Gubbinal

We marked yesterday the fourth anniversary of the death of our father, the industrial designer, Jim Warren; though it is now more like a decade since he was fully present, with all his earthly wits about him. Yet we could still converse; wordlessly, at the end. An Anglican priest once warned us, while on deathbed duty to another customer, that “hearing is the last thing to go.” Do not assume the dying are deaf. But in our experience, character is the last thing, & traces remain even when every other faculty has disintegrated. Four years ago we were compelled to knock something on this topic quickly together. Our handwritten squib wound up on the Internet, & may still be found, here.

Ten years, since we began the task of sorting through the records & possessions of a man who was by nature both a designer & a teacher. We still have a small mountain to attack, of his files, slides, binders, models, drawings; we are still assimilating or distributing his art materials. But even were we not doing this, we would still be recalling, day after day, his voice & general approach to life. This is worth recalling, for he was in so many ways a better man than we are.

He taught more by example than by instruction, & yet what he taught was plain. Build: the good, the true, the beautiful. Destroy: the bad, the false, the ugly. Debate was happily joined on what to put in which category & why; & all our life with him we were happily debating; but ever with a view to creation & destruction. Let us add that these three intrinsic qualities of things, present or absent, are aspects of the One: that what is ugly will also be false in some sense; that what is ugly & false points to some evil; that conversely when something is beautiful & good it points to some discoverable truth; that no aspect is to be neglected or discounted.

Beauty, to the point, is never dispensable. The post-religious, “utilitarian” view of the world, that has emerged chiefly since the European Enlightenment, takes it for an afterthought, a luxury, a bonus; something purely “subjective” & therefore superfluous. Beauty to most of our contemporaries is all very well if one can afford it; but ugly is cheaper. The notion that “the end justifies the means” is built upon this obscene falsehood.

When we reconstruct pre-industrial landscapes, anywhere on the planet, we find a kind of relief. Even among the iconoclasts, thrown up in many times & locations, harmony & proportion are acknowledged. Even as late in the day as Georgian England, a row of apparently identical houses is not made from identical units. The windows & doors have been placed by eye, with a view to the overall composition. This was not because the builders lacked rulers. It was because they realized too strict a repetition would be monotonous, & therefore ugly. It would convey an impression dead, not alive. This wasn’t a question for cost/benefit analysis: one did not do things that would not do.

“God is in the details,” we can hear our papa preaching. “God can see what you have hidden around the back.” He was not a religious man, by disposition. His religion was mediated through principles of art & design. He had a makeshift theology based simply on the avoidance of falsehood: moral, intellectual, or aesthetic.

We have come a long way, along the path of “progress.” People today are profoundly calloused, from constant beating: from living in environments that are monstrously ugly. They still make “aesthetic judgements” — paradoxically sometimes the more fanatic from having been twisted or suppressed. More often one discerns “spilt art” on the analogy of “spilt religion.”

For the faculty will never leave man alone. Every child is born with the capacity to distinguish fair from foul, awaiting cultivation. But as in the moral & intellectual domains, the sensibility to beauty can be perverted. And for all the callousing, the pain remains beneath the skin, throbbing & disturbing one’s peace. It is symptom if not the cause of an illness, for which people often seek pharmaceutical relief. But joy cannot be restored with pills.

          That strange flower, the sun,
          Is just what you say.
          Have it your way.

          The world is ugly,
          And the people are sad.

The iconoclast Bauhaus, to whose principles papa partially subscribed, sought a cure through the elimination of false decoration; “false” in the sense that it was slapped onto objects with which it had nothing to do — to “prettify” them, & thereby conceal what they really were. In papa’s slides & teaching notes we found furious, mocking attacks on the “kitsch,” always fair within their boundaries. We used to argue with him that the boundaries were themselves too narrow; that they left “fine art” isolated in museums, or on too high a pedestal, with no gradation of craft from the humble to the sublime. “Form follows function” was a spray to kill weeds that defoliated, too, the whole garden. Largely he came to agree with this from his side, & we from ours to admit we had no alternative cure to offer, short of pitching out every technical advance from the last 200 years.

So we must continue working on this problem, this grim business in which our world is constructed on the analogy of a toilet, with proper attention only to hygiene. Or as Wallace Stevens observed:

          That tuft of jungle feathers,
          That animal eye,
          Is just what you say.

          That savage of fire,
          That seed,
          Have it your way.

          The world is ugly,
          And the people are sad.