The 20th century spawned a new breed of artists and critics whose serious attitude towards their practice bestows them with the unsettling ability to be unfazed by works of art. This class of artists and critics never dares to utter the apparently disdainful word “beautiful,” out of fear that the work of art will be deemed shallow and decorative. People are under the impression that beautiful art cannot make an impact because beauty is somehow removed from modern living. For one to say that beauty does not exist, one must conclude that ugliness is also nonexistent; this would leave artists nothing to create but unexceptional, uninspired works. Many people think that the meaning of a work is more pertinent than how the piece looks; however, if the work does not beckon one to stop for a moment to appreciate it, then the concept will not reach the audience.
Before one chooses to abolish the word “beautiful” from one’s vocabulary, one must understand the distinction between accepting the standard of beauty that society attempts to enforce, versus what an individual is genuinely attracted to. Dave Hickey states, “The beautiful is a social construction. It’s a set of ambient community standards as to what constitutes an appropriate visual conﬁguration. It’s what we’re supposed to like. Beauty is what we like, whether we should or not, what we respond to involuntarily” (Ostrow). Based on Hickey’s distinction, one can say that “beautiful” is a term used to describe vanity; the word “beauty,” in contrast, cannot be used as a blanket statement because individuals have their own definitions of the word.
Evidently, there are misinterpretations as to where and when beauty manifests. The most beautiful things that the world has to offer are never in vain. The most beautiful moments in one’s life often occur in a ﬂeeting instant; however, the memory of beauty is perennial. A beautiful work of art is not limited to reﬂecting positive aspects of life. Anselm Kiefer paints desolate landscapes; although his works depict morose imagery, he maintains a gritty, painterly touch. While Kiefer’s subject matter is not beautiful, his use of industrial materials and muted color schemes are gripping.
In contrast, Tara Donovan accumulates various household material such as toothpicks, scotch tape, disposable cups, and plates to create large sculptures which resemble organic forms. Donovan’s Untitled (Paper Plates) seems to undulate because the repetition of materials creates a solid form with a fresh vitality. Donovan’s sculptures are often abstracted, monochromatic pieces; therefore, one focuses on the awe-inspiring form as a whole, and on Donovan’s strikingly meticulous approach to materials. Another piece, Untitled (Plastic Cups), is composed of hundreds of plastic cups, stacked to look like a range of snow-covered hills. Untitled (Plastic Cups) imitates the beauty in nature and the simplicity of common objects. Donovan’s piece does not reﬂect political misconduct or societal ﬂaws; yet, her work is just as poignant as Kiefer’s distressed landscapes.
Kant writes, “declaring an object beautiful and demonstrating that I have taste is not my relation to the existence of the object, but what I do with this representation within myself” (Damisch 103). The subject and content do not determine the level of beauty in a given piece. Likewise, the level of beauty holds no direct correlation to depth.
The Dadaists claimed to be a group of artists against art; however, the accomplishments they made for the art world would suggest otherwise. The arts would have remained stiﬂed and stagnant without the Dadaists’ radical thinking and intense desire to do away with regulations in art. One must consider whether the possibility of hypocrisy in a group of artists against making art and against making lasting changes: “were the Dadaists against beauty or simply against old beauty”? (Beckley xiii). The ﬁrst mistake that contemporary artists make is assuming that dated ideas of beauty are irreversible. Hickey proclaims, “If I have a choice between art being education or entertainment, I go with entertainment…What is this presumption that art cannot be entertaining? Holy shit, what else could it be? It’s fun. It’s kinda’ scary. Nobody gets killed. That’s entertainment!” (Ostrow). Contemporary artists and critics are skeptical towards art that does not reﬂect some grand concept; their snobbery attempts to eradicate the joy and sincerity from art making.
Art is visual communication. Therefore, the piece must articulate an idea, rather than dialogue or written artist statements. Hickey states that “If images don’t do anything in this culture…why are we sitting here in the twilight of the twentieth century talking about them? And if they only do things after we have talked about them, then they aren’t doing anything, we are” (12). It seems as though painters have been at a loss ever since the Modernists exploited the ﬂatness of the canvas. The majority of contemporary painters either try to pose questions that have already been solved, or, the fear of copying previous artists stiﬂes them to the point that their work is disingenuous and lacks visual interest.
