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Should art be beautiful? Revisit ancient philosophers' thoughts on beauty and consider why we might be skeptical of beauty today.

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As I think happens to a lot of us, I found myself daydreaming about the performance artist Marina Abramovic the other day, in particular her 1975 piece "Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful", in which she brushes her hair with a comb in one hand and a brush in the other while continuously repeating the mantra.

Marina: Art must be beautiful.  Artist must be beautiful.

Sarah: This piece brings up a lot of good questions.  What were the expectations of an artist, particularly a woman, during that moment in the 70s?  Is it any different now?  And to what extent does an artist and their image become wrapped up in the commodification of their artwork?  But today, I just want to focus on that first half of the mantra: art must be beautiful.  

You often hear that old Keats line, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," but personally, I don't think it's that simple.  I tend to be suspicious of beautiful art.  There must be some evil machinations at work, right?  Something pernicious lurking underneath the surface?  Why am I dubious of beautiful art?  

Ancient philosophers pondered the nature of beauty and I'll recklessly summarize their positions to say that they found beauty to be objective, something that rests in the object and not in the response of the beholder.  Plato thought that beauty was located in the realm of the forms and if an object participated in those forms, it could be considered beautiful.  Ditto for Aristotle, who wrote in the Poetics that "To be beautiful, a living creature and every whole made up of parts must present a certain order in its arrangement of parts."  

That manifested through symmetry and proportion and could sometimes but not always be boiled down to a formula like the Golden Ratio, and there were certainly emotional aspects to encountering beauty.  Plotinus described the spirit that beauty must bring forth as "Wonderment and a delicious trobule, longing and love and a trembling that is all delight."  Artists and writers of the Italian Renaissance who revered all things Greek and Roman had similar conceptions of beauty.  Art and archicture, to be beautiful, strove to achieve perfect proportions and arrangement of parts coalescing into a harmonious whole, and for much of this history, that which was beautiful was closely intertwined with that which was good or moral.  

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Cultures throughout history and believe it or not, in places other than Europe, have held differing conceptions of beauty.  Tracing any kind of a global history is difficult, because the idea of taking pleasure in things is expressed in many different ways and in many different cultures, like when we're looking for analogs for beauty in other languages, should we consider Tang dynasty painter Xie He's six principles of Chinese painting, the first of which translates to "the breath of life" or spirit resonance in a work of art?

Perhaps a better boundary is the discipline of aesthetics.  The term first appeared in 1735, when Baumgarten wrote about how the Greek philosophers distinguished between the noeta, being objects of thought that could be understood through logic, and the aistheta, being objects of sense.  Aesthetics for him were the science of perception, but it wouldn't be until the 19th century that the likes of Kant and others drew out these ideas further.

Kant insisted that aesthetics could not be a science and that beauty was entirely subjective and never able to be proved.  For Kant, it is our faculty of judgement or critique that allows us to have an experience of beuaty, so now we arrive at a point where beauty is located outside of the thing, referring instead to the experience of the person taking it in.  It's roughly around this time that Winckelmann, sometimes called the father of art history, found beauty to be not something that you could define, but something that could only be discovered through deep and sustained observation.

Here again, beauty is located in our experience of a thing and not in the thing itself.  Winckelmann even imposed upon himself a rule when looking at art of not turning back until I'd discovered some beauty, and we can't forget Hegel.  Hegel did believe that beauty is objective, that it's a matter of the harmony of different elements unified organically, but he also thought beauty had to do with subject matter. 

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In his mind, true art gives sensuous expression to the free spirit and should make that freedom of spirit graspable to an audience.  Art is beautiful, so says Hegel, when it allows us to realize truths about ourselves, which is a super compelling idea, but for Hegel this meant almost exclusively ancient Greek sculptures of gods and heroes.  I'll stop with this littany in just a moment, but I can't not bring up Hume, who in my mind, had a totally reasonable take on the topic, which I would like to have on a t-shirt: "Beauty is no quality in things themselves.  It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them and each mind perceives a different beauty.  One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty and every individual ought to acqueisce in his own sentiment without pretending to regulate those of others.'  

