Beauty as "freedom in the appearance," as the recognition of the efficacy of the natural laws, and that Beauty has to exist freely, in cohesion with these laws. Schiller opposes, therefore, Kant's notion of duty, because of its hardness. He says, man loves freedom too much, to watch the procedure with which he has to suppress his inclinations, just to obey the "categorical imperative."
Schiller then counters with his own notion of mature humanity. In On Grace and Dignity, he writes, "The beautiful soul is called such, if the sense of morality is so certain about all the emotions of man, that it can allow the passions to guide its will without worry, because there is never a danger, that there will be a contradiction with its decisions. Therefore, for a beautiful soul it is not the individual acts that are moral, but the whole character is so. A beautiful soul has no other merit, than that she is." Here (pointing to Amelia Boynton Robinson), we have one example of this.
The conscious education of one's own sensitivity is therefore, the most urgent need of the time, says Schiller. And he doesn't mean sensitivity from the standpoint of how it is discussed today, that one has to find one's inner things, but sensitivity meaning the passion to take in the suffering of the world, to take in the suffering of other human beings: Agape towards mankind.
Schiller says, "Love alone is a free emotion, because its pure foundation springs out of the place where freedom itself is located: Out of our divine nature. It is not the petty and the low, which compare itself with the high and the great. It is not the senses, which dizzily look up to the law of Reason. It is the absolute Greatness itself, which imitates itself in love and beauty, and which finds itself satisfied in morality. It is the Lawgiver himself, the God in us, who plays with his own image in the world of the senses."
That means that, for Schiller, for the happy moment of the idea, when the artist creates beautiful art, he is in the image of God, as a genius, who enlarges the lawfulness of the laws in a lawful way, and he continues, while being an artist, the process of creation.
This perfection of creativity through beauty, the aim of which is the perfection of man, is not an arbitrary one. As Schiller says, in the Tenth Letter of the Aesthetical Letters, "The pure rational conception of Beauty, in cases where you can demonstrate such a concept,--because you cannot deduce it from the concrete case, rather it must guide your judgment in respect to every actual case." So you have to have the idea of Beauty first, and then find it in the concrete example. "It must therefore be found through the method of abstraction and must be concluded from the possibility of the sensuous-rational nature of man. In one word: Beauty must be possible as a necessary condition of mankind!"
Here we are at the decisive point. Schiller had picked up from the aesthetical writings of [Moses] Mendelssohn and [Gotthold Ephraim] Lessing, who had fought against the bestial image of the English Enlightenment, which had "selfishness" and "self-interest" as the only source of human motivation.
Schiller perfected the aesthetical ideas of Mendelssohn and Lessing, that Classical art can indeed ennoble the emotions of man into a universal lawfulness: Beauty is a necessary condition of man. But that has a consequence, because if this Beauty is lacking, then mankind degenerates and the affected civilization goes under. Schiller worked intensively, especially with Goethe and Wilhelm von Humboldt, to define universally valid laws of Classical culture, exactly as the notion of Beauty, based on Reason, which also makes the realm of aesthetics intelligible, according to knowable rules.
In all the areas, in which the Romantics fought the ideas of the Classics, the successive attack on the notion of Reason concerning Beauty, was probably the most devastating. There is, on the one side, a direct tradition going from the early Romantics to the so-called political Romantics, via Savigny, Niebuhr, Nietzsche, Wagner, Carl Schmitt, and Fascism.
But there is also a direct line of thought, which one can follow from Immanuel Kant to August Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis, Tieck, E.T.A. Hoffmann via Schopenhauer and Hegel to Freud, the Frankfurt School, depth psychology and the Cult of Ugliness in modern and post-modern art.
Moses Mendelssohn and Lessing defended the vast superiority of the philosophy of Leibniz against the Enlightenment and the Newton epigones, Euler and Maupertuis, at the Berlin Academy of Science, and a whole group, of which Kant in Königsberg was also a member. As long as Mendelssohn was alive, Kant restrained himself, because this pedantic neo-Aristotelian did not dare to draw the devasting critique of the "Socrates of the Eighteenth Century" on himself. But as soon as Mendelssohn was dead, Kant flooded the world with his writings, in which he reduced Reason to a deductive construct, and presented such concepted as the "negation of the negation" and radical evil as the root of human freedom, an image of man which essentially went back to the representatives of the Enlightenment, such as Pomponazzi and Sarpi, as well as Locke and Hobbes and Hume.
