“Beauty is back.” - Joel Garreau
“Beauty’s on the comeback trail.” – Denis Dutton
“Beauty’s back in town.” – Susan Yelavich
It’s been a long time coming and it was a long time gone.
For the past hundred years, and especially for the past thirty years, if you said that a work of art was “beautiful,” you were saying that it was no good. Art had to be disturbing, it had to communicate radical ideas, it had to advance “progressive” political causes. Beauty was a plaything of the bourgeoisie, designed to distract people from the fight against injustice.
Beauty never disappeared, but it had to go underground.
Then, in the early 1990’s, a few people in the art world began to whisper that they were growing tired of ugly art; that actually, in their secret hearts, they liked to sneak a glance at beauty when none of the art professors were looking. A major cultural shift was beginning, slowly and silently.
Many people in the art world insist that they remember the time and the place when beauty came out of the closet. It was an almost accidental, slip-of-the-tongue confession by an activist art guru. It was1993. David Hickey, who teaches art criticism and theory at the University of Nevada, had just finished making one of his proselytizing speeches to an audience of artists, art students, art experts, art commentators, art collectors, and art groupies, and he asked the audience if there were any questions. Someone got up and asked Hickey what he thought would be the major issue that would dominate the 1990’s.
Hickey made an impromptu response: “Snatched from my reverie, I said ‘Beauty’, and then more firmly, ‘The issue of the nineties will be Beauty.’ This was greeted with a total, uncomprehending silence… I had wandered into this dead zone, the silent abyss.”
People left that meeting and reported his inexplicable response. Beauty? What’s that got to do with art? What has gotten into him? He must be losing it.
David Hickey then published a brief manifesto: “The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty” and he said, “I direct your attention to the language of visual effect – to the rhetoric of how things look – to the iconography of desire – in a word, ‘beauty’.” The little booklet was passed around in the Beauty Underground, like a samizdat in the Soviet Union . You wouldn’t want to be caught reading it in a university art class, or have your avant-garde friends discover it on your bookshelf. But, for many in the art world, it was an identifiable moment. Hickey had touched a nerve.
For the general public, the news came later. The “Eureka” moment for many people in the general public was an article by Joel Garreau in The Washington Post entitled “The Call of Beauty, Coming In Loud & Clear,” on February 19, 2002. People photocopied it and passed it around. Whereas Hickey’s essays introduced the culture change to a limited number of people, Garreau’s essay reached hundreds of thousands. People who collected beautiful art at home but completely avoided the modernist art scene telephoned each other and asked, ”Did you see that article about beauty?” It seemed so amazing that, after a century of being locked out in the cold, Beauty would suddenly show up in The Washington Post. The dam burst. Beauty-lovers could now come out of the closet.
The Repression of Beauty
Todd Gitlin, in The American Prospect, tells a story about Lenin banning the music of Beethoven, because when he listened to Beethoven, he felt moved, he felt human, he felt inspired, and thus did not feel like killing his enemies. All art, the Marxists said, is political. If you show the existing world as being beautiful, you are distracting people from the fight against injustice. The artist must show people how ugly the world is; the artist must make politically motivated art. Traditional artists are running-dog lackeys of the bourgeoisie. Beauty is a social construct that favors the ruling class.
For centuries, art students would apprentice in the studio of an established artist, and learn the basic techniques of the craft. In the 20th Century, the teaching of art was moved into the universities. Gradually, it became the teaching of theory, of ideas, of politics, and students often did not even learn to draw, paint, or sculpt. Many professors had become political activists in the 1960’s, when Amerikkka was the belly of the beast, and the objective was to slice open the belly and bring about utopia based on intellectual abstractions.
Joel Garreau in The Washington Post: “…the more the search for the transcendent got wrapped up in the abstract, the further it became removed from ordinary human affairs. The very concept that there might be something called beauty became an embarrassment… Beauty got hopelessly entangled in erudite discussions of charm, ornamentation, the proper role of women in society, and class. A concern for beauty, modernists feared, could collapse the quest for deep truths – especially the truths concerning the squalor of unliberated society… The arts, Frederick Turner notes, became obsessed with our bad conscience, about racism, classism, sexism, exploitation, capitalism, war, totalitarianism and our destruction of Mother Nature…. The idea that beauty should be the point of art became quaint.”
