G. GABRIELLE STARR

Lawrence, Jacob (1917-2000) Title: The migrants arrived in great numbers. Panel 40 from The Migration Series, 1940-41 Copyright: Jacob Lawrence DIGITAL IMAGE © date, The Museum of Modern Art/Scala, Florence

Lawrence, Jacob (1917-2000)
Title: The migrants arrived in great numbers. Panel 40 from The Migration Series, 1940-41
Copyright: Jacob Lawrence

G. Gabrielle Starr, professor of English and author of Feeling Beauty, on a panel from the Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

GS One of the things that Gilded Birds wants to do is expand our sense of what’s beautiful and I think that Jacob Lawrence really does that in an extraordinary way. Lawrence is also a blender of genres and I love things that aren’t just one thing. He’s a painter but he’s also a historian. He’s a believer in narrative and he makes words as important as the pictures.

GB He said that the most important thing to him is the philosophy behind his work and he believes that the technique will just come if there’s a strong enough thought there to express. Do you think beauty is part of what he’s trying to achieve?

GS Yes. It’s odd because beauty is not the first thing you would associate with a lot of his subject matter. He deals with very difficult things, with race riots and lynchings and rebellion. He feels that sometimes there is a story of tragedy to be told and sometimes a story of heroism and there certainly is a moral centre to everything that Lawrence is trying to do and I think he makes that centre beautiful. He is also, somehow, a deeply optimistic artist for I think he sees history in a long view and believes change and movement are possible. His sense of vibrancy may not be classically beautiful but it’s something that’s powerful and moving.

GB So do you think that even before you’ve thought about the meaning of the picture there’s an immediate sensory response that recognises beauty in it?

GS Absolutely. In the panel I chose there’s a sense that everyone is moving forward to something that you can’t see and there’s a compositional balance to the image. All the angles align in interesting ways, the colours are so vibrant and the people are so purposeful. They are motivated by human need and desire. It’s hard to imagine it not being deeply historical and deeply political but also sensually appealing.

GB So do you think the text is important? He tells the story of the African-American migration from the South of America to the North in very simple terms.

GS I think it creates a dialogue in the sense that it moves the painting off the wall and into your imagination in a different way. It says that whatever the painting is there’s always something else – that there’s another one before it or another one after it and that there’s something that you don’t know, that’s not fully revealed by the visual image, which requires that you try to figure out what that other thing is.

GB Lawrence was greatly concerned with the humanity of his paintings. In a way, we look at them as a historical document. Would you say that our interest in the history and the politics of a picture is part of our aesthetic reaction or something completely separate?

GS One of the real challenges of a lot of African-American art and literature in the 20th century and even as far back as the 18th century, is the relationship between the more sensually and artistically isolatable elements of the work and the political and social work that the artists are doing. So for the first 250 years of African-American artistic production it’s very clear that the political was absolutely inseparable from any other claim that could be made. It’s not until you get reactions to the Black Art Movement in the 1960s and 70s, (with some earlier notable exceptions like Zora Neale Hurston), that there is not a primary political claim being made by the artwork. The same is true of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry in the 18th century. She’s saying, “Look, I can read and write.” It’s a claim to citizenship, to humanity, but there’s something special about making that claim in artistic form. You can do it by an act of physical rebellion but doing it by an act of art makes certain claims on the viewer and claims about the artist. They can be claims about one’s belonging to a canon, claims to taste. They can be clams about one’s ability to revise tradition or to be part of an institution. They can be claims that “I” the artist can make something of beauty and move you even against your will. So yes, I think it’s part of our aesthetic response but part of the challenge of looking at these artworks, is that many people want to engage them as being essentially political in a way that is not artistic and I think it’s entirely wrong to do so.

GS Do you think Lawrence had an intention about whether this was supposed to arouse our empathy for these particular people at this particular time – or if he wanted to represent a more universal human suffering?

GS I think one of the interesting things about Jacob Lawrence’s Migration paintings is that you don’t see faces quite as clearly as you might. There’s a stylistic choice that he makes that takes away personally identifiable features. But there’s still a powerful sense of their humanity. So while Lawrence says, “Yes, this is my story, this is my family’s story,” – it’s much more than that – especially when you realise that for most African Americans at this time, family history was not easily obtainable. Pre ancestry.com and huge numbers of genealogical records – there were lots of family stories but little family history. So I think that at this time, for the artist, it had to be in a way a universal story.

GB So in spite of the simplicity of the painting and the figures having no faces, would you say that it still evokes a strong emotional response in you?