Schiller vs. Kant
Friedrich Reichardt, who was the Royal Concert Director in Berlin, a terrible composer and publisher of two magazines, Germany and France, who still defended the French Revolution after Schiller and his friends clearly had turned away from it in disgust after the Jacobin Terror had taken it over, saw it as his task to make Kant popular in Germany. He sent his writings around to everybody. Schiller knew Kant's works since the beginning of the 1790s, and he was most distraught by his Critique of Judgment, and the aesthetical theory represented there, according to which, a work of art was supposed to be less valuable if one could recognize in it the plan of the artist, and that an arbitrary "Arabesque," thrown on the wall would have a higher value than the highest Beauty of man. Schiller noted that Kant must have had a very unhappy childhood and therefore could not really understand Beauty.
He accused Kant, that he was not able to distant himself from the dirty side of life, and criticized the "categorical imperative" with the words, "But how have the 'children of the house,' meaning the beautiful souls, deserved that he only cares for the servants?"
Schiller developed his own notion of the beautiful soul very consciously against Kant, and wrote, on the 21st of December, 1792, to Körner, his friend, that he believed "to have found the objective notion of Beauty about which Kant had despaired. I will order my thoughts about the subject and publish them at Easter in Kallias, or, On the Beautiful. "
Indeed, Schiller refuted the unhappy thoughts of Kant at a much higher level. Whoever wants to initiate a new Renaissance today, has to go back to Schiller.
But from the standpoint of the struggle of opposing ideas, it is very interesting how the debate about aesthetics developed further. Kant's writings proved to be "the spell of the evil deed," which "forever must produce more evil." He opened the way for the road to Hell of today's cultural catastrophe, with his attack on the cohesion of the Good, Truth and Beauty.
But Kant's language was so blocked and boring, as a lawful result of his pedantic mind, that he alone would never have been able to do so much damage. What did it, in addition, was the elaborated thesis of irrationality in art, which, step by step, escalated Kant's thesis of the "Arabesque" to the glorification of the morbid and the lust for the awful. Even if Novalis, Tieck, August Wilhelm Schlegel and, later, Hoffmann, all contributed their two cents, Friedrich Schlegel has a key role in the counter-revolution of the theory of art.
In his 1795 essay, "About the Studies of Greek Poetry," Schlegel started to dissolve the political forms of representation out of the clearly defined categories of the Classics, and allowed them infinite transformations, so that in the end, an infinite variety of poetry was possible. In this essay, also, for the first time, the problem of Ugliness was posed as the central question of modern art. It would only take a few years until a certain Karl Rosenkrantz published his Aesthetics of the Ugly.
Schiller met Friedrich Schlegel in May 1792, and had immediately an extremely unfavorable impression of him, and thought of him as "unrestrained, cold, sarcastic." Schlegel, at that time, studied intensively the antiquity of Greece and he tried to get some of his articles published in Schiller's magazine Die Horen.
On the 15th of March, Schiller wrote to Körner, whom Schlegel had tried to ask for mediation a couple of times, "A while ago, I read in Teutscher Merkur an article by your Schlegel about the limitations of the beautiful. What confusion in his conceptions and what hardness in the presentation! You should not hide this from him, if you can speak openly with him. He has knowledge and he's thinking about his subject. But he doesn't bring it to clarity, and therefore, not to any elegance in his diction. I fear he has no talent as a writer!"
In January 1796, Schiller's piece On Naive and Sentimental Poetry appeared, where he argued the difference and the cohesion between ancient and modern poetry, and then defined for both the "naive" and the "sentimental" poet, a higher level of art of poetry, and proved in this way, that modern poetry indeed could fulfill the requirements of the Classical standard.
Schiller writes, "Finally, we must admit, that neither the naive nor the sentimental character, taken for himself, fulfills himself the ideal of beautiful humanity, which can only grow out of the intense combination of both. As long as one intensifies both characters into the poetic, both lose their limitations, their contradictions become less, the higher their degree of poetry becomes, because the poetical mood is a self-sufficient unity, in which all differences and defects disappear."
Schlegel worked in the same year on his "Studies-Essays," in which he pretended to defend Greek art, which, according to him, was beautiful, against modern art, which was supposedly not beautiful, but only interesting. He pretended that he wanted to encourage a Classical reform. But already the tone of his description of the supposedly rejected modern poetry, reflects the inner chaos which he felt about the subject.
When Schiller's article On Naive and Sentimental Poetry appeared, Schlegel got extremely upset, because he realized that his own writing was outdated even before it was published. Freaked out, he added a preface, but that didn't really solve the problem.
It would not take very long, until Schlegel, in his Lyzeum Fragments, made a total turnaround and denied his previous lip service to the superiority of the ancient poetry, and denied that the Ancients had the only "belief in Beauty which would make people blessed," and that they would have a monopoly on poetry. All Classical forms of poetry, in their rigid purity, are now ridiculous, he wrote.