Now, as much as I like this idea, Hume and others did find the subjectivity of beauty to be kind of a bummer because if beauty is completely relative, then it doesn't seem all that important and beauty felt and certainly still feels important.  As Andy Warhol said over 200 years later, "If everybody's not a beauty, then nobody is."  But that's also good news, right?  Maybe everyone's a beauty.

The ancient Greeks often located beauty in the form of strapping male youths and it wasn't until maybe the 19th century that ideals of beauty started to be located more in the image of woman more than man.  The culture industry certainly plays a huge role in my suspicion of beauty, and here I'm using the term introduced by Adorno and Horkheimer in 1944.  It describes the late capitalist phenomenon of all the cultural goods like films, magazines, music, and radio designed, so these guys claim, to satisfy the entertainment needs of we, the mass of consumers, and there have been many important feminist critiques of the culture industry.

In 1975, Laura Mulvey wrote, "It is said that analyzing visual pleasure or beauty destroys it.  That is the intention of this article."  She goes on to explain, "In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active male and passive female.

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The determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female form, which is styled accordingly.  In their traditional exhibitonist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness."  And it's precisely that to-be-looked-at-ness that arouses my suspicion when I'm experiencing beauty in art.  What are the codes and motivations behind what I'm seeing, whether it's an image of a person or a suspicious sunset seducing me with its beauty?

In this post-modern age, we've been taught to question everything.  Something beautiful is pretty often a lure to sell you sneakers.  In the last century, you can see the steady decline in importance of traditional Western ideals of beauty for artists and the gatekeepers of art, resulting in much of the headscratching that goes on daily in museums around the world.  Some of that we can credit to the succession of avant garde movements in the 20th century.  Artists deploying shock, ugliness, and the mechanical among other tactics and their reactions against the status quo or oppressive structures and purportedly golden ratios that are just like regular ratios.

Dave Hickey sought to understand this vacancy of beauty in a 1993 essay, summarizing artists' anti-beauty arguments like this: "Beautiful art sells.  If it sells itself, it's an idolatrous commodity.  If it sells anything else, it's a seductive advertisement."  Hickey countered that, "Idolatry and advertising are indeed art, and that the greatest works of art are always and inevitably a bit of both."  He defended beauty, reminding us that art and images have appealed to the beholder throughout history, arguing for things and attempting to persuade, so it seems that we jaded citizens of the present have been depriving ourselves of beauty even though beautiful images have long been trying to sell us something, be it Christianty, revolution, or what have you.

In 1994, Arthur Danto proclaimed "Ours is an age of moral indignation," and I'd argue that age continues, but goes on to connect our aversion to beauty with a heightened moral sensitivity.  

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Kathleen Marie Higgins responded to Danto in '96 saying, "It may be insensitive at times to luxuriate in aesthetic comfort while human misery abounds, but the mesmerizing impact of beauty may, even in miserable conditions, rekindle our sensitivity."  Beauty might be subjective, impossible to define, ever-changing, and socially inscribed, but it's nonetheless real, so argued Elaine Scarry, "It is as though beautiful things have been placed here and there throughout the world to serve as small wake-up calls to perception, spurring lapsed alertness back to its most acute level," and artists are still making beautiful things, whether beauty is inherent in those things or exists only in our perception of them, I'd argue that beauty is valuable.  It's just not the only valuable facet of art.

Now, this is a far from complete accounting of philosophies of beauty throughout the ages and I encourage you to mention the many important ideas I've skipped over in the comments, but if you started out thinking that art must be beautiful, I hope maybe we've inserted a question mark after the statement for you, and if, like me, you started out dubious of beauty, then perhaps you may have found something redeeming in it and become dubious instead of our aversion to beauty.  Rather than condemn or condone beauty, perhaps the task is putting it in its place, allowing for it, or even embracing it while understanding all that it might mask or distract from.  

Let's talk about it in the comments.  Remembering always Hume's invocation that every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment without pretending to regulate those of others.

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