The Ugly Truth: It was Beauty all Along

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

[Here I present an argument that art must be beautiful. Note that beauty signifies being visually captivating, compelling, or interesting, and doesn’t mean it’s pretty or uplifting. It can be dark, murky, jagged, abstracted, and address the horrors of war or political corruption, and still be beautiful if it works aesthetically according to its own rules or formula. Picasso’s woman on the beach with ravenous beetle mandibles comes together nicely, whether one likes the subject or not (likes him or hates him). I’ll just use “beauty” for shorthand.

Pablo Picasso, Seated Woman, 1953

I realize advocating beauty is highly controversial, considered ass-backwards, and extremely problematic. Nevertheless I make the case, and share a bit of my own objections at the end, because, well, Fitzgerald. My next article is about why medium doesn’t matter, and there is conflict between that viewpoint and this one.]

This justifies one of my longer, more researched posts, but I’m going to knock it out as a rant for now. In my last post I asked “What isn’t art”, and the reason I did this is because I realized nobody really bothers with that question at all, because we are all so busy defending anything and everything as art, and the less it resembles art the more radical and important it is.

I gave the most obvious and ludicrous example, which is someone taking a crap on the floor of a gallery or museum, and challenged myself to say why it isn’t art. I couldn’t really do it. I conducted a mini experiment on myself which was to give myself 5 minutes to try to defend a piece of crap as art, and 5 to decry it as not. I allowed people to vote on the answer. So far, 33% of people who participated in the poll thought my argument that the crap was art was my better argument.

A couple people who commented helped me think this through. You can be sure, readers, that if you bring up a good point, I will hear it. Your contribution may be a seed at first, and I may not fully appreciate it. The mind, science tells us, does a lot of processing when we sleep. I recall that the unconscious does some sort of “deep chunking”, which is a process or organization, I think, which I imagine visually as looking like when your computer defrags files. In other words, I have to sleep on it, and that’s a real thing. Ideas are not just intellectual fodder on the flat surface of consciousness. They don’t gain relevance until they are integrated with the context of a living, conscious being, surviving in an environment. I even process the really negative crap, but that tends to be much quicker, like flushing the toilet. Point is, I may not give the best response right away, but I am considering what you said. I can’t really help it.

One commentor, Damon Hudac, offered: “Or maybe we’re all just struggling to formalize our thoughts to justify our common-sense reactions that e.g. “a urinal isn’t art, even if it’s in a gallery.” Seed well planted. There are two central ideas here, both debatable. One is that our gut reaction is that a urinal isn’t art [Duchamp’s “Fountain”], and the other is that we are involved in trying to put that into words. He presents it as a possibility — he’s not saying it’s a fact — but something in that argument stuck with me. We do know that a pile of crap on the floor in a museum isn’t art, but, frankly, all the bullshit theory that props up anything and everything as art also serves to put a quantity of fresh shit on a proverbial pedestal. I can’t shake the idea that deep down, we know it’s not art.

Another person, who I know on Instagram as Galen Draws, didn’t appear satisfied with me just dedicating 5 minutes to saying why shit isn’t art, Instead of 5 minutes, take half an hour to explain why something isn’t art.

I woke up with a big chunk of the answer, it’s super obvious, you already know it, and it’s taboo in the art world. Here it is anyway. What separates art from any other activity that uses intelligence, or makes a statement, or has a shred of creativity or imagination, is that art is beautiful. I don’t mean here exactly the result, but also the process of attempting some form of communication via aesthetics.

This is blasphemy in contemporary art theory as well as the social justice/political correctness perspective. It sounds so backwards and conservative that only a conservative art critic in his 70’s, like Roger Scrutin, or someone who’s already dead, like Robert Hughes, would, or would have dared utter it. If there’s one damned thing we learned in the 20th century, it’s that beauty is utterly subjective, superficial, and at best the mere frosting on the cake of real art, which asks deep and pertinent questions about not only political realities, but about the nature of art itself.

Yes, and it does that with a urinal, a gilded balloon dog, artist’s canned shit, a giant inflatable butt plug, a decaying shark in a tank of formaldehyde, a crumpled piece of paper on a pedestal, and other examples that cruise along the razor’s edge between the profound-of-historical-proportions and insultingly ridiculous bullshit. An inert object which is a repudiation of aesthetics is not a statement made in and through aesthetics.