During the year 1797, he slowly started to replace the word "modern" with "Romantic." But let's take a look at what he himself had said only two years earlier. In the preface, he wrote, "If there are pure laws of Beauty and art, they must apply without exception, if one takes these pure laws without a more concrete determination and criteria, to use to judge modern poetry. So can the wording be no different than to say that modern poetry, which almost competely violates these pure laws, has no value at all. It is not even pretending to be objective, which after all, is the first condition of the pure and binding aesthetical value, and its ideal is the interesting, i.e., the subjective aesthetical power."
In the essay itself, he describes more concretely what he means. "The name of art is desecrated if you call this poetry, to play with adventurous or childish images, to prick limp desires, to tickle one's dulled senses, to flatter one's primitive lusts.
"But everywhere, where the whole population is not truly educated, there will be vulgar art, which does not know any other temptation than rough opulence and disgusting violence. Even if the subject matter changes all the time, its spirit always remains the same: confused flimsiness....
"A lack of character seems to be the only character of modern poetry; confusion, the common denominator of its mass; lawlessness, the spirit of history; its skepticism, the result of its theory....
"Basically, it's indifferent against all form, and only full of greedy search for material, and even the better part of the audience, demands from the artist only the 'interesting individuality.' As long as there is an effect, and that effect is strong and new, the form and the subject matter don't matter to the audience. But through every pleasure, the appetite becomes rougher. With every satisfaction, the demand becomes higher, and the hope for a definite satisfaction becomes more distant. The new gets old, the rare becomes vulgar, the pricks of the tempting become dull.
"The sense of identity gets weaker, the drive for art becomes less, and the limp sensibility turns into an upsetting impotence. The weakened taste finally does not want to accept any foods, other than disgusting crudities, up to the point where it dies altogether, and ends up in a decisive zero-ness."
If one considers the further biography of Friedrich Schlegel, who made himself the servant of Metternich, and therefore the most sinister reaction, one can only say that he prophetically predicted his own coming zero-ness, but naturally also that of modern art. But, also, already in his essay, the bipolar Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde personality of Schlegel was shining through, and he approached more and more vulgarity after he had broken with the Classical method.
With the notion of "the interesting," which now started to replace Beauty, in art, he had emphasized the spirit of all the following Romantic and modern art, (as was done by the English empiricists, who regarded interest as the motivation, out of selfishness and egoism, of the common sense). It is not an accident that quasi-parallel to the doctrine of free trade, in English poetry, novelty developed in opposition to the ancient Classics, where we have the beginning of the utopia, about which Mr. Tomkins of the Financial Times was talking.
The problem with "the interesting" is that, for it to stay interesting, it must always be "new." Therefore, it can be, in principle, extended into infinity. There can be, therefore, never a "highest novelty," or a "highest interesting," and, as we will see, also no "highest ugly."
On the contrary, what does Schiller say in the 31st and last strophe of his poem "The Artists"?
"You free sons of the freest mother,
Swing upward with a constant face.
And strive then, after no crown other,
To highest Beauty's radiant place!"
So, for Schiller, it was very clear, that there is indeed a "highest Beauty." He saw Beauty on the one side, as "freedom in the appearance," where the beautiful object or subject is completely inner-directed, and coheres with the inherent lawfulness. But the uniqueness of Beauty is also, that it desires "a reconciliation in harmony of the sensuous and Reason, within the domain of sensuousness." Beauty is therefore something homogeneous, without any thing mixed in, in the same way as the truly poetical mood overcomes all shortcomings and vacillations, and things are resolved on a higher level. In the same way, Beauty is harmonious and homogeneous in itself.
As long as this unambiguousness of Beauty existed, and with it, unspoken, the unambiguousness and cohesion of Beauty with Truth and the Good, so long were the principles of Classical art unassailable, and likewise, its task to be the most important medium for the perfection of man. It was exactly this fundamental axiom, which Schlegel undermined, and initiated with that, a step-by-step devaluation of the purpose of art, and prepared the grounds for the evolution of today's totally different categories of so-called Modern Art.
In his essay, Schlegel uproots exactly the homogeousness of the notion of Beauty. He says, "The Beautiful, in its broadest sense, (to which the Sublime, the Beautiful, in its narrower sense, and the Delightful belong), is the pleasant appearance of the Good." This is a very nasty trick by Schlegel, by introducing the notion of Beauty in the broadest sense, the homogeneousness gets undermined. It is especially nasty because, at first glance, one could think: "Yes, why not, why should the Sublime not be also part of Beauty? After all, for Schiller, the Sublime is the condition of man, where man, despite a threat to his physical existence, remains loyal to his principles and truth."
