Sunday, December 06, 2009

Why Beauty Matters/Ugly Beauty, BBC Two

From theartsdesk.com: an interesting thread of comments on the linked article is worth following.

Waldemar Januszczak at the Anish Kapoor retrospective at the Royal Academy

Waldemar Januszczak at the Anish Kapoor retrospective at the Royal Academy
BBC/ZCZ Films

The battleground: beauty. What’s at stake: our souls. At least on these two things philosophy don Roger Scruton (presenter of Why Beauty Matters) and art critic Waldemar Januszczak (presenter of Ugly Beauty) were agreed in the Modern Beauty season. For despite very different ideas of beauty, they both reached the same conclusion: it is there to nourish the soul.

Which is why it may seem odd that their programmes consider the same examples and yet reach very different conclusions. Jeff Koons to one is shallow and materialistic, to the other a source of self-knowledge. Scruton finds Damien Hirst a soulless, abominable trickster, Januszczak a poet of death in the tradition of the Baroque.

Scruton’s is a philosophical essay set to pictures and music. He starts with the importance of beauty in art up until the 20th century, and says its purpose was to transfigure the real in the light of the ideal: that is, to make us consider reality and how it relates to our higher ideals. The problem of the 20th century is that we have no ideals any more except for utility, and what is useful is invariably ugly and eventually useless. (Take Reading town centre, he says.) What beauty does is connect us directly to the spiritual, in the manner of religion, and thus nourishes the soul: this is Plato’s idea, and Scruton is a fan.

(Scruton argues that creativity is important in beauty, differentiating Michelangelo’s David from cemetery copies of the statue. This does make it slightly unfortunate that one of his jumping-off points is Oscar Wilde’s quotation, “All art is quite useless,” which is a paraphrase of John Ruskin’s “The most beautiful things in the world are useless.”)

Januszczak’s is a much more irreverent tour around Venice’s Biennale, with over-dramatic narration and on-screen antics, slopping dead fish everywhere and gesticulating like a bull at Pamplona. He – like Matthew Collings in the same season – outlines his vision of aspects of beauty, which include death, motherhood, texture, emptiness and kitsch. (This last is where Koons comes in.) Except, unlike Collings, he interviews many artists to provide us with the knowledge to understand their works and find them more beautiful. His roll-call is starry – Koons, Hirst, Anish Kapoor, Yoko Ono, Carl Andre (who refuses to appear on screen) – and the explanations provided may convert even the sceptical to viewing their work as beautiful.

The problem with Scruton’s argument is that it is old-fashioned, not just in the authorities it cites (Plato, the third Earl of Shaftesbury, Victorian poets), but when he says that beauty is meant to console the afflicted and reinforce the joyous, as if beauty is visual Prozac. This negates the message of the 20th century, which is that sometimes there is no consolation, no joy.

If two world wars and existentialism and the double helix showed us anything, it is that the world does not exist for a higher, affirmative purpose, and thus beauty should not try to make us feel good. The world is bad, so beauty can show us the bad.

This "bad" beauty nourishes our souls – or at least stimulates them to thought or emotion – in the same way as "good" beauty. Scruton does not realise, or refuses to accept, that the notion of beauty has been extended to reflect the world as we know it, not as we would like it.

That said, the underlying message of his principle is not wrong, nor is it rejected by Januszczak, who quite clearly believes that modern beauty is there to touch the soul: he just does not believe it must be a comforting touch.

9 comments:

Gabriel said...

Just curious.. but why do you assume old-fashioned as some how wrong?
And surely the definition of beauty itself is that which pleases the senses. Modern Art may reflect the world today but that does not make it anymore beautiful.

Josh Spero said...

I would never assume old-fashioned automatically meant ugly or wrong (I'm a Classicist!), but Scruton's view ignores a lot of modern thought: if he made his show a century ago, it might be a good conception of beauty, but he chooses not to deal with what people today think is beautiful, which is the second part of your comment.

Richard said...

Scruton disparages the modern assertion that "This is art because I say it is" - he contends that a true work of art requires creativity and effort through the exercise of some particular high degree of skill. This then rules out Craig-Martin's "Oak Tree" and anyone who's contemplating making a name by sploshing paint onto a piece of canvas. Makes complete sense to me.

Josh Spero said...

Hi Richard,

The problem with that argument is that it places the physical above the theoretical, and what modern art contends is that an idea can be beautiful. After all, we don't just appreciate older works of art because they're made with skill - we like/are interested in the ideas behind them. The logical next step is to allow the ideas to carry a lot of the weight, hence conceptual and a lot of modern art.

