Beautiful-Ugly Monuments: Should They Stay or Should They Go? How The Beauty of Ugly Monuments Challenges Us

Courtesy of the Daily Mail

All of us have been swept up in the horrible violence and rhetoric that occurred last weekend in Charlottesville, VA.  As you probably know, the initial spark to this was dismantling of the city’s statue/monument memorializing  the Confederacy’s top general, Robert E. Lee.   The city’s leadership wanted it down.  White Nationalists wanted it to stay.  I’m sure most of you, like me, would want that statue not only taken down, but destroyed.  While it may have been crafted beautifully (as President Trump seems to think), it stands for something very, very ugly.

I discussed this with my friends back in May and one challenged me saying that we NEED these monuments to remain. “If we take the beautiful, but, ugly monuments down,” he said, “will we forget the ugliness they symbolize?”  Condoleezza Rice argued the same thing.  A few months back she was quoted saying in the Washington Examiner, “I want us to have to look at those names and recognize what they did and to be able to tell our kids what they did and for them to have a sense of their own history.  When you start wiping out your history, sanitizing your history to make you feel better it’s a bad thing…”

I see their point.  There are many beautiful, yet, ugly monuments.  In countries around the world stand beautifully crafted structures that represent ugly behaviors, philosophies and leaders, think Czars’ castles or Egypt’s Pyramids, for example.  But  having them remain is critical.  Not because we endorse the behaviors of the leaders behind these places, but because they force us to remember.   But I think it goes further than that.  Their very beauty challenges us.  We are forced to ask “how can something so beautiful be so bad?”

A few years back I wrote a post around a similar topic: The Stark Contrast Makes It The Most Chilling & Appropriate.  In it I reflect upon journalist’s, Laura Kelly‘s, visit to the beautiful, picturesque village of Wannsee on the outskirts of Berlin.  In this town, and, in particular, in a beautiful villa that still remains there, the Nazis met to conceive the Final Solution.  My initial response to such a place was also “tear it down!”  But then I realize we need to maintain these places.  Like Rice’s point, they remind us of our history.

But why not just keep the ugly reminders: concentration camps, parts of the Berlin wall, or bombed out buildings?  Wouldn’t keeping the beautiful (but ugly) reminders offer the wrong message?  Couldn’t we be at risk of people interpreting the very presence of these beautiful structures as a sign that we should admire this dark history?

But it’s the very beauty of these “ugly” monuments may offer an even more searing effect.  As I wrote in my post: “Seeing the beautiful landscapes of Wannsee don’t deflect from the horrors but actually reinforce them. When we see how beautiful the world CAN and SHOULD be, and then realize how ugly it actually has become in some instances, the ugliness feels that much more jarring.”

I referenced Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List as an example of this very thing,  I go on to write: “While the film does an excellent job portraying the horrors of Holocaust, the film is still a masterpiece.  It’s beautifully written, acted and shot.  Perhaps this is why the film still captures our attention to this day.”

If we take down all the beautiful, ugly the monuments will we be effectively letting part of our history go?  Will we forget? And will the very painful dichotomy of beauty and ugliness be spared?

What differs the Robert E. Lee monument from the others I mentioned above, though, is that sadly enough, there remains a critical mass of people who don’t see him or what he stands for as horrible.  In the other cases, the philosophies underlying the monuments are rejected by most of the population: Egypt no longer has Israelite slaves, Russia is no longer ruled by Czars (well, it has another type of despotic ruler but let’s not get off track), and it’s illegal to be a Nazi sympathizer in Germany.

But sometimes the ugliness of beautiful things is too horrible to for us to keep.  And sometimes its the very ACT of tearing it down, vs having it remain or having it gone, which is the point.  We all need to remind those who still support Lee’s beliefs that we won’t, as a nation, tolerate them –years ago, years into the future but especially RIGHT NOW.  We need to actively tear these beliefs down along with the statue that represents them.

So, yes, Robert E. Lee must go.