If you are going to say that beauty is what makes something art, well, you might as well do a Sieg Heil salute and draw a toothbrush mustache on your pug with an indelible marker, because someone’s going to call you a Nazi. It’s that bad.

In fact, I have heard Roger Scrutin hold forth about beauty, and I cringed. The immediate image that comes to mind when someone says beauty is an F’ing painting of a flower. Just out of curiosity, does anyone else get this image first?

Let me just clarify again, before you barf, beauty and pretty are NOT synonymous. To make this absolutely clear, to equate beauty with what is pretty is as childish as to conflate delicious only with what is sugary. Nevertheless, that might be the first thing that comes to mind. No, I’m not saying a painting of a woman in a flowing chiffon dress in a garden, dappled with sunlight, is the height of artistic achievement (think Renoir). Though, a woman in a dress flowing in a river surrounded by meticulously painted foliage might qualify.

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-2.

Yes, of course, I know it’s a whopping cliche and about the first painting one might think of while looking at the ceiling calling something to mind.

Aaugh! Flowers. Detail fo Ophelia.

I agree.

And I may be particularly susceptible to the beauty of this painting because my favorite color is green. Further, unbeknownst to me at the time, I created an image which was an unintentional homage to this painting, which has only become super apparent to me over time, since a friend mentioned the resemblance to me 5 years ago when I made it (and at the time I had to Google “Ophelia” to know what he was talking about):

“Awakening Upon Death of the Bride of the Creature”, by Eric Wayne. Digital Painting. 30X48″ at 300 dpi. 2014

Oh, fret not my dear adversaries, this image has been reproduced virtually nowhere, and I haven’t made a half-cent off of it. The details have even more similarities.

I know, I know. I know what you are thinking my dear detractor, “And the moron slips into self-promo for his botched, sophomoric, digital abomination depicting the Creature from the Black Lagoon with tits, and thinks he’s an old master”. Touché, my more than worthy opponent. Even if someone wanted to buy a print of this, I don’t have anything for sale, so, you can add that my self-promo sucks because I’m not even selling the product I’m marketing, derp! And right again, merely acknowledging a criticism isn’t a refutation of it.

The point is, rather, that without even being aware of it, and while simultaneously rejecting beauty, on an intellectual level, as paramount in art, I was practicing well within the tradition, even paying unconscious homage to one of the most celebrated exemplars of beauty in painting.


Beauty is what makes this painting by Frida Kahlo —

Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940.

better than this one —

Self Portrait with Stalin, 1954.

And you might also note here that political doesn’t make better art, especially when, with hindsight, it backfires. As I like to say, the best art succeeds despite, or irrespective of its politics, not because of them.


Some of my favorite paintings might be confused for ugly or grotesque if people only see the subject, and don’t appreciate the aesthetics. The painting below by Francis Bacon of a naked person riddled with bullets and their brains splattered on a pillow is not a pretty subject at all, but the swirling, flung, and vigorously brushed paint is lush. Ugly content, gorgeously painted.

Francis Bacon, ‘Three Studies for a Crucifixion 1962’, center panel.

Beauty is reviled as ugly because it is considered somehow in league with oppression, and this has to do with beauty being subjective, and what is considered beautiful necessarily supporting and enforcing the self-serving values of the corrupt, power elite. Lest you think I exaggerate overmuch, consider this argument someone made on reddit as to why “masterpieces” are more than a little problematic:

the criteria of what counts as a masterpiece has historically been set by powerful rich white men in order to reflect their own values.

i see the masterpiece as being inextricably tied up with the western canon, and the western canon does not represent the totality of art, it has always existed in addition to, and in conflict with other artistic traditions and systems of evaluation.

One person’s beauty is another’s edict issued from powerful, rich, white men defining who and what is beautiful: themselves. Beauty is an ugly old witch demanding a mirror tell her she’s the most beautiful of them all. Got it.

There’s certainly an element of truth in that, though probably it’s the much thinner slice of the pie. While living in China I noticed that the women on TV and in movies who most exemplified beauty had a certain look, which included light skin. You might find it amusing that in China, Lucy Liu is, if not ugly, not at all the ideal beauty. I lived smack dab in the center of the country, and when I traveled to Yangshuo, which is very close to Vietnam, I saw beautiful women of a different variety (I’m guessing they were mixed) which I never saw on TV. Perhaps this was  because they were darker, smaller, and had somewhat different features. I decided at the time that physical beauty, at least in China, was defined by the rich to reflect their own physiognomies.