It becomes evident, that Schlegel is really arguing with the categories of Kant, who precisely had separated Beauty and Reason. Schiller commented on this: "The aesthetics of Kant deduced the notion of Beauty solely out of theoretical Reason, and argues that only the Sublime (and not Beauty--HZL) had an original meaning for morality. But exactly in this way, when Beauty is separated from Reason and the Good, the dilemma starts."
For Schiller, Beauty and the Sublime are not of the same kind, because the Sublime reflects the mixed nature of man. The Sublime is not harmonic or homogeneous, like the beautiful, because it includes a struggle between the sensuous nature of man and Reason. It lets man be free on a higher level after the shakeup and the successful fight. That person who acts in a sublime way, is free, "because his mind acts as if he would only obey no other law than his own." For Schiller, the notion of the Sublime is resolved one; it is concluded.
Schlegel, on the other side, introduces the notion of the "Sublime Ugliness," or the "ugly Sublime," which exactly lacks this resolution, but really represents bad infinity. Schlegel writes, "The beautiful, in the narrower sense, is the appearance of the finite manifold of conditional Beauty. The Sublime, on the other hand, is the appearance of the infinite: limitless bounty or infinite disharmony. It therefore has a twofold disharmony: infinite imperfection and infinite disharmony. Sublime Beauty gives total pleasure. The result of the Sublime Ugliness, on the other side, is desperation, almost an absolute, complete pain. Yes, even to portray the ugly Sublime, and to cause the illusion of infinite emptiness and infinite disharmony, one needs the largest amount of strength."
The significance of these thoughts is not that they are terribly profound. But this so-called theoretical foundation of Romantic art, which was incorporated into the lectures of Friedrich Schlegel's brother, Wilhelm August, from 1798 onward, and started to dominate the debate, is exactly what started the way to Hell to today, where everything in art is allowed.
Classical Treatment of Ugliness
For the Classics, the treatment of Ugliness was by no means excluded, but it was an artistic device, which allowed very strong effects. But Ugliness was treated as an inferior category, and as something which had to be constrained by stylistic means. Schlegel, on the other side, treated Beauty and Ugliness on the same level as correlation, and in this way, started the continuous destruction of Beauty, as the only permitted principle in art. Ugliness became the interesting, and finally, the Sublime Ugliness reaches the key position in modern art.
It was necessarily consequent that, after the previously unassailable importance of Beauty was attacked, then also the demand for universal truth was no longer acceptable. Schiller had defined, in his critique "On Matthison's Poems," a very clear standard for the artist. Because of the extraordinary effect of art on the audience, the poet, says Schiller, "must extinguish the individual in himself and raise himself to the level of the species," before he can dare to move the audience. That means that the poet, or the artist, at least for the moment when he writes poetry or performs, must have ennobled himself to be an ideal man. Only if, in the moment of writing poetry or performing great art, if he feels as a universal man in this moment, can he be sure that the entire species will feel with him. To dare to call himself a poet or an artist at all, he must be absolutely certain about the effect he causes in the audience. Otherwise, he does not deserve that title.
But at the same time, this effect must occur freely, and without any force. Obviously, all these conditions can only be fulfilled at the same time, when not only the poet and the artist has taken the standpoint of the species, but also his subject has to be universally truthful.
"For each poetic work, the following two conditions are demanded: First, a necessary relation to its material objective, truth; second, a necessary relation of the object and the subjective universality. In a poem, everything must be true to nature, because the power of imagination obeys no other law, it accepts no other force than that which nature itself insists upon. In a poem nothing can be of a real, historical nature, because all reality is more or less a limitation of that universal natural truth. Each individual man is exactly so much less man, as he is an individual; each sensation is exactly so much less necessary, and purely human, as it is specific to a certain subject. Only in throwing away of the accidental, and in the pure extension of necessity, lies the great style."
It was exactly this demand for universal truth on the subject of poetry which the Romantics countered, with their theory of the subconscious as reality. As for the Romantics, so too for Freud and the whole school of psychology, that genius is only a person whose "fantasy" creates new possibility to contain the hard reality with soft cushions and exaggerated daydreams.
Art as a stimulating drug, a mild anaesthesia: That is exactly the opposite of the Classical idea, which Schiller expressed so magnificently in the poem, "The Artists." "Only through the morning door of Beauty, will you reach the land of cognition." Here, art is the way to develop the cognitive powers and to ennoble the individual, where for the Romantics, it is, let yourself go wherever your more or less sick fantasy pulls you.
Too hard a judgment? We will see.