GS Yes. There is a huge story that’s told just by those simple lines, by the appearance of motion. What I think is genius about his lines is that the figures are so impossible. They’re aggressively two-dimensional, so the mystery of the painting is, how is it that something that’s so flat can seem so alive? How does the almost collage of shapes magically transform into human beings?

GB I’m interested in something Lawrence said about abstract art – that it feels fragmentary and devoid of feeling to him. Do you think there’s less going on in our brains when we look at a totally abstract work?

GS I don’t think that less goes on in our brains. Different things go on. When you have readily available semantic associations with an artwork, (and probably the most pertinent semantic associations for a human being come from the human form in some way), there is so much potential for connection. There’s potential for stories, for wondering who is there, what they are thinking, where they are going. What’s the little boy in the middle of the picture doing looking back? Why is there grass under some people’s feet? Different things go on when something is abstract rather than representational. Human beings tend to find faces where there aren’t any, which I think is something Lawrence exploits. You, the viewer, have put the humanity there in a very real way. I think he is asking us to own and recognise our active engagement with the art.

GB So do you think that in spite of the best efforts of the Abstract Expressionists, we’re still looking for something figurative in a painting?

GS Yes. I think we are – but we can be educated out of it. You can learn not to look for it and that has its own aesthetic effect.

GB Do you believe in universal beauty?

GS No. I think that there are things that people tend to like. Certainly, natural beauty is a close as we might get. There are places and natural objects that most people would say are arresting, but I think when it comes to what human beings create, it’s very hard to define what it is we find beautiful because personal history takes over at such an early age and shapes our taste and desires.

GB So your life experiences might lead to you no longer finding this painting beautiful?

GS I think your life experiences, even how you feel that day, have an effect. Although this painting has stayed with me so far.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

GS It has to evoke a visceral response. I can’t just think it, I have to feel it. It has to be a powerful response. It has to be something that hangs around in my imagination even long after I’ve seen it.

HIROSHI FUJIWARA

Hiroshi Fujiwara's photograph of snow in Hakkoda

Hiroshi Fujiwara’s photograph of snow in Hakkoda

Hiroshi Fujiwara, ‘godfather of streetwear,’ on his photograph of a snowy scene in Hakkoda, Japan.

GB Where is this picture taken?

HF That is the place called Hakkoda (Aomori/Japan).

GB Who is in the picture?

HF I don’t remember who they are.. all my friends.

GB Did you take the picture?

HF Yes.

GB Tell me why you find this image beautiful?

HF This nature is just beautiful.

GB Why is the snow so beautiful? What made you choose this rather than a beach or a forest?

HF The beauty of snow is coldness and solitude.. I prefer that…

GB Is the beauty connected to your memories of a great holiday?

HF Not really, memory is something else I think.

GB Would this scene still be as beautiful if you didn’t snowboard – and the snow had no use to you?

HF Yes, I think so.

GB Is there an element of danger in the beauty?

HF Sometimes, beauty has a kind of danger I guess.

GB Do you think nature is more beautiful than man-made objects?

HF Not always… sometimes a man-made thing is so beautiful.

GB Can you give me an example of a beautiful man-made object?

HF An airport.

GB Is beauty important to you in your creative work – in music and fashion?

HF I am not sure… not only the beautiful. Just anything can be important.

GB Do ever talk about beauty with people you collaborate with?

HF Not really.

GB What else is important apart from beauty? Style? Strong design? Originality?

HF Beauty is a kind of bright side… but I like the dark side, too. The dark side can be much more stronger than beauty .

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

HF …I like a world… such a beautiful day…

GB What is the meaning of the word beauty to you?

HF A good word for conversations, to make people happy.

 

MANDI LENNARD

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David Hockney Nude Photo-collage, made up from 140 separate photographs, 17th June, 1984

Mandi Lennard, of brand consultancy, Mandi’s Basement, on David Hockney’s photo collage, Nude (Theresa Russell)*

GB Tell me why you chose this.

ML Jonathan Silver who founded Salts Mill in Yorkshire was a great inspiration.  He had a cool fashion store in Leeds where I grew up.  He first met David Hockney in his dad’s burger bar, and then got him to design a cover for the school magazine.  When Silver later took over a decrepit building in Saltaire, turning it into a thriving cultural centre, it inevitably became a great homage to Hockney’s work, which is how I came to discover this photo montage.

GB David Hockney has experimented with style a great deal. What draws you to his photo collages more than his paintings?