While I agree that beauty ideals for people may be selfishly promulgated by the powerful, or utterly superficial, that does not mean that beauty itself belongs to the powerful, and I am not talking about natural or physical beauty. We might all agree that a good specimen of a horse is a beautiful animal, but it’s not a work of art. And there isn’t just one style, category, or hierarchy of beauty. We could say that art is a complex aesthetic argument, or formula, and beauty is its manifestation. Looked at this way, we don’t get so caught up in the beauty that is extrinsic to art.

A work of art is some form of communication between people, and what separates it from any other kind of communication or object is that it is an aesthetic creation. Beauty is not just pretty colors and girls, but a sophisticated organizing and arranging of elements: in painting we can think of composition, line, gesture, color, texture, rendering, perspective… Aside from the more obvious formal concerns, there is the subject, the content, and perhaps the most important elements are the intangibles that may radiate from the whole, and can’t be isolated or put into words (when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts).

Let’s look at a contemporary example that can’t be accused of upholding powerful, rich, white men’s values and appearance as oppressively defining beauty. Kerry James Marshall uses black people and black culture as his subject, and among his other achievements deliberately sought to use the color black centrally as an aesthetic challenge [and for symbolic reasons uses actual black, rather than more realistic shades of brown]. In this way, not only does he introduce black people and the black experience into the western canon of art, he also incorporates technical innovation while doing so, and inseparably so.

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Dog Walker), 2018.

I’m not virtue signalling here, folks. I need not bother, because I love this painting. First off, he seduces us with the sheer beauty and complexity of the image. We instantly know it’s intricate because of all the vertical lines and perspective, which have to work together in order to not be too busy or chaotic. The posts of the fence, the railings of the stairs behind, the stripes in the woman’s shorts, and every line, including the one that intersects the top of her head are weighed and measured to perfection using a visual geometry.

All of this surrounds his primary visual challenge of placing the color black as the center or nexus of the image. The horizontal bars of the fence, and the diagonal of the railings radiate out from the woman. The most powerful aspect of movement is, however, the pink lightning-zig-zag of the dog’s leash, which connects her face to his, accentuating that he’s straining on the end of his leash. Her blue sandal, the opposite of the pink, adds a bright note of color for the eye to delect upon, while also drawing attention to the articulation of her toes and nails. One could go on and on about all the lovely little details, such as the small triangle of green caused by the grass in the lower right, or the floating rectangle of brown that is the door in the upper left.

And then there is the subject, which is a black woman taking a dog (I’m guessing hers) for a walk on a pleasant afternoon on a quiet street. It is an everyday scene, and Marshall, I recall him saying, wanted to stress not the tragic history of black people (as the exotic other sacrificed on the periphery of history) in images like these, but a more comfortable normality with black people at the center of life.

In some paintings he intentionally sought to render the whole image in a dark, primarily black and grey palette (and with more skill than Ad Reinhardt) :

Kerry James Marshall, “Untitled (Pin-Up), 2008.

and

Kerry James Marshall Untitled (policeman), 2015.

These are beautiful works of art that challenge ideas of beauty.

Art need not be painting, or as accomplished as these pieces to be beautiful, but art is the terrain of aesthetics and it has to succeed there. It’s a language, and one has to speak with it.

There’s still the pesky argument that beauty is entirely subjective. Well, not so fast. Whether or not one agrees that something is beautiful, we might be able to agree that it is beautifully wrought (similar to an excellent argument, but which we don’t agree with). And it’s not just as easy as having a “good eye”. One needs to have understanding what other people see as beautiful. You have to be observant, aware, cognizant, and able to articulate for yourself using skill and some talent. Further, I doubt visual beauty is entirely or even mostly subjective. We can say that what is delicious is subjective, but if it weren’t reliably consistent, restaurants would go out of business. So, subjective, yes, of course, but this is also a good thing. The artist’s subjective manifestation of his or her individual aesthetic is what makes her or his expression unique. There’s enough overlap with a shared, communal aesthetic to appeal to us, but enough that’s individual to make it a bit different, challenging, and nourishing to our own aesthetic appetite and appreciation. Art that is not beautiful does not satisfy that hunger in the least.

