The Ugly History of Beautiful Things Brian Dillon

Heart of darkness: in her second book, Katy Kelleher finds out how the (pretty) sausage gets made.

The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Essays on Desire and Consumption, by Katy Kelleher, Simon & Schuster, 262 pages, $27.99

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Russet, verdigris, periwinkle, chartreuse, lilac, jonquil, and eau-de-nil: for a couple of years, shading into early pandemic season, the writer Katy Kelleher contributed a regular column on colors to the Paris Review. These essays were nicely calibrated, with just the right compound of recherché scientific or historical detail and semiprecious reflection on the meaning or emotional weight of this or that hue. Kelleher’s choice of colors also suggested a keen ear for the language of appearance, and a taste for succulent particulars—I’d have happily read a book derived from this series. The Ugly History of Beautiful Things is both more ambitious (those onerous adjectives!) than that volume might have been, and more limited. In tying her own tastes to such freighted concepts as beauty and ugliness, and trying to extract some thin moral lessons from them, Kelleher squeezes the color out of her aesthete’s project.

For sure, there’s a type of specificity here: this is mostly a book about objects you could hold in your hand—including jewelry, flowers, shells, crockery, and glassware—and almost entirely about things to be bought and owned rather than simply (or not so simply) apprehended or experienced. Other types of beautiful things fall outside her purview, like nature, sex (which merits no more than an aside on its “gross” aspects), music, architecture, or art—though a painting, she notes in passing, is something one might wish to commission. Instead, she’s interested in perfectly banal artifacts in which, as a “fairly typical American middle-class woman,” she has invested, or overinvested, a good deal of time, desire, admiration, and guilt. While her book’s historical scope is ostensibly larger, the chapters line up in a neat frieze of bourgeois tastes prevailing over the past century: cut flowers, diamond engagement rings, porcelain dinner plates, silk dresses, turquoise earrings, makeup and the mirror to help you put it on. All of it “beautiful”—to Kelleher at any rate—and all slightly poisoned when she discovers where it came from or how it was made.

Reading The Ugly History of Beautiful Things, it’s as if we’ve gone to a suburban mall for the afternoon with Walter Benjamin’s famous dictum in mind: There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. Time and again Kelleher is surprised to find that some set of objects she treasures has been hiding its violent or exploitative origin, ruinous effect on the environment, or frankly disgusting composition. For centuries the manufacture of glass mirrors caused mercury poisoning, madness, and death among its Venetian adepts (who were also practically imprisoned on the island of Murano). The cowrie shells Kelleher collects were once used in the thousands to purchase slaves. The nineteenth-century porcelain trade was bound up with the Opium Wars waged against China by Britain and France. The mining of diamonds, represented here by Cecil Rhodes and the De Beers company, is inseparable from racism and colonialism in South Africa. At the other end of a murderous scale, the silk industry still relies on boiling silkworms alive—a fact that doesn’t seem to bother Kelleher, or only as much as she is concerned (odd equivalence, perhaps) by the factory farming that delivers her food.

In a way, there’s an admirable empiricism in Kelleher’s sticking close to things she lives with or has loved all her life. As a child, she says, she “took for granted” chandeliers, porcelain, and expensive countertops; they were just there, bland features of a comfortable American life. In adolescence, she rejected such pallid aesthetics in favor of a kohl-lined emo alternative; but as an adult, she began, as one does, to appreciate the solid wonders of home. In expressing her suspicion (or at least ambivalence) about them once again, she composes wiki-level narratives revealing the truth behind each cherished article. For a book about sensuous attachments, The Ugly History of Beautiful Things is remarkably removed from the organic, technological, or logistical reality of its subjects; everything happens behind a veil of quotation and paraphrase from other writers. But not, it turns out—aside from Elaine Scarry, who furnishes an epigraph—very many writers who’ve thought hard about beauty itself. Kelleher seems allergic to aesthetic ideas: “From Plato to Kant, there’s a deep well of writing about beauty that can, at times, seem impenetrably dense and outdated.”

There’s no special reason Kelleher’s ruminations on beauty should be guided, let alone governed, by aesthetic theory. But her shying from such rigors (and pleasures, surely?) is of a piece with one of her book’s most maddening aspects. What is beauty, if such exists, or the experience of beauty, if not a movement out of ourselves, an ecstasy, an excess? Kelleher acknowledges this when she confesses: “I feel discomforted by my desire for more, always more, even when I know I already have enough.” But she doesn’t ask why her desire is for more of the same, for a glut of aesthetic politesse masquerading as luxury, one dainty thing after another. She repeatedly shrinks from what she thinks of as extremes: the “minimalism” of the Guggenheim Museum, the longueurs of “overly serious” films—the adverb here begging the question of how much seriousness Kelleher will take.

The Ugly History of Beautiful Things diagnoses the moral decay behind the pretty things that turn Kelleher’s head—must we have this dull binary?—but she has no cure for the rot, aside from a middle-way shrug and a promise essentially to be a more conscientious consumer. Kelleher correctly notes that much of her aesthetic simply amounts to her being white, and an American. You can’t buy your way, ethically or otherwise, out of that predicament, and a civilization reduced or refined to the worship of marble countertops needs more thought, celebration, and critique all at once—it needs more than this book can deliver.

Brian Dillon’s Affinities: On Art and Fascination is published by New York Review Books. He is working on a book about Kate Bush’s album Hounds of Love, and another about aesthetic education.

Heart of darkness: in her second book, Katy Kelleher finds out how the (pretty) sausage gets made.
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