Wendy Steiner, author of “Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in 20th Century Art”: “In modernism, the perennial rewards of aesthetic experience – pleasure, insight, empathy – were largely withheld; it and its generous aim, beauty, were abandoned.”
Kenneth Baker, art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle: “With the paralysis of progressive politics in the 1970s, social critique went underground and re-emerged in—of all places—the practice, criticism and history of the arts. Issues of social justice that appeared incorrigible in the real world were resolved in the frictionless thrashings of art and literary criticism. In the new intellectual climate of political correctness, interest in mere aesthetic niceties was viewed as reactionary.”
Jules Olitski in The Partisan Review: “It is evident that quality, the very quest for quality, is under siege. The word beautiful is considered something for the wealthy, the elite, who can afford the leisure to develop taste. Hence it is capitalistic, imperialistic, elitist, and one risks being called a fascist for seeking excellence and having pleasure in the beautiful. It simply isn’t democratic. It attacks the modern perception of equality, diversity, multiculturalism, and God knows what else. We are all, they tell us, we all should be, must be, in the same box.”
Denis Dutton: “… the idea of beauty in an academic atmosphere … treats beauty-talk as bourgeois or elitist. Today, it is the very existence of beauty as an intrinsic property of art that is in doubt. Beauty, Marx-inspired social constructionists tell us, is but a figment of class interest or social indoctrination .. . Today, loving beauty, like enjoying cigars or thick steaks, or having a Mexican maid, is something we are supposed to regard as politically awkward.”
Todd Gitlin in The American Prospect: “ …Short of despising, there is dismissing - art can be condemned not only as deception but also as distraction from duty. In the 1960s, radicals who liked to quote poetry favoured Bertolt Brecht’s “To Posterity,” which includes these lines (as translated by H.R. Hays):
Ah, what an age it is
When to speak of trees is
almost a crime
For it is a kind of silence
Gitlin continues: “… many passionate moralists have shared Brecht’s impulse to beware diversions on the rocky road toward social progress … Brecht was not bothered by silence about Stalinism, of course, a silence he made a long career keeping … These lines of Brecht’s point to a perennial tension between politics and beauty. Eric Hobsbawm has argued that all revolutions - including the failed and the fatuous - generate a Puritanical streak that cannot abide unruly sex. He might just as well have added unruly beauty. Totalist politics tend to be greedy for the soul. Lenin is said to have deplored Beethoven’s baleful influence, which made him want to stroke the heads of his enemies. In a lighter vein, there were New Left activists circa 1970 who earnestly debated the burning question of whether watching the sunset was counterrevolutionary. An interest in beauty has frequently been said to be bourgeois - one of the great conversation stoppers of all time - or to enshrine the standards of a privileged group, which often enough, of course, is one thing it does. In the wake of feminism, there emerged a kindred line of argument to the effect that the perception of many forms of beauty was objectification and that objectification was tantamount, or prelude, to colonization. To see, in a certain sense, was to own, and to serve as an object of seeing was to be owned. “The male gaze,” as Laura Mulvey first termed it, was a search and seizure, a virtual rape. Control was in the eye of the beholder. It was generally not conceded that the female who could command the male gaze had in one sense seized control of him. Our age is still Brecht’s in the gruesomeness of its sufferings and the alibis brandished by political figures of all stripes who are offended by art’s perplexing insult to their utilitarianism of choice. Everywhere we hear the assumption that art cannot be left to speak for itself but is a translucent (if not transparent) mask for ideological projects.”
Arthur C. Danto: “Beauty rarely came up in art periodicals from the 1960’s on without a deconstructionist snicker.”
Gerhard Richter: “One writer claimed that if I painted sex and violence, it would have been okay, but one isn’t allowed to paint anything beautiful. ‘The changed fashion of the time,’ if I may appropriate Kant’s mournful language regarding the fate of Metaphysics, ‘brings beauty only scorn; a matron outcast and forsaken.”
