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Art Theory

Beautiful in Art

Beautiful as Meaningful in Contemporary Aesthetics

These are not Pipes

In a same way as in our time we can not speak about "truth" and "good" having universal validity, we can not speak about "beautiful" as the issue of an essentialist consensus or an universal "common sense". On the other hand we can not deny the existence of the "wow" as sometimes shared experience when facing some works of art. We can avoid calling it "beautiful" but, then, we will be abandoning our linguistic tradition and yielding to the kitsch industry supported linguistic reductionism.

In our time, when speaking about art, we no longer understand beautiful as limited to phenomenological layer of an artwork, to beautiful things depicted. Since Emanuel Kant it is clear that speaking about artistic content and ignoring the form does not say anything about art just as experiencing the beauty of depicted nature is not related to the experience of the artwork (Footnote: By following lord Shaftesbury's understanding of disinterested pleassure Kant is distinguishing aesthetic pleasure as the pleasure one may have in relation to the work of art from from the empiric pleasure as the pleasure spectator may have in represented motifs. ). We do not need to recognise a beautiful object in a painting to be able to say that the painting is beautiful. A painting of an ugly house or an ugly person, for example, can be a beautiful painting since our judgement is related to the painting itself rather than to what is depicted. When we say that an artwork is beautiful we do not mean that the motif is beautiful but the painting itself. It follows that we can say that a painting can be a beautiful painting of an ugly motif. Furthermore, such beautiful is no longer related to the pleassure of eye exclusively, but also to the pleasure in contemplating the meaning.The experience of 20th century art is asserting that artistic beauty was never the pleassure for eyes only, but, above all, an experience of object offered for our free play of imagination and intellect.

Aesthetic Experience Beyond Empirical Pleasure

Artwork is a beautiful object when we have an aesthetic experience in relation to the object, in relation to the way how something is depicted rather than to what is depicted. Kant called it a disinterested pleasure. The pleasure we experience with an artwork, the free play of the imagination and intellect, is not related to the empirical pleasure, to pleasant memories of previous experiences that might have been triggered by the motif, but to the way how the motif is put together as well as to the meaning assigned to the aesthetic whole.

Abstract painting subsequently illustrates the understanding that art can skip the phenomenological layer (represented content) altogether and still be beautiful by asserting that a painting is “a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” (Footnote: “Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a female nude or some sort of anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” Maurice Denis,1890, Le spiritual dans l’art, essay published in the review ’Art et Critique’, Cited in Bouillon, Jean-Paul, 2006, p. 21.). We are supposed to experience the beauty of the form since there is no figurative content. So we do not say that artwork is not beautiful if there is nothing beautiful depicted (represented). The form itself, the way how the composition is organised, can be experienced as beautiful.(Footnote: Of cause, here we speak about abstract painting as non-figurative painting. “Abstract” is a term chosen to signify non-figurative art. It has unfortunate connotations pointing to the process of figurative abstraction but, in fact it is signifying non-representational paintings, artworks without figurative reference. As such the term “concrete” would be far better term describing what the abstract painting is about.)

In our time, in terms of Semiotics, we might say that in art a syntactic principle of artwork organisation ("how") is often more significant than semantic ("what"). In this sense, in the name of our time, Marshall McLuhan claimed that "the medium is the message." and indicated the historical problem of confussion between form and content (Footnote: In “Understanding Media”, McLuhan describes the “content” of a medium as a “juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind”, Routledge, London, 1964. That is, content of the message is what is often experienced as what the medium itself is about. Certainly, in terms of classic cartesian form-content distinction, for the aesthetic function of communication form of the message is far more significant than content. By following aesthetic formalism McLuhan pointed to the fact that people are often not able to judge about medium without references to content.) That is to say, when judging about art, throughout history people had difficulties in distinguishing artwork from motifs depicted and stil habitually confuse depicted pipe with a real pipe. Instead of judging about painting they judge depicted motif even when the meaning of an artwork is obviously related to the way how the motif is painted. It follows that the meaning of an artwork is never in citations but in the experience of the aesthetic whole as the unity of what and how. We speak about experiencing the meaning of art which, after the cognitive revolution from the middle of last century, implies that aesthetic experience (the immediate experience of an artwork) is a cognitive experience. Therefore, the issue of the experience of beautiful in arts is not merely the issue of emotions, as interpreted by classic pre modern aesthetics, but also the issue of intellect. (Footnote: See, for example in “ Visual Thinking ” by Rudolf Arnheim, 1969. Gestalt Psychology reveals visual perception as a cognitive process, hence ending the cartesian “ passive percept - active concept ” distinction and redefining the experience of “beautiful” as a specific kind of cognitive experience.)