The Theory of Ugliness
If it was Friedrich Schlegel's infamous contribution to prepare the ground for the theory of Ugliness in aesthetics, the glorification of the unconscious, the dreamlike, was more to the credit of Novalis and Tieck, to which later, the fully morbid of E.T.A. Hofmann was added. The good news is, that the writings of the Romantics have not been read by anybody in ages. The bad news is, that their scribblings are being copied till today, without the audience having any inkling about their origins. Almost every Hollywood movie is Romantic, according to these criteria. Anyone who has read the totally failed effort of the novel Lucinde, with which Friedrich Schlegel tried to counter Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, will understand this.
In the incomplete novel by Novalis, Heinrich von Ofterdingen, he tries to portray the longing for the "blue flower," which has become the symbol of the Romantics as such. What is mixed here, is action, dreams, fairy tales, present, future and past, in such a way that it is totally impossible to differentiate the different levels of the story. Exactly this is intended by Novalis. One is reminded of the techniques of today's pop video spots, where the perspective changes continuously, focus loses itself into blurriness, and by the mere means of this filming technique, the quasi psychedelic effect is created.
In this novel, a young man has rather strange and erotic dreams, especially of this blue flower, which turns out to be also his fianceé, Mathilde, as well as a metaphor for the Nordic poetry of the "Edda, "linked to the northern mythologies with which the Romantics tried to replace the references to the Greek mythologies in the ancient Classical period. He makes a long journey with his mother, encounters dream worlds, forebodings of future events, fairy tales which are built in the story like little islands--all stylistic means to overcome the division between existence and illusion, imagination and reality, dream and truth. One could just say that this novel is confused, and it is. But this insanity has a method. In any case, there is no obligation anymore for truth, neither concerning the subject matter, nor for the poet.
That these are not harmless fantasies, becomes clear when Heinrich's later teacher, Klingsohr, glorifies religious war as the true war, where real heroes are at home. Despite the fact that Novalis studied in the famous mining academy in Freiberg, where also Freiherr von Stein and Alexander von Humboldt were students, his description of the miner and his work is only a way to describe his inner life. Compare this to the beautiful way in which Schiller worked the real process of the construction of the bell, by making this the metaphor for the development of life and for the building of the state.
Novalis, on the other hand, said, "The world becomes a dream, the dream becomes the world." In this "infinite story," which has no necessary beginning, and no necessary end, at a certain point it is described how, out of the ashes of the diseased mother, a drink is prepared, which is drunk by all the people who work for the salvation of the world. "All tasted the divine drink and realized the friendly greetings of the mother within their inner self with great joy. She was present for everyone. Her secretive presence seemed to glorify all of them." In the literature of depth psychology, the authors assume here the motifs of cannibalism and incest with Novalis.
The horror novels and fantasy products of the Romantics are not only an attractive subject matter for psychologists and psychiatrists, but these very disciplines are actually modelled on Romanticism. Freud expresses in his essay, "The Eerie," a fascination with Hoffmann's novel The Sandman. In this essay, he notes the fact that the eeriness in this story comes from the fact that one cannot differentiate between illusion and reality. This story tells of the weird fantasies of a student, Nathaniel, who is plagued by nightmares from his childhood, and sees reality through special spectacles in a different way than everybody else, and comes to a schitzophrenic interpretation of things. In the moment when circumstances do not permit the continuation of his fantasy, his enchanting love, Olympia, turns into an ugly doll, her ashen, waxlike face has no eyes, but just black, hollow cavaties. Her body is chopped into pieces, and her placked-out eyes lie upon the floor.
With only nuances of differences from Novalis, for Tieck and Hoffmann the issue is always the decomposition of an obviously unhealthy world. Nightmarish pits open up, and the so-called dark side of the human psyche comes into view. The problem is not, that these sides of the human soul don't exist. Naturally, they do exist. But they are not treated as defects, which deviate from mental health, but instead as reality. Reality is treated as problematic, as that which is unreal and fragile.
While the Classics, and above all, Schiller, demand that man be greater than his destiny, for the Romantics, destiny is nothing but their unfolding character. Schiller demands that man educate his imperfect emotions, until he can rely on them, that they are in cohesion with Reason. Man, naturally, can have problems, but he is called upon not to indulge in them.
Heinrich Heine concluded that the similarity between Novalis and Hoffmann consisted in the fact that their poetry was diseases, and that the judgment of their writings was "not so much the business of the critic, but that of a doctor." Goethe wrote in 1827 about Hoffman, that the writings revealed a "sick confusion of a talented person," which revealed the "craziness of a lunatic."
On the 2nd of April, 1829, Goethe said to Eckermann, that the Classical was the healthy and the Romantic was the sick. Indeed, if one looks at all the novels and ghost stories of the Romantics, one deals more with medical histories than poetry. Heinrich Heine, in The Romantic School, the three books he wrote, dealt the final literary blow to this, coming exactly to the same conclusion. In Book I, he wrote, "If one wants to make a notion about the large pile of poets, who at that time recreated all kinds of poetic styles from the Middle Ages, one had to go to the insane asylum at Clarenton...." (Clarenton was a very famous insane asylum in France.) "I just compared the German Parnasse (the Olympus of the poets), with Claranton."