This is my thought, or working best conclusion, at the moment, and I know lots of people will absolutely hate it. It disqualifies all sorts of art either as art at all [Duchamp’s “Fountain”, but not his “Large Glass”], or as very good examples of it [Hirst’s spot paintings or Warhol’s Brillo Boxes]. There needs to be room for aesthetically innocuous props that are a conversation piece for mental masturbation. Some of the greatest artistic achievements of the 20th century — OK, most of them — not only don’t fit into this category, they were explicitly critical of it!

Yup. My first line of defense here is to say that those pieces are not visual art because they do not significantly give us anything to look at; and repudiating looking by serving up a mute, plebeian object doesn’t count. Releasing invisible gas in the desert does not use visual language and aesthetics in the slightest. Such stunts might better be explained as theater that takes art criticism as its subject.

One objection might be, “Why can’t I make something that’s creative, interesting, and challenging without having to make it pretty?” The counter would be that beauty is the way that art organizes and presents content. It’s similar to arguing that if you want to call something music, you have to be able to hear it; it has to be listenable; and it has to sound good. Note that if it sounds horrible and nobody can stand to listen to it, it will be re-classified as art. Similarly, amateur film becomes video and bad theater or horrendous dance becomes good performance art.

I might also ask, “Why do you need to call whatever you do art for it to be worthwhile?” When someone goes into a museum and sticks up placards next to paintings that declare that the artist is guilty of misogyny, why can’t that be political protest? Why is it newsworthy art?

Why does Donald Trump’s deal making — as legitimized with quotes by Andy Warhol stating that making money and making business are the best kind of art — have to be making art? It’s not enough to make hundreds of millions, you also have to call it art? Why not call it sports? Probably because with sports you need to do something exceptional with your body, incidentally.

We could end up with burning down museums as a form of censorship being art. Not so far-fetched. I’ve read arguments proposing destroying offensive artwork can be a community art project! You may remember when German composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen called 9/11 “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos”. Woo-hoo, terrorism is art!

Everything isn’t music, or literature, or poetry, and not everything can be art, or at least not visual art. Here, the pile of crap on gallery floor isn’t art because it’s not beautiful. And while one might still argue that it is beautiful in their eyes, just because art has to be beautiful, doesn’t mean that anything beautiful is art (ex., a streamlined shark). It’s the beauty that is the result of a conscious attempt to organize, interpret, and present content integrally with aesthetics: beauty + communication.


Objections

I’m going to kick this ball rolling with a couple of my own. The first just being that if we defined art as something which uses the means of aesthetics to produce something of beauty, that would disqualify an enormous range of art. What we’ve held as great works would be reduced to exalted educational displays, props, propaganda, photo journalism, commercial design, conversation pieces, agitprop, publicity stunts, pranks, curiosities, science projects, cultural artifact exhibits, advertisements, info posters, lawn ornaments, decorations, landscaping, thought experiments, social studies assignments, assorted paraphernalia, memorabilia, artifacts, anomalous projects, gratuitous acts, kitsch and rubbish… Oh, and a visual aid for a lecture (perhaps in the form of an artist’s statement).

That would just have to be cutting too much away from art when designating what isn’t art. And yet, is it too much to ask that art do something using aesthetics? why redefine visual aids for art criticism as art?


Medussa’s Head by conceptual/performance artist, Chris Burden fully satisfies my criteria of art.

Chris Burden, “Medusa’s Head” (1990) (courtesy Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey)

I’ve seen it in person at LACME, and I was duly impressed. If he’d managed to get the trains to run on the tracks (I gather gravity prevented this), I’d have been completely blown away.

However, his Shoot performance — in which he had a sharpshooter shoot a hole in his arm — does not qualify.And his having himself crucified to a Volkswagen doesn’t either, but the photo of it does to some extent:

How do I get around the same person making art and non art? If he is an artist, which the creator of Medussa’s Head certainly is, than it is quite likely his other works are also art. Surely he considers them all art!

A possible counter is that an artist may also do theater (and both the performances above had far more in common with theater than with visual art), and various stunts, pranks, and all sorts of behavior that are not art.

When cornered, I will fall back on the easier proposition, which is that something isn’t visual art, and leave the conceptual artists and theorists to wrangle with how to separate terrorism from conceptual art.

I’m going to leave it off here for now so I can get back to my own art and various responsibilities. Let me know what you think (assuming it’s not an insult), so I can refine my thought, improve my argument, or abandon it for a better perspective.

And for my next act, in honor of Fitzgerald, I’m going to argue that medium doesn’t matter.

