Beauty has different meanings, and art doesn’t always have to be beautiful

So apparently liberals have sapped beauty away from society. According to John C. Wright, “The most precious, profound and important of the great ideas which the Left has raped from us is beauty.” In his article, “How We’ve Been Robbed of Beauty by the Left”  Wright attributes a strange dearth of discourse on beauty to the rise of the Left.

By cherry picking certain works of art that he finds ugly, he laments that because of this free-for-all attitude of “everything is beautiful” or “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” we no longer have an appreciation of real beauty or real art.

Yeah, I’m not kidding.

It’s funny that I’m writing about this, because just the other day I was slamming Tom Junod who was going on and on about how beautiful 42 year old movie stars can be.  But his thesis that those who embrace “ugly” art have lost some sort of innocence is ridiculous. Art doesn’t always have to be beautiful – and yes, beauty is subjective.

In his article he creeps into (I think) dangerous territory by comparing high culture with pop culture, extolling the virtues of the former, and writing that the latter is merely fast-food consumption. He may be right – that’s a different argument, but let’s for the moment agree with Mr. Wright and say that if something is “high culture” than it’s better: no where in his article does he talk about access to high culture. If most people don’t embrace classical music, masterpiece paintings, or fine literature, it’s not because we’ve been blunted by “ugliness” or because we soulless creatures unable to appreciate high culture. It’s because of access – museums and classical concerts are expensive. And the literary canon is so removed from most readers that teachers have a hard time trying to make it urgent and relevant to their students.

But what about the works of art he looks at – he uses examples of art that is meant to provoke, maybe even disgust. One of the pieces is Piss Christ (1987), a photograph by artist, Andres Serrano. The photograph is of a crucifix in urine. Even though I find the work arresting and yes, maybe even beautiful, Serrano’s work is merely a way to show its audience just how commercialized and meaningless the image of Christ has become; so there’s more to the work than just an attempt to shock.

Martin Creed’s The Lights Going On and Off (2000) is just that – a room with a light blinking on and off. Do I get it? Not really. But just because I don’t doesn’t mean that it has no value – in fact, if anything it does make me question the boundaries of art – if flicking a light on and off can be an artistic expression, just how pervasive is art in our everyday lives? You see – even though Creed’s work may not be “beautiful” and even though I personally don’t get it, it still has some value because it gets people to talk.

Wright goes on to write, “At any point before World War One, if you asked any philosopher or intellectual what was the point of art, poetry, music, painting, sculpture, architecture, all of them of each generation all the way back to Socrates would have said the purpose of art is to seek beauty. Socrates himself would have said that by beauty, by the strong love and longing created in the human breast at the sight of something sublime, we are drawn out of ourselves, and are carried step by step away from the mundane to the divine.”

Great – then let’s just agree that since WWI, the point of art, poetry, music, painting, etc has changed and it’s become not just a seeking of beauty, but also a way to make meaning of the ugly. In the 20th Century and 21st Century, we’ve seen some very ugly moments in history and we’ve seen humanity do some terrible things to itself: WWI, WWII, the Holocaust, Jim Crow, the Balkans War, Rwanda genocide, Vietnam, Katrina, Iraq, AIDS, 9/11 – the list is exhaustive. And no, I’m not claiming that we had it the worst, because evil has always been around, but because of advances in technology and communication, we’ve been able to broadcast and share a lot more information. And survivors of these instances of evil or tragedy have been using art to express their pain, anger, grief – and yes, some of the resulting art can be seen as “beautiful,” but if some of the art isn’t, then that’s okay, too – because art isn’t solely made to be pretty.

Art is also made to disturb and disrupt our sensibilities. We an appreciate gorgeous works of beauty that are transcendent (and I have – this past summer I visited some of London’s greatest galleries and feasted on works by Leonardo di Vinci, Michelangelo, Pissaro), but we can also appreciate works of art that are strange and abrasive, and that challenge our ideas of what art is.

Wright insists that his critics will merely say that he’s blind to the beauty of the works he cites – that may be true of some, but I would argue that the art he was referencing wasn’t meant to be beautiful, at least no in the traditional sense of what beauty means.

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He writes, “There is no discussion of it because by convincing the public that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the Left has placed it beyond the realm of discussion. According to the Left, beauty is a matter of taste, and arbitrary taste at that. There is no discussion of taste because to give reasons to prefer tasteful to tasteless things is elitist, nasty, uncouth and inappropriate. To have taste implies that some cultures produce more works of art and better than others, and this raises the uncomfortable possibility that love of beauty is Eurocentric, or even racist. To admire beauty has become a hate crime.”

Wright wages into the tired culture wars by lamenting that somehow political correctness has made appreciated “classic” works of art (read: White) impossible. But again, this tired refrain – something I encountered in my years of teaching when old fusty professors complained that more students read The Color Purple than Shakespeare (which wasn’t true, but anyways…) is just wrong. Plain wrong. He’s writing as if there has been a shift and the masters have all been relegated to the crypts, hidden away, while these upstarts (which by the way include Marchel Duchamp whose work cited Fountain was made in 1917) have taken over.

He also touches on atheism, insisting that the Left (which is synonymous with atheism, because there are no such thing as liberal religious folks) hates beauty because to acknowledge beauty is to acknowledge something “bigger” than us – and atheists (or the Left, either one will do) hate doing that. So, that’s it. We surround ourselves with ugliness because we hate God.

I don’t know – I live my life – a liberal atheist – and I see beauty all around me and I appreciate it. I hear it when I listen to great music (both classical and popular). I experience it when I read great literature (again, both popular and literary). I feel it when I watch great television and film. It’s not that we’ve abandoned beauty, or that we’re turning away from the canon because we want to deny the existence of a higher power (which doesn’t exist). It’s just that those of us who Wright accused of “raping” away beauty merely see that both beauty and ugliness exist in art and often work simultaneously. Some will find Piss Christ beautiful, others will find it ugly, and others will be see-sawing back and forth – and that to me is beautiful: a complicated, fractured look at art the will provoke not only questions of aesthetics, but questions of blaspheme, religiosity, legitimacy of contemporary art – discussions, by the way, that are also had when looking at the masters. Beauty is complicated and messy and beauty can also be ugly (just listen to Marianne Faithfull or Nico and tell me that there isn’t something shockingly beautiful about the ravaged ruins of the singers’ voices).

In a sense, I’m glad that Wright brought up some of these questions because he is participating in a conversation that’s been going on for a long time. Art has always been up to scrutiny; I just wish he didn’t couch is argument in his Left vs. Right, Christian vs. Heathen rhetoric, because it’s reductive and unfortunate. And the funny thing is, like Wright, I don’t like some of the art he’s included in his piece, and I’m not a fan of all contemporary work – a lot of it I don’t understand and a lot of it is unpleasing to me, aesthetically. But that’s okay – I don’t feel robbed because “ugly” works of art exists, nor do I see it as a larger sign of a degradation of society – I see it merely as a large, swirling, contradicting mass that makes up our culture.

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Filed under commentary, Nonfiction, Writing

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