Specifically about Novalis and Hoffmann, he wrote in Book II, "The rosy shine in the poetry of Novalis is not the color of health, but that of consumption. And the purple fire in Hoffmann's fantasy pieces, is not the flame of genius, but of fever."
Goethe also recognized the danger coming from these fantasy products, and he recommended to his readers in the English magazine, "The Foreign Quarterly Review," which characterized especially the works of Hoffmann, as those of an insane man. "We cannot emphasize enough the real content of this article, because which loyal person, concerned for the education of the nation, has not seen with sadness how the pathological works of this suffering man for years affected Germany, and how his strange views have been injected into healthy minds."
What Goethe and Heine describe here is the catastrophic effect that the Romantics had on the development of the conscience of the population and its mental health. That this fell exactly into the reactionary tendencies of the Holy Alliance, was clearest to Heine, who had a much stronger anti-oligarchical point of view than Goethe. In The Romantic School, he writes: "It is funny enough that exactly this Romantic School produced the best translation of the book Don Quixote, where all its idiocies are mocked in the most delightful way, because this school is caught in the same insanity which also excited the noble man from La Mancha into all his follies, because they wanted also to restore medieval knighthood. They wanted to revive a dead past.... The Romantic School, at that time, went hand in hand with the efforts of the governments and the secret societies. The school swam with the stream of the time, and that stream was flowing back to its own source."
Romanticism and Imperial Rule
Indeed, the Romantics had the historical perspective which was oriented towards the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages, which was first elaborated in Novalis's writing, "Christianity and Europe." And this cohered exactly with the reactionary aims of the Holy Alliance. [what follows was taken from written text] In that sense, the school did indeed swim with the stream, flowing back to its own source: the model of the Roman Empire.
What Novalis and the so-called early Romantics, under the influence of the imperial conquests of Napoleon, counterposed as a "pure Christian imperial rule," later pleased the oligarchical forces at the Congress of Vienna. The concept of a universal imperial rule based on the tradition of the Roman Empire, where an emperor rules as a king of kings over a hierarchical class society, was naturally directed against the idea of the sovereign nation-state, as it had developed since the Fifteenth Century. For Schiller or von Humboldt, there was no contradiction to be both a patriotic citizen of a nation and a universal citizen, who makes the matter of mankind his own. For Schiller, the aim of mankind was "progression." For the oligarchy, people like Metternich, Castlereagh or most of the Prussian nobility, they desired inherited nobility with privileges and a system of supposedly inferior serfs, de facto a form of racism. There was no principled difference between Napoleon and the representatives of the Holy Alliance; both regarded the Roman Empire as the reference point for their political ambitions.
If you want to know what went wrong in the early Nineteenth Century in America, and why it came to the Civil War, you have to study that period of European history, because it was this Holy Alliance which created all the problems for the United States.
But what could be the affinity between the oligarchy of the Restoration of the Holy Alliance, and a form of art, which promotes Ugliness and psychological pathology? The answer is obvious: Every imperial form of rule is interested in keeping the population in a bestialized, "crazy" condition. Imperial Rome is infamous for its method of controlling the population through "Bread and Circuses," which functions best, when the depraved popular taste ( Vox Populi ) determines itself the degree and the form of its brainwashing, where the population is degraded to predators. Such media excesses as the Hollywood stinker, "The Gladiator," or the TV series "Big Brother," are symptomatic of this for our time.
It is most telling to compare the treatment of Ugliness, the Horrible and the Hideous in the ancient Greek time and in Imperial Rome. The pre-Classic, the Classic, and the post-Classic periods each treated them in a different way.
The essential difference is, that in the Hellenistic period, there were descriptions of terrible acts, but they were necessary elements of the story told, for example in Homer and the Ancient tragedians. A certain exception is the so-called story of Aspis, supposedly written by Hesiod in the Sixth Century B.C. The ripping apart of Pentheus in the Bacchen, a play by Euripides, is regarded as the most awful description in the Classical Greek poetry. Lessing, who studied the use of the Terrible and Ugly in Greek poetry, names further descriptions in the "Demeter Hymn" by Kallimachus and from the "Argonauts" by Apollonius.
