The Ugly Writing
by Stephen Houston (Brown University)
In Western thought, much rests on Greek precedent. “Calligraphy” or “beautiful writing,” to give one example, descends from the condition of κάλλος “beauty” and -γραϕος “written” (“calligraph” and “calligraphy,” OED Online 2018). To notorious extent, “beauty” exists in the eye of the beholder. For the ancient Greeks, its meanings might slip and slide between “noble,” “well-done,” and “virtuous,” if with “the kind of appeal that inspires desire” (Konstan 2014:170). The aesthetic dimensions of “beauty” would await the Renaissance, for the Greeks of Classical times rarely applied the term to a work of art (Konstan 2014:179). When aesthetics took over, critics like Pierre Bourdieu came to see “beauty” and “taste” as “ascetic, empty…the renunciation of pleasure,” a withered husk of delight (Bourdieu 1984:493; see also Konstan 2014:186). Or, as a concept, “beauty” came to be a quality divorced from “sensual, practical, and ethical issues” (Nehamas 2007:3).
Calligraphy as “beautiful writing” makes sense on many levels, if couched within different traditions of practice. In China, the focus on brushstrokes led to joint evaluations of text and painting. A vast corpus of critical literature assisted that endeavor, including glosses added to the paintings themselves (Bush and Shih 1985; Cahill 1997:5–6). The Aztecs, for their part, thought of good scribes in terms of their internal properties (“honest, circumspect, far-sighted, pensive”) but above all as “judge[s] of colors” (Dibble and Anderson 1961:28).