Here, for example, is an aside in an essay I greatly admire---Mencken's obituary of Valentino:
Was the fame of Beethoven any more caressing and splendid than the fame of Valentino? To you and me, of course, the question seems to answer itself. But what of Beethoven? He was heard upon the subject, viva voce, while he lived, and his answer survives, in all the freshness of its profane eloquence, in his music. Beethoven, too, knew what it meant to be applauded. Walking with Goethe, he heard something that was not unlike the murmur that reached Valentino through his hospital window. Beethoven walked away briskly....
Now, I can well imagine that walking away briskly, in context, might express the emotion of contempt for fame. But how the devil can music (I mean, as I suppose Mencken did, music without words) do that? When I listen to instrumental music, the chief emotion I feel is sympathy with the fun the composer & the performers must have had in making it come out right. That is no doubt amiable, but clearly it is not, primarily, what Beethoven had in mind. Maybe he really did have contempt for fame in mind. It would be absurd to discount this kind of talk, which is common among people I respect. Evidently I am missing something big.
However, I have to draw a line somewhere. Here is a quotation, in the New York Review, from somebody named Robert Hughes about some pictures by somebody named Roy Lichtenstein:
They are the closest thing to the only kind of life drawing one can imagine Lichtenstein doing, an image of a blank white page. They acquire poignancy from the fact that they are empty. One gazes at them frontally, as at a real mirror, but nothing shows up in their superficial depths. The spectator is a phantom. These icy, imperturbable tondos and ovals may say more about the nature of Lichtenstein's imagination than anything he has painted since.
Poseur Alert, as Mr Andrew Sullivan would say. Superficial depths! Surely I am missing nothing by ignoring such stuff. I have not even bothered to look up "tondos".
In painting & music, at least, such pretensions are confined to places where their admirers can pretend to admire them. In architecture, on the contrary, they get to sock every passer-by in the eye. Here is an appreciation, from the Boston Globe, of an ugly, expensive-looking building at MIT called the Stata Center, which opened in 2004:
The Stata is always going to look unfinished. It also looks as if it's about to collapse. Columns tilt at scary angles. Walls teeter, swerve, and collide in random curves and angles. Materials change wherever you look: brick, mirror-surface steel, brushed aluminum, brightly colored paint, corrugated metal. Everything looks improvised, as if thrown up at the last moment. That's the point. The Stata's appearance is a metaphor for the freedom, daring, and creativity of the research that's supposed to occur inside it.
Needless to say, it won prizes, and the roof leaks.
In contrast, there is a pair of soothing buildings (62 & 64) that were built in 1925 and are used as student residences. I pass by one of them once a month on Ames St. on my way to the sailing pavilion for the chantey sing. They are rectangular with some rhythmic excursions. The only ugly thing about them is the air conditioners in the windows, but those seem to be disappearing, so perhaps central AC has been installed. If I had been given the Stata job (God forbid!), I would have scaled them up.