Is it all about beauty?I was looking at the quilts that sold at the recent Art Quilt elements show in Philadelphia and it struck me that many of them celebrated beauty. While Agnes Martin was a great advocate of beauty and felt it should be the main subject matter of art you would certainly not think so when you look at some of the art shown today – especially in the major contemporary shows. I struggle with wanting to make something beautiful but also wanting to make it meaningful – to me at least. Some days there seems to be a yawning chasm (never understood why chasms yawn, or us either for that matter!) between the two: beauty and meaningfulness.
Ansel Adams wrote that: “Art is both the taking and giving of beauty” – we see beauty, perhaps where no one else has, and we try to give it back. And Renoir: “Why should beauty be suspect? ” why should we suspect that sometimes it has no meaning? Because it has been over-used and commercialized so often?
Iwonder even if we should be thinking specifically about beauty as we create our art, whether planned or intuitive, representational or abstract? Mondrian might not agree that representational art conveyed true beauty! “The emotion of beauty is always obscured by the appearance of the object. Therefore the object must be eliminated from the picture ”, though I think he is referring to making art about what we feel about the object rather than the object itself. If we make a piece about our beloved cat whom we feel is beautiful, perhaps to a viewer (who cannot have the same feelings about the cat that we do) it’s just a picture of an old moggie and doesn’t show beauty at all.
Thistle (“admiring” the beautiful birds and squirrels!)
How can we get past this? Interestingly, many have talked about the need from something unsettling, even ugly, in a work of art to create “true” beauty: Baudelaire wrote: “That which is not slightly distorted lacks sensible appeal; from which it follows that irregularity – that is to say, the unexpected, surprise and astonishment, are a essential part and characteristic of beauty.” I think it is this nuance that makes the difference between something cloyingly sweet and trite, the sugar coated pretend beauty that stultifies and real everlasting beauty.
Everyone loves to look at beautiful scenery, would love to live in a beautiful house, or be with (or be!) a beautiful person (and by that I don’t mean looks!)…so it would make sense we would like to look at beautiful art. But real beauty is not trite, pallid, commercialized, pastel, greeting card taste – that is mere prettiness and can only briefly hold one’s attention. It stales very quickly – as, Shakespeare noted, real beauty is fascinating:
“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry where most she satisfies. . . .”
Of course he was talking about Cleopatra, but the same holds true for a shallow prettiness versus a truly richly intriguingly beauty. Beauty with a little kick of spice to it!
Colours, shapes, lines etc don’t have to be “pretty” or “sweet” to be beautiful; music played in a minor key can be just as (if not more so) beautiful than a major one. Beauty can be fresh, or mature, bold or soft, quiet or loud, startling or soothing.
Frank Lloyd Wright felt that the longer one lives “the more beautiful life becomes. If you foolishly ignore beauty, you will soon find yourself without it. Your life will be impoverished. But if you invest in beauty, it will remain with you all the days of your life.” (yes! Buy more beautiful quilts!) For after all “When everything else physical and mental seems to diminish, the appreciation of beauty is on the increase.” (Bernard Berenson)
Art is lots of things (decoration, communication, information, honour, inspiration), but it has to be one thing first: something that holds our attention, something we desire, something that stays with you.
If you have been, thanks for reading! But consider this final quote about beauty:
Beauty is one of the rare things that do not lead to doubt of God. (Jean Anouilh)
PS comments are beautiful too!