ML This image literally hit me in the face.  He’s taken its subject, Theresa Russell, to the point of ugliness where she looks incredibly beautiful, giving her strength and a raw vulnerability.  There are so many tantalising elements – the silk satin sheets next to a bare wood floor, the tackiness of the idea of silk sheets against the brutality of the image, the audacity of her tongue showing between her teeth, like she’s savouring this whole experience.

GB Hockney has said that his photographic joiners and collages are closer to the way we experience things in reality than a one-point perspective picture. Would you say that’s true?

ML Yes, imagery presented in this way is so vivid, it’s shocking in its realism.

GB Hockney was influenced by Cubism and in particular Picasso. But he didn’t think people should imitate Picasso as he felt Cubism was an attitude rather than a style. Did he achieve that do you think?

ML He felt photography was flawed by being ‘one-eyed’, whereas Cubism was total vision.  You’re always attracted to certain things in a picture, so by using his ‘joiners’ style of montage he created movement.  In this image, you don’t just see the breast face on, but there is a side view too; these elements give this image incredible depth – to have to focus on an image while processing this, adds thrust.

GB Hockney made some quite grand claims about photography and film’s inability to capture our true experience. Do you feel that you learn something about Theresa Russell here that you couldn’t from one of her films?

ML There is a starkness to this work that engages you with the subject as an individual, not dissimilar to a raw film role, so in that respect, it’s just another visual medium – be it a meatier role.

GB Technology has moved on an incredible amount since 1984. Do you think this looks old-fashioned now? Do you think Hockney’s aims to break with traditional perspective seem naive?

ML This image will never look old-fashioned, it depicts a brutal modernism.  I don’t feel he gratuitously tried to break tradition.  He knew normal photography wasn’t capturing what he was seeing, and his resolve to achieve what he needed from such portraiture, is startling.

GB Do you think that beauty was something Hockney was aiming for with this work?

ML Yes; it’s challenging to many, but that is part of the allure – the shock that if you are being honest, you find it beautiful – you are almost having to admit this to yourself, then you question your morality…

GB It was important to Hockney that these pictures took time to put together and couldn’t be reproduced perfectly because you could only photograph the whole work, not the component parts. Is the original that much more beautiful to you than the one you see on the screen here?

ML My experience of it as an original was heightened by the context of seeing it in a gallery amongst his paintings, and the fact that this type of imagery was unfamiliar to me at the time.  In 1986, it was used as the exhibition poster entitled ‘XVI RIP Arles (Nude)’ for Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie in Arles, France.  I have a framed poster of this, which has been behind my desk in my office for many years.  I still enjoy the beauty of its harsh realism every day.  It sits next to a Zandra Rhodes lithograph (Shown at the Round House, 1975).  Even the version I found online to email to you is intoxicating.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

ML The visual explosion of all the elements.  Taking something as close to ugly while still retaining allure.  And in the same vein, restraint and subtlety can be just as powerful. I love Hockney’s honesty.

*Image from Bonhams

JASMINE RAZNAHAN

Jasmine Raznahan's mysterious photograph

Jasmine Raznahan’s mysterious photograph

Jasmine Raznahan, magazine publisher and designer, on a photograph she took of an unknown artwork.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

JR I took this photograph on my old Leica Minilux at some point during a trip to Kassel for dOCUMENTA (13). I have very vivid memories of that whole trip, but to this day I have no recollection of seeing this image in real life. I chose it for many reasons. On a very basic level of appreciation, it appeals to my aesthetic taste. I love the faded colour and the graphic shapes – it taps into the part of my brain where Modernist architecture, Mexican cityscapes and Le Corbusier paintings live. The symmetry of all the planes coupled with those two doorways is really powerful to me. But I suppose the thing I find most beautiful about it is that it feels like this image was serendipitously imprinted onto one of the negatives in my camera without me even knowing it. Like I was taking pictures with my eyes shut but of things I knew I’d want to remember later. It’s a memory I can’t ever truly revisit.

GB Is it a still from a film?

JR The memory of this moment is so absent in my mind that I couldn’t tell you. That’s one of the things I like about looking at this image – trying to find clues as to what and where it is. The reflection on the floor beneath the central square implies that it’s an artwork in a room to me – you can see the grouting on what looks like the floor tiles. I imagine that the work was something similar in feeling to a James Turrell.

GB Does the fact that you took the image with a film camera make it more beautiful to you?