Elaine Scarry, author of “Beauty and Justice,” about the academic world: “The banishing of beauty from the humanities in the last two decades has been carried out by a set of political complaints… these political complaints are themselves incoherent. Beauty is, at the very least, innocent of the charges against it, and it may even be the case, that far from damaging our capacity to attend to problems of injustice, it instead intensifies the pressure we feel to repair existing injustices… When I say that beauty has been banished, I mean that… conversation about the beauty of these things has been banished… (we) speak about their beauty only in whispers.”
Terry Teachout, drama critic for The Wall Street Journal: “Starting in the 1960s, American culture, for the first time in its brief history, fell victim to a bad idea, one that for close to a quarter-century held considerable sway over our artists and critics. All at once, it seemed, we had lost our collective willingness to make value judgments… (postmodernism) rejected the very idea of greatness itself… abstract painting, atonal music, and plotless dance were being presented as historically inevitable, a quasi-Marxist argument whose makers not infrequently sought to quash dissent, also à la Marx…. Postmodernists are absolute relativists. They disbelieve in truth and beauty, claiming instead that nothing is good, true, or beautiful in and of itself. Rather, “goodness,” “truth,” “beauty,” and “quality” are constructs imposed by the powerful on the powerless for political purposes. Hence there can be no great art and no great artists (except for Marcel Duchamp, the patron saint of postmodernism and its own exemplary figure). Shakespeare? Beethoven? Cézanne? Mere capitalist tools, used to anesthetize the masses and prop up the decadent ruling classes of the West. To the postmodernist, randomness was as good as order, noise as good as music, and all artistic statements were created equal, though those made by the nominally powerless were more equal than others.”
James Hillman, author of “The Practice of Beauty”: “The arts, whose task was once considered to be that of manifesting the beautiful, will discuss the idea only to dismiss it, regarding beauty only as the pretty, the simple, the pleasing, the mindless and the easy. Because beauty is conceived so naively, it appears as merely naïve, and can be tolerated only if complicated by discord, shock, violence, and harsh terrestrial realities. I therefore feel justified in speaking of the repression of beauty.”
The Decline of anti-Art
Why is Beauty on the come-back trail right now?
Partly because the purveyors of ugliness ran out of ideas. It’s all been done. (See the article: “Thirty Years of Crap”).
Partly because Marxist theology is a dead horse, and the Marxist professors in the universities are beginning to retire.
Partly because some of the younger artists actually want to learn to make art, instead of pushing radical ideas.
Partly because anti-art quickly gets thrown in the garbage; you re-visit beauty again and again and want to preserve it for the ages.
Partly because Beauty is stronger than political fads; it is hard-wired into human evolution.
Partly because Western civilization itself is under attack, and people see what we might lose.
Terry Teachout, writing in the journal of U.S. Society & Values: “…the marginalization of the idea of beauty and its replacement with the sniggering, fearful Irony Lite that was the hallmark of American culture in the 1990s. It was an aesthetically sterile position, and for that reason it was doomed—though no one could possibly have envisioned the terrible occasion that proved that it, too, had run its course. The destruction of the World Trade Center, among countless other things, may well have brought an end to the unthinking acceptance of postmodern relativism. On that never-to-be-forgotten morning, Americans awakened to the crudest possible reminder that some things are not a matter of opinion.”
Frank Whitford in The Sunday Times: “…The essence of modernism, the avant-garde, has long since lost its power to shock and move. It has become the Academy that it once despised and thought to have destroyed, declaring itself unorthodox while slavishly following fashion. With the aid of its countless apologists it has attracted a large following. However, the kind of work preferred by an even bigger public is ignored by the cultural bureaucrats.”
Roger Kimball: “ Without an allegiance to beauty, art degenerates into a caricature of itself. It is beauty that animates aesthetic experience, making it so seductive …”
Laurie Fendrich, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mess,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “… Aspiring artists no longer needed to go to workshops or studios to become artists because being avant-garde and self-expressive did not depend on learning crafts, techniques, or studio methods… (they) jumped onto a theory-drive bandwagon, marching off to a land ruled by dilettante sociology, bogus community activism, and unrigorous science and philosophy… Deep down, they consider themselves to be morally superior to nonartists—more intensely emotional and sensitive—and pitted against a cold and corrupt society. Artists justified the esoteric nature of modern art with the idea that if something came from an authentic artist, it didn’t need orthodox social justification. Modern artists defined their work as worthy, and themselves as special people, simply because they were artists. The audience for modern art long ago gave up expecting or wanting skills, talent, or beauty from artists and willingly acceded to the idea that an artist is a creative outsider whose usefulness lies mainly in being critical of everything. Think "court jester" without the humor.”
