I want to talk to you today about beauty in art. An unfashionable concept I know, but something that has concerned me throughout my adult life.
Before I talk about beauty, I need to define the word art, and here I make no apologies for expressing my own personal view. Many people, maybe most people, will disagree with much of what I have to say, and I am looking forward to a lively exchange of ideas when I have finished. But for clarity, please preface everything I say today with “in my opinion”. I am not laying down laws for anyone else, or meaning to insult or negate the work of any other artist. But in order to understand what I have to say about beauty it will be necessary to know my premises.
Grayson Perry, in his recent Reith lectures on art, eloquently explained how in the 21st century we have reached the end of the exploration of the question “what is art?". Starting with Marcel Duchamp, and throwing in a good measure of 20th century relativism, we now believe, and dare not question the assumption that anything is art if an artist says it is. And anyone and everyone is an artist if they choose to be. I believe that this is a mistake, and that the word “art” has been hijacked. I believe that it is possible to judge what is art and what isn’t, and furthermore I believe that it is possible to judge if art is good or not. I hear your collective sharp intake of breath at this point. Am I going to say the unsayable? Will I be immediately dismissed as reactionary, or simplistic, or just plain envious of the celebrity of some contemporary artists? I will risk these things, because for more than 30 years I have devoted most of my waking hours to striving to make a good piece of art, and I know that this is a difficult task. If anything and everything is art, then why has this been so difficult, and why am I never satisfied with what I produce? The simple answer is that anything and everything is not art.
So for clarity, let me now list some things that are not visual art as I see it: Performance is not visual art, it is theatre. Ideas are not visual art, they are thoughts. Stunts are not visual art, they are entertainment. Words are not visual art, they are literature, or poetry, or theses. Useful objects are not visual art, they are tools. And systems are not visual art, they are ways of structuring our experience and passing the time.
This is, of course, not in any way to demean any of these other art forms. By defining visual art as something separate I am only doing what all other art forms have continued to do. Nobody thinks it would be right to award the Booker prize to someone who climbs a tree and waves from it, or who stands on a table and pulls their pants down. No, the Booker prize is for a novel, and the art form of literature, while its boundaries have always been pushed, from Tristram Shandy to Waiting for Godot, remains defined as
the power of the word to move us emotionally.
So I would like to re-claim a definition for visual art: An object
created with the specific purpose of moving us emotionally. A thing that has no other function than to enrich the life of anyone who looks at it, or even better, lives with it.
This definition of visual art downgrades it from what I believe is the arrogant attitude of many artists and curators, who seem to think that Art with a capital A is the centre of the universe. Able to solve all the world’s problems by shocking, or entertaining the public with its witty observations. My definition of art returns it to its pre-Renaissance function. Not about the personality of the artist, but primarily to communicate visually. Something best done by someone with a facility at drawing or sculpting, learnt through years of practice, although possibly achieved by a combination of fluke and emotional honesty by children and the untrained.
Just like a carpenter, a doctor or a teacher, an artist is someone who uses his or her skills to do a job well. And that job is to make emotionally moving objects to visually enrich the lives of others. Of course the personality of the artist is expressed in the work. The artist has no choice about this, and this is what is meant by the word style. Style is not something an artist invents, or searches for, it is the way he or she communicates. It is like our speaking voices, unique and recognisable, but for the most part, out of our control. And so style is where taste comes in to the judgment of the merits of a particular piece of art. Some people like some styles more than others, just as we fall in love with and make friends with each other in our own individual ways, so we choose our favorite artworks for reasons of personal taste and resonance. When we say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, this is what we mean. And yet, there are some things we all, as human beings, have in common. And I want to argue that a quest to surround ourselves with visual beauty is primal. That we need beauty, like we need air and water. And an artist is a person who can satisfy that need.
Now I need to define what I mean by beauty. Clearly more than mere prettiness, beauty in an object can be defined as something that satisfies its function simply and absolutely. And I think simplicity is often very closely connected to beauty. Mathematicians and scientists often say that equations are beautiful. When Einstein discovered that e=mc squared he knew it was true and more beautiful than a page full of complicated formulae. So to go back to my definition of art, it follows that a beautiful work of art simply moves us. Like e=mc squared, it touches a nerve, says something powerful and true, and communicates feelings that are often impossible to describe so well any other way. And to me, this makes a nonsense
of the current fashion for “artists’ statements” and verbal commentary on gallery walls. If a piece of visual art is good enough, it will communicate what it has to say better than words ever could. That is why the artist has made it a piece of visual art and not an essay.
So if beauty in visual art is a powerful and simple communication of a part of what it is to be human, can a depiction or communication of negative and difficult emotions be beautiful? I believe the answer is yes. Take the despair of a late Rothko painting, or the anguish of Rogier Van der Weyden’s Deposition.
