Art Must Be Beautiful


[MUSIC PLAYING] As I think happens
to a lot of us, I found myself daydreaming about
the performance artist Marina Abramovic the other day– in particular, her 1975
piece, “Art Must be Beautiful, Artist Must be Beautiful,”
in which she brushes her hair with a comb in one
hand and a brush in the other while continuously
repeating the mantra. Art must be beautiful. Artist must be beautiful. This piece brings up
a lot of good questions. What were the expectations of
an artist, particularly a woman, during that moment in the ’70s? Is it any different now? And to what extent does
an artist and their image become wrapped up in
the commodification of their artwork? But today, I just want to
focus on that first half of the mantra– art must be beautiful. You often hear that
old Keats line, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” But personally, I don’t
think it’s that simple. I tend to be suspicious
of beautiful art. There must be some evil
machinations at work, right? Something pernicious lurking
underneath the surface. Why am I dubious
of beautiful art? Ancient philosophers ponder
the nature of beauty, and I’ll recklessly
summarize their positions to say that they found beauty
to be objective, something that rests in the object
and not in the response of the beholder. Plato thought that
beauty was located in the realm of the
forms, and if an object participated in those forms, it
could be considered beautiful. Ditto for Aristotle, who
wrote in the “Poetics” that “To be beautiful, a
living creature and every whole made up of parts must
present a certain order in its arrangement of parts.” That manifested through
symmetry and proportion, and could sometimes
but not always be boiled down to a formula
like the golden ratio. And there were certainly
emotional aspects to encountering beauty. Plotinus described
the spirit that beauty must bring forth as, “Wonderment
and a delicious trouble, longing and love and a
trembling that is all delight.” Artists and writers of
the Italian Renaissance who revered all
things Greek and Roman had similar
conceptions of beauty. Art and architecture,
to be beautiful, strove to achieve
perfect proportions, an arrangement of
parts coalescing into a harmonious whole. And for much of this history,
that which was beautiful was closely intertwined with
that which was good or moral. Cultures throughout history–
and believe it or not, in places other than Europe– have held differing
conceptions of beauty. Tracing any kind
of a global history is difficult, because the idea
of taking pleasure in things is expressed in
many different ways and in many different cultures. Like when we’re looking
for analogs for beauty in other languages, should we
consider Tang Dynasty painter Xie He’s six principles
of Chinese painting, the first of which translates
to the breath of life or spirit resonance in a work of art? Perhaps a better boundary is
the discipline of aesthetics. The term first appeared
in 1735 when Baumgarten wrote about how the Greek
philosophers distinguish between the noeta, being
objects of thought that could be understood through
logic, and the aistheta, being objects of sense. Aesthetics for him were
the science of perception. But it wouldn’t be
until the 19th century that the likes of
Kant and others drew out these ideas further. Kant insisted that aesthetics
could not be a science, and that beauty was entirely
subjective and never able to be proved. For Kant, it is our faculty
of judgment– or critique– that allows us to have
an experience of beauty. So now we arrive
at a point where beauty is located outside
of the thing, referring instead to the experience
of the person taking it in. It’s roughly around this time
that Winckelmann, sometimes called the father
of art history, found beauty to be not
something that you could define, but something that
could only be discovered through deep and
sustained observation. Here again, beauty is located
in our experience of a thing and not in the thing itself. Winckelmann even
imposed upon himself a rule when looking at art
of– not turning back until I had discovered some beauty. And we can’t forget Hegel. Hegel did believe that
beauty is objective, that it’s a matter of the
harmony of different elements unified organically. But he also thought beauty
had to do with subject matter. In his mind, true
art gives sensuous expression to the
free spirit and should make that freedom of spirit
graspable to an audience. “Art is beautiful,”
so says Hegel, “when it allows us to realize
truths about ourselves.” Which is a super
compelling idea, but for Hegel, this
meant almost exclusively ancient Greek sculptures
of gods and heroes. I’ll stop with this
litany in just a moment, but I can’t not bring
up Hume, who in my mind, had a totally reasonable
take on the topic, which I would like
to have on a T-shirt. “Beauty is no quality
in things themselves. It exists merely in the mind
which contemplates them, and each mind perceives
a different beauty. One person may even
perceive deformity where another is
sensible of beauty, and every individual ought to
acquiesce in his own sentiment without pretending to
regulate those of others.” Now, as much as
I like this idea, Hume and others did find
the subjectivity of beauty to be kind of a bummer. Because if beauty is
