Beauty Debate Revisited

Beauty Debate Revisited

Originally published with Infinite Mile issue 11|November 2014

Why would anyone degrade beauty?
Why would anyone ignore their soul, their eyes;
Why wouldn’t you cherish these moments in this limited opportunity,
For Beauty wakes your soul as the body dies.
We were told of the Seven Sleepers by Donne,
What if we sleep through this life and there is only one?

Several years ago, I watched a video by Rivane & Sergio Neuenschwander Love Lettering, 2002, where a fish carried words from broken sentences.  The fish glided in and out of focus, the disjointed words causing me to reflect on how we are our memories and the ephemeral nature of memories.  That piece moved me.  It was beautiful.  I have a lot of memories of beautiful artwork.  Some of my fondest, deepest memories are of beautiful, timeless works of art.

I remember walking through a tight path on the first floor of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to come face-to-face with John Signer Sargent’s El Jaleo, 1882.  I stood, mouth agape, staring at a Spanish gypsy dancer—sharp contrasts and bold angles took me to a different time and place where the free spirit of the gypsy dancer entranced me.  I remember countless times walking through the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Rivera Court and getting lost in the Rivera mural, Detroit Industry, 1932-1933, which captures the beauty of the everyman from a single voice.  I remember being moved to tears at the foot of Salvador Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross, 1951, in Glasgow, Scotland.

With these real experiences, real memories with beautiful art objects, the question arises, what is “beauty”?

“What is beauty?” is a question that many artists and art lovers ask themselves, usually in retrospect.  In retrospect because when viewing and creating a beautiful object, “what is beauty” doesn’t get asked, it’s just embraced.  It is easy for anyone to criticize any definition of beauty since it is difficult for anyone to define it.   Anyone can point to the perversion of physical beauty or the brilliance of artists who disavowed beauty to show that beauty is not always  the focal point for critical discourse about art.  But just because it is not always the focal point, does not mean that it cannot sometimes be the focal point.  I believe a lot of people recognize the importance of considering beauty in art in a complex network of ideas that also includes the importance of not-considering beauty in art.  There simply is not one correct answer and one wrong answer.  But beauty in its truest form is an accomplishment that should be celebrated.  Beauty is complicated.  Beauty deserves to be discussed, debated.

Beauty Debate

A few year ago, I hosted a “beauty debate.”  I hosted two panels and curated a show titled, “Beauty Debate”—the participants are noted at the end of this essay, and a video of the second panel is included with this essay.  Through preparing, participating, and reflecting on all of the different opinions shared during that event I gained a better understanding about my own views of beauty in art.

During the Beauty Debate, Vince Carducci opened his remarks by quoting Theodor W. Adorno, “[i]t is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist,” which comes from the beginning of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory.  That sentence sums the impossible position one puts oneself in when he or she discusses art and beauty.

Vince also observed that the first panel of speakers explored a lot of opinions about beauty that did not make cohesive sense, yet those opinions and statements were legitimate in the ever-evolving idea of art and beauty.  As part of my unpacking of the Beauty Debate, I explore facets of beauty that the panels discussed.  The first facet I explore is simply trying to define beauty.

How do you define “beauty”?

This first facet may be the most difficult.  Here is my first attempt to define beauty in fine art: an artist creates a beautiful object that truthfully speaks to the viewer when the viewer responds with transcendent awe and bliss.  How is that for a sentence full of loaded terms?  Who is “an artist”? What does it meant to “create”?  Who is the “viewer”? What is “transcendent awe and bliss”?

An easier approach to this essay would be to just state that all art and all beauty is subjective and leave it at that.  While we are all creatures of our own minds, an argument that begins and ends with all art and beauty is subjective ignores our shared emotional makeup and our shared values of creating a preserving beautiful art.  Certain artists create timeless works that open up dialogues and speak deeply to viewers through exploring a new articulation of certain truths.   And each generation of artists builds on the legacy of the successful artists before them.  I think a valid definition of beauty should try to capture that idea.  As a society, we move forward building on the past, so to “create” an artist has to make something out of nothing.  That is, the artist has to share a universal truth in a manner that speaks anew to the viewer.  A work of art is able to speak anew and knock the viewer out of his or her shoes, because the piece echoes—through a color, through a line, through music, through concept, etc.—an emotion in the viewer’s core in a new and exciting way.  An artist creates a truthful piece of art when the artist does not trick the viewer through a copy of previous works or over-intellectualizing the process or the piece; rather, the artist is searching and is honest in his or her search.

