Monday, 23 April 2018 06:00


Beauty is like a Lightning Bolt

”Set your place to the storms” André Breton and Paul Eluard, L`immaculée conception

Two different conceptions of beauty can be individuated in the western tradition. The first, which can be defined as the aesthetic, links the beautiful to an experience of peace, of reconciliation, of harmony between opposites; the second, which can be called the strategic, considers beauty a power, a weapon, a practical, effectual force. Theorizations of this second conception of beauty can be found in Pseudo- Longinus` Hellenistic treatise ”On the Sublime” and in the Spanish Baroque writer Baltasar Gracián`s ”Acutezza”. The work of Walter De Maria moves in this second sphere. Of all De Maria`s works, ”The Lightning Field”, a permanent earth sculpture in the New Mexico desert, particularly lends itself to a strategic interpretation of beauty. In a field measuring one kilometer by one mile stand 4-00 steel poles, with pointed ends that function as lightning rods. The importance of the work is not its form, but the force with which it imposes a single, simple, very ancient idea: beauty is lika a lightning bolt. Plato, for example, describes the sight of he beloved as ”striking» (Phaedo, 254 b). And Pseudo- Longinus compares the orator`s speech to a lightning bolt that burns and enthralls all things with terrible, impetuous violence (On the Sublime, §§ 10 12 and 14). The work invalidates itself as a form, as an object of disinterested contemplation: it is not beautiful in and of itself, but is a condition of the advent of beauty. Thomas Kellein seems to differ, comparing De Maria`s piece to the obelisks of ancient Egypt (Walter De Maria: 5 Kontinente Skulptur, Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie 1977). No matter how broad and monumental its dimensions, from this point of view ”The Lightning Field” reenters the poetics of conceptual and minimalistic art, as W.A.L Beefen has also observed (Walter De Maria, Rotterdam, Museum Boyroans-van Beuningen, 1984). Beauty here is considered not an attribute of the work of art but something from outside, an unforeseen, dangerous event that takes us by surprise, frightens us, leaves us astonished. Art is only that which allows the manifestation of the beautiful.
But why, among so many natural phenomena, does lightning seem particularly related to a strategic conception of beauty? In Latin, three different words for lightning, ”fulmen”, ”fulgor” and ”fulgus”, refer to three different aspects of the experience. The first, fulmen, means ”weapon”, ”arrow”: in classical mythology, it is the symbol of Jove`s power, to the Greek word ”keraunós”, the lightning flash (from keraíso, to destroy). The second word, ”fulgor”, implicitly refers to the splendor, the beauty, of the visible, to the brilliance of everything that presents itself to us. Here the beautiful implies an outcome, a victory, by the simple fact of having successfully manifested itself, of being present. ”Fulgor” corresponds to the Greek word ”asteropé”, which is the term used in Homer`s epics for a sheet of lightning; it comes from ”astér”, star, and from the root of *OKW-, ”to see”, ”the eye”. So is the sheet of lightning the eye of the star? Finally the third work,”fulgus”, is the sudden flash, the flaming velocity of the lightning bolt. Here both the first and the second aspects are implicit: the rapidity of warlike action and the splendor of the fire. A Latin synonym is ”corruscatio” (from the Greek ”korússo”, to arm, to excite, to swell); in Greek ”fulgus” corresponds to ”prestér”, which implies the notion of fire and of eruption. In conclusion, as the ancients used to say, ”fulmen” strikes, ”fulgus” appears, ”fulgor” shakes. Fundamental to all this is an intuition of the beautiful that is not just different from but completely opposite to that of the academic aesthetics.
Translated from the italian by Meg Shore.
Published in WALTER DE MARIA, Two very large presentations, Moderna Museet, Stockholm,1989.
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