Elaine Scarry, in On Beauty and Being Just, proposes a simple solution: Put it to a vote:
“Thinking not of ourselves, but of people who will be alive at the end of the twenty-first century: is it your wish for them that they be beauty-loving?
Do you hope that when people in the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries speak of us (the way we so effortlessly make descriptive statements about people living in the nineteenth of eighteenth or seventeenth centuries), do you hope that these future people will describe us as beauty-loving? or instead as neutral in respect to beauty? or instead as beauty-disregarding?
In the near future, human beings can arrange things so that there either will or will not be beautiful sky. Do you wish there to be beautiful sky?
Shall there be here and there an astonishingly beautiful cave whose passageways extend several miles, opening into crystal-lined grottos and large galleries of mineral latticework, in other galleries their mute walls painted by people who visited thousands of years earlier?
… We are not guessing: the evidence is in.”
Beauty strikes back
After a century of modernism and thirty years of ugly art, there is a cultural tide, returning to beauty. There is an outpouring of books and articles and commentary about beauty. And not just in art. Beauty is being discussed by anthropologists, mathematicians, architects, city planners, and by people who simply like beauty.
Joel Garreau relates a story of an event where everyone is surprised by the bent-up desire for beauty:
“A four-volume heavily illustrated opus concerning beauty is being published by Oxford University Press … It is by architectural theorist Christopher Alexander of the University of California , Berkeley , and has an imposing first printing of 50,000. It is titled no less than “The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe.” Alexander tells the story of attending a short film about his discovery of a pattern language in beauty—universal aspects of beauty that are recognizable no matter what historical era or culture you’re talking about. “To my surprise people started cheering. I was astonished. Of course touched, very moved. But to be honest I couldn’t quite understand the reason for it.” When asked how he had discovered these patterns in beauty throughout the ages, he replied, “Well, it was not so very different from any other kind of science. . . . But we did do one thing differently. We assumed from the beginning that everything was based on the real nature of human feeling and—this is the unusual part—that human feeling is mostly the same from person to person. . . . Of course there is that part of human feeling where we are all different but . . . 90 percent of our feelings is stuff on which we are all the same and we feel the same things.
“When I said this, a sort of cry went up, people shouted and clapped again, stood up and cheered. . . . What they saw in me was a voice saying that our shared human feeling has been forgotten, hidden in the mess of opinion and personal differences. . . . That is what made them stand up and shout.”
And Garreau wonders: “What is this line we’ve suddenly crossed, reawakening to universal beauty as if from a long bad dream? What’s driving this rebirth? What does this buzz about beauty say about us and the presence of radical change in the world that we are entering?”
James W. McAllister, in his book “Beauty and Revolution in Science,” argues in Darwinian fashion that the survival of the fittest mathematical theories may depend on their beauty, “certain aesthetic properties – certain simplicity properties...”
In a similar spirit, Nancy Etcoff, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, published ‘Survival of the Prettiest : the Science of Beauty’, in which she argues for beauty as a biological imperative. She writes: “Outside the realm of ideas, beauty rules. Nobody has stopped looking at it, and no one has stopped enjoying the sight.”
Denis Dutton comments: “Beauty’s on the comeback trail. After a century out in the cold, it’s once again alright to pronounce the B-word in intellectual discourse.”
Terry Teachout: “America's post-postmodernists are fighting for the right to make beautiful art -- and they are winning.”
Susan Yelavich, in “Beauty’s Back in Town”: “Something is happening to beauty. For almost a century reviled as the province of the petit bourgeois, beauty is now re-emerging as a legitimate, even desirable, value among curators, designers, critics, city planners, even scientists and anthropologists. In his call for new zoning laws, Joseph B. Rose, Chairman of the Planning Commission and Director of the Planning Department of New York City, proposed that there be “...one deliberate exception to ... new height and bulk rules [for buildings]...on the basis of exceptional design,” saying, “Let us instil the quest for beauty into the powerful economic drive of this city’s real estate entrepreneurs.”
