Bye-Bye Beauty?

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“The Abuse of Beauty” by Arthur C. Danto, in Daedalus (Fall 2002),
136 Irving St., Ste. 100, Cambridge, Mass. 02138.

Just about anything now can be called art: a blank white canvas, a six-foot-high comic strip, a cross-sectioned cow. The artist plays to the viewer’s sense of the sublime, the absurd, or the abject. But needn’t the artist also evoke the sense of beauty?

Not necessarily, argues Danto, professor emeritus of philosophy at Columbia University and longtime art critic at The Nation. And in some circles, it’s thought that the artist shouldn’t evoke that sense. What some consider necessary to a work of art was really just a fad. Great art’s fixation on the beautiful had a limited run—in Europe from the Renaissance to the early 1900s. But because of the continuing influence of that era’s theorists of art, such as Immanuel Kant and John Ruskin, people don’t realize that beauty has run its course.

During the reign of the Beautiful, moreover, looking good came to imply being good. G. E. Moore, the early-20th-century philosopher, thought the beauty of art could be so enriching that “every valuable purpose which religion serves is also served by Art.”

With World War I, however, the ideal of beauty came to be seen as hypocritical. As the German surrealist Max Ernst wrote, “We had experienced the collapse into ridicule and shame of everything represented to us as just, true, and beautiful.” From the ashes rose the Dada movement, which defined art, as Danto writes, “as an expression of moral revulsion against a society for whom beauty was a cherished value.” Marcel Duchamp wasn’t just kidding around when he famously drew a mustache on a postcard of the Mona Lisa in 1919.

Art history shows the ends of art to be more diverse than beauty, according to Danto. Pre-Renaissance cathedrals were designed not to be beautiful but to draw a faithful, awed congregation. Paintings of vanitas—rotting fruits, skulls—were meant to humble, not inspire, spectators.

The Dadaists were not the first to show that the theorists were wrong about art. A few decades before them, Roger Fry and other formalist painters and critics demonstrated that a painting need not be a representation of something beautiful or meaningful to be itself beautiful or meaningful. Art asserts the “paramount importance of design, which necessarily places the imitative side of art in a secondary place,” Fry announced. People should evaluate the form, not the content, of the work. The pop art movement of the 1960s discarded yet other necessities, such as the originality, “excellence,” and heroism typical of 1950s abstract expressionism. It replaced those traits with parody of mass culture, primitivism, and photorealism.

In a last-ditch effort to explain how people can appreciate, and esteem as art, grisly paintings such as Picasso’s Guernica (1937), some theorists have argued that at times the beauty is hidden and can’t be seen without adequate training. That’s sometimes true, Danto allows, but sometimes there’s simply no beauty to be found.

Danto, a friend of much that is new in the art world, is known for his austere formula that “x is an artwork if it embodies a meaning.” Anything goes.

Yet he believes that the 20th-century backlash against beauty may have gone too far. Some in the avant-garde now see beauty as antithetical to art—even the scandalous photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe seem in some eyes “too beautiful to qualify for critical endorsement.” Beauty, Danto concludes, “is one mode among many through which thoughts are presented in art to human sensibility”—one that deserves to be readmitted to the realm of art.

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