Have you noticed that Trump says ‘Beautiful’ a lot? And words similar? Everything he likes or that benefits his administration or wants to create will be beautiful. The same kind of language appears in the rise of similar parties in the UK and Europe, not necessarily beating the drum of ‘Beauty’ but certainly speaking in terms of restoration and face lifts. London since the stock market crash has become a forest of cranes and building sites as modern architectural wonders grow into the air. A political equivalent of ‘keeping up appearances’ in the eyes of the world permeates the Nu-Right. Watching a recent party political broadcast on behalf of our unelected Prime Minister in a pathetic attempt to placate the growing unrest (in spite of soaring opinion polls for her and her party) it was a bizarrely rose tinted video filled with smiles and opulence, an Instagram-like filter was even used to give the whole affair a golden hue as if far from being plunged into a bleak future of segregation, vilification and economic suicide, the nation and her party literally glowed with delight and promise. A return to Aesthetics seems to have been adopted by the leading political parties of developed nations today.
Aesthetics was a philosophical movement developed from the early Greek idea of Beauty, one of Plato’s ‘Forms’ by Alexander Baugarten in the 18th century. It deals with the nature of art, beauty and taste through the creation and appreciation of something beautiful. One of the most noted Aesthetes was Oscar Wilde. Prior to the second world war the appreciation of art and beauty was reasonably uncomplicated, the Romantic ideals of beauty are still indelibly printed on our collective consciousness. “A rose by any other name” and so on. Beauty, thanks to the Romantics and Aesthetes, became inextricably linked with love and was often assigned an equivalence with truth. Art and culture prior to the rise of Modernism near universally accepted the most beautiful things as the best and most honest. And then Nazis appeared. Part of the Nazi ideology was an entrenched desire and love of beauty. The very idea of an Aryan Race is that of a race of perfect and beautiful people, a master race. The Nazis hoarded art and built vast and grand buildings, each a mass of finely detailed and exquisite design and architecture. Since then a love and appreciation of beauty has become problematic, it is now linked with humanity’s darkest hour. Beauty had become inherently ugly.
In the fairy tale of Beauty & The Beast, a rude and selfish man is punished for this crime by “Being made to look as ugly on the outside as he is on the inside” and thus turned into a beast. Throughout the tale he is confronted by a woman, the embodiment of beauty, and made to change his nature by falling in love with this beautiful girl. On the brink of death the Beast is brought back to life by the woman’s declaration of love and transforms him back into a handsome prince. At play here is a traditional association with beauty, that it can transform the ugliness and cruelty in the world into the good and beautiful. It has often been noted in analysis of this story that identity is in fact lost through this conformity. Applied to real life – the idea of an unattractive person who is withdrawn and insular because of society’s treatment of them because of their appearance, that they should simply be a nicer, more welcoming person to those who insult or deride them and then they will be seen as beautiful – this seems like a problematic acceptance of aesthetic beauty so as to conform to a society that demands they be hidden from view. The need for the Beast to ‘transform’ into a handsome prince so he may be better accepted and therefore worthy of marriage speaks volumes for how the adoration of beauty lacks a great deal of humanity.
The fascism of beauty is still very much alive and well, we all know the unfair standards of beauty set by mainstream media and its focus on aesthetics (certainly when it comes to women) and how ostracising it is. Post WWII the modernist movement even went some way to attempt to counteract it. Brutalist architecture and much more plain, abstract, disjointed, even plain ugly design was incorporated into architecture, literature, music and art itself but in the same way as we resist the ugly undercurrent of beauty we equally resist the unattractive veneer of a more fair minded appreciation of the world, people and culture. Anyone who has seen Kubrick’s vision of A Clockwork Orange will know how oppressive the Brutalist architecture aesthetic is and yet the right has openly returned to its love for beauty. Why?
The answer, I think, lies in the Philosopher and MP Edmund Burke’s treatise on the Sublime.
Burke again takes note of the Greeks and their idea of The Sublime and sees it not simply as that which is beautiful i.e. aesthetically pleasing, but as that which can destroy us. He points out that the sight of a beautiful vista: a tempestuous ocean from the shore line, the grand canyon, a forest of redwoods, etc belittles us, reminding us how small and insignificant we are and how easily a roaring sea, bolt of lightning, a volcanic eruption or a tornado could snuff us out at any given moment. The sublime is beautiful and dangerous. As such, this seems to be how fascism adopts beauty for its own ends. Beauty and grandness is imposing and implies threat so by adopting each of these and the mode of Aesthetics the parties most in need of appearing strong, desirous of little challenge and the outward appearance of welcome and inclusion appear stronger, welcoming, inclusive and warrant little challenge.
Equity by contrast is ugly. The need for humans to create beauty inherently requires the removal or hiding of anything not aesthetically pleasing or meeting the individual’s taste, hence the fascism, but a more egalitarian, equal, equitable aesthetic vision requires the inclusion of the parts of society and art and culture that generally we do not care for. Featuring the handicapped, the mentally ill, the non-gender-normative, and just generally anyone who is not aesthetically pleasing is representative of the world as it stands today but this is not the world we see represented through art. If anything these supposed minorities are shamed into either conforming to a given aesthetic taste or simply shunned. This was changing until recently. With the sudden rise of right wing populism the demands on a more ‘Traditional’ aesthetic standard has been rekindled and anything not deemed beautiful is neither necessary nor desired. Sadly the left seem as resistant to letting its standards of beauty slip to combat this. Fairness, inclusion and equity, that which ‘Liberals’ or any left leaning individual deem to be their dictums, by their very nature are messy, difficult and yes, very ugly.
What Burke calls The Sublime is a beauty of nature, of existence itself and importantly rife with ugliness throughout. To experience it is to be humbled and to dwarf our petty demands on the planet or the cosmos, this is not something that can be manufactured by humanity and it is why Trump and his acolytes’ continual allusions to beauty ring so hollow. Be suspicious of those who try to convince you of the beauty they see without acknowledging the ugliness too. It’s only fair.