As part of a series of reproductions from the Gilded Birds website (www.gildedbirds.net), King’s Review presents an interview with King’s College fellow Christopher Prendergast. The interviews published by Gilded Birds offer a ‘snapshot of contemporary ideals of beauty’. Interviewees are asked to discuss a significant object – a painting, a sculpture, a photograph, a book – which, to them, is beautiful. By inquiring into experiences of particular objects, Gilded Birds sketches a portrait of contemporary notions of beauty in general.
Christopher Prendergast, Scholar, on a photograph of someone dear to him.
Tell me why you chose this.
Since I’m an academic, can I be forgiven for beginning with another one, also one of your earlier interlocutors? Michael Tanner’s confession that, although he has read many more books and treatises on the Beautiful than I have, he still has no clear idea of what it means, though doesn’t stop him saying of something ‘how beautiful’. I’m in the same camp (maybe I learnt from him as I went to some of his lectures on aesthetics many years ago). I also agree with him when he says beauty is plural. That’s not the same thing as saying beauty is purely subjective, in an ‘anything goes’ sort of way, but only that beauty is a matter of kinds, different kinds. It’s also a matter of different temporalities. This photo is one of the most beautiful things for me now, but at some other time of my life it would have been something else. There is a tendency in aesthetics to absolutize: the Beautiful is the Beautiful, period, forever. That makes no sense of the huge variability of the human experience of the beautiful. Your site blurb makes that point with the example of the 18thcentury vases.
There is of course a subjective dimension, the best accounts of which centre on the claim that beauty is less a matter of the properties of an object than of an experience we have of and with it (the best account of this that I have read in the past 20 years or so is Peter de Bolla’s Art Matters). I certainly believe that there is such a thing as aesthetic experience and that it is to be valued. But there is also a side of me that is wary of it, as too close for comfort to the idolatry of the fetish. A long distant Marxist past has something to do with this. More recently, a long immersion in Proust and Ruskin, neither an iconoclast and both implicated in the idolatrous, but also alert to its temptations and dangers.
When might you say, ‘how beautiful’ – even without a clear meaning?
There are things I admire, and things that move me, especially – for a reason I’d leave to my shrink if I had one – objects and artefacts that remind me of past and lost worlds. Though my religious beliefs are zero, I am often moved by churches and chapels. My all time favourite chapel is the Chapelle de Sainte-Croix at the Abbaye Montmajour near Arles. It was a medieval invention to deal with overload on the relics pilgrimage from Rome to Saint Jean de Compostelle. They stuck in it what was alleged to be a piece of the Holy Cross to attract pilgrims and thus relieve pressure on the other churches, chapels and cathedrals. So, to a non-believer like me, pure hokum of the idolatrous sort. But the simplicity of the chapel, along with its extraordinary setting, leaves me speechless.
This relates, if in an oddly angled relation, to my choice, though the latter, since you have requested that one choose an ‘object’, is somewhere between being an object and a non-object. It is a material object as photographic paper. But it is also a picture of a person, a person moreover dear to me. Photos are special by virtue of being both material and spectral, but also by virtue of the peculiar temporal grammar of looking at them. They are the record of a present that is now past, a unique present in that the moment recorded and the recording moment are identical, then later recovered in a present of viewing. That’s a bit of a mouthful, I know, but it simply reflects how strange the time-world of the photograph is.
You’ve chosen a picture that you don’t want to be shared publicly, so you were never expecting this to have any kind of universal beauty?
Of course my choice isn’t any old choice. It’s very personal, and for that reason is unlikely to go down well in some quarters. In the history of aesthetic thought there is a famous, powerful and influential theory which would condemn my choice out of hand: Kant’s account of the beautiful as belonging in the domain of the disinterested. I sympathise with Kant’s attempt to separate the aesthetic from the purely instrumental and the egocentric, in particular the point where a legitimate sense of the beautiful as connected to the domestic (as against the wild sphere of the sublime) mutates to the domesticated and the possessed, the object I own because I bought it. But when push comes to shove I don’t go along with the disinterestedness model. One’s experience of the truly beautiful or rather one’s truest experiences of the beautiful are knitted deep into what is important to us in our lives.
And the photograph is so good. It’s not a professional picture, but is nevertheless a miracle of photographic precision in capturing a moment of life bursting forth, confident, trusting and happy. It’s Stendhal’s promesse du bonheur, which some of your other interlocutors including Michael have mentioned. Naturally, it’s the photograph that I’m talking about here, not the person. That would be too personal for public consumption, though of course the boundary line between person and photo is blurred. That, incidentally, accounts for the absence of the photo here, and thus the paradox of talking about a beautiful ‘object’ that is unseen by your viewer-readers. It could of course be a photo of me, a younger version thereof, and thus marking the point at which worship of the beautiful becomes Narcissus incarnate. There’s quite a lot of that about actually, in one form or another. (But no, the picture isn’t of me, young or old).
But to get back to beauty and disinterestedness. As I say, Kant isn’t basically my cup of tea. I feel much closer to someone like Nietzsche on the relation of beauty and life. Or to Proust of all people (he is usually associated with a kind of neo-Kantian transcendentalist view of the Beautiful, which a whole class of Proust fans have taken as warrant to drift off into a kind of epiphanic swoon). But it’s Proust who writes in the Recherche of poetry and music as close to the primal roots and flux of organic life. I don’t see how one can detach and transcendentalize the beautiful from its implication in the flow of life. There, then gone. That’s the beauty of the photographic moment. Maybe that’s beauty as such, or rather our relation to it, and without the relation it doesn’t exist.
What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
Well, I’m afraid my answer will drive you bonkers, as a little dance around the meanings of a word. ‘Worthy’? The word conjures its neighbour ‘worth’, in turn associated with something that can be bought and sold, owned and fetishised (a road I’ve already said I prefer to avoid). But ‘worthy’ also has ethical connotations, the Beautiful as Good Citizen, brimming with civic virtue. There are of course several theories which link the aesthetic and the virtuous. Some of them are, shall we say, worthy of our attention, and some emphatically aren’t.
Anyway, would you mind very much if I bypass the question in so far as its answer depends on engaging with that word? Could I instead just say this. For me the beautiful, the experience of it, always carries an element of shock, but not just the famous shock of the new. There is also the shock of recognition, even if what is recognised takes place on a purely unconscious level. The sphere of the beautiful is in between the new and the known, which is also one of the basic forms of being alive, sentient. And as an experience it is not indefinitely repeatable. There will come a moment with repeated viewings when even a Titian will cease doing something for you. That’s because we are time-bound and mortal creatures. Beauty may, in some sense which I have never understood, be ‘immortal’, but not for us; like everything else, for us it lives and dies.
With thanks to Kerry Shaw and Christopher Prendergast for permitting the reproduction of this material. Introduction by Chris Townsend.