JR Yes. Had I taken it with a digital camera, I’d most definitely recall it as I’d have probably looked at our holiday snaps through the camera’s viewfinder enough times over to remember them. There’s something very otherworldly to me about this image which I’m not sure would have been captured if I’d taken this picture with a digital camera. I think that the inaccessibility of the subject makes the object more beautiful to me. Oddly, the clean gradients and the sharp lines in the image look as though they could be digitally rendered, which adds another layer of complexity to the process of trying to identify what it actually is.

GB It’s interesting that you took the picture at an art exhibition. Bearing in mind that you don’t know the name of the artist, the title of the piece – and it’s out of its exhibition context – do you still see it as a work of art?

JR That’s a really interesting question. I do still see this piece as a work of art, and a work of art that I imagine I like. But I can never be certain, as I don’t really know if it even looked like this in real life. I’ve trawled through the artist index on the website and in the catalogue and nothing seems to come close. It’s like it never existed.

GB Do the memories of being at the show contribute to the beauty of the image for you?

JR Maybe. For me there’s something quite romantic and solitary about this image. Inversely, my memories of the trip involve friends, colour, conversation, food, sunshine – quite the opposite to the way I read this picture. It is also unusual to capture a piece of work in a public gallery context that is devoid of other human beings. So really this picture captures a moment that is completely incongruous with the time that it was taken. I think this gives it a sense of mystery, which makes it more beautiful to me. It feels like a very private moment and there is a reticence about the image that fascinates me. I keep coming back to it, trying to unpick it.

GB Do you think that this kind of abstract beauty needs no explanation in words?

JR I think it depends on the context and also the person. You could describe the work of Luis Barragán as abstractly beautiful, and personally I find inspiration in studying the aesthetic shapes of it; by simply looking. But on reading more about his work you are able to understand it in a much deeper context and that multiplicity of understanding allows you to appreciate not only the aesthetic beauty but the intellectual too. When considering beauty, I think that is the ultimate combination. The Minimalists for me produced some of the most beautiful art and design of the 20th Century. Barragan once said that “architecture is an art when one consciously or unconsciously creates aesthetic emotion in the atmosphere and then this environment produces well being.” There are many moments in life that I would describe as beautiful but find impossible to intellectually define why. When he talks about this idea of ‘aesthetic emotion’, I think he is referring to this; a subconscious emotional reaction to something for reasons unexplainable.

GB Does your work as a magazine publisher and designer affect your choice of such a simple, graphic image?

JR Partly, yes. But there are plenty of other publishers and designers who I’m sure wouldn’t find beauty in this image. I think our aesthetic tastes are formed from a much earlier age than our late teens/early twenties, i.e. when we start to take a more vocational path in life. My brother was massively into music and all those amazing LP sleeves I was surrounded by as a six year old were definitely imprinted on my mind. Those graphic images are some of my earliest memories. I think it’s the same for everyone regardless of vocation. Our tastes are informed by the things we have grown up around, whether we choose to embrace or reject them.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

JR I think one of the defining factors of something that is beautiful is an inability to fully possess it. It is a combination of fragility, attraction, impossibility and nostalgia all in one.

 

ROBERT HOPKINS

The Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David

The Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David. Click for larger image.

Robert Hopkins, philosopher, on The Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

RH The painting’s appeal for me is both immediate and hard-won. Hard-won, because when I first encountered David’s work, this picture included, I found it rather awkward and contrived: both too overt in its representation of emotion, and too strident in its use of distinctive forms. Immediate, because now I feel at home with the work, it has a powerful visual appeal, one that comes without effort, every time I see it.

GB It seems to be quite an intellectual choice. Did you have an immediate sensory response to its beauty?

RH There is real sensuousness here. The motif at the centre of the work, of the two hands around the cup containing the hemlock, is enormously compelling. There is something very touching in the gesture – Socrates’s hand reaching over to embrace the fate reluctantly offered by the hand of his disciple. The pathos is amplified by the fact that neither pays attention to this central, and surely rather difficult, transaction: Socrates too busy dispelling his followers’ doubts, the disciple unable even to bring himself to look. But this is also simply a wonderful passage of painting. The hands are rendered with a delicate vigour that always compels my eye. (I’m afraid this is not something a reproduction can convey.) The way David has concentrated his painterly resources so we are drawn to the fulcrum of the action is very impressive.

GB Do you also have an emotional response to the subject matter?

RH The passage from Phaedo that David dramatises is one of the most moving in literature. David taps these well-springs of feeling, but channels it through his own classicist sensibility. The emotional arc of the story is crystalised in the striking triangular form that dominates the whole picture: tapering from the agitated, closely bunched followers on the right; through the firm, strongly directional figure of Socrates himself, to the sorrowful but resigned character of Plato at the foot of the bed. In the journey from the base of this triangle to its tip, David has given visible form to the range of emotions the story elicits, and that its characters express. The feeling is captured, but also caged.

