Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Aesthetics of Hate

Over this long summer break at SGS, the following three events happened:
1. I attended a workshop on the Holocaust at Northwestern University in Chicago:
2. I visited a plantation in North Carolina:
3. Against all common sense, against all previous warnings, against the advice of serious film-goers, and against his own better judgment, my husband watched another Lars von Trier film by himself again:
Lars von Trier's film, Nymphoniac, like his last film, Melancholia, made Joel have a sad.

All three events, believe it or not, have led me to think about this one topic all summer, which is the relationship between aesthetics and hatred, or what I'm choosing to call the aesthetics of hate.

I'd written before on this blog about the Viennese architect Otto Wagner, who preached and practiced beauty and utility in his work. What makes Otto Wagner's so great, I argued, was that he showed us how art -- modernist art, no less - can serve the public. That it could be integrated in daily life and into public infrastructures.

But this summer has made me think more seriously about how art and architecture can also be used for horrible purposes. What I've become especially fascinated by is the idea that the more aesthetically pleasing the artistic portrayal of hatred is, the more powerful the creator's message can be.

Our first (and lightest) example of this is Lars von Trier's film, Melancholia, which I was completely fascinated by in 2012:
The first five minutes were breathtakingly beautiful. Stunning.
Against the backdrop of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" overture, you watch the world as you know it explode. It's haunting, beautifully filmed, visually stunning, a wonder. No, really. Watch the first 5-10 minutes or so. It's so aesthetically pleasing. It's so beautiful.
But, numerous critics pointed out, this film is really hateful. NPR's film critic David Edelstein called it "as hateful as it is hate-filled." Lars von Trier brings out the worst in us all, makes us turn against each other, and by the end of the film condemns humanity to a violent and horrible fate. There's no redemption in this film because he thinks we're really not worth saving. But von Trier's aesthetic is so beautiful, so totalizing, so completely realized that he makes it difficult to resist watching as the main characters' lives get destroyed (in both a physical and metaphysical sense). Beauty is Lars von Trier's weapon; it lures us into a film intent on destroying our will to live.

The other two examples of beauty and the worst of humanity coming together that I'd like to share with you all are two different architectural sites that I visited or discussed at length this summer: Auschwitz-Birkenau and a Southern plantation in North Carolina. Paul Jaskot, an art historian at Northwestern, has written extensively on the fact that architects helped to design concentration camps like Auschwitz. Not "Nazi architects," as in Himmler, Hitler, and the rest (although they of course played a role in this, too) but actual architects who had been trained to design and construct buildings, who had most likely at some point taken an architecture history class and been exposed to Romanesque architecture, Baroque ornamentation, and neo-Gothic design. Some had even trained in the avant-garde and modernist Bauhaus style under the direction of Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. These Nazi architects' buildings were functional, yes, but also aesthetically pleasing and referenced to older historical styles and traditions:

This famous view of Auschwitz, for example, is haunting and horrible, true, but it's haunting and horrible because it's aesthetically pleasing. We remember it because it's appealing for the eye to look at. It's easy for us to remember. Look at how the tower centers the structure, how the buildings on the left and right are perfectly symmetrical. Our eye like this image, it likes this view. It likes this building. Jaskot taught us this summer that this is no coincidence; again, by making this entry into Auschwitz aesthetically appealing, the architects made this passageway to a death camp powerful. 

In early August, I experienced aesthetic pleasure in another setting that was also a site of oppression, torture, and death: a plantation in North Carolina. Prior to visiting, I was really ambivalent about taking a tour of a plantation that used to enslave nearly 1,000 people. But I'm glad that I did. The historic state-run Stagville Plantation was a wonderful example of public historians getting it right, resisting the usual Gone With The Wind narrative and focusing on the lives of those who transformed the economy of the South into the economic wonder it became. If you're going to go to a plantation, go to Stagville. Be very wary of the others, especially those that focus on the good ol' days before Abraham Lincoln ruined everything.

Again, what was striking at this site was the beauty and simplicity of the buildings that housed slaves:

Built in the woods, these slave cabins comprised of 4 rooms, with 1 family in each room. But considering that each family consisted usually of at least 7-13 members, you're looking at a cabin that housed roughly 50 people. There was no insulation, of course, no glass windows.
The builders and laborers who erected these structures were the slaves themselves, who, our tour guide said, were masterful in their work. Look at the chimney they built out of brick. Notice how tight the construction is:
This 1850s chimney, our guide said, could probably be fired up today and work just fine. There's something simple yet beautiful about this construction, which, to me, explains why these sites still have the power to haunt us.

In a weird way, because of the seminars I attended this summer, I'm now especially intrigued by/appreciative of directors Steve McQueen and Quentin Tarantino, both of whom I'm starting to suspect understood the aesthetic power of hate and used it in their works in subversive ways. Quentin Tarantino chose a beautiful site to tell a story of hate for his film Django Unchained:
Isn't this house so beautiful? Doesn't it then become even more disturbing when we think about its purpose? When we see it as a symbol for humanity at its worst? Quentin Tarantino, of course, revels in this. He revels in taking pure white cotton puffs and spraying them with red blood, making them look pinkish:
That's his aesthetic. Plenty of more erudite and informed film buffs have written loads about this already.

Steve McQueen's film, 12 Years A Slave, also demonstrates the power of beauty in a similar way. Like Tarantino, McQueen chose to film his movie on a historic plantation, thus also making the site function as a symbol of moral depravity:
And Steve McQueen's film worked not just because McQueen was telling a powerful story, but because he told it beautifully. The more beautiful the rendering, the more difficult it is for us to resist the aesthetic object's power. Although this next image is really and truly upsetting, it's also beautifully composed and arranged. Remember that McQueen did so intentionally:
It follows the golden ratio of math that's found in nature but also in art and music: according to this principle, the highlight in a work of art naturally falls at the 2/3 mark. In this still, the dangling, lynched body appears at the 2/3 mark. The victim's body makes the golden ratio complete for it appears at the perfect moment to our eye. It creates the same perfect perpendicular axis that artists and art historians have admired for hundreds of years.

Again: because our eye finds these compositions and arrangements appealing, we find them all the more powerful and capable of truly upsetting us. In Steve McQueen's case, I think he's using these aesthetic principles to make it difficult for the film-goer to deny the realities of the past and to force the viewer to confront the ongoing traumas of the present. Beauty is the blunt instrument that he employs to show us (often against our will!) something appalling.

There's something really powerful, fascinating, and subversive to using beauty for horrible ends. Don't be dismissive of art or aesthetics, these historic structures and these provocative films warn us, don't belittle their power. Beauty is all around us. What's it being used for?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this powerful, yet elegant intervention and insight. The phrase - aesthetics of hate - is most appropriate.