At any time between 1750 and 1930, if you had asked an educated person to describe the goal of poetry, art, or music, “beauty” would have been the answer. And if you had asked what the point of that was, you would have learned that beauty is a value, as important in its way as truth and goodness, and indeed hardly distinguishable from them.Alas, this is not the case today. I remember the Hirshhorn actually doing a show about Beauty a number of years ago; but the gist of the show was, indeed, that most artists aren't comfortable with the idea of Beauty! They see it as unserious, kitschy, or reactionary. "Reality" is ugly and art should follow suit; et cetera. On the other hand, I can't tell you the number of gallery shows I've attended with mediocre shock art that the program promises will "subvert", "transgress", "challenge", and "upend" all of our staid notions of something-or-other! Must every artist be a scourge now?
I do think Scrunton too easily divides the world into an elite of artists and a downtrodden public crying out for Beauty. He runs everything together- Serrano's 'Piss Christ' = rap music = Tarantino movies = a horrific production of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail! But, his idea that the experience of Beauty challenges the viewer much more than the experience of transgression is interesting. Works of beauty- the first thing I thought of were some of Mozart's piano concertos- are challenging because you don't feel you are intellectually- or spiritually- ready for them. Shock Art might transgress your values, but the experience of Beautiful Art calls on you to live them or even get better ones!
Some questions come to mind. Is it perhaps just a lot harder to make something beautiful, without failing and creating kitsch, than it is to create something ugly? Isn't there an imperative for artists to create the experience of Beauty at least as strong as the imperative to transgress? Are artists like Francis Bacon entirely overrated? And are artists who create works of beauty unfairly neglected? And is a beautiful work of art as much a triumph of skill- which is sorely lacking right now- as a triumph of the spirit? Lastly, isn't there some really freakin' ugly art that is as sublime and transcendent as beautiful art?