9/11, A Case for Beauty & My Return

gettyimages-461900830_master

This is my first post since June. For those of you who follow my posts on Beautyskew, you know this is unusual. I tend to post at least once per week. Not once every few months.

Where was I all this time?

And why am I posting today of all days?

The reason for my hiatus isn’t a bad one. I wasn’t terribly overworked or recovering from some illness. On the contrary! I had a wonderful summer full of fun, travel and first-time experiences. I was “quiet” because I decided to expand my online presence from Beautyskew.com to a full site, abigailposner.com, of which Beautyskew is a part. And this meant me spending time on site development versus writing. The new site allows me to share some other sides to myself while also sharing my love for beauty in culture. ( Check it out and let me know what you think. :))

Man, I missed writing so I’m thrilled to be back!

Why did I choose today, the anniversary of the worst act of terrorism on U.S. soil, to post? I post about beauty, after all. What a terrible, ugly, day to post about something so wonderful, right?

I remember 9/11 as if it were yesterday. I was living a few blocks above Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, and I had given birth to my first son, Elijah, only 14 days earlier. Had it been any other year, I would have walked to work that day. And I would have seen one of the planes flying very low overhead in preparation for the first strike. Instead I was going back to sleep after one of my son’s many morning feedings. No sooner had my head hit the pillow that my brother called me all the way from Israel. He had heard about the attack before I had. I rushed to turn on the TV and saw the images of the Twin Towers in flames.

Needless to say, I spent almost my entire maternity leave with one eye glued to the news in horror. But my other eye was focused on my son as I joyfully watched my new beautiful baby grow.

I’m sure you all have memories of that day — and they may be far worse than mine.

So why am I returning to post about beauty TODAY? It’s moments like this when we must remember that there is beauty in the world. And even more importantly, that we have the potential to create even more of it. The Freedom Tower isn’t just a memorial, or a sign to the world that we’ve persevered. It’s an example of our human capacity for brilliance, beauty and craft. Creating things of beauty, especially on top of ugliness, shows human beings’ amazing sense of imagination and our ability to make things better. And it’s this knowledge of our own agency — the belief that we have the power to make manifest our visions of beauty and creativity — that can overcome our feelings of helplessness, anger, and shame, i.e., the very feelings that push so many towards acts of hatred.

15 years later (and two more children for me :)), I’m not saying we shouldn’t mourn. We must. But let’s also remember that there’s beauty, and more importantly, the potential for beauty, all around us. And by recognizing, sharing and creating more of it, we can create a more just, humane and lovely world.

“Things of Beauty Affirm Our Power to Change the World for the Better,” Roger Scruton: Why Beauty Matters Now More Than Ever

The Symmetry of Paris
The Symmetry of Paris

I have to admit I had a hard time thinking of what to write for today’s post.  After the tremendous horror of this past Friday night in Paris, I did not now how to respond.  All of the beauty stories that filled my feed seemed trivial compared to these events.  How could I write about a recent story regarding the genetic factors underpinning our perceptions of beauty or about the controversy in social media over the site 100 Years of Beauty?  They are all interesting stories, but they all seemed so banal.  How could I talk about beauty at a time like this?

But then I remembered Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous quote, “Beauty will save the world.” At a time like this, maybe this is EXACTLY what we need.  I’m not talking about being pollyannish and seeing the good or beauty in everything.  No, I’m talking about the actual social need for beauty, and how satisfying this need may actually make the world a better, safer and more loving place.

What do I mean? I’ve actually written about this topic in posts a few years back.  But the thinking, while super heavy, is still true today. Elaine Scarry points out in On Beauty and Being Just, the pursuit of beauty is really the quest for improvement. This dense but provocative piece explains: beauty’s spectacle encourages replication and further creativity. When I see a beautiful woman, for example, I’ll check out her look and make it my own. This inclination towards creativity affirms our uniquely human ability, that is, our power to make change and create a better, more just future.  Yes, the world sucks sometimes, but we KNOW that we can make it better.