But a qualitatively, completely different level in the treatment of the Awful and Dreadful, was reached in Imperial Rome, where the reality of "intestine readings," cruel gladiator fights, or animal hunts, were "poetical inspirations." Ovid was the first Roman poet of this period, in which a style is developed to create the strongest effects through the description of the Hideous. For example, in his "Metamorphoses," he describes extreme injuries to the human body, for example, when the "Centaurs" stamp on their own intestines. Seneca has the doubtful honor to have increased the horrors in the report of a messenger, in his "Phaedra," where Hippolith's ripping apart is described in gruesome detail. The repulsive description in the "Pharsalia" by Lukanz, in which the collapse of the Roman Republic and the victory of crime over rightfulness is portrayed, is maybe the worst example in this direction.
This form of presentation was not only an expression of the bestial image of man of Imperial Rome, but its oligarchical power elite knew very well that the brutalization of man was a perfect means of political control. If man is degraded, pornographic, voyeuristic, if he is hateful, jealous and selfish, then it is easy to manipulate him. If he is reduced to this level, he is only marginally different from the Pavlovian dog, whose salivary glands start to work when a certain sound signal is given, even if there is no food available. Just think of the effect of pornos on certain people, whose juices start to move, even if there is no real object in sight!
So what do you think is the reason that Hollywood makes films like "The Gladiator" or, the newest one, "Hannibal," which "Bild Zeitung" described on the 3rd of February as the most brutal movie of the year, with the following description: The surgical knife cuts as if through butter.... Suck, suck, around the head. Then, a piece of brain is separated, briefly fried in a pan, and given to the victim to eat.... 'Hmm, tastes delicious,' says the guy, who has eaten his own brain.... Bellys are sliced up.... Intestines drop on wet ground. Wild boars eat human beings. Blood squirts. Bones crack, because the cannibal Hannibal is hungry, murderously hungry."
Against this escalation of the repulsive, a new serial of "Big Brother" on German TV looks almost harmless, where all the inhabitants of the container ate everything from live maggots to dead large insects, only to stay in the game. Orwell is greeting you. Dumbing down is the opiate of the people.
Classical Treatment of The Ugly
But how did the Classics treat the Ugly and the Dreadful? We find a very characteristic example in Schiller's poem, "The Cranes of Ibykus," when the chorus of the Erinnyes appears.
The giant size of each one's person
Transcends by far what's humanly
Their loins a mantle black is striking,
Within their fleshless hands they're swinging
The torch's gloomy reddish glow,
Within their cheeks no blood doth flow;
And where the locks do lovely flutter,
And friendly wave o'er human brow,
There sees one snakes, here the adder
whose bellys swell with poison now.
And in the circle ghastly twisted
The melody o'th hymn they sounded,
Which through the heart so rending drives,
The fetters round the villain ties.
Reflection sobbing, heart deluding,
The song of Erinnyes doth sound,
It sounds, hearer's marrow eating
And suffers not the lyre to sound.
Obviously snakes and adders, with bellys swollen from poison instead of hair, is quite a disgusting image, but, nevertheless, the Horrible is not out of control and limitless; but the Erinnyes march "solemnly, i'th custom aged,... with footsteps lingering and gauged," and after they have left, a silence follows, "as if had near'd the Deity."
The Ugly, the Dreadful is not presented for its own sake, but it is only a means to create the presence of the supranatural. And it is exactly the confrontation with this awesome power, that "dread night," "that judging watch, hid from sight," which creates such a pressure that the murderers can't stand it, so they reveal themselves.
Ancient Treatment of Ugliness
How the Ancients treated Ugliness in the different phases of the Greek period and the Roman Empire--the investigation of this question was one of the essential preparations for the emergence of the German Classics in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Especially decisive were the writings of Winckelmann, Lessing's constructive critique of these, and his dialogue with Moses Mendelssohn about the different aesthetical problems.
Lessing's writing, "Laocoön and the Limitations in Painting and Poetry," was probably the most influential essay, which helped to develop the basis for Classical laws of art. He reports how, for example, the lawgivers of the ancient city of Thebes ruled that the artists had to imitate Beauty in their works, and forbade, under punishment, the portrayal of things in an uglier way. The artists were asked to portray nothing but Beauty, and in their work, the perfectness of the object itself was supposed to delight, because the aim of art was its perfecting effect on man. Because for the Ancients, Beauty was the highest law of art, everything which did not cohere with Beauty, had to disappear, or at least be put in a subjugated role.
This had very clear consequences for the way that human emotions were to be portrayed, as Lessing notes:
"There are passions and degrees of passion, which express themselves in the human face through ugly distortions, and put the whole body in such a violent position, that all the beautiful lines, which describe it in a calmer situation, get lost. The Ancient artists either did without them, or reduced them to a much lower degree, in which there is still a degree of Beauty possible. I dare to say that they never portrayed a Fury."
