The writer and art critic Howard Jacobsen observed that “ Things have trundled on in the art world, it is true, since beauty was the criterion. And while we might choose to stay with beauty if we so desire, we are without doubt naïve to be unaware that contemporary art is, ideationally elsewhere.”
In 1746, Charles Batteux summarized the then emerging view of arts purpose in society, by proposing that, “the fine arts were unified by a common role or intention, that is, creating beauty, and that fine art was organized around the central attribute of beauty”. When I was young, my understanding of the connection between art and beauty was close to Batteux’s summarization. I believed that an artist’s main responsibility in producing a work of art was to create visual beauty. Later, I added that an artist’s work should also be self-expressive and/or represent the artist’s view of the world; that the artist should attempt to bring about cultural and artistic change; and that an artist’s choice and use of materials is very important. It became apparent to me that in order to fulfill these later principles one might not be able to also create something beautiful. For example, if you are in a war torn or devastated part of the world then your work may represent a vision of violence or devastation or if you are passionate about something other than beauty, then your work may be about, as well as represent, the ugly or the distressing. As Peter Schjeldahl in his essay Notes on Beauty states, “Insensibility to beauty…may reflect wholehearted commitment to another value, such as justice, whose claim seems more urgent”.
Much of the art that has been produced in the last 200 years has questioned Batteux’s stated ideal and has even come to oppose it. Modernist art does not often appear to embrace traditional standards of beauty. The assumed responsibility of the art world to create beauty has fallen in the wake of the desire of many artists to create works that are more than just aesthetically pleasing. Arthur Danto concludes in his interview with Dimitry Tetin, that, “though necessary to life, beauty is not necessary to art”. Danto stated that artists now make art “certainly not to give beauty…Beauty is not what anybody is doing”. For the “Modernist” artist it is necessary for various reasons to create work that is shocking, ugly, contemptuous or controversial. The reasons for this move away from creating artwork whose main purpose is beauty towards another aesthetic are numerous. These reasons have changed with the creation and dissolution of the many art movements that have been under the broader classification of Modernism. Clement Greenberg, in his essay Avant Garde and Kitsch, suggests that the modern artist, “tries in effect to create something valid solely on it’s own terms, in the way nature itself is valid, something given and independent of meanings”. He further suggests that over time this search for independence created an “art for art’s sake” attitude in which the subject matter or content of common experience becomes something that is to be avoided. This progression has eventually meant that beauty was not only demoted, because its presence would mask a more important message, but, for some artists, anti-beauty has been the message.
In the art world, at least, beauty was pronounced dead (like so many other great things - painting, photography, disco, etc). The discussion about beauty as well as about the creation of beauty ceased. Danto states that, “producing meaning is (now) a style.” With this statement Danto not only reiterates the thought that the artist today has no responsibility to produce visual beauty but he also illuminates a major tenet of the art world; “concept” has replaced “aesthetic”. Further, concept has actually become aesthetic. The Modernist ethic asserts that in order to have a sensation of beauty when looking at an artwork today, one must first comprehend the message, meaning or idea behind the work. The art correspondent Carol Strickland states that, “Today, beauty is no longer about what’s pretty, symmetrical, or harmonious. It’s about what stirs the viewer to grapple with the world as it really is.” Now, more than at any other time, the idea behind the artwork has to be understood before an artwork’s aesthetic value can be appreciated or judged. Quality in a work of art, which for so long meant visual beauty, has, in modern times, been judged as a result of the emotional and intellectual impact from a concept.