GB Do you think of the painting as didactic? Does moral purposiveness add to its beauty?

RH It is didactic in a way: not solely or even primarily in any message its content is used to convey, but in the attitude to the proper handling of feeling embodied in its classicism. In finding visual form for the emotional development it expresses, it exemplifies the stance it encourages us to adopt: allowing ourselves powerful emotions, but only provided we retain control over them. Of course, one might be repelled or drawn by the proposal that this is our proper relation to emotions. That reaction might well influence whether one finds the picture beautiful. I am more fascinated by the message than confident how I should respond to it. But to be fascinating is at least close to beauty, even if it is also close to other, negative, qualities.

GB Is this a universal beauty?

RH In embodying emotion in form, the piece seems to me a perfect example of what some have taken to be the central goal of pictorial art. I’m thinking above all here of Susanne Langer, in her wonderful, and these days sadly neglected, book ‘Feeling and Form’. Her view is that the distinctive contribution of painting, drawing and so on to the visual arts is precisely to offer us ‘virtual forms’ the structure of which corresponds to structures in the development and interrelations of feeling. A trip to the Met to see the David also offers the opportunity to see another perfect case study for Langer’s theory: Poussin’s ‘Abduction of the Sabine Women’. However, it’s another question whether all pictorial art of any merit, or even all that the merit of which lies in beauty, achieves it by means of emotionally resonant form. So, while I think the David’s beauty is open to anyone with eyes, time to look, and patience to learn; its way of being beautiful is certainly not the only way.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

RH To be beautiful, something must at least compel our attention, and that attention must be drawn to aspects of the thing’s appearance. That’s hardly sufficient for beauty, since it’s true for other perceptually arresting properties, such as being repellent or even uncanny. And it is necessary only if we can construe the idea of appearance (and for that matter attention) very broadly, so that, for instance, even intellectual structures, such as arguments or complex ideas – which can certainly be beautiful – count as compelling attention to their appearance, in some sense or other. But the idea of compelling attention is important, I think, and one that philosophical writing on beauty has not always sufficiently acknowledged.

DAVID SIMS

David Sims chose King Kenny's number seven football shirt.

David Sims chose King Kenny’s number seven football shirt.

David Sims, fashion photographer, on Kenny Dalglish’s number seven football shirt.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

DS I sat wondering what might be a definitively beautiful thing for me and I kept coming back to this. I’m conscious that it seems like a lowbrow choice but behind it there are so many high emotions for me, it just became inevitable that I chose it in the end.

GB It’s probably quite hard for people who don’t know much about Liverpool Football Club to relate to the emotions behind this choice. The Liverpool legend was built in the 1970s and 80s and Kenny Dalglish was at the pinnacle of that. Football has changed so much. Do you think people can relate to how you saw that shirt as a kid?

DS People access football in different ways now. The opportunities to engage in it are more plentiful but there’s a sort of deconstruction going on around football now. It did itself no favours in the 80s and Liverpool was implicated in a fairly dark passage of British footballing history. But setting that aside, there are lots of other values that this represents for me, in particular within the club – but they’re also bigger than that. If you support one club or another you might relate to what I’m saying. I think, what validates my feelings in choosing the shirt and this number is that I have a real romance for the city itself. I think what happens on the pitch is one thing but the sentiments that this emblem carries are broader human emotions.

GB How did you come to support Liverpool?

DS My family are all from Liverpool. I remember being about five years old and being stuck between my father and my mum’s brother who are both Evertonians and they were urging me to be blue – and somehow in the midst of this I turned to my Nan and asked who she supported. She said Liverpool and I decided to support them too, much to the chagrin of more or less every other member of my family.

GB Was there something about the colour red that drew you to them?

DS I was deeply in love with my Nan. I adored her and that was the doorway to supporting them. Luckily for me it was a wise choice! Although I don’t really have any truck with the animosity between reds and blues. I do still get it sometimes from my cousins. Evertonians can be pretty brutal in their criticism of Liverpool and their fans. But I like the values that are at large in Everton as well, it’s just that I happen to think I support the best team!

GB They have the best song.