The school of thought against beauty in art comes from the notion that it is not the artist’s job to please others – which is a reasonable and admirable quality. One is still being manipulated, however, when one goes out of the way to be at odds with the public. Oscar Wilde declared that “The beauty [of art] comes from the fact that the author is what he is…The moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or dishonest tradesman. He has no further claim to be considered an artist” (Friswell). There are not many glamorous beneﬁts to being an artist; therefore, artists must work to please themselves. In contrast, little compares to the satisfaction of another person understanding one’s work; it is naïve to think that artists are completely self-contained and do not care about their peers’ opinions.
Art Critic Arthur C. Danto is one of the leading voices in the critique against beauty. Danto witnessed how creating art transformed from harboring a skill into manipulating the craft of cleverness. Danto rightfully comments that anything can be considered a work of art in the modern era. He contradicts himself, however, when he says, “beauty had disappeared not only from the advanced art if the 1960s, but from the advanced philosophy of art that decade as well. Nor could it really be a part of the deﬁnition of art if anything can be an artwork, when not everything is beautiful” (25). Danto does not say that everything is art, rather he states that anything can be art. Therefore, the form is inconsequential in determining whether a work is art or not. The market should not be in control of the artwork that is produced; instead, artists must gain control over their power to inﬂuence the market.
While Robert Mapplethorpe is best known for imbuing sadomasochistic sexual partners with a sense of vulnerability and elegance, many critics do not appreciate the sophisticated light quality and thoughtful compositions in Mapplethorpe’s work. Danto explains that “Modernism tended to make the simple grainy snapshot the paradigm of photographic purity, which applies to Greenberg’s purgative view of the quest for what is inherent in the medium. The charge against Mapplethorpe was that his work was too beautiful to qualify for critical endorsement” (27). Mapplethorpe approached his art making process with the same engrossed care and attentiveness that he put forth into his physical appearance and the decor in his home. Patti Smith recounts that Mapplethorpe would spend hours in front of the mirror grooming himself and choosing the right combination of necklaces to wear. She remarks that “he was…still the boy who made jewelry for his mother” (44). Mapplethorpe created beautiful images to fulﬁll an inner need that beckoned him since childhood; an artist cannot be expected to alter their core instincts to ﬁt in with contemporary trends. Art loses its poignancy and value when the maker is ingenuous. There is no point of using art as a means of self expression if the maker denies their personal aesthetic to be taken seriously.
One should not strive to make beautiful art if one honestly does not see beauty in the world; by the same token, artists should not discount beauty because it is unfashionable at the moment. Beauty has a sublime, lasting effect on a viewer; contrary to current beliefs, beauty is not shallow or vain. One may create work that is beautiful but superﬁcial; however the concept is indicative of the artists’ level of thinking, not the significance of beauty. One should not be hasty to abolish beauty from the art dialogue “because if you are looking for beauty, it is with yellow relief, squatting or standing, ﬁxed on the sky, ﬁxed on the earth, that so often you ﬁnd it” (Beckley xix). Landscapes, social norms, and technology are constantly changing. One thus relentlessly redeﬁnes one’s perception of beauty. Beauty does not suppress expression. Overbearing rules for aesthetics (or lack of aesthetics), however, restrains artists and generates unoriginal work.
Beckley, Bill, and David Shapiro. Uncontrollable Beauty: toward a New Aesthetics. New York: Allworth,
Damisch, Hubert. “Freud with Kant? The Enigma of Pleasure.” Uncontrollable Beauty: toward a New
Aesthetics. By Bill Beckley and David Shapiro. New York: Allworth, 1998. Print.
Danto, Arthur Coleman. The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art. Chicago Ill.: Open
Court, 2006. Print.
Friswell, Richard. “Contemporary Art Strives for Something Other Than Beauty.” Artes Magazine 06
Feb. 2010. Web.
Hickey, Dave. The Invisible Dragon / Four Essays on Beauty. Los Angeles: Art Issues, 1993. Print.
Ostrow, Saul. “Dave Hickey.” BOMB Magazine Spring 1995. Web.
Smith, Patti. Just Kids. New York: Ecco, 2010. Print.