Peter Schjeldahl in his essay Notes on Beauty asserts that “the beautiful halts the flow of feelings, then recommences them in a changed direction” I believe that this definition of beauty may indeed be true. However it can also be a definition of the sensation from shock, pain, fear or the comprehension of a new concept. Schjeldahl describes beauty as a response to an object or person, not a thought. The confusion over the definition of beauty is what we now struggle with. Clearly, during the last 200 years, ideas have inspired the same sensations that visual beauty once stimulated. Conceptual art has aroused awe and certainly at least once has halted me in my feelings. Both conceptual and physical experiences seem valid: they can both produce sensations that stop us, then move us forward in a new direction. They make us, as audience, consider our lives and perceptions of the world. They leave us awe-inspired or aghast and seem worth having and worth taking the time to create. Yet I would say from experiencing both, that the visual and the conceptual also provide very different sensations. Visual beauty offers something that can be apparent for the profound and the naïve viewer. It offers us a fundamental connection between object and person. The sensation it supplies can be instant yet also long lasting. I believe that we desire the sensation that visual beauty gives us because it is so simple. It requires no deep thought or intellectual rambling, no convoluted enquiry or analysis. It does not need us to ponder or question it, it just is, and we have only to be liberated enough to receive it. Later in his essay, Schjeldahl adds that, “beauty is the quality present in a thing that gives intense pleasure and deep satisfaction”. He declares that for many people seeking and obtaining these experiences of intense pleasure and deep satisfaction may bring meaning to their existence. Art, in rejecting beauty, no longer provides a place for the common person to experience deep satisfaction and intense pleasure. Schjeldahl suggests that a society that does not respect the need for obtaining deep satisfaction and intense pleasure is a “mean society”. The art world, with its recent lack of respect for beauty, can therefore be seen as mean.
But is the art world’s move away from beauty really a mean move? Clement Greenberg believed that the Avant Garde arose to defend aesthetic standards from the decline of taste involved in consumer society. He states that the Avant Garde was established because artists felt they were at the service of the commercial, the bourgeois, and the traditional standards that inhibited their ideals. They rebelled against this notion by creating artwork that had meaning above and beyond the pure aesthetic. The Avant Garde movement released art from tradition which meant that it was no longer in service to the people, consumer society or popular culture. Greenberg suggests that even though the common experience has been renounced, the artist still wishes to make work that has validity. He or she then discovers that that validity can only be found in “the very processes or disciplines of art”. A valid work of art is now not about anything external to art. It is about a visual and conceptual standard that can only be understood by the artist or art educated. The very statement of “art for arts sake” creates a distance between art and it’s audience. The audience is external to art and therefore not involved in the dialogue of the standard that now governs art. Greenberg’s essay was written in 1939 and things have moved on from this point, subject matter, once rejected, has now returned, but the “art for art’s sake” attitude pervades. This attitude creates what Danto calls the “disenfranchisement of art”; if it is just for itself then it can no longer be for anyone else. Standards are not explained and the viewer is disregarded. Yet in making this move artists jeopardize the very thing that supports them, public understanding and demand for their work. Art has created for itself an elitist stance, with the result that, the art whose main aim was fighting the bourgeois is now in demand by the bourgeois or art educated only. While the reasons for this move were valid, the progression of this move needs to be questioned. Traditional standards, including the connection between art and visual beauty, need to be brought into question. We now need to pose the same questions the Avant Garde posed to the world to the standards of modern art.
I would like to propose that, much as the Avant Garde rose in order to question aesthetic standards and defend them from the decline it saw in society, now society is rising in order to question the aesthetic standards of, and the decline of taste it sees in, the modernist art world. Although there is not a name for this movement by society, it is nonetheless very apparent. The public realms’ desire for beauty has inspired chains like Michaels and Pier I, and has motivated the mass towards gardening. If people can no longer see visual beauty in an art gallery, then they will seek it elsewhere because they still desire to see it. They want to experience deep satisfaction and pleasure. When I want to see beauty, I go to the same places the public goes - to my garden, to nature or to a shop like Michaels. I do not go to an art gallery to see beauty. I go to a gallery to see the ugly, fascinating, funny, interesting, revolting and the challenging. I am surprised and not a little delighted if I encounter beauty in an art gallery. Within the public realm beauty never left the dialogue: “Your baby is beautiful”; “What a beautiful necklace”; “What a beautiful garden”. This desire and perhaps fundamental need for experiencing visual beauty is not being met by modern art, and this lack is driving society from the gallery and museum. The consequences of this are felt across the art world. The crack first created by the art world becomes a crevasse that divides art and audience, exhibition attendance plummets and the artists voice is not heard.
Suzi Gablik in her essay The Nature of Beauty in Contemporary Art states that “artists work can help to heal our soulless attitudes toward the physical world and that through their work we can see again the beauty of the world”. Gablik acknowledges that art has been a guide for society; it has posed valuable questions and helped change views. At present we are faced with the challenge of environmental damage that, if left unchecked, will devastate our way of life. With the current state of the environment, to ignore the ability of the artist to instigate change and influence societies ideals could be devastating. Gablik proposes that if natural beauty is once again subject matter for art then perhaps it can bring this pending tragedy to light in time for positive change to occur. If people can see the beauty of the world through it’s representation or abstraction in art then perhaps they will work to preserve it.
