Our modern society suffers from a poverty of beauty. I’ve been reflecting on this depressing reality for the past few years, particularly as I’ve attended operas with bleak, monochromatic productions (the Met’s recent Parsifal stands out, even going so far as to override the libretto and present us with a nuclear wasteland in place of the joyful Easter rebirth that was originally intended) and encountered exhibit after exhibit of nihilistic contemporary art that appears committed to persuading me of the vast meaninglessness of human existence.
I find this aesthetic viewpoint personally and morally offensive. It seeks to numb our senses, whispering the lie that our world can only be perceived in shades of black, white, and red. It is barren of creativity, offering up the half-hearted argument that all forms of human ingenuity have already been expressed and we are in a dark time—so why bother? Most insidiously, it encourages us to limit our imaginations and abandon our daydreams about what is possible in the here and now.
Art cannot be divorced from the context in which it is created. I find it incredibly irresponsible that the forms of art that hold élite cultural sway today have nihilism at their core—this, at a time when people need inspiration more than ever before. For an example of this, just look at the glass skyscrapers that are emerging all over our city skylines. They are pretty but not beautiful, with their sterile promise of transparency in an era of plummeting public trust in institutions. If anything, they’ve come to symbolize the entrenchment of a new Gilded Age and the triumph of the 1% over the masses.
I will readily admit the bias I have in sharing this viewpoint. As the daughter of classical musicians, I was raised to believe that beauty is important, that it has great meaning to our lives (which also implies, of course, that our lives have great meaning), and that it is essential for our well-being as people. Only by being exposed to beauty in music, literature, and art—and by being encouraged to sing, write, and draw myself—did I realize my own agency as a young person and feel both capable and worthy of pursuing my dreams. That is why I question the integrity and intentions of any artistic or aesthetic movement that undermines this sense of possibility for human beings.
For this reason, I was entranced by Ninagawa Macbeth’s boundless beauty when I saw it at Lincoln Center last month. The scenes were dreamlike and had an epic quality to them, portraying magnificence and grace amidst what was also a very turbulent time featuring a would-be despot. Ninagawa Macbeth felt very much like the artistic oasis I was seeking, something truly exquisite, shimmering, and transcendent among the ashes of the fine arts I so often see in vogue here in the United States today.
Ninagawa Macbeth is also referred to as the cherry blossom Macbeth. A resplendent cherry tree is at the center of many of the scenes in this production and its petals remain on the stage floor throughout the entire play, regardless of what is transpiring in a given scene. Their constant presence reminds us not only of beauty’s importance but also its ephemeral nature, urging us to take pleasure in beauty for its own sake while we can. Screens veil much of the action, particularly during some of the heroic samurai battle scenes, casting everything in a hazy, historical light that lends added mystery.
Ninagawa chose to set his Macbeth in Japan’s Azuchi-Momoyama period, which was a time of relentless warfare as well as an age of tremendous cultural flowering. Watching it as I did during a moment of considerable national instability and uncertainty here in the United States, I couldn’t help but reflect on how conflict and art go hand in hand and how, now, our society might witness a similar cultural genesis if we allow ourselves to tap the limitless reservoirs of creativity within us.
I was also impressed by the seamless cultural fusion that Ninagawa Macbeth represents. It is at once entirely Japanese and quintessentially Shakespearean, offering us what I would view as simultaneously authentic cultural experiences from both traditions. Although the visuals were primarily Japanese, right down to the lush Sengoku-jidai (Warring States period) costumes, the music was decidedly Western and classical, expertly selected to harmonize with the aesthetic viewpoint of the production.
Passages from the Fauré Requiem and Barber’s Adagio for Strings created the perfect tone at each instance they were invoked, softly enhancing the performance. As an American who once lived in Japan, and particularly as an American for whom classical music is a deeply meaningful language, I found this interweaving of Japanese and Western cultures moving. This example of cultural blending, in itself, has its own immeasurable value at a time when Americans are being invited to fear the other and shut ourselves off from the rest of the world.
Just as I was beginning to absorb these impressions, the play was over. As the actors took their bows to cascades of applause and the curtain began to close, Masachika Ichimura (Macbeth) playfully tossed a handful of cherry blossom petals into the air. “It’s ok,” he seemed to be telling us. “You can enjoy this!”
Yes, you can enjoy this. It is ok to take pleasure in beauty. In fact, it is more than permissible—it is necessary.