The disintegration of the aesthetic ideals of classicism began when French symbolism embraced a new conception of beauty derived from a modern reality which existed at a great distance from harmony. Baudelaire claimed that beauty always consists of an eternal and immutable element. I would say of beauty that it is a dance on a knife-edge between the eternal and the mutable.
A particular conception of wholeness has survived far away from the idea of classical harmony, but even in a work of art which signals splitting or the simultaneous presence of several instances, a perfection must make itself valid. Brightly shining, beauty still flowers, and this in spite of the fact that art no longer takes it upon itself to stand guard over traditional values. If emptiness is not to conceal itself behind beauty, and deadly tedium not to lurk behind the good and the true, these phenomena must today have dimensions that are at least miraculous.
Of the beautiful Rilke says: Denn das Schöne ist nichts als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen… Here beauty is connected with terror, because the perfect is static and unchangeable, and as such is an expression of death. The terrifying and unendurable experience of beauty and terror in combination is fundamental to this century, in which the lack of beauty is no less than it was in Baudelaire’s time.
If beauty has to meet an aesthetic need alone, it becomes slack, and the poetry narrow. The beauty lies in the formal devices poets use. Rilke’s angel is not beautiful, it is terrible, but the elegies are among the most beautiful things that one can read. And, like all beauty, they yield a resonance in the body.
The art that encounters resistance or is reproached for being ugly will undoubtedly be accepted later, when the work’s innate beauty will come through in even the most far-reaching experiments. The new and the different are seldom experienced as beautiful – and certainly not that kind of art which struggles against order, the art that expresses disharmony, norm-breaking, illness, abnormality or annihilation.
The conception of beauty is conditioned by a number of circumstances, including events in the field of science, e.g. in mathematics, the paradigm shift that has led to the revision of chaos theory. Just as chaos and order prove to be related, so beauty is unthinkable without its opposite. To yearn for pure beauty is to be two hundred years too late.
translated from Danish by David McDuff
Note: the posts with the translated text of Chapter I can be accessed here.