There is a need, and I would say an urgent need, for beauty to re-enter the art dialogue. It was necessary to remove beauty, the word and the visual manifestation, from art if for no other reason than to have its absence assert the importance of its presence in our lives. Beauty does not need to hold the position it once had. It does not need to reassert itself as the main purpose of all visual art. However, there is an important place for visual beauty in art. It provides it’s audience with satisfaction and it’s creators with a means of communication. Understanding the validity of, and finding a balance between conceptual and visual beauty is necessary for art making today. If we want to be a part of society that expresses all of life in some way, then beauty, the word and the physical creation, needs to come back and stand beside the other valid reasons that motivate people in the 21st Century to create art. If the loss of engagement with beauty from art is what is driving art to disenfranchisement and death, as well as playing an active role in the disregard of environmental and social issues, then bring back beauty.
1 Howard Jacobson, Why mock the expectation of beauty in art? It is laudable that we want to be impressed The Independent. Saturday, 23 February 2008
2 From the web site: http://www.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/phil%20of%20art/hume_and_kant.htm
3 This may or may not be beautiful
4 Peter Schjeldahl, Notes on Beauty. Uncontrollable Beauty. Edited by Bill Beckley, Allworth Press. 1998
5 Peter Schjeldahl, Notes on Beauty. Uncontrollable Beauty. Page 59. Edited by Bill Beckley, Allworth Press. 1998
6 Arthur Danto interviewed by Dimitry Tetin, Recovery of Meaning: Art Critic Arthur Danto on 9/11, Beauty, Ritual. The Student News Publication: The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, May 2005
7 Arthur Danto interviewed by Dimitry Tetin, Recovery of Meaning: Art Critic Arthur Danto on 9/11, Beauty, Ritual. The Student News Publication: The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, May 2005
8 Clement Greenberg. Page 2, Avant Garde and Kitsch, 1939 essay in Art and Culture, Beacon Press, Boston, 1961.
9 Arthur Danto interviewed by Dimitry Tetin, Recovery of Meaning: Art Critic Arthur Danto on 9/11, Beauty, Ritual. The Student News Publication: The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, May 2005
10 Carol Strickland, Does beauty still belong in Art?, the Christian Science Monitor, December 20, 2007. http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/1220/p09s03-coop.html
11 Peter Schjeldahl, Notes on Beauty. Page 54, Uncontrollable Beauty. Edited by Bill Beckley, Allworth Press. 1998
12 Peter Schjeldahl, Notes on Beauty. Page 55, Uncontrollable Beauty. Edited by Bill Beckley, Allworth Press. 1998
14 Number of people in US who garden = 89%
15 Though Museums of historical art are in a different category than Galleries or Museums of contemporary art.
16 Suzi Gablik, The Nature of Beauty in Contemporary Art. New Renaissance Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 1, Renaissance Universal Press, 1998
Art History versus Aesthetics, Edited by James Elkins. Routlegde Press, 2006
Recovery of Meaning: Art Critic Arthur Danto on 9/11, Beauty, Ritual. Arthur Danto interviewed by Dimitry Tetin. The Student News Publication: The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, May 2005
Uncontrollable Beauty. Edited by Bill Beckley. Allworth Press. 1998
Does Beauty still belong in Art?, Carol Strickland. The Christian Science Monitor, December 20, 2007. http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/1220/p09s03-coop.html
Good Looking: Essays on the Virtue of Images, Barbara Maria Stafford. The MIT Press, London. 1997
Landscape Natural Beauty and the Arts, Edited by Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell. Cambridge University Press, 1999
The Artist's Reality: Philosophies of Art, Mark Rothko (Author), Kate Prizel Rothko (Contributor), Christopher Rothko (Editor). Yale University Press, 2006
Avant Garde and Kitsch, 1939 essay in Art and Culture, Clement Greenberg. Beacon Press, Boston, 1961. http://www.sharecom.ca/greenberg/kitsch.html
On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1999
The Nature of Beauty in Contemporary Art, Suzi Gablik. New Renaissance Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 1, Renaissance Universal Press, 1998