Beauty has never been easy. Perhaps Andy Warhol said it best: “I always hear myself saying , ‘She’s a beauty!’ or ‘He’s a beauty!’ or ‘What a beauty!’ but I never know what I’m talking about.” Warhol recognizes the power of beauty in our lives, and dramatizes those moments of recognition with exclamation—“what a beauty!”—and yet called upon to offer an explanation, an abstraction, a theory of beauty, we have to admit it is almost impossible; we don’t know what we are talking about. In essence, this is the core of beauty-problem, and there are a number of ways to address it, admirably represented in Beauty: The Documents of Contemporary Art.
From the Ancients to the Enlightenment, there has been a great deal of talk about what counted as beauty, but everyone seemed to agree there was something to talk about. In the 20th century artists, critics, and philosophers all challenged the very existence of beauty. Marcel Duchamp’s readymade Fountain (a urinal submitted as sculpture) of 1917 marks a moment where beauty seems to exit the stage just as the grisly slaughter of WW I is coming to an end.
Beauty: The Documents of Contemporary Art
(MIT Press; US: Apr 2009)
Many artists turned to arguably “ugly” forms, materials or subjects, and the world of rampant industrialism and consumerism seemed fueled by sheer ugliness. Critics unmasked most claims of universal beauty as mere ideology, supporting one variety or another of national interest, racial identification, blatant sexism or simply brute exploitation by the powerful. Their criticisms cannot be lightly dismissed, and every exclamation, “What a beauty!” is apt to disclose what Walter Benjamin called “a document of barbarism”.
By 1990, the critique of beauty had become fully institutionalized, rattled off as obvious commonsense even by undergraduates who had not spent very much of their lives either cultivating or contemplating it. That fact is not to be lamented, for a suspicion of beauty is vital if one hopes to have any relation to it that isn’t completely compromised, and Benjamin is quite simply telling the truth—beauty is the other side of the coin of injustice.
Though the champions of beauty had always remained, their positions were almost totally eclipsed, and there was something seemingly naïve in it, such that critics in many disciplines, scholars drawn to their object of study in fields like painting and literature for instance, had no language with which to talk about some of their most intense experiences and relationships to art without appearing to be deeply moved by records of awfully ugly—read unjust—social relations.
Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty
(Foundation for Advanced Critical Studies, Inc.; US: Mar 1994)
Any consensus invites critique, and by 1990 many contrarians and a few sincerely troubled voices began to emerge, trying to recuperate the discussion of beauty. Among the contrarians, Dave Hickey was prominent, writing The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty, and an excerpt is the first selection in this anthology. Interestingly, Hickey quite simply says that when asked by an earnest student what the issue of the nineties would be, “I said, ‘Beauty,’ ... a total improvisatory goof.” That momentary goof led the art critic to his book, and to some plain speaking about the rhetorical and affective powers of beauty to move us, sometimes towards justice, and sometimes not.
Hickey, in essence, tries to think beauty after the critique of the 20th century, suggesting that we have to get away from the Enlightenment idea of beauty as something majestically above the fray and see how it is mixed up with our passions and beliefs, to be suspicious of it but to remain open to it nonetheless. He provides a magnificent reading of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs as his example.
The first section of the anthology, “The Revival of Beauty”, follows more voices from the ‘90s moment, and probably most familiar to readers will be excerpts from Elaine Scarry’s slim but controversial book On Beauty and Being Just, published in 1999. Her key claims are aptly represented here. More philosophically precise than many who write on the topic, she doesn’t pull any punches, arguing as forcefully as she can that beauty might help us redeem the injustices of the world, and make our experience of the world far more pleasurable, though to do so she has to rely heavily on both Plato and Kant with little admission that their idealist positions are deeply problematic.
Thinkers like Scarry and Hickey take a real risk in trying to find a language to talk about our everyday experiences with beauty, but their critics are powerful. As Alexander Alberro argues, their “recent attempts to revalidate the experience of the beautiful are, first, driven by intensely nostalgic impulses; they promote ahistorical views of the past.” None of the writers in this anthology is able to overcome the tension of these positions, but brining them together offers the reader a provoking experience, where personal sentiments and intuitions are called forth, but not celebrated so much as complicated, but crucially, without being simply dismissed.
The second section of the book is the most difficult, contains much of the best writing in the anthology, but it assumes a reader conversant with the positions or works of Kant, Duchamp, Warhol and Danto. Arguably their selection from Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory is perhaps the most challenging and transformative idea here, and the precision and nuance of his thought make many of the other statements in the book look as though they had lost any gravitational force.
Adorno himself spent most of his life trying to reconcile the beautiful with a world that could produce fascism and industrialized genocide. He never gave up on beauty, but he never thought of it as easy or unproblematically redeeming. Unlike Scarry and others, Adorno demands that we account for the totalizing and ideological work of beauty in the past, but also consider that things have come to such a pass that beauty might only grasped, paradoxically, in its very absence.
He observes that beauty arises as a totalizing form that structures the particular elements of any work, be they colors, images, shapes, movements, or notes in a score: “the formal nature of beauty half triumphantly transforms itself into a kind of expression wherein the menace of domination of nature is wedded to a sense of yearning for the defeated victims of that domination. Thus this expression is one of grief about subjugation and its vanishing point, i.e., death.”
The beautiful for Adorno is a profound state of moving tensions, as the conflicting force of the overall form and the unruly characters of individual elements wrestle for identity. Yet in the modern world defined by genocide and the prospect of nuclear annihilation, modern artists cannot simply rehearse the pleasing, totalizing forms of the past. “For the sake of the beautiful, there cannot be a beautiful anymore” he writes, concluding that “what can appear only negatively defines dissolution,” and so the desire for a form that would order the unruly without crushing their identity is deferred into works that gesture at emptiness or silence, and so the existential plays of Samuel Beckett, with their immobilized characters and stunted dialogue conjuring up a negative beauty that is beyond ideological corruption.
Adorno is, perhaps, a standout in this book because his thought emerges from his training as a composer. Approaching beauty through music emphasizes the changing, evanescent, fleeting character of it. Part of the problem with Beauty: The Documents of Contemporary Art as an anthology is a relentless focus on painting, with photography and conceptual art playing supporting roles. Drama and poetry appear almost not at all, and similarly overlooked are the statements of performance artists, choreographers, filmmakers, and most any art that doesn’t comfortably sit still in a museum gallery.