DS Songs are very important. They’re not chants, they’re songs and they’re deeply romantic. If you listen to Fields of Anfield Road, it’s based on an Irish folk song, which is originally about loss and brutality. I guess in some sense it’s a rebel song. Then there are other things that Liverpudlians pick up on – they might not be as militant as they were in the 80s but there’s still a strain of socialism in Liverpool. There’s an idea of what’s fair and what isn’t. For instance, it was quite poignant last weekend when Johnjo Shelvey scored against Liverpool, the Kop were prepared to stand and applaud his lack of a celebration and respect the fact that he had once been a Liverpool player. That probably does go on at other clubs too, but when you’re part of that atmosphere the culture and the history, I think you respond to those moments quicker as a Liverpool fan. Maybe people are sick of hearing about Liverpool being a sentimental place but that’s something that appeals to me. I’m not going to disguise the fact that I’m moved by it.

GB Do you think the history of the club has made the fans pull together more? It’s hard to think of Liverpool and especially Kenny Dalglish, without thinking of Hillsborough.

DS It’s a tragedy that that was ever allowed to happen. I feel it’s deeply profound, to see a group of people pull together the way they did, taking on the might of the establishment and winning. I really wish it had never come to that, but I’m astonished by those people and the panel of experts who fought for a new inquest and proved that Liverpool fans were not responsible. None of it would have been possible without the spirit of those families. It’s a strange thing for me, feeling deeply proud of it and at the same time heartbroken that it had to happen that way to prove how much inner strength those people have. And while I think the rest of the country got it, I think it took them a long time to get it. Sometimes there’s a bit of apathy towards tragedy. And I think Liverpool isn’t always everyone’s favourite place, but you’d have to have been a very hard-hearted person to have seen what eventually came out of that and not think, “My God, those people are something special.”

GB You work in quite an elitist world. Do you think football is an escape from that?

DS It’s one of a number of touchstones I have to get away from quite a tight-knit set of values in the fashion industry. I do think that fashion can be quite a welcoming and broad church to people who might not otherwise find themselves creatively or in any other way. Fashion is a home for a lot of people and it’s certainly been really good to me, but I don’t rely on it for personal growth.

GB So do you think your football shirt is a different kind of beauty from the beauty in your work – much of which is, after all, breath-takingly beautiful?

DS I think I try to reflect whatever it is that moves me. When I look at the symbolism of that shirt and especially that number, I try to report back on that to the page. Sometimes I look at my pictures and think I’m a total misfit in the fashion business and then sometimes I’m able to execute a fashion picture very well to the point that it’s very centred. I guess one goes through doubts and peaks of confidence that keep you moving forward, albeit in a slightly zigzag way. I’m not really sure about what beauty is. I’m sure about feelings and if something beautiful gives you a feeling I think it’s the feeling that’s more important. Fashion is elitist but I think people remember emotions more than just a ‘look’.

GB Do you find that editors ever talk to you about beauty?
DS I think possibly years ago, yes, and I’m not saying that people aren’t capable of those conversations now, but we’re under so much pressure and the rate at which we produce and create is so intensive that I think the depth of those conversations has become as compressed as the photograph has. And I think we’re yet to respond fully to the developments that have happened in the information age. I guess we’ll find our response to all this new technology soon and it will all become clear – but the truth is, we’re catching up all the time with this advance so we don’t have time to shape it because we’re busy responding to it.

GB Maybe people talk about beauty more in football than they do in art and fashion. It’s the beautiful game.

DS What happens in that 90 minutes is just so tangible and so real for whoever’s watching it, it employs the entire emotional range. When things do come good, and especially when you listen to the lyrics of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ – you know that really it’s about the idea of hope. I think Liverpool’s culture is rooted in the fact that there is always another day. Then the Fields of Anfield Road talks about past glory – so you pendulate through past and present and for anyone who’s a default romantic like I am, you can’t help but be swept along by it.

GB When King Kenny was wearing this shirt it was at a time when we weren’t constantly bombarded by images on the internet all the time. When you think of the shirt, is there a particular moment that comes to mind?

DS There’s one piece of football that comes back to me which is Kenny scoring against FC Bruges in the European Cup Final, but what comes back to me the most visually, is his number and the red shirt. I can remember every inch of him. When he scored his smile was so emphatic. I used to call him the man with the best eyes in football. People did used to look at me like I was in need of counseling when I said that, but I think those eyes are still there. I enjoyed him coming back as a coach even though in footballing terms it wasn’t the greatest success. That man’s got credit in the bank as far as I’m concerned and he’s brought such humanity to his role.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

DS I think it has to astonish you, something that supersedes anything you’ve ever laid eyes on before. Every time I look at that particular shirt, it might sound like an exaggeration, but it never ceases to amaze me.