~ Ends

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4 thoughts on “The Ugly Truth: It was Beauty all Along

  1. I think you’re on the right track by recategorizing what some claim is “art” as “theater” or “political protest” or what have you, and this recategorization brings a lot of clarity to the “what is art” discussions.

    You could have also simplified your argument about art having to be beautiful by changing the word “beautiful” to something more neutral: “visually compelling” or “visually interesting.” The Francis Bacon and Kelly James Marshall paintings are visually compelling.

    Your comments on the Volkswagen crucifixion make both of these points. I’m imagining myself seeing the Volkswagen crucifixion in person and it would be interesting to me not because it’s visually compelling, but because of the idea of someone being crucified to a Volkswagen. The photograph of it is visually interesting due to the colors and the way the photographer composed the shot. So the photograph of it I would call visual art. The actual crucifixion I’d call a “performance.”

    Similarly, for “Shoot,” I can see someone making an artistic video out of it. A photograph would be tricky without a sophisticated high speed camera setup that would catch the blood spattering out of the exit wound and you’re unlikely to get a “do over” if you missed the shot the first time. Hahahaha!

    I like how you often compare the “art world” to the music world. Music is much less burdened by politics and virtue signalling, and a musical artist’s aesthetics are fundamental to their long-term popularity. People still listen to 40 year old Black Sabbath. Which brings me to the “beautiful vs. compelling” point again.

    In music you have “beautiful” major chords and keys. You also have minor keys and chords, which aren’t happy, but aren’t quite dissonant. Then you have diminished intervals which are dissonant and unsettling to the listener.

    Check out the song Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath. 80% of the song before the solo at the end is the same diminished 5th interval being played over and over on top of Ozzy singing about being chased around by Satan at the end of the world. So it’s not a beautiful riff by any means, but it is auditorily compelling and fits the story of the song pretty well. Because nobody is really feeling the happiness and beauty when they are being chased by Satan. Beautiful major chords really have no place in this song.

    As an aside, the Catholic church banned the diminished 5th in their music for a few hundred years, because they thought it reminded people of the devil. It’s sometimes referred to as the devil’s note.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That explains everything. Your head is screwed on straight because you know music and can compare how music and art are thought about. I make this comparison so often, because music always seems less lunatic, that I’m sure anyone who’s followed my blog for a long time will think my needle’s stuck.

      I thought I made clear that beauty need not be pretty, but I would say “visually compelling” or “captivating” or something along those lines. It’s the same meaning, but without the association with something being pleasant to look at.

      In case I wasn’t clear enough I went back and added an explanation at the beginning, along with a monstrous Picasso woman from his Surrealist phase as an example.

      I’m sure I’ve heard Sabbath’s first album dozens of times, and nothing on it didn’t strike me as musically appealing. If it works, it’s beautiful. My favorite Picasso’s, despite all the angularity and deformities, are the ones that overall are beautiful nonetheless. If you’re going to come at me with heavy metal as a legit art form, well, you’re going to get nothing but vigorous nods. I think the musical explosion, which peaked IMO in the late 60’s to early 70’s, is still amazing today. That music just keeps getting better. And you look at the music of, say, 1937-1973, and you look at the fine art of the same period, and there’s no competition. As I’m fond of pointing out, art did not produce the equivalent of rock music or rock stars. There’s no Jim Morrison or Jimmie Hendrix in the art world of the period. Oddly, artists were not trying to capture the “summer of love” or their psychedelic trips, or their trips to India in search of spirituality. Nope, they were doing dry, conceptual, pieces.

      You inadvertently raised a really good point about Burden’s artworks. They’d be interesting to see, many of them, whether one categorized them as art or not. He once designed a lightweight car that I think got 100 miles to the gallon, which he called the B-car. Art or not, it was wicked cool. Honestly, I know a lot about him for a conceptual artist because his outlandish stunts were the rare conceptual works that didn’t bore the living crap out of me. He wasn’t rephotographing someone else’s photos. So, art or not, at least it grabbed ones attention.

      I’ve got another article about how the medium doesn’t matter, which almost contradicts this one in some ways. Should have that one out in the next few days.

      Like

      1. I occasionally share nasty comments that say far more about the person who makes them (attacking autism is NOT cool or progressive) than about their target, in order to provide evidence of the amount of hostility I receive, and anyone who supports me, from a certain sector of the art world.

        Like

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