What is beauty in art—and does it still matter?
The subject of beauty has always been a thorny one for many artists and critics to wrestle with. This is in part due to the difficulty of defining beauty, but also in light of evolving attitudes over time to the place that it should occupy in our public and private lives, and how—and whether—art should embody this. Is beauty, for starters, a matter of irrelevant superficiality, or central to what art is?
The difficulty of beauty in the 21st century
Dictionary definitions of beauty—such as Oxford Dictionaries’ description of it as “a combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight”—can only tell us so much about the role or pertinence of beauty today.
We are all routinely affected by the beauty that we perceive in our day-to-day lives—perhaps in a stunning sunset, a fellow human being or, of course, a work of art. But there have also been widespread questions in recent decades as to whether cultural relativism has served to foster a ‘cult of ugliness’ in contemporary art that is showing too few signs of going away any time soon.
Drawing these battles lines are such critics as JJ Charlesworth and Jonathan Jones. The former has reasoned that “beauty is one of those ideas that over the past 100 years or so has been slowly downgraded when it comes to considering the value of art… if anything, we [now] regard humanity as pretty ugly.” Jones, meanwhile, has suggested that “the rejection of beauty as a creative ideal began not with modernism but when modern art started believing its own press.”
Beauty considered at the onset of art history
To consider where beauty may be best perceived and positioned in the art of today, it is perhaps instructive to look to assessments of the beauty of the art of the past.
For instance, the man hailed by many as the ‘father of art history’, Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68), composed his History of Ancient Art at a time when the art of classical antiquity that he sought to study had long been largely destroyed, forcing him to depend to a great extent on the written records left by ancient travellers and historians.
Despite this, Winckelmann was a concerted believer in the notion that beauty did not arise in a work of art of its own accord, but instead as a result of a sort of collaboration between the work and the viewer. His texts reveal a passion for beauty as a characteristic emerging from prolonged contemplation and reflection. These include his assessment that “the first view of beautiful statues is… like the first glance over the open sea; we gaze on it bewildered, and with undistinguishing eyes, but after we have contemplated it repeatedly the soul becomes more tranquil and the eye more quiet, and capable of separating the whole into its particulars.”
Of surely no less relevance to today’s art lovers than it was to their counterparts he advised several centuries ago, Winckelmann noted that he had “imposed upon myself the rule of not turning back until I had discovered some beauty.” He urged students to approach works of Greek art “favourably prepossessed… for, being fully assured of finding much that is beautiful, they will seek for it, and a portion of it will be made visible to them.”
Do we, then, live amid a ‘cult of ugliness’ at all?
Even putting aside for one moment Winckelmann’s call for a sustained search for beauty even in those artworks that may not initially seem to yield it, there is plenty of reason for optimism about the role of beauty—or the lack of it—in the art of today.
Beauty has, for one thing, re-entered the critical conversation in recent decades. The Dutch artist Marlene Dumas (born 1953), for example, has mused that “one cannot paint a picture of or make an image of a woman and not deal with the concept of beauty.”
Fellow artist Agnes Martin (1912-2004), meanwhile, signalled her appreciation of beauty as existing in the present moment of the viewer’s judgement, when she declared in her 1989 essay ‘Beauty Is the Mystery of Life’: “When a beautiful rose dies, beauty does not die because it is not really in the rose. Beauty is an awareness in the mind. It is a mental and emotional response that we make.”
Regardless, in iconic artworks of recent decades ranging from Irish artist Mary Duffy’s evocations of statues like the Venus de Milo to reveal the beauty of her own body, right through to Greek artist Jannis Kounellis’ (1936-2017) juxtaposition of fragmentary casts of ancient sculpture within a doorway for 1980’s Untitled, there are surely abundant examples of how beauty in art is by no means long gone.
So, what do you think? What leads you to consider a work of art to be beautiful, or not beautiful? Are we impacted by a ‘cult of ugliness’, or are we simply not searching hard enough for the beauty in the art of today? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.