Thanks for commenting,

Josh.

Richard said...

Hello Josh

Naturally, the concept of a beautiful idea is not "modern" - it is just that, formerly, in order to qualify as a work of art, the idea had to be expressed through a wondrous execution - a piece of prose; of music; of sculpture; a painting - and while we do appreciate the beauty of the idea, it is the skill of that execution which takes our breath away: skill that was required to convey the beauty or creativity.
Cynically, I suggest that demand for original works of art outstrips supply and therefore, in order to gratify the unsatisfied need, art has been redefined and skill is not longer too necessary. People pay millions for a piece which, to me, looks like a splodge but which is said to convey a deep and profound beauty - a splodge which, if identically executed by me, would be discarded with well-deserved contempt.

Kind regards

Josh Spero said...

Hi Richard,

I think you have to be careful when talking about how easy it is to execute something: just because it doesn't involve a traditional skill (e.g. painting a landscape accurately) doesn't mean its execution is not skilled. So, Rothko - who is the splodgiest of painters - is really very academic - he takes a lot of time over the colour and placing of his splodges.

Second, while you might be quite right about the execution taking our breath away, that is only one level of beauty (if you see my earlier piece here: http://hopeparkerson.blogspot.com/2009/11/what-is-beauty-bbc2.html). Beauty is not just immediate impact.

When the execution looks 'easy', e.g. Oak Tree, we have to understand that it is still the result of as much thought, as I was saying before.

I find your point about the market for art very interesting, and no doubt Damien Hirst has churned out work, but then so did Warhol and he's a complete genius in all aspects of art. Shakespeare, of course, also wrote for money.

J.

Richard said...

Hello Josh

Thank you for the reference to your interesting earlier piece on "Beauty". An age-old debate. I really don't want to dispute with you upon the nature of beauty - I would rather take on the argument as to what constitutes a work of art; what is upheld as an achievement in aesthetic creativity and worthy of public display. A thing we can show our children and say to them "This is great!" "Great" is more quantifiable than "Beautiful" because there is an answer to the child's question, "What makes it great?"

You mention that Rothko "takes a lot of time over the colour and placing of his splodges". And I suppose those who appreciate Rothko's work - who spend lengthy time staring in admiration - would, in an instant, distinguish between a piece such as "Orange and Yellow”, painted by him*, and an identical execution by somebody quite unknown, who had maybe been experimenting with bathroom tiles? I know, the answer must be "of course not" but therein lies the extreme vulnerability of this particular kind of work: it is only the name of the creator that carries it into respectability and recognition. He/she having first established a reputation by a variety of means which perhaps included flamboyant self-promotion and maybe the ability to stun an audience into awed silence with such utterances as "cosmically upthrusting cellular currents of timeless transfiguration". Admittedly, these people can sometimes actually do "good" work but, according to me, they grow lazy and ultimately start to play the game of trying to see how far they can go without straining the apparently limitless credulity of the art public or, by all appearances, straining themselves overly much!

My end point being that I could not stare at Rothko's "Orange and Yellow" for more than a few seconds without becoming bored stiff; while Rembrandt's "Night Watch" can transfix me for an hour at a time.

And on the final point about commercialism, I'd suggest that Shakespeare gave reasonably good value for money!

Kind regards,
Richard

*http://www.artinthepicture.com/artists/Mark_Rothko/orange.jpeg

Josh Spero said...

Hi Richard,

I don't think art and beauty can be split: art always (tries to) relate to beauty, even if it is in its deliberate avoidance. The beauty is as much in the idea as in the execution (as I've previously said).

The argument you make about Rothko could as easily be applied to Constable, and I think trying to define 'great' rather than 'beautiful' is just a recourse to technique or sensation, rather than tackling the deeper question.

Best wishes,

Josh.

Richard said...

Hello Josh

Beauty is a bit like Glory, in that it can mean whatever the speaker chooses it to mean - as Humpty Dumpty said to Alice. Which brings us back to the original statement that "this is art because I say it is" - and I was trying to avoid that.

Why Constable, in particular?

But let's contemplate "Orange and Yellow" again - and let's set "The Haywain" over here beside it and imagine that we shall have nothing else to look at for the next twelve hours. What proportion of our intellect is likely to be occupied by the one over the other? Personally, I would be quite worried about the person who spent most of that time poring over Rothko; unless they had an uncontrollable aversion to Constable of course.

I maintain that a work of art must be able to stand alone; divorced from any context such as authorship; and be appreciated thus. Which is not to say that context cannot enhance a work, naturally.

Kind regards,
Richard