Of course, there are holes in my definition of beauty in art, but this definition provides a point of departure.  So I will explore some of the elements of my definition of beauty in art: An artist creates a beautiful object that truthfully speaks to the viewer when the viewer responds with transcendent awe and bliss.

An Artist Creates

First, “an artist” is an ever expanding title, which is a good thing.  A society should encourage people to create artwork, and if that individual regularly creates artwork we should embrace that person giving him or herself the title of artist.  In relation to beauty, I think it requires a good to great artist to create an art object that is beautiful.  In that sense, an artist is an individual who has the technical skill to express his or her individuality in a truthful manner so that his or her individuality is mirrored in the object.  An artist also has taste. An artist acquires taste by honing his or her skill and builds off of and away from successful prior art.

I use the term “technical skill” in a broad sense that signifies that a person is able to clearly produce an art object of self-expression.  During the Beauty Debate we discussed technical skill in a narrower sense.   Namely, does an artist truly “create” an art object when that artist is able to display a recognizable degree of skill to the viewer?  Is dexterity and craft in that sense important? My initial thought is that an artist does not need to possess technical skill in the sense that she can draw well or paint well, but technical skill is a tool that allows some artists to communicate their message or vision.  So, while it is not necessary, it is helpful for some artists.  It is also helpful to some artists whose work does not exhibit a particular technical skill, but, through having a base knowledge build on studying the fine arts and honing their technical skill, they are able to know historical practices to allow them to innovate (which could sometime lead to deskilling).

In talking with artists/writers/art professionals, the question is rarely whether an artist needs to display a certain amount of technical skill.  Rather, the question often revolves around whether an artist’s display of technical skill shows innovation on the part of the artist.   This is mainly a question because of the expansion of artistic expression following the avant-garde movement of the 1920s and an individual’s desire for simple narratives where if someone shows that dexterity is not important in their particular work, then it is simply not important in any work.  It is either all or nothing.

The Beauty Debate discussion spent a good amount of time discussing craft in terms of technical skill.  Some of the participants noted that the “thing” is being brought back into the contemporary art dialogue – that is, the “thing” is primary rather than the “concept” or the “idea” being primary and the “thing” being secondary.  In discussing craft, Robin Grearson noted the renewed focus on street art.  I think many on the panel viewed the current popularity of street art as a public and, then, art world recognition of technical craft.   Robin also observed that, “craft reflects the values we have in society,  The more you are paying attention to the craft, you are celebrating a human accomplishment which moves away from conceptual art and getting into those tangibles things we can see and hold on to and say it’s amazing that a human being has been able to achieve this in their lifetime ….”

Street art is open to more than the art world, and some of its great works have the capacity to captivate audience and put them in awe at this human accomplishment.  Since the Beauty Debate, street art has gained even more credence and support within the gallery and museum walls.  But I think a large part of its allure is that certain pieces do tap in to some notions of universal beauty where people from all walks of life are drawn in to certain pieces.  Several street artists are able to create work that captivates people from all walks of life.  So are these artists tapping into certain qualities present in a majority of viewers?

The viewer

Who is the viewer?  Can an art object have beauty to one viewer and not another?  Should the definition of beauty differ for different cultures and different time periods?  I hope not.  I hope that certain works of art are able to transcend individuals and tap into a shared humanity.  This idea of beauty goes back to historical notions of beauty in an art object due to its relation to truth.

Individuals do bring their own baggage to viewing art, but hopefully that is baggage only and not an actual and true indicator of what is or is not a beautiful and timeless piece.  I think that some baggage can color an artwork as “interesting” or “fun” or “sellable” or “important,” but not as beautiful.