In this sense representation of ugly forms, just as lyrics of a heavy metal song describing violence, can be experienced as beautiful. It is not to say that depicted violence is beautiful but that the experience of entire form might reach metaphysical significance and therefore appear as a beautiful experience. (Footnote: In this context I am referring to Ingarden's and Hartmann's phenomenological aesthetics and the observed stratified character of artwork reception. According to these understandings the experience of beautiful is based on the experience of “metaphysical” or “transcendental” layer of an artwork. Abstract painting is, for example, attempting to reach the metaphysical layer by skipping the phenomenological layer (representation))

Ugly and Meaningful as Beautiful

In Aesthetics beautiful is not synonymous to pretty but rather corresponds to what is often recognised in Psychology as an aha or wow effect. Since Aristotle we know that catharsis is an aesthetic category and that ugly and tragic can be experienced as beautiful. There are numerous examples in art history of forms which are ugly (as representations of ugliness) but are, as all artworks, triggering aesthetic experiences. We can say that ugly motifs and truths may be painted in a beautiful way just as contemporary horror films can be beautiful in aesthetic sense. In a same way, arguments that in our time beautiful is no longer the issue of art because of, for example, a Duchamps readymade "Fountain" is essentially an ugly urinal, are missing the point. Beautiful in Art was never related to motifs exclusively but to the whole aesthetic naming. When we say that Duchamp's "Fountain" is beautiful we are not referring to the urinal presented but to the Fountain implied. We speak about Duchamp's Fountain as a beautiful artistic gesture (in sense of a meaningful gesture).

Duchamp's Fountain

In our time we speak about aesthetic function of language and communication (after Prague Linguistic school). Aesthetic experience is everywhere. One does not have to be an aesthete to appreciate aesthetics in everyday life… We know that beautiful design sells cars and that mathematical solutions can be more or less beautiful. And art is basing its existence on experiences we recognise as the realm of the aesthetic function. Beauty is, hence, a necessary condition of art. But not the beauty understood as an essential property of pretty objects, as pretty flowers or a sunset. We use the term Beautiful in aesthetic sense to define the wow experience, the moment we recognise something profound when communicating with an artwork, the moment of bliss described by Maurice Merleau-Ponty as, "seeing more with the object than seeing the object itself". By following Kant, we say that aesthetic beauty is not related to empirical beauty. A motif of a painting can be itself beautiful but this is not the artistic beauty we are speaking about when speaking about beautiful art.

Therefore, it is wrong to say that “art does not have to be beautiful” and that in our time “beauty counts for little in the judgement of works of art” as often stated by people who confuse "beautiful" with "pretty" and persist on the contextualist assumption that for art to be beautiful the artistic motifs have to be beautiful.

Aesthetic function is what distinguishes art objects from other objects. Art is beautiful by definition. There is no art which is not beautiful since it has to be wow to be recognised as art. And the wow itself is what we name beautiful when we judge an art object and expect other people to agree with us. Of cause, in this sense, we speak about beautiful as a meaningful experience as it was used by old Greek kalós (κάλλος) and not as a headonistic superficial pleasure for eyes synonimous to Augustines voluptas. The idea that meaningful excludes beautiful is based on an outdated cartesian dichotomy of percept versus concept, on the distinction between passive world of senses subjected to the powers of rational mind where beautiful is understood as a mindless joy in representation comparable to the joy in pornography. So the assumption that the perceptual joy is mindless, disputed by contemporary neuropsychology, and the anecdotal inability to distinguish between art forms and motifs pointed out in Magritte's "This is Not a Pipe" are the main rationale for contemporary arguments that art is "no longer" beautiful. Certainly, the intentions to avoid the term beautiful in relation to contemporary art is supported by contemporary mass kitsch production of pretty commodities and entertainment marketed as beautiful and as art. Just as we do not intend to proclaim the end of art because of omnipresent entertainment there is no reason to abolish the term beautiful because of the kitsch infestation of culture appropriating the term beautiful.