ROSS ANDERSEN

Ross Andersen's 'moonstagram'

Ross Andersen’s ‘moonstagram’

Ross Andersen, deputy editor of Aeon magazine, on the crescent moon

GB: Tell me why you chose the crescent moon.

RA: When you asked me to pick something beautiful, I did a quick scroll through my Instagram, which has become my filing cabinet for beauty, and I noticed I had all these moon pictures, and that most were crescents. I have joked with my friends about my “moonstagrams” before, but this was borderline obsessive. Like in a cop show where they break into the killer’s apartment and find pictures of the victim everywhere.

Part of my moon love is dispositional. If you’re a nocturnal person like I am, the moon has a lot of appeal. It plays to what Don DeLillo called the “night side of the mind,” the creative state associated with magic and the poetic imagination. There is a duality to the moon that I also find appealing. Like all celestial bodies, the moon is otherworldly, in the sense that it is situated outside our world, and in the sense that it is a world unto itself, an alien place with it’s own landscape and sky. But for all its foreignness, the moon is also an intimate companion, of the earth, of course, but also the human mind. In fact, that’s one of the dominant ways you see the moon represented in poetry, as a friend for the lonely.

Anyway, for me, the crescent’s elegance expresses that duality better than the full moon, which is less subtle in its beauty. There is a poem by Saigyō—the 12th century Japanese monk—that resonates on this point. “The full moon floats on blackened velvet seas, poet’s perfection,” he says. “But who does not yearn for a crescent in lavender sky?”

It’s so fascinating to think about our collective experience of objects in the natural environment—things like oceans, trees, mountains, and various celestial objects. It’s interesting to see how different cultures depict those objects in art and literature, especially in the mythological imagination, where they tend to be imbued with all kinds of revealing agencies and origin stories. For me, the crescent moon is particularly intriguing on that score, because it tends to be associated with the passage of time. And time is something I have a deep interest in, philosophically.

But that’s not why I picked the crescent, or at least it’s not the main reason. I picked it because of the feeling it gives me. It can sneak up on you, the moon. It’s not like the sun, whose presence you always register, even when it’s hidden by the landscape. You can be outside for a long time at night, without seeing the moon. You can walk for a while and not even notice it, but then all of a sudden it’s there, between tree limbs or on the horizon, and it just rips you right to the raw edge of experience.

 
GB: I was slightly surprised that someone who knows so much about the rest of the cosmos chose something so close to us. Did the moon inspire your interest in astronomy and space exploration?

RA: It’s funny you say that, because I went back and forth between picking the moon and picking the Ultra Deep Field, a Hubble image that reaches thirteen billion light years into space. But in the end, it was the moon’s nearness that tipped the scales, because it feels like it’s ours in a way that most other objects of the sky don’t. There might be many places in the cosmos where intelligent beings have evolved to stare up at starry skies. And a lot of those alien skies will have moons, but they won’t look like our moon, because our moon bears the scars of a very particular history—a history it shares with the earth. And its size is special, too. Not because it’s especially large, but because it’s 400 times narrower than the sun and, by a strange coincidence, 400 times nearer too. That’s why the two are roughly the same size in the sky, and also why we have such stunning solar eclipses. The universe is vast and star-filled, and so I’m sure those conditions obtain elsewhere, but perhaps not very often.

 
GB: In your recent essay about Star Axis—Charles Ross’ massive work of land art in the New Mexico desert—you discuss the idea that science is actually making the world more mysterious, not less. Do you find beauty in that sense of mystery?

RA: I do find beauty in it, although I should pause to say that it’s not the case that more mystery always equals more beauty. Amnesia, for instance, seems like a pretty mysterious experience, but it’s not clear that it’s an especially beautiful one.

Having said that, I feel lucky to be alive right now, because I think we’re living in a goldilocks era for mystery. If you look back at the last 100 years, it’s astonishing how much we’ve learned about the cosmos. We know what it’s made of and how old it is. We know its general structure, down to a pretty granular level. We know a lot about its future. But there are also these huge questions staring us in the face, questions about the nature of consciousness, questions about dark matter and dark energy, what came before the big bang, why there is something rather than nothing, and so on and so on.

Those mysteries can take on an existential tinge if you take them deep enough, and that can be bewildering, and even dangerous, to a certain sort of mind. But they can also animate the world with a shimmer of possibility. After all, we might see truly transformative discoveries in our lifetime. We could find intelligent life elsewhere in our galaxy, or we could prove the existence of a superstructure that transcends the observable universe, like the multiverse. Either of those findings would have profound implications for our cosmic narratives, the stories we tell ourselves about how human beings are situated in the wider world. And that’s what I mean by a goldilocks era. We have enough mystery around to make the human experience utterly fascinating, but not so much that we’re constantly in danger of descending into madness.

