The Aesthetics of Unbearable Grief



It is hard for me to look at a photograph that fuses tragedy and beauty without some guilt.  The thought that I might feel any kind of pleasure or aesthetic satisfaction at an image of horror seems almost instinctively wrong.   

Of course, at the same time, I know that beauty is a complex concept. It is not necessarily, nor even typically, “pretty.” We all have found pleasure in gazing at images depicting moments of unbearable sadness and pain.

So what is beauty?

I will always be haunted by a renowned virologist who tried to explain to me why he found the HIV virus – in its complexity and brilliant resistance to being destroyed or even tricked — a thing of beauty. Perhaps sometimes we describe something as beautiful, not because it gives us conventional pleasure or joy, but because we are humbled or stunned at what it reveals of our profound humanness and vulnerability.  Humanness — stripped of artifice and faux gentility – can be sublimely beautiful, even when it leads us to horror.  It is who we are.

To be sure, this is a different kind of beauty, rooted not in pleasure but in awe. If we see beauty in moments of fury, angry crowds, acts of violence, and even death, perhaps we are simply in awe of such unflinching glimpses of ourselves.  Maybe we even find it titillating to see ourselves so nakedly human, so capable of evil, so overcome with grief?

Which leads to this picture from the front page of today’s New York Times by AP photographer Gurinder Osan.

This is a crowd in the midst of unbearable grief; a heaving, surging, human crowd surrounding the grieving family of terror victim Haresh Gohil. It is living the shared pain of a community brought together in a volatile mixture of anger and sadness. It is a swirling and kinetic crowd that —  from the unusual angle chosen by Osan — has formed a human tapestry of grief. The wailing and moaning even seems audible, yet it only takes a moment to recall that this is a silent photograph.   

It is human. It is deeply sad. It is horrible.

It is beautiful.

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