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The Uglification of Everything

Artistic culture has taken a repulsive turn. It speaks of a society that hates itself, and hates life.

By Peggy Noonan
Fri, Apr 26, 2024 10:35amGrey Clock 5 min

I wish to protest the current ugliness. I see it as a continuing trend, “the uglification of everything.” It is coming out of our culture with picked-up speed, and from many media silos, and I don’t like it.

You remember the 1999 movie “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” from the Patricia Highsmith novel. It was fabulous—mysteries, murders, a sociopath scheming his way among high-class expats on the Italian Riviera. The laid-back glamour of Jude Law, the Grace Kelly-ness of Gwyneth Paltrow, who looks like a Vogue magazine cover decided to take a stroll through the streets of 1950s Venice, the truly brilliant acting of Matt Damon, who is so well-liked by audiences I’m not sure we notice anymore what a great actor he is. The director, Anthony Minghella, deliberately showed you pretty shiny things while taking you on a journey to a heart of darkness.

There’s a new version, a streaming series from Netflix, called “Ripley.” I turned to it eagerly and watched with puzzlement. It is unrelievedly ugly. Grimy, gloomy, grim. Tom Ripley is now charmless, a pale and watchful slug slithering through ancient rooms. He isn’t bright, eager, endearing, only predatory. No one would want to know him! Which makes the story make no sense. Again, Ripley is a sociopath, but few could tell because he seemed so sweet and easy. In the original movie, Philip Seymour Hoffman has an unforgettable turn as a jazz-loving, prep-schooled, in-crowd snob. In this version that character is mirthless, genderless, hidden. No one would want to know him either. Marge, the Paltrow role in the movie, is ponderous and plain, like a lost 1970s hippie, which undercuts a small part of the tragedy: Why is the lovely woman so in love with a careless idler who loves no one?

The ugliness seemed a deliberate artistic decision, as did the air of constant menace, as if we all know life is never nice.

I go to the No. 1 program on Netflix this week, “Baby Reindeer.” People speak highly of it. It’s about a stalker and is based on a true story, but she’s stalking a comic so this might be fun. Oh dear, no. It is again unrelievedly bleak. Life is low, plain and homely. No one is ever nice or kind; all human conversation is opaque and halting; work colleagues are cruel and loud. Everyone is emotionally incapable and dumb. No one laughs except for the morbidly obese stalker, who cackles madly. The only attractive person is the transgender girlfriend, who has a pretty smile and smiles a lot, but cries a lot too and is vengeful.

Good drama always makes you think. I thought: Do I want to continue living?

I go to the Daily Mail website, once my guilty pleasure. High jinks of the rich and famous, randy royals, fast cars and movie stars, models and rock stars caught in the drug bust. It was great! But it seems to have taken a turn and is more about crime, grime, human sadness and degradation—child abuse, mothers drowning their babies, “Man murders family, self.” It is less a portal into life’s mindless, undeserved beauty, than a testimony to its horrors.

I go to the new “Cabaret.” Who doesn’t love “Cabaret”? It is dark, witty, painful, glamorous. The music and lyrics have stood the test of time. The story’s backdrop: The soft decadence of Weimar is being replaced by the hard decadence of Nazism.

It is Kander and Ebb’s masterpiece, revived again and again. And this revival is hideous. It is ugly, bizarre, inartistic, fundamentally stupid. Also obscene but in a purposeless way, without meaning.

I had the distinct feeling the producers take their audience to be distracted dopamine addicts with fractured attention spans and no ability to follow a story. They also seemed to have no faith in the story itself, so they went with endless pyrotechnics. This is “Cabaret” for the empty-headed. Everyone screams. The songs are slowed, because you might need a moment to take it in. Almost everyone on stage is weirdly hunched, like a gargoyle, everyone overacts, and all of it is without art.

On the way in, staffers put stickers on the cameras of your phone, “to protect our intellectual property,” as one said.

It isn’t an easy job to make the widely admired Eddie Redmayne unappealing, but by God they did it. As he’s a producer I guess he did it, too. He takes the stage as the Emcee in a purple leather skirt with a small green cone on his head and appears further on as a clown with a machine gun and a weird goth devil. It is all so childish, so plonkingly empty.

Here is something sad about modern artists: They are held back by a lack of limits.

Bob Fosse, the director of the classic 1972 movie version, got to push against society’s limits and Broadway’s and Hollywood’s prohibitions. He pushed hard against what was pushing him, which caused friction; in the heat of that came art. Directors and writers now have nothing to push against because there are no rules or cultural prohibitions, so there’s no friction, everything is left cold, and the art turns in on itself and becomes merely weird.

Fosse famously loved women. No one loves women in this show. When we meet Sally Bowles, in the kind of dress a little girl might put on a doll, with heavy leather boots and harsh, garish makeup, the character doesn’t flirt, doesn’t seduce or charm. She barks and screams, angrily.

Really it is harrowing. At one point Mr. Redmayne dances with a toilet plunger, and a loaf of Italian bread is inserted and removed from his anal cavity. I mentioned this to my friend, who asked if I saw the dancer in the corner masturbating with a copy of what appeared to be “Mein Kampf.”

That’s what I call intellectual property!

In previous iterations the Kit Kat Club was a hypocrisy-free zone, a place of no boundaries, until the bad guys came and it wasn’t. I’m sure the director and producers met in the planning stage and used words like “breakthrough” and “a ‘Cabaret’ for today,” and “we don’t hide the coming cruelty.” But they do hide it by making everything, beginning to end, lifeless and grotesque. No innocence is traduced because no innocence exists.

How could a show be so frantic and outlandish and still be so tedious? It’s almost an achievement.

And for all that there is something smug about it, as if they’re looking down from some great, unearned height.

I left thinking, as I often do now on seeing something made ugly: This is what purgatory is going to be like. And then, no, this is what hell is going to be like—the cackling stalker, the pale sociopath, Eddie Redmayne dancing with a plunger.

Why does it all bother me?

Because even though it isn’t new, uglification is rising and spreading as an artistic attitude, and it can’t be good for us. Because it speaks of self-hatred, and a society that hates itself, and hates life, won’t last. Because it gives those who are young nothing to love and feel soft about. Because we need beauty to keep our morale up.

Because life isn’t merde, in spite of what our entertainment geniuses say.

 



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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”