Where Is the Beauty in All This Ugliness?

We have to find it.

Posted Jun 01, 2017

Van Gogh/Starry Night/Seaburn
Source: Van Gogh/Starry Night/Seaburn

I stood with my wife in the Museum of Modern Art in New York with a group of other admirers, all of us mesmerized by the startling, swirling beauty of van Gogh’s "Starry Night." I stepped forward, as close as possible, to study the bold brush strokes, the thickly layered paint, trying to imagine the darkness and the light, the tortured vision that created this beauty. In a letter to his brother, Theo, van Gogh wrote, “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.” The window from which he gazed was at the Saint-Paul Asylum in the south of France where he sought respite from years of emotional torment.

Beauty from such suffering.

While we looked on, appreciatively, at his masterpiece, we received two text messages, one from our son-in-law, the other from our niece. Both expressed concern about our welfare; both sought assurances that we were okay. Only then did we learn that three blocks away a 26-year-old man from Queens had driven his car onto a sidewalk near Times Square and plowed through crowds of unsuspecting tourists, mowing them down like a combine harvester might mow a field of wheat, killing one, maiming almost two dozen more and traumatizing countless others.

Times Sq Attack/Seaburn
Source: Times Sq Attack/Seaburn

Later we walked from our motel, two blocks away, to Times Square, cordoned off by then, as police investigated the attack. On the sidewalk were plastic markers—one, two, three, four and so on. Beyond them, the man’s car rested awkwardly, impaled on one of dozens of bollards installed to thwart truck bombers.

I looked for the beauty in this ugly suffering, but I could find none.

A day later we went to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, that great underground cavern in which a single day that changed American history is remembered and honored. The soaring "Last Column," with its graffiti of loss, it’s flag and photos and enduring steadiness; shattered staircases; tortured recordings; overwhelming photos and video; a massive concrete cask where the dust of hundreds is incased; a room of pictures, every single person who was killed in the attack, each with a story; we stopped to look into the eyes of a mother and her two year old daughter.

9/11 Museum/Seaburn
Source: 9/11 Museum/Seaburn

There was art there, as well. One piece in particular stung my eyes. It was a sculpture that depicted a woman who had leaped from one of the towers, her body at the point of impact; twisted, bone crushing, body smashing, and yet, in balance, her body strong, her face racked, yet beautiful in its pain.

Source: Untitled/Bontecou/Seaburn

All of this made me think of another striking sculpture we had seen at the Museum of Modern Art. It was an untitled piece by Lee Bontecou, an artist who lived in the East Village in the early '60s. She took abandoned canvas from the laundry below her apartment and stretched and rolled it across steel coils, fastening it all together with metal and wire. It is both “inviting and threatening,” its center, a deep black hole. She fashioned it in 1961, a “year marked by intense anxiety”—the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba failed, the US sent its first troops to Vietnam, and construction of the Berlin Wall began. Of her piece, she said: “My concern is to build things that express our relation to this country—to other countries—to this world—to other worlds; to glimpse some fear, hope, ugliness, beauty and mystery that exists in us all and which hangs over all young people today.”

Bontecou, 31 when she created this sculpture, is 86 years old now. She could have written the same words today.  

We are living in a time that is just as anxiety ridden as any other, perhaps more so. It is a time of fear and ugliness—nooses on the floor of the African American Museum, swastikas on the walls of synagogues, Muslim women harassed and terrorized in subways and on trains, single-minded bombers willing to kill themselves and anyone else for ideologies of hatred, and the coarse and thoughtless words spewed by leaders.

No matter where, no matter when, no matter the circumstance, it is our job to look through the ugliness, to rummage around inside it, to examine it until we are no longer afraid, and can fashion from it something that is beautiful. Not something that is pretty, not something that is a coat of fresh paint slapped on the decay, but something beautiful, which is to say, something excellent, something extraordinary, something noble, enduring, something that reaches into the depth of our shared humanity and draws out the light, the shining essence that can’t be extinguished.

David B. Seaburn is a writer. He has published six novels, most recently Parrot Talk (Black Rose Writing). He is also a retired marriage and family therapist, psychologist, and minister.