Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Beautiful Quilt

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?

strange beauty 130




Strange Beauty





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.

landscape, iona








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!


Moonsilk Stitches said...

Thanks for this post. It's something I think about often. My husband especially has gotten quite sour on the prevalent aesthetic of some galleries for what he calls "ugly art." There seems to be a concensus amongst gallery curators, especially in painting and sculpture, that if it's not ugly, it's not "real," meaningful art. I think the meaning needs to come first and that it can be conveyed in many ways, none of which requires ugliness (for me it is dissonance, harshness, lack of care and skill in the rendering--my husband Steve finds pointy, sharp and harsh art ugly). In fact, I often think the ugliness of the portrayal of the concept takes away from the meaning. I just walk away.

Quiltdivajulie said...

Amen! I agree that art needs to draw us in and offer some intrigue . . . trite becomes tiresome VERY quickly.

Wonderful quotes!

Sujata Shah said...

Love reading your blog. Gives me lot to think about :)

Lisa Flowers Ross said...

Beauty can be simple and have meaning, too.

Jenny K. Lyon said...

Amen! I strive for beauty first-who wants to look at "ugly art"? I do not understand the current preoccupation that seems to consider "meaning" and "beauty" mutually exclusive!

Cally said...

Picking up on the theological note introduced by Anouilh there, I am reminded of a liturgist from the presbyterian tradition who was interested in overcoming his church culture's antipathy to art in worship. His "take" on liturgical art was that the risk of idolatry was greatest when the artist started with something they loved - rather like the cat-inspired piece you mention. Better to start with something you find unattractive, repellent even, and then the art-making becomes a search for beauty in that ugly thing. Perhaps - outside the liturgical context - this hard-won beauty also makes more compelling art? In that case you might have two kinds of ugly artwork: the kind where the artist has started from "ugly" but not reached the point of "beauty" because they didn't search hard enough, and the kind where the artist is deliberately creating the "ugly" thing to present that challenge to the viewer. Of course, I'm assuming in this analysis that the artist is capable of achieving what they intend!

I don't describe myself as an artist, but I had a go at deliberately adopting this approach in a weaving challenge I did last year (results are here) and I did find it fruitful even though I never overcame my dislike of the source!

Elsie Montgomery said...

Two others beat me to saying AMEN, but I add a third. Also, Cally hits my thoughts too, that beauty is more about transformation than it is about not doing much of anything to make it happen.

Ann Knickerbocker said...

Love the quote by Baudelaire that you have included... something unexpected, a-symmetrical, helps the artist and the viewer 'connect" somehow. In an interview, the playwright and director Richard Foreman, who used to cover his stage with upside-down mannequins and ship's wheels and cards suspended from the ceiling by threads, said that "The imagery that I was dealing with was not making pretty pictures, it was a dialectical examination of the problematics of seeing." Sometimes, we can make something that is just a little "different," but still beautiful, in an effort to help ourselves see.... Beauty is still something to search for and create, as long as the mind is open...Thanks for the post!

Elizabeth Barton said...

it seems I am not alone in my cogitations on beauty! Thank you all for writing. We do need more beauty in our lives, we need to recognize the beauty that is there, we need to create REAL beauty, lasting beauty, in our art.
Let us live in beauty.

Georgina said...

Really interesting! Ta!!

Christine @ Quilter's Diary said...

To me, beauty is like an essential mineral. I must have it in my diet to be healthy. I find looking at modern art frustrating because much of it does not seem either beautiful or meaningful to me, or if I find meaning in it, the experience is arbitrary and accidental. I'd like to say a lot more about this, but I have to get back to working on the catalog copy for your book! (Full of really beautiful quilts, by the way.)

Elizabeth Barton said...

thank you, Christine!! and I look forward to the book coming out...