Monday, July 07, 2008

The Problems We Have With Beauty

While I was canoeing down the French Broad River last week, Ed Winkleman was hosting an open thread on "why everyone is so afraid of beauty". It is hard to imagine a deader horse, but there are often great nuggets to be found in these sorts of arguments nevertheless. At last count, there were 131 comments, so I will give you my highlights: Pretty Lady responded to j.t.'s assertion that "For me, beauty in art is an escape from the everyday crap that surrounds us." with

" 'Nope, nope, nope.'
That's the definition of kitsch.

''s the relationships between colors and forms that make them beautiful, rather than the colors and forms themselves. Radical contrast breeds excitement, complex harmony, and a beauty that is rich, deep and all-inclusive. Kitsch is about avoidance--it edits out any awkwardness, any reference to death and decay, to comfort the mind's fears. But great art puts in the death; great art accepts everything. And unconditional acceptance is a prerequisite for enduring peace.'

I don't think we're 'afraid of beauty' so much as it gives us a powerful feeling of superiority to dismiss it. Apprehension of great beauty is a cousin to awe, and awe engenders humility. Feeling humble is anathema to surviving in the shark tank of the NYC 'art world;' we must maintain our sense of contemptuous disdain at all costs. QED."

Franklin's favorite statement about craft "...comes from Renoir, who assures us with considerable irony that becoming a craftsman will not stop you from becoming a genius."

This discussion often seems to divide people into camps of formalism and conceptualism, as if they were mutually exclusive. My obsessive, perfectionist response to this debate is my oft-muttered-to-self phrase, "everything counts".

The book "Uncontrollable Beauty: Toward A New Aesthetics", edited by Bill Beckley and David Shapiro, was published in 2001. Although I wrestled for many years with fashion aesthetics (suppressing my vintage clothing fetish and makeup wearing to be "one of the guys" in art school), I have never wrestled with the decision of whether to forgo or reject beauty in my work, as illustrated in an article about my UGA MFA show (many moons before the afore-mentioned book, I might add, when the word was still "dirty").
(click to enlarge)

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OpenID sarahpetruz said...

The one thing that is often left out of these "this way or that way" discussions (about beauty, formalism vs. conceptualism, etc.) is the simple fact that each individual artist tends (needs) to create their own work in a manner that is both physically innate and emotionally necessary to his or her self and not as a result of what is expected from the world outside of the studio.

Since the boundaries of what is acceptable as art have been pushed so far, often artists and critics mistake the outer edge of those boundaries as "the current real deal" while dismissing the depth and meaning of work that is executed "the old fashioned way", and they likewise completely ignore the simple concept to each his own.

There is also an underlying assumption that to be relevant all "us" artists are supposed to be engaged in some sort of reciprocal-highbrow-art-world dialogue by demonstrating current trends of technique, style, attitude or media within our own studios.

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon: while there are some interesting nuggets to be gleaned from these discussions and debates, to be distracted with the ideas of overly opinionated and self-serving artist/pundits is to allow their insipid views to cross the threshold of the studio often at the risk of our own self confidence and trust in what gives us pleasure in creating our own body of work.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

Great points. I have to confess, I am a bit burnt out on these discussions myself, and am choosing not to contribute much these days.

I think a lot of the attitude you speak of comes from academia: the most value is given to those who are "advancing the dialog" in an art historical sense.

Although I have stood with mouth agape in front of what some would call very traditional work, I have also had to catch myself in crits and at exhibitions from completely dismissing any work that reminded me too much of someone else's work.... "been there, seen that", etc.

4:00 PM  

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