Arthur C. Danto, in his book ‘The Abuse of Beauty’: “…the need for beauty in the extreme moments of life is deeply ingrained in the human framework… Beauty is the only one of the aesthetic qualities that is also a value, like truth and goodness. It is not simply among the values we live by, but one of the values that defines what a fully human life means.”
Joel Garreau: “The critical difference between today’s students of beauty, and its scolds, is that today’s advocates believe there is such a thing as universal human nature, and it is both deep and highly structured. They believe that there is bedrock reality to beauty.”
Joel Garreau gives multi-disciplinary examples: The most well-known of the evolutionary biologists who see humans as substantially hard-wired—even for beauty—is Edward O. Wilson, the much-honoured Harvard naturalist. Wilson recently authored the controversial “Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.” In it, he argues that during human evolution, there was plenty of time for natural selection to compose human nature. “Certain thoughts and behaviour are more effective than others in the emotional responses they cause,” Wilson writes. “They bias cultural evolution toward the invention of archetypes . . . the core narratives that are dominant themes in the arts.” Thus, the arts evolved with our genes. The arts, he says, went about “selecting the most evocative words, images, and rhythms. . . . Their quality is measured by their humanness, by the precision of their adherence to human nature. To an overwhelming degree that is what we mean when we speak of the true and beautiful in the arts.”
Joel Garreau’s futurist colleague, Ray Kurzweil: “Patterns have a great deal of power,” says Ray Kurzweil, the much-honoured Massachusetts computer systems innovator and author of “The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence.” “There is a whole elaborate hierarchy of these patterns. But beauty is right at the top of the hierarchy of patterns we deal with in our minds. Beauty is the organizing principle that demonstrates the power of a pattern.” The reason, thus, that we are now embracing a new search for beauty may be as simple as we humans searching for a new understanding of ourselves. “Beauty,” says Kurzweil, “is the ultimate in subtlety of human intelligence.”
Beauty for the sake of beauty
Elaine Scarry in “Beauty and Justice,” replies to the Marxist accusation that Beauty distracts us from the horrors of the world, and she argues that, on the contrary, the experience of what is beautiful in the world makes us better people, makes us more likely to seek Justice. Denis Dutton replies that she has not succeeded in making her case. Todd Gitlin replies that we don’t need to reply to the Marxist accusation; we don’t need to justify Beauty; we don’t need to require that Beauty do anything at all:
"In the end, beauty must speak for itself, however inconveniently. We cherish beautiful things not because they make us better people but because they are beautiful and we love them. To insist that their beauty is also conducive to justice is another utilitarian argument of the sort that is especially familiar in America . Beauty should be freed of the demand that it accomplish anything other than beauty. It shouldn’t have to work for a living. Beauty is beauty, just beauty, not the road to justice.”
But although the case can never be proven, and Elaine Scarry does not even come close to proving it, she may well be right. Beauty, and Truth, and Justice, and Good, may be interconnected values, and they may be, as Edward O. Wilson says, hard-wired into our genes. We may not always achieve them, but we know them when we see them.
Beauty is not something we understand, not something we can explain. It is something we experience, something we recognize, and having been called by beauty, we always want to be called again.
Jules Olitski: “It doesn’t make you taller, better, skinnier, richer. It doesn’t make you more of anything. Nicholas Poussin said the goal of art is delight. It grabs you; it takes you out of yourself, out of time. It is a unique experience. It is what one may experience looking at a Rembrandt self-portrait, or hearing Handel’s Xerxes, or reading Wordsworth’s Home at Grasmere .. . I remember coming all of a sudden upon Vermeer’s View of Delft. I was walking towards it, I must have been about twenty feet or more away, and I didn’t even know it was a Vermeer. One doesn’t swoon anymore since the nineteenth century, but like a maiden I swooned; I almost fell to the floor. I thought then, and I may still think, that it was the most beautiful painting I had ever seen, that was ever made.”
Beauty blows your mind.
And to those artists who rejected Beauty because they want to be part of the revolution, take heed of the words of folksinger Phil Ochs: “In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty.”
It is the creators of beauty who are the true revolutionaries.
(To know more about the authors of the above statements, continue to Field Commanders in the Beauty Underground.)