completely relative, then it doesn’t seem
all that important. And beauty felt– and
certainly still feels– important. As Andy Warhol said
over 200 years later, “If everybody’s not a
beauty, then nobody is.” But that’s also
good news, right? Maybe everyone’s a beauty! The ancient Greeks
often located beauty in the form of
strapping male youths, and it wasn’t until
maybe the 19th century that ideals of
beauty started to be located more in the image
of woman more than man. The culture industry
certainly plays a huge role in my suspicion of
beauty, and here I’m using the term introduced by
Adorno and Horkheimer in 1944. It describes the late
capitalist phenomenon of all the cultural goods
like films, magazines, music, and radio designed–
so these guys claimed– to satisfy the
entertainment needs of we, the mass of consumers. And there have been many
important feminist critiques of the culture industry. In 1975, Laura
Mulvey wrote, “It is said that analyzing visual
pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention
of this article.” She goes on to explain,
“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance,
pleasure in looking has been split between
active/male and passive/female. The determining male
gaze projects its fantasy onto the female form, which
is styled accordingly. In their traditional
exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously
looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for
strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to
connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” And it’s precisely that
to-be-looked-at-ness that arouses my suspicion when I’m
experiencing beauty in art. What are the codes
and motivations behind what I’m
seeing, whether it’s an image of a person or a
suspicious sunset seducing me with its beauty? In this postmodern
age, we’ve been taught to question everything. Something beautiful
is, pretty often, a lure to sell you sneakers. In the last century, you
can see the steady decline in importance of traditional
Western ideals of beauty for artists and the
gatekeepers of art, resulting in much of the head
scratching that goes on daily in museums around the world. Some of that we can credit to
the succession of avant-garde movements in the 20th century. Artists deploying shock,
ugliness, and the mechanical among other tactics, and their
reactions against the status quo, repressive structures,
and purportedly golden ratios that are just like
regular ratios. Dave Hickey sought to understand
this vacancy of beauty in a 1993 essay, summarizing
artists’ anti-beauty arguments like this. “Beautiful art sells. If it sells itself, it’s
an idolatrous commodity. If it sells anything else, it’s
a seductive advertisement.” Hickey countered that “Idolatry
and advertising are, indeed, art, and that the
greatest works of art are always and inevitably
a bit of both.” He defended beauty, reminding us
that art and images have appeal to the beholder throughout
history, arguing for things and attempting to persuade. So it seems that we jaded
citizens of the present have been depriving
ourselves of beauty even though beautiful
images have long been trying to sell us
something– be it Christianity, revolution, or what have you. In 1994, Arthur
Danto proclaimed, “Ours is an age of
moral indignation.” And I’d argue that
age continues. But he goes on to connect
our aversion to beauty with a heightened
moral sensitivity. Kathleen Marie Higgins
responded to Danto in ’96, saying, “It may be
insensitive, at times, to luxuriate in
aesthetic comfort while human misery abounds. But the mesmerizing
impact of beauty may, even in
miserable conditions, rekindle our sensitivity.” Beauty might be subjective,
impossible to define, ever-changing and
socially inscribed, but it’s nonetheless real. So argued Elaine Scarry, “It is
as though beautiful things have been placed here and
there throughout the world to serve as small wake-up
calls to perception, spurring lapsed alertness
back to its most acute level.” And artists are still
making beautiful things. Whether beauty is
inherent in those things or exists only in our
perception of them, I’d argue that
beauty is valuable. It’s just not the only
valuable facet of art. Now, this is a far from complete
accounting of philosophies of beauty throughout
the ages, and I encourage you to mention the
many important ideas I’ve skipped over in the comments. But if you started out thinking
that art must be beautiful, I hope maybe we’ve
inserted a question mark after the statement for you. And if, like me, you started
out dubious of beauty, then perhaps you may have found
something redeeming in it and become dubious instead
of our aversion to beauty. Rather than condemn
or condone beauty, perhaps the task is putting it
in its place, allowing for it– or even embracing it– while understanding all that
it might mask or distract from. Let’s talk about
it in the comments, remembering always
Hume’s invocation that “Every individual ought to
acquiesce in his own sentiment without pretending to
regulate those of others.” Thanks to Indianapolis Homes
Realty and all of our patrons for supporting The
Art Assignment. If you’d like to help us out,
go to patreon.com/artassignment. [MUSIC PLAYING]

Dereck Turner

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