Lessing describes the artistic means, which were used by the sculptors Hagesandros, Polydoros, and Athenodoros from Rhodes, when they created the famous "Laocoön Group" to illustrate this point. This late Hellenistic sculpture, which was built in the First Century B.C., was regarded since its rediscovery in 1505 in Rome, as the incarnation of the Classical Greek sculpture. Winckelmann made it the center of the debate around Classical aesthetics in Germany, through his writing, "Thoughts About the Limitations of Greek Art."
Many poets and artists participated in this debate. Lessing's essay, which polemically criticized aspects of Winckelmann's thesis, became extremely productive for the development of the theory of lawful, Classical art. Everything, also the Ugly, had to be subjugated under the law of Beauty. "If one applies that to the Laocoön," says Lessing,
"the reason for which I am looking, is clear. The master works towards the highest Beauty, under the assumed condition of physical pain. This pain, in all its distorting violence, was not to be brought in cohesion with the former (Beauty). He therefore had to reduce it, he had to reduce the screaming into a sighing, not because the screaming reflects an unnoble soul (which was the argument Winkelmann had made, that that was the motive why the artist did it this way--HZL), but because it distorts the face in a repulsive way. If you [see] in your imagination the mouth of Laocoön open, then judge: It was a creation which induced pity, compassion, because it showed beauty and pain at the same time; now it has become an ugly, a disgusting creation, from which one likes to turn one's face away, because the view of pain causes reluctance, without the beauty of the suffering subject capable of changing this reluctance into the sweet feeling of compassion. The mere wide opening of the mouth--leaving aside how violently and repulsively the other parts of the face also get distorted and moved around--is in painting a stain, and in sculpture a cavity, which has the worst effect in the world."
Since for Lessing the object of art was always the ennoblement of man, also in poetry, the "morally ugly" was forbidden, if it prevented "aesthetical compassion," and therefore the final purpose of the drama. This compassion was not to lead to acts of charity, but through the inner identification of the viewer with the suffering person in an intense fusion, it should come to a cathartic effect of purification. Precisely for this reason, Mendelssohn says in this debate, that the most compassionate person is the best person, since he is most capable of developing his sensitivity to the fullest.
Schiller develops, in his Bride of Messina, the argument, that great art, especially Classical tragedy, is indeed capable of ennobling the sensitivity of the audience and changing it permanently: "True art is not interested in a passing game, but it is serious about not putting man in a passing dream of freedom, but making him really, in actuality, free, and this is the way, that it awakens a power in him, exercises and develops it, so that the sensuous world, which otherwise only burdens us as raw matter, is moved to an objective distance, transforms it into a free work of our mind, and dominates the material through ideas."
If great art--which according to the Classical principle, must be beautiful, and Ugliness should be treated only in a constrained way, and as a subjugated category--makes man free and increases his cognitive powers, what then is the effect of unbridled Ugliness and the Disgusting in art (if one should even still call it that)?
If beautiful art makes man free and strengthens his cognitive powers, then it is obvious that ugly and disgusting "art" makes him unfree, turns him into a slave and a beast. As I said, all this was imitated from the methods of the Roman Empire.
Lessing already pointed to the lasting effect of the Dreadful. He wrote: "Neither the pleasure of the imitation, nor the pleasure of the fullfilled intellectual curiosity connected with the illustration (of the Ugly--HZL), can make the effect of the Ugly milder, or diminish it. One can only abstract from the Ugliness and then enjoy the art of the painter and the satisfaction of our thirst for knowledge. But the pleasure is momentary, and the Ugliness takes effect afterwards all the stronger."
This is precisely the problem. Exactly as beautiful, Classical art creates a power which stays, so the effect of Ugliness is permanent. Lessing notes, in the context of his investigation of the differences of the effect of the Ugly in poetry and painting: "Not-harmful Ugliness can consequently not remain ridiculous for long; the unpleasant sensation gains the upper hand, and what was comical in the first moments, becomes in the sequence only disgusting. It happens no differently with the damaging Ugliness: The horrible loses itself step by step, and the deformed remains solely and unchangeably behind."
That is exactly the destructive effect of the "damaging Ugliness" in our present culture, especially if it occurs in the form of a constant exposure to violence and Ugliness in the media: it leaves deformed personalities and irreversibly deformed characters behind.
So to come back to the question, "Dark Age or a Renaissance," the answer is clear. Only if we can create a mass movement of people, who consciously reject Romanticism today in all its depraved forms, and who accept again the cohesion of Beauty, Truth and Reason, and who learn to think in a Classical way, we can create a new Renaissance.
I believe that Beauty is a necessary condition of Mankind. So, therefore, let's join with Sylvia [Olden Lee] and Bill [Warfield] and all the other artists, and create Beauty!