No. 61 (Rust and Blue) 1953
[Brown Blue, Brown on Blue], Oil on canvas.
The Museum of Contemporary Art, LA. USA
|Rogier Van der Weyden
The Descent from the Cross c.1435. Oil on oak panel. Museo del Prado, Madrid. Spain
To my mind these are unutterably beautiful paintings. This is where beauty and prettiness part company, and yet, if we try to analyse what moves us, why we feel what we feel so powerfully, there are underlying forces at work in these paintings. Let’s look at the Deposition. Without wishing to bore you with a lengthy analysis of measurements, diagonals and the golden section, suffice to say that t
his is a very carefully constructed
picture. Our eyes are led from any starting point, around the picture in a satisfyingly harmonious and balanced rhythm. The focus of the painting, the central figure of the dead Christ, is bracketed by the mourners. Every shape of drapery, every gesture, look and limb, leads our eyes around and back into the focus of the painting. We feel the sorrow and desperation of the mourners more powerfully because this painting is not a photographic record of a group of people, it is a carefully designed and beautiful object.
I will now briefly narrow my focus from Art to Painting to explain my point. Every figurative painting (or drawing or print) is two things at once. It is a window, usually rectangular, through which we can see an image of the world. But at the same time it is also an object. A piece of paper, or canvas, or panel, with a texture, size and physical presence in a room. It is bigger or smaller than us, it is heavy or light, colourful
or monochrome. We often forget this when we look at figurative pictures, because we are looking at what they are “of”. But the physical presence, the “object-ness” is having a powerful effect on our emotions. We know this when we put a picture on the wall in our home. It is not only “of” something, it affects the whole look of the room. And when it is a beautiful object, by which I mean that its shapes and colours are
harmoniously designed and balanced, the mood of the subject matter affects us more powerfully. It is as if we are released from the gnawing discomfort of ugliness, of things “not looking quite right” and can therefore wholeheartedly be engulfed by the emotion that the artist is expressing.
Some artists design beautiful pictures completely instinctively, others have tried to make up rules for good composition. Certainly basic composition can be taught, although it rarely if ever is in art schools these days. But the magic of a beautiful piece of visual art is not something that can be predicted or made with rules alone. It is, in my experience, a slow and often painful process of drawing, standing back, correcting, changing, standing back, destroying, and changing again. Until suddenly it finds a way to be right and beautiful, in a different way from any other picture before it, but in its own way, it becomes beautiful. This moment is like putting the final piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Suddenly everything is still, and you know that everything, which had been fluid and undecided until that point, is in the only place it can be in. And that is what I strive for, fall short of, and why I keep coming back for more. Why every painting is a difficult challenge, and why making a beautiful picture is a lifetime goal.
Of course some artists have subverted this truth. Many great artists have sought to communicate discomfort and even romantic excitement by upsetting our need for harmony. Lucien Freud’s nudes can disturb us not only with their piercing and raw humanity, but also because their compositions are uncomfortable, making our gaze slip off the edge of the canvas, confronting us with our own expectations. But this is done knowingly. Not because Freud did not understand composition, but because he did, so well, that he could use it to convey his own world view.
But back to beauty and harmony. I am not saying that all good art must be beautiful, only that much great art is. That we have a deep need for beauty and that the fashion in the twentieth century for believing that ugliness is somehow more real or true than beauty makes us unhappy.
For many years now, the consensus among opinion-formers has been that art should reflect the pain and suffering in our lives, and that to make art about joy, or to aim to create beauty, is necessarily superficial and unworthy. The word 'decorative' is usually used, with a sneer, to dismiss something pleasing to the eye, while 'challenging' and 'shocking' seem to confer status on the most trivial stunt. Just as it is a shallow mistake to assume that tragedy is a greater literary form than comedy, so it is thoughtless to assume that ugliness in visual art is more profound than beauty.
The German philosopher Theodor Adorno said after the 2nd world war that—"To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” and that "Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream”. Somehow this has been misunderstood and misquoted as “to make beautiful art is disrespectful and shameful”. Students in particular, many of whom have experienced no worse suffering than rejection in love or a spot on the nose, often seem to believe that art cannot be good if it is not expressing angst or depression. On the contrary, I believe that it is only a deep awareness of human pain and suffering that allows us to truly appreciate and celebrate the fleeting beauty and happiness in our lives. The playwright Dennis Potter put this movingly in his final interview when describing how it was only after he had accepted his imminent death that he could really see the beauty of “the blossomiest blossom” outside his bedroom window.
Sadly, it often takes real tragedy or loss to make us appreciate what we had. To count our blessings. Surely it is a worthy aim of art to help us do this before it is too late? And surely, just as it is arrogant and narrow-minded not to marvel at beauty in nature, it is human and heroic to wish to surround ourselves with, and to create beautiful art.
Anita Klein 2013