So You Think Today's Art Isn't Pretty? Look Again
BOSTON — Most people would probably be surprised to hear that beauty is making a comeback, because
for the majority of us beauty has never been missing. Those things commonly described as beautiful - a breathtaking view, an inspiring painting, a blooming garden, or an attractive face - have long been and still are bringing pleasure to the world at large.
Yet while poet Robert Bridges once called beauty "the best of all we know," in many quarters of the art world the very mention of the word has been taboo for the better part of 30 years. Artist Aaron Baker remembers as recently as three years ago feeling embarrassed to bring the subject up among his classmates in art school.
"It was very unfashionable to discuss beauty or aesthetics in any way," he recalls. "It wasn't something you talked about."
Today, the young Las Vegas painter is part of a counterrevolution taking place in studios, galleries, and the pages of art journals across the country.
Artists are rebelling against the visual starkness and political agendas of art of the recent past, and are growing increasingly unafraid to discuss their work with words like "vibrancy," "lushness," even "glamour." For them, beauty is definitely back in style.
History of hostility
This growing movement is reassessing attacks on beauty that reach back to the beginning of the century. In a 1922 "Lecture on Dada," poet Tristan Tzara proclaimed that "Beauty and Truth in art don't exist." By 1938, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had declared that beauty carried no meaning in aesthetic judgments.
The 1970s and '80s gave rise to movements even more hostile to values of visual pleasure. Conceptualism debased the appearance of artworks in order to emphasize the abstract ideas behind them, while so-called "agit-prop" - art driven by its ideological agenda - pronounced aesthetics incompatible with political struggle. Beauty was driven into exile, and a rupture occurred between the average artgoer and contemporary art that has yet to be healed.
During that period, "the visual object didn't have any meaning," remembers artist and author Bill Beckley, who was in the forefront of the conceptual movement in the 1970s. "The intent was to have art not look like anything. It was a total denial of the senses."
Essays on aesthetics
Today, Mr. Beckley's sympathies are tuned to the exact opposite end. He and poet David Shapiro have edited "Uncontrollable Beauty: Toward a New Aesthetic" (Allworth Press/School of Visual Arts), an anthology of 30 contemporary essays that seek to place the language of beauty back into the artistic vocabulary.
The essays, some previously published, others produced for the book, are by artists, philosophers, critics, and poets. Nearly all contributors are well-known in art circles, including Arthur Danto, who reviews art for The Nation, painter Agnes Martin, poet (and former art critic) John Ashbery, and Museum of Modern Art curator Kirk Varnedoe.
Though not entirely free of the intellectual jargon that has made much contemporary art writing nearly opaque to the average reader, the book nevertheless gives a thorough account of current notions of beauty. Included is Village Voice critic Peter Schjeldahl's influential 1994 essay "Notes on Beauty," which argues that beauty "entails a sense of the sacred," and a conversation with Louise Bourgeois, in which the sculptor states that "the beautiful changes me from day to day."
This is the fourth book on aesthetics that Beckley, a longtime instructor at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, has edited. The idea for "Uncontrollable Beauty" came from a 1993 book, "The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty," by critic Dave Hickey.
Mr. Hickey, the man many people credit with bringing the subject back into the spotlight, announced in his book that beauty would be "the issue of the '90s." The iconoclastic former art dealer, who now teaches critical theory at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, says that beauty makes art pleasurable and is therefore the means by which a viewer may contemplate a work's "quest for knowledge or understanding."
"The idea of beauty as an end in art is not my interest," he says. "It's the beginning. Physical, visceral appeal is the [start] of a relationship between the work and the beholder."
Looking out for the consumer
Hickey rejects what he terms "supply-side aesthetics - art that totally focuses on the needs, identities, and intentions of the artist." Much contemporary artwork, he asserts, clearly disdains the viewer, who is the true "constituency." "As a critic," says Hickey, "I'm a consumer. I'm arguing for the consumer's side of the transaction."
Many of today's most articulate defenders of beauty are writers like Hickey, Beckley, and Mr. Schjeldahl. They reject what they call a strain of intolerance and aesthetic "puritanism" running through the art world.
"The idea that you couldn't talk about beauty made it imperative to talk about it," Schjeldahl said recently from New York. "Beauty as an issue is a bit of a red herring. Beauty is not broken; it's never been broken. What's fascinating is the fact that [some] people have a problem with it, that they make a problem out of one of the things that makes life worth living."
Schjeldahl does not advocate a return to 19th-century prescriptions of beauty as truth, however. Nor does he accept beauty as "a place where we come decoratively to rest."
"It's a lot more dynamic than that, a lot sharper. We're not the same after we've had an experience of beauty."
In creating the anthology, Beckley purposely avoided specific definitions of beauty and did not reproduce any artwork with the essays. "I didn't want the book to [support] a certain theory or statement and then say, 'These are the people you should be looking at now.' I really wanted to pose beauty as a kind of freedom."
For artists, renewed attention to visual pleasures has been liberating. "A lot of young artists want to make work that is fetching to the eye," says Mr. Baker, who describes his abstract sculpture-like paintings as "packed full of color."
Likewise, the paintings of Brooklyn artist Paul Henry Ramirez are intended to arouse the senses as much as the intellect. Mr. Ramirez calls his playful, Joan Mir-derived style "luscious" and "yummy."
"It looks like candy and food," he says. "You can almost taste it."
One critic, commenting on Ramirez's work, says "it is wonderful to smile aloud while looking at art." Recently, the artist had a solo show at the Caren Golden gallery in New York titled "Real Pretty Simple Innocent Paintings." Though the title was ironic - Ramirez means for his paintings to confront complex formal and conceptual issues - it was not entirely so.
"I used the word pretty in the title because I don't have any problem with it, he says, adding unabashedly: "I create beautiful work. It's a reflection of my observation of life and the things I enjoy seeing."