Because I am unavoidably trapped in my own head, my definition of beauty can be easily dismissed as subjective.  But dismissing a definition of beauty because of universal subjectivity negates our shared humanity.   During the Beauty Debate, Robin felt that concepts of beauty were completely subjective because of who we are and how we feel with our own lives is dependent on our culture, and, culturally,we explore different issues.  She also felt that there couldn’t be a universal concept of beauty because a particular culture’s concept of beauty would change over time.

But my personal history with art history mollifies that argument.  From an early age, I have been in awe of various pieces of art from different cultures and time periods.  These pieces are universal and stand the test of time.  In visiting art museums, I have always been pulled to culturally and temporally distinct art collections where the only unifying aspect is that the pieces sweep me away.  Are they important to me because of my trained response that whatever is in a museum is important?  Does the museum imbue the piece with significance and I just buy in to their showcase?  Do art historians and curators decide what is and what is not a beautiful art object?

During the Beauty Debate, David Gerhard mentioned how he had an artist friend who thought that Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917, was is beautiful.  David observed that its historical significance despite its philosophical underpinnings (to question notions of beauty) caused the piece to be beautiful to this particular person. I think that putting the Fountain into the category of a beautiful object misses the point of the Fountainand the term beauty.  The concept was amazing and the piece is important, but I think that putting it into the category of a beautiful art object gives too broad of a definition to beauty.  I want to avoid a broad, all-encompassing definition of beauty.  An artwork does not have to be beautiful to be great, and I think that point is sometimes missed in these discussions about beauty. (Of course with this debate, along with most debates on the definition of beauty, Duchamp’s influence in shaking up that definition and permanently skewing any clean definition was broached.)

I do not think the Fountain is a beautiful object because it does not mirror the artist in a manner that frees the viewer’s empathy, that pushes the viewer to “transcendent awe and bliss” in and of itself.

Transcendent Awe and Bliss

Does the definition of beauty tie into an innate and instinctual appreciation of beauty?  Do some pieces of art leave viewers or, at least, the majority of viewers in awe and happy but for nothing else except for looking at the piece and recognizing an emotion within themselves?

During the Beauty Debate, we spoke of instinctual concepts of beauty that focused on line and color and balance, which goes toward innate feelings of comfort.  But, then, Cubism and Dada (while I do not think the Fountain is a beautiful art object in and of itself I do think that some Dada pieces are beautiful) and so on successfully challenged those simple notion of beauty in art.  Those movements showed that society looks for more than balance or is at least capable of appreciating more than balance and color when considering beauty and art—to me, it is an example where artists are searching and sharing their search for a unique voice.  This search also explains the ever evolving nature of beauty, because artists need to build on the past to create a truly unique voice.  Maybe there is an innate need to be inspired to reflect on life and the good in life and the truth in life so that we don’t go mad.

One trouble with asking these questions and digging deeper for a universal definition of beauty in art is that these are ultimately philosophical questions that can cloud a real life experience  I think time and experience is an important aspect of defining beauty in art.  That is, someone who has been exposed to art for a certain amount of time develops a more discerning eye (taste), causing items that are cliché or a gimmick to fail to captivate in line with the more discerning the viewer becomes.  I think the progression of the Grand Rapids Art Prize is a great example of viewers becoming more discerning, which culminated this year when the popular vote and the critic’s pick were one in the same.

I think, throughout the Beauty Debate, there was a recognition that the concept of beauty or the goal of art to produce a thing of beauty had, for several decades, been dismissed as focusing too much on sentimentality or as dismissed as intellectually inferior to higher goals for artwork—goals that could sometimes only be explained in essays rather than a piece speaking for itself.  I think some of this slipping away from beauty is because some artists successfully challenged contemporary ideas of beauty.

But because some artists and critics successfully challenge concepts of beauty, does that mean they closed the door on all aspects of beauty and their new concepts of art-making are superior?  Is it always a game of if this concept is correct then other concepts have to be incorrect?  Or, is it that of an art world falling victim of an intellectual fallacy.  The problem with the art community latching on to this mindset is that it is an oversimplification of what art can be.  When considering an artwork’s beauty, a critique has to consider that particular object and whether the artist created something new, something to put the viewer in awe.  Sometimes pieces of artwork that are technically “crafted” well, lack a soul and sometimes high-concept pieces do not approach the concept in a new way or, at least, the piece falls into the realm of over-intellectualizing a concept so it is just an exploration of that artist’s ego and an effort to seem smart rather than engaging in a dialogue.