You can see a small-scale version of this with the moon, and our theories about its origins. Some people think it’s a blasted off chunk of the earth. Others think we snatched it from another planet. Still others think the earth and moon formed as a pair, in the primordial days of the solar system. The fact that we aren’t sure gives the moon a kind of glamour, I think. Every time we see it, we’re reminded that there is so much that we still don’t know about this world.

GB: Sometimes I wonder why we find the moon so beautiful when we know there’s not much going on up there!

RA: It’s true the moon is barren, in the sense that the lunar surface itself is lifeless. But I think it’s important to remember that the moon is part of the earth system, and that it’s more than a decoration. Its presence actually steadies the earth’s tilt, keeping our climate relatively stable, and its orbit influences the tides of our oceans, affecting billions upon billions of living things, including us. The moon is only lifeless and dormant if you see it in isolation from the earth, and I am not sure that’s the best way to see it.

GB: Has the moon inspired any kind of religious feelings?

RA: Oh yes. In fact, the moon has inspired so many religious feelings that it’s probably best if I stick to those inspired by the crescent. Think of the Islamic star and crescent, a symbol whose roots reach back to the moon gods of Sumer and Babylon. Or the Hindu god Shiva, a deity who wears a crescent on his head, an ornament that is meant to symbolize the waxing and waning of creation during time’s eternal cycles. That association gets nearer to what I find so compelling about the crescent moon: its connection to the cyclical nature of time, the concept of eternity, and the idea that everything is in flux. The crescent can be a powerful symbol of possibility and becoming, because it promises the full moon, the wholly illuminated disc. But it can also wane into nothingness.

That symbolic relationship, between time and the moon, might be a relic of ancient intellectual history. One of the most profound shifts in human thinking, on par with the revolutions launched by Copernicus and Darwin, occurred when we began to situate ourselves in time. And we know the moon played a big role in that shift, because the first calendars were based on the lunar cycle. That has to be one of the more consequential encounters between the moon and human consciousness, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the crescent commemorates it in some way. But that’s just speculation.

GB: Are the moon, the earth and the cosmos more beautiful to you, the more you know about them?

RA: I think so. The more you know about how nature works, the more you see the intricacy of its machinery on every level, from the subatomic to the cosmic. And when you realize that the whole complex edifice emerges from relatively simple laws, that definitely lends a glow to nature that could reasonably be called beauty.

Richard Feynman had the last word on this in his famous riff on the beauty of a flower, as seen through the eyes of a scientist. He said the untutored eye could only grasp the surface level beauty of a flower, whereas the scientist can see it at much smaller dimensions. The scientist can understand its inner structure and the workings of its constituent cells. And the scientist can see the flower in the context of its ecological relationships, the effects it has on other organisms, and so on. I think that same logic applies to the moon and the wider cosmos.

But I also find it fascinating to think about how prescientific and prehistoric cultures experienced the moon. What did the Neanderthals and other early hominids make of it? And what about animals? Obviously there are species that bumble through their whole lives without so much as glancing at the sky. But animal consciousness is so poorly understood, you can’t help but wonder if the more intelligent ones take notice of the moon, or follow its phases in some rudimentary way.

GB: Do you think it’s a big deal that man has walked on the moon? Does that fact that we can reach it now enhance its beauty?

RA: I have read people who say the Apollo missions demythologized the moon, but I don’t buy it. If anything, the moon landings re-enchanted the moon, by giving it a prominent new place in the larger human story. If you ask people today whether our species will eventually travel to the stars, most of them say yes. If you’re working within that larger narrative, the moon landings take on an extra layer of significance. They become the first step in a truly cosmic journey.

 
GB: What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

RA: I wish I could say. I’m interested in debates in the philosophy of aesthetics, but I am always sort of suspicious when it comes to clean and logical arguments about beauty. There’s an ineffable quality to beauty, I think. Something that sits beyond the reach of analysis and language, and even memory. Even now, when I look at that picture up there, I can’t quite inhabit the original moment. I can feel my way to the initial shock of it, the elemental reaction to the still-orange horizon, and the silver crescent hanging above it, glinting like an ethereal scythe blade. But there is something at the core of the original experience that can’t be stored, in my mind or my phone—and I have a hunch that’s what we really mean by “beauty.”