General 4-14-2004

The Locksmith’s Daughter: On Beauty

This is one of an occasional series of essays on issues in the arts by the features editor of

We locked the keys in the car outside a Chinese restaurant. On a long drive with our son, we’d gotten a longing for potstickers, little pork and scallion dumplings fried crisp on the bottom. We stopped, and in our haste, locked the keys in the car.
We peer back in the windows. The keys, sure enough, hang there. So we call the local locksmith from the restaurant phone, in a cloud of sesame and garlic. It’s Sunday, but he answers. He’ll be right over, a mellifluous voice.

We’re waiting by the car in washed-out spring sunlight, the little family, our son a four-year-old cherub, dreamy. Into the gravel parking lot rolls a disreputable Olds 98 so dust- and mudcovered, so rusty, it might have been tan but then again it could have been some other color. And in it maybe the ugliest man I’ve ever seen, so ugly he’s actually frightening, misshapen obese body, an assymetrical pitted potato face with badly aligned and darkened teeth. One eye is substantially larger than the other. His shitbrown hair is a mess. When he climbs out of the car, his trousers are at half mast.

On the vast bench seat is his daughter, also about four years old. She’s the most beautiful child I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something. My son, after all, is also beautiful. People would stop me on the street in L.A. and ask if he had an agent. A lot. But this little girl is, in some absolute way, Beautiful. Fate has smiled. She will always be lovely, be La Belle Clef, the face that turns the lock of the universe. It’s useless to describe her. She recalibrates vision.

Her father is transformed, or maybe my perception of him is transformed, by her presence: His voice, so very lovely; his kindliness, his courtly treatment of her small presence, his little girl as well as, in an open secret, the loveliest creature extant.

How can the beautiful one provide such a benediction? Perhaps only when beauty is acknowledged but simultaneously kept secret; perhaps only when it is not grasped at. When it exists in its transparent privacy, sufficient .

All actions then silently refer to it, measure themselves against it, bethink themselves: Are they worthy? A fragrance is suffused through everything, and all things examine themselves, find in themselves what beauty they have, display it, are proud. How it can work, this unfair and wonderful thing.

Beauty was something that the official artworld came to disdain at a certain point, as sugar-coating, as pandering, as something that had no meaning. And oddly, there were few to say no. To argue for beauty was to advertise your own naivete. When artworks became primarily communications, types of texts rather than objects or entities, beauty was seen as a distraction, a façade, something that obscured meaning. It’s been rehabilitated of late by critics like Dave Hickey, but in this irony-laden culture, it’s still rarely seen, it still tends to be mistrusted, in art as in human beings.

Perhaps the rejection of beauty happened because what beauty meant was so poorly understood. It seems so undemocratic, so unfair—but it is so only in a culture that must own things to value them. One may see beauty, receive it, without either being beautiful or being valued by the beautiful. It’s a kind of training in humility, in how to live not for yourself but in your perceptions of the world. Beauty is unfair, necessary, generous, unavoidable, the index to everything but sometimes an accusation. It’s an invitation to live outside your own need for approval.

Or perhaps beauty became incorrect because what was appealing was mistaken for what was beautiful—and they’re not the same thing. Things that merely please, after all, affirm what you like, where you stand, what you are. They say something like, “This is good enough.” They’re the handmaidens of comfort. What is pleasing is so because it demands little. It fills in the blanks of fantasy with ease and familiarity. There’s nothing new about it, nothing shocking.

The truly beautiful, on the other hand, opens the fabric of reality. It’s profoundly uncomfortable. All bets are off. Things may be asked of you, change will occur. You may be stained with passion. The beautiful thing is indelible, an idea whose time has come, incomparable. Confronted with it, you may be forced to say, as the poet Rilke wrote when confronted by an ancient sculpture of Apollo, “You must change your life.”