In Beauty, Roger Scruton explains beauty is so vital, as it presents our ideals and compels us to seek them out.  Here are my words from my post, Beauty: A Moral Imperative: “things of beauty, like art, move us because they take us out of our everyday ‘by providing us (says Scruton) with objects, characters, scenes and actions with which we can play … in play … free (of) contemplation, reason and sense are reconciled, and we are granted a vision of human life in its wholeness.’  He goes on to say: ‘Our favorite works of art seem to guide us to the truth of human condition and (ultimately)… show the worthwhileness of being human.'”

Trying to summarize Scruton further, I wrote: “In our attempts to experience beauty, we measure our lives, circumstances, and surroundings against the order and fittingness presented … and we have the freedom to challenge the injustices, hardships and disharmony we see around us…Things of beauty affirm the transcendental part of all of us and our power to change the world for the better.”  We are compelled — at the moment we encounter beauty or after contemplation of it — to see our world in comparison to it.  This forces us to challenge ourselves and our world.

What am I really saying here?  When we feast our eyes on a painting at the Louvre or a garden at Versailles, we are seeing something extraordinary.  It shows us the power of people to make something from nothing.  We have the ability to improve our world.

When terrorists choose to massacre innocent people, we can’t just wallow in misery or cower in fear.  We need to believe we can overcome such horrors.  Sometimes it’s hard to have that sort of optimism or strength.  But when we engage with things of beauty, we are reminded that we have the brilliance and creativity to do so.

The topic of beauty may seem to irrelevant to us this weekend.   We are grieving, we are trying understand how something so terrible can happen, and we are challenging humanity.  But don’t dismiss it.  Embrace it. Things of beauty remind us that we can all be better.  Beauty not only soothes us during these moments, but it shows us we have the agency, the creativity, the sense of justice, to get us all closer to harmony.

Want to Understand our Cultural History? Take a look at Vintage Beauty Tutorials

article-2108354-11F978C6000005DC-233_634x485
I’m often asked, “why did we choose to write about beauty?” After all, we, from Beautyskew, are a group of strategic planners in the technology and brand worlds.   The reason? Through the lens of beauty, we can learn so much about the world around us and our place in it.
Whether we invest a ton of effort in beauty or barely wash our faces in the morning, beauty — and the discourse around it — surrounds us, drives us and transforms us.  As such, beauty affects us and will be affected by us — our norms, concerns and dreams  — as individuals and as a culture.
When I stumbled upon this story about beauty tutorials of yester-year, I had further evidence of this.  Fashionista curated a bunch of YouTube beauty videos from the past 100 years.  From a call to wash your hair more frequently — twice a week! — to a Coty commercial for perfume to be used before you “stalk,”  you feel these are definite messages from another era.
The article also references some truly scary stuff.  Imagine a how-to-video to remove radioactive waste from your face? Yep! Or a video that shows how to apply make-up given one’s physiognomy.  In case you don’t remember, physiognomy is the false “science” that allowed white people to further devalue people of color during the first half of the 20th century.
Wow, how things have changed, right?  I can’t help but look at these videos and wonder, are we mere subjects of all this beauty culture?  After all, at one time, we thought these messages were bang on! Do we have a role in all of it?  Can we change it for the better?
Yes!
The first step is to be aware of it.  Be conscious of the messages — bad and good — that surround us.
Second, take a stand.  If you see beauty being used for the wrong reasons, e.g., if teenage girls make fun of someone’s appearance, stop it.
Third, appreciate beauty.  Don’t belittle it.  When we appreciate it, we will be more able to see it as a force of good.
Fourth, reveal the beauty we see around us to others.  Take pictures of it and share those pictures.  Blog about it.  Bring your kids to museums.
Finally, use beauty to help others, e.g., tutorials to prep people for job interviews.
Without us even realizing it, we use beauty to reflect who we are — the good, bad and ugly.  The good news is we can play an active role in applying  beauty to help us make the world a better, more beautiful place.