As a society we should applaud artists who are able to create artworks that put viewers in awe.  It is important to be open-minded and a viewer really misses out on a great life experience if he or she initially ignores and degrade beauty as a goal of some art.  Life is short, so why would anyone wait to participate in a dialogue with a work of art that may uplift them?

Should we debate art and beauty?

For may artists, the most important starting point, in my view, is the artist wanting to create an open and honest dialogue about beauty, about a truthful sharing of experiences.  Likewise, a definition of beauty requires a dialogue about beauty.  That is, a single definition of beauty does not capture all of the various facets of beauty and, by trying to give a finite definition, the artist over-simplifies how true beauty in art reveals itself.  Like Vince observed, there can be various views of beauty that seem to contradict one another, but all are valid.  This is because art is complicated, because people are complicated and because beauty is complicated—but worth exploring again and again.  For me, the Beauty Debate shined a bright light on the importance for people not to degrade concepts of beauty in fine arts   Beauty is not a relic that should be relegated to the past.  It is a goal that should be explored and debated.

All in all, beauty should be debated and it should not be disregarded right out-of-the-box.  It is a quality of visual language that can be a mode for a new voice that can tilt ourperspectives on life.  Any dialogue that can tilt our perspectives on life should be embraced, because, when we are able to consider life from multiple perspectives, we are able to live with meaning.

The Beauty Debate was a two day event that I put together in 2012 in Detroit, Michigan.  I invited artists from around the world that I respected and whose pieces I thought would create interesting contrasts and explore different facets of beauty.  The pieces ranged from performance pieces to traditional drawings.  I also organized a fashion show to run through the arts show, which upset some of the artists because it objectified women.  That was the intent –to push buttons about concepts of beauty.  Finally, the day before the actual art show opening and the fashion show, I organized two debates that took place at the Boll Center YMCA theatre.  It was well attended and the discussions were riveting.  It was strange for me, and you will see me slumped over a little in the video, because I was just released from the hospital.  In the run up to putting this whole event together I had fallen ill (pericardial effusion and pleural effusion) and I was rushed to the Intensive Care Unit, where I spent a week, got better and, then, pushed myself to still put on the Beauty Debate together.  Shortly after the Beauty Debate, the YMCA forfeited its ownership interest in (I was the editor of and I put the show together under that role).  The new owners of shuttered it and, eventually, the gallery that hosted the show also shuttered.  I think all of these things made me not want to revisit the debate until now.  And I am glad I did, because the speakers were brilliant and the artwork was, well, beautiful.Regarding the Beauty Debate panel discussions, the participants in the first panel were Michael Hodges, an arts writer for the Detroit News; Hrag Vartanian, co-founder and editor of Hyperallergic; Tate Osten, the Director of Kunsthalle-Detroit Museum; and Rebecca Hart, the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts.  The participants in the second panel were Vince Carducci, an art critic and Dean of Undergraduate Studies at College for Creative Studies; Kianga Ellis, owner of Kianga Ellis Projects in New York; Robin Grearson, writer, curator and teacher based in New York; and David Gerhard, an artist who also participated in the Beauty Debate art show.  Travis Wright, a reporter for WDET, and I participated in both panels.  While I provide some quotes from the second panel, both panels are full of tremendous incites from all of the participants and I am going to continue to try to reflect on those insights for future essays.The artist who participated in the Beauty Debate show were: Topher Crowder (Detroit); Brian Barr (Detroit); Lauren Rice (Detroit); Bryant Tillman (Detroit); Ron Zakrin      (Detroit); Geno Harris (Detroit); Carla Gannis (New York City); Man Bartlett (New York City); Stephen Maine (New York City); Clarina Bezzola (New York City); Ashley Zelinskie (New York City); Elle Deadsexicon (New York City); Judith Hoffman (New York City); Matthew Davey (Chicago); David Gerhard (Greenville, South Carolina); and Vince Cacciotti (LA).
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