Friday, June 26, 2009

Beauty and Art: Why Can't they get Together?

In a recent article (and book), Roger Scrunton describes the low estimation that the contemporary art world has for Beauty. It's an interesting piece. His main point:
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?


Holly said...

re: your questions at the end... I can't answer them explicitly, but I can tell you that in art school, I caught unbelievable crap for saying that what I wanted to make was things that pleased the eye and the spirit. The complaint was that I didn't apparently give a shit about social activism or Statements or whatever.

On the other hand, the most common criticism of the sculpture students as a group is that they were not making sculpture, but fetishes. By fetish, I understood the idea that the objects were *primarily* vehicles for assigned meaning, and the aesthetic aspect took a secondary (or even tertiary, if the materials or process were considered relevant) role in the whole object.

All of which is a long winded way of saying that the current sensibility seems to carry a strong rejection of the notion of "ideal beauty" and possibly even "beauty".

Ironically, and not coincidentally, the students who got into galleries and professional careers after school seemed to have a good rapport with beauty, and could choose to invoke or deny it very skillfully in their work.

... so it must not be TOTALLY irrelevant, even if it's ungodly slippery to define.

Rufus said...

Ah, now see I can relate to this. We have the same debate in history. There are people like myself whose historiography is painfully irrelevant in terms of oppression and resistance to oppression, and those people whose work is all about regimes of oppression and subalterns, particularly (one might say primarily) if those oppressors were Europeans. Of course, they're actually doing social activism for historical figures, so it's not quite as daring. I call it social work for the dead.

Your story also reminds me of the bit in that second volume of Proust with the old ambassador who thinks there's no room for art for art's sake now that Prussia is a strong state or whatever.

I wonder if there's a delay with beautiful art. I went to an exhibit yesterday that had some really gorgeous pieces (and a few stinkers) that had all been created in the mid-70s. Nothing socially activist about them. But, indeed, the contemporary stuff on the main floor was much more gimmicky. So I wonder if, given a few decades, people stop caring about whether or not the artwork takes political stances and just learn to enjoy it as a work of art...

Holly said...

Unquestionably there is a time-capsule effect with art, where the crap falls through the cracks, and the quality is conserved. Or, at least, what's left is regarded as "better" through the lens of hindsight because, you know, everyone thinks they were born too late to enjoy the good stuff...

Holly said...

Also..... what would need to be going on in the world so that the regimes and abuses agenda were less interesting?

Or.... is that just the way it will be for historians? The primary focus being power management, and everything else is just scenery?

Rufus said...

Historiography has its trends that change over time. This is why people have been able to write histories of the writing of history. For a long time, history was about great men and the power of states. So there were a lot of books about battles, Napoleon, and Bismarck.

Then people got sick of that and you had a lot of books about peasants and workers and not so many books about great men. Some of this was guided by Marxist theory, which was very popular. But, by the 70s, historians started realizing that the historical laws that Marx set down don't really work so well. And they also finally realized that Marxist regimes were also pretty good at oppressing people.

So, you wound up with histories of 'subaltern' groups that take oppression as a given in all states. Happily, historians finally write about women and gays and other neglected groups. They also write about art and culture more than ever before. Unfortunately, they still tend to reduce everything to power struggles.

Technically, some of what I'm doing is 'social history' because I'm figuring out how an industry worked- basically, proto-tourism. But it's mainly 'intellectual history'- I'm interested in the history of ideas. If I wanted to make it more relevant to power struggles, I'd look at ideas related to racism or social Darwinism or something. But I'd find it depressing to read a bunch of racists for four years. So, mainly, I'm looking at how people read Kant, Chateaubriand, and Swedenbourg and fun things like that.

Rufus said...

Sometimes I feel like I was born too late for the good stuff. Mostly though I just think it's easier to get to the good stuff after the crap has been cleared away. I'd love it if magazines like Art Forum tried to say what the good stuff is now; but they stick mostly to pictures of rich artists at parties.