JJ Charlesworth finds beauty, along with a sunny view of the future, to be something of the past
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. It’s not so long ago that people would have named it as one of the qualities that defined art. Many still do. But what they mean by beauty has become a shadow of its former self. Centuries ago, the philosopher Immanuel Kant could discuss it as an aspect of the moral sense of what it was to be human – part of how human beings aspired to higher ideals and dignity. Later, the romantic poet John Keats (in Ode on a Grecian Urn 1820) would declare that ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’
Today, these lofty sentiments seem alien and unreal. Did people really think like that? After all the horrors of the last century, and the continued horrors of this one, who could still believe in the value and goodness of the beautiful? ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,’ was the pessimistic conclusion of Theodor Adorno, one of the great aesthetic theorists of the mid-20th century.
What no longer functions in the idea of beauty is the sense that it represents something of the value and importance of being human. We can call artworks, objects or other people beautiful, but this is disconnected from any greater purpose or aspiration. Private taste and subjective pleasure don’t really amount to much, after all. ‘Liking’ something (on Facebook), even finding something ‘beautiful’ (such as a car or pop star), doesn’t help you to determine whether it is good (with a small ‘g’), let alone whether it is Good.
But art has become largely indifferent to the idea of the Good, in the big, old-fashioned, capital G sense of the word. Contemporary art tends to reflect the cultural mood of its time, and today any talk of beauty is sceptical or ironic. Art no longer presents a positive take on what humanity might be capable of. Because, let’s face it, nowadays we don’t think of humanity as very good. It’s more usual to view ourselves as out-of-control monsters driven by unconscious impulses to consume ever more, exploiting natural resources in a headlong rush towards the destruction of the environment, the planet and, eventually, ourselves. Nothing good about human beings, then. Beauty? If anything, we regard humanity as pretty ugly.
I don’t subscribe to this bleak, misanthropic vision, but I have to admit that it’s the dominant cultural mood right now. If it weren’t, you wouldn’t find artists busy making works that imagine the world after we have disappeared. (There’s lots of it about.) And you wouldn’t find them celebrated in big museums and biennials for doing so. The idea of beauty was always about how much human beings valued their own humanity – about how beauty stood in for the optimism that everything could, eventually, be beautiful, or Good. But since we see the human world as an ugly place, beauty no longer matters in art. It should – but it doesn’t.
JJ Charlesworth is an art critic and publisher at ArtReview magazine
Isobel Harbison argues that beauty, beyond skin deep, is always relevant
There is an irony to the editor’s decision to invite a female art critic to advocate for beauty in art, and her male counterpart to dismiss the same quality. So let me follow his lead by creating an initial distinction: art needs beauty, not beauties. In art, the beautiful faces of muses and fillies have already garnered centuries of attention. The media have since adopted this fixation and continually subject women to judgment based on their physical appearance, creating normative and restrictive notions of beauty. So, as far as I am concerned, gorgeous Ophelia can go and float down her dark river, tightly bound to L’Oréal’s latest lovely.
Beauty, as I understand it, is far more than a pretty face. And if we accept that it might assume many guises, but be primarily a force of attraction that is somehow alluring – often but not exclusively visual – then how can we reasonably argue against its value in art?
Dirty Pictures 2007 is a video by British artist John Smith. Part of his Hotel Diaries series, it opens as the filmmaker looks up at polystyrene ceiling tiles flapping in the breeze, recorded on a shaky hand-held camera. Is this trickery? Are the tiles being lifted from above, or are they genuinely being blown by the wind? The question compelled me to sit through the work when I first saw it for its full 15 minutes. During this time Smith guided me around the generic features of his hotel room in Bethlehem, falling silent as he pointed the camera out of the window. When the video cut to pictures of another plain hotel room in east Jerusalem, he began to narrate his journey between the two places, and his sadness at witnessing the Israeli border police’s mishandling of a lame elderly Palestinian woman in front of him at the checkpoint. The artist confides in his viewer a dreadful dilemma. Despite his original intention of silently observing these two quarters, after the disturbing encounter he feels incapable of presenting a politically neutral picture. As he voices his account, his tone is inflected by the grief and disappointment of this failure. For the viewer, the simply composed work conveys many complexities, but, above all, the toxic non-objectivity of images. The video loops, recommencing with the ceiling tiles and their strange fluttering. As a hook, they’re still captivating, beautiful even, but everything about them has changed.
Art, in its diversity, is impossible to define. But something within it has to arrest and work upon us in order to transform. My argument isn’t about art reproducing standard representations of beauty, nor does it advocate art that provides unremitting and therefore benign viewing pleasure. No. As someone living in an age when so much political manoeuvring and messaging is embedded within the visual, when so many images vie for my attention with a fixed agenda, I need art to inhabit beauty as a temporary stratagem, a Trojan horse, in order to go beyond the borders of the norm or the benign and enable us to see things anew.
Isobel Harbison is a writer, curator and tutor based in London