Too Beautiful for You
"You can't handle the truth," an exasperated Colonel Jessep (Jack Nicholson) yells out at Lieutenant J.G. Kaffee (Tom Cruise) in a famous courtroom speech of A Few Good Men (written by Aaron Sorkin). Cross-examination reveals, however, that the colonel couldn't handle justice: he admits he had ordered a "code red" that resulted in the wrongful death of a Marine under his command at Guantánamo.
"Truth" and "justice" are not easily defined, but it's hard to disagree that truth and justice are fundamental to social and political stability -- indeed, to civilization itself. A very long time ago, a very different third concept was declared to be fundamental as well.
That concept is beauty, and it was the ancient Greeks (no relation to today's deadbeats) who argued that this triad was essential to civilization. Truth and justice they kept secular, however, paving the way for science and democracy. But beauty -- ah, beauty -- it was sacred, protected in the pantheon by the goddess Aphrodite. Transgressions against her were blasphemy, punishable more severely than falsehood and injustice.
Fast-forward to fleeting shadows dancing on the wall of the Cave: cinema. The French director Bertrand Blier seems to have taken the ancients to heart, bringing his A-game to make in 1989 Too Beautiful for You, a much underappreciated film -- by Pauline Kael as well as by the French cinema literature -- that portrays moral and aesthetic sins against beauty as sacrilege.
Too Beautiful for You is the story of a car salesman (Gérard Dépardieu) who decides to shack up with the frumpy office temp because, he explains, his wife (Carole Bouquet) is "too beautiful, too sublime, too ideal," and "what is left to desire when you live with such a gem, except to die?" Blier makes sure this philistine gets what he deserves.
But wait, there's worse! An atrocious instance of kallophobia -- "kallos" means "beauty" in classical Greek -- hit the art scene some seventy years before Blier's dramatization, except that this particular transgressor would not only not be censored for blasphemy, but he would be rewarded with fame and fortune as the biggest name in 20th century art.
I'm talking about Picasso and Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Originally titled The Brothel of Avignon, the picture was completed by the summer of 1907 but sat around in the studio gathering dust before going on exhibit in 1916. Matisse saw it in the studio, pronounced it "horrible," and walked out hopping mad.
It was not an overreaction. Picasso would prove to be the beast that killed beauty in art by making ugliness...well, admirable. The more hideous, shocking, disgusting, revolting, repulsive, nauseating...the better. With one kallophobic picture, Picasso turned his back on centuries of tradition that had regarded the female figure as the paradigm of beauty and made its glorification a key goal in art.
But wait, there's worse! As a Catholic, Picasso must have known he was straying into dangerous territory, naming a picture of a brothel after a city in the south of France that was once the seat of the Papacy. Marseille, a port where horny sailors can satisfy their needs, would have been more appropriate for the title. Why take a risk with Avignon?
Biographer John Richardson (Vol. II, p. 32) unwittingly put his finger on it with an attempt at positive spin that backfires: "Demoiselles was an exorcism of traditional concepts of 'ideal beauty.'" Well, the Greeks started the tradition in question by linking beauty to divinity, which continued under Christianity through the Madonna concept. So, if Picasso really did think this tradition was possessed by evil spirits and that it was up to him to conduct the exorcism, he committed blasphemy -- thrice. Way to go!
Other artists were only too happy to follow Picasso's lead, most far less talented but just as greedy, busting down the door he kicked open, eager to outdo each other (and the master, by then just along for the ride) in the hideous, shocking, disgusting, revolting, repulsive, nauseating department. They're at it to this day, having discovered that such stuff sells big, aided and abetted by the peanut gallery of sycophantic critics and homely feminists just as opposed to organized religion, the latter driven to kallophobia also by an inferiority complex masquerading as social agenda.
That Picasso had a deep-seated fear and loathing of the female body is well-known. This phobia is in plain sight in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and elsewhere -- Picasso was nothing if not brutally honest. The five figures in the picture are hideously distorted, oblivious to each other as they display "charms" barely recognizable as human. The absence of modeling and perspective and the sharp edges make the picture look like paper cutouts pasted on the canvas, suggesting violence in the very act of composition. Violence toward women is, of course, what goes on in a brothel. Picasso was a steady customer.
But wait, there's worse! Set the time machine to about a thousand years before his birth, when Picasso's native Andalucía was known as Al-Andalus and the Moors ran the show. A far more serious threat to beauty was emerging that had already overturned the secular status of the other elements of the ancient triad -- truth and justice -- all in the name of a deity polytheistic Greeks could not even have imagined, which commanded obedience without murmur on pain of death. Of relevance here is the following edict:
And say to the faithful women to lower their gazes, and to guard their private parts, and not to display their beauty except what is apparent of it, and to extend their head coverings to cover their bosoms, and not to display their beauty except to their husbands.
The requirement that Muslim women wear burqas is kallophobia writ much, much larger. The "justification" makes Picasso's flirt with blasphemy seem quaint by comparison: property rights ordained from on high, enslaving half of mankind.
The idea of women-as-property -- Islam allows men to impregnate four wives -- made it possible for gangs of youthful terrorists galloping under the crescent flag to increase their ranks rapidly and win battle after battle, century after century, through sheer force of numbers. This demographic reality is giving the Europe of today a massive Excedrin headache. The Ottomans have been able to accomplish what the bloody sieges of 1529 and 1683 couldn't. To wit, they passed through the gates of Vienna with a...passport.
An aesthetic dimension worthy of the name never emerged as a cultural phenomenon in Islam. How could it have? A woman who dared to shed her burqa and pose for a painting would be stoned to death and the artist executed for idolatry.
Arabesque inlays on the walls of mosques and elaborate symmetry woven into floor coverings qualify as craft, not art. The intent behind them is not aesthetic experience but means to an end dictated, as always, from above: to decorate a building in a way that singles it out as a house of worship, and to cushion the knees and elbows of the faithful who, like clockwork, must lie prostrate in prayer several times a day, every day.
How sad: millions of Muslims going through life without the joy of ever seeing their Girl with a Pearl Earring (Vermeer) or their Bird in Space (Brâncuşi).
But wait, there's worse! Our civilization would vanish with a stroke of the scimitar under sharia law: truth and justice would no longer be secular and beauty no longer divine.
Arnold Cusmariu is a sculptor who holds that beauty is the essence of art. He argued his case at meetings of the American Society for Aesthetics in 2010.