Beautiful Vs Pretty as Art Vs Kitsch

In this sense it is not good idea to confuse entertainment with art as well as pretty with beautiful which often seems to be the case in contemporary writing. Global corporate appropriation of the terms beautiful and art together with the crisis of values are symptomatic of postmodern condition. The fact that beauty was throughout history traditionally seen as an ultimate value does not mean that we should abolish the use of the term together with terms such as truth and good. In a same way as in our time we can not speak about truth and good having universal validity, we can not speak about beautiful as the issue of an essentialist consensus or an universal common sense. On the other hand we can not deny the existence of the wow as sometimes shared experience when facing some works of art. We can avoid calling it beautiful but, then, we will be abandoning our linguistic tradition and yielding to the kitsch industry supported linguistic reductionism. Our culture, philosophy and aesthetics gave us clear tools to distinguish forms which are pretty but pretend to be beautiful. We call them kitsch and not art. (Ludwig Giesz) Of cause, when we speak about kitsch we do not speak about art and kitch objects being of the same essential quality to be quantitatively compared by the same scale. We speak about qualitative difference between kitsch and Aesthetic experiences often ignored by populist art discourses. But, this issue is beyond the scope of this short overview.

Certainly, it should be clear by now that we use the term Aesthetics here to name a discipline in philosophy and not a term synonimous to beautiful or to experiencing beautiful objects; subsequently, saying that it is not possible to learn and teach aesthetics and refine tastes and aesthetic judgements is wrong unless one insists on the nonsensical antiaesthetic statement that “tastes should not be discussed”. As long as we agree that there are different tastes there are no valid reasons why we should not discuss tastes.

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  1. Susanna JonesApril 12, 2018

    We can not say that all modern art is beautiful. There is nothing beautiful in Duchamp's "Fountain" in Picasso's Cubist paintings or in Bacon's Pope's. Modern artists often made it clear that art is not supposed to be beautiful.Philosophy of our time is avoiding to use the term "beautiful".

    • I am aware of beauty skeptics in philosophy of art. Their argument follows logic that term “beauty” is subjective and simply too vague to be used in philosophy… So instead of investigating the rich etymology and facets of possible meanings deeply defining evolution of art discourse they suggest abandoning the word altogether. Even if it would be possible, what kind of world this would be if we simply abandon words which are polysemic. “Welcome to the machines”.

      We do not stop using the term "atom" because we no longer see it as indivisible. Philosophy skeptics would like to change language because natural language does not allow developing neat conceptual systems. I never considered logocentrism of “beauty skeptics” seriously and I can not agree with anyone who does.

      We have to be aware that there are philosophers who do not feel what art is about, who do not realise that polysemy and subsequent persistent escaping from attempts of analysis is the nature of art similar to the nature of creative language. On the other hand, confusing content with form and recognising creative facets of language as linguistic obstacles rather than potentials is the nature of logocentrism. The will to establish neat conceptual schemes often reveal an inability to distinguish mythopoetic from propositional functions of language.

      Arguments that contemporary art is not beautiful subsequently mean that we can no longer see “realistic” representations of beautiful motifs in contemporary art. In our time even some academics in fine arts speak about “aesthetically flawless” artworks referring to technical verisimilitude. Obviously, the understanding of lack of beauty in contemporary art is referring to the lack of beautiful representations. The term Aesthetics in art is often seen as related exclusively to motifs and technical skills in verisimilitude.

      It is not strange why people not able to see beauty in forms without content would have difficulties understanding Kant’s concept of pure beauty.They do not realise that “pure beauty” in art was never the issue of beautiful motifs or assertive resemblances. In our time we speak about visual art as a visual text. People chasing neat rational schemes in art will never be able to see the beauty in visual text which is elegantly escaping analysis and making the avoidance of closure the specific difference of artistic experience.

      A necessary condition of an art object is its belonging to the class of objects with ability to trigger an emotional response. You are very welcome to call the response “wow” if you prefer. As long as we agree that this particular kind of response is specific, although not exclusive, to art experience it is irrelevant how we name it. Besides an immediate linguistic function to define our relation to the object as an aesthetic judgement which one may see as passé, if you will, the word has also the function of linguistic bracketing just as a code word in computer programming. To be able to see something as art we need to overcome the entropy by applying an “enabling structure” (W. Iser) or a System code (Umberto Ecco). It adjusts our cognitive system to particular class of experiences and allows us to experience readymades as aesthetic objects.

      By framing the experience as “beautiful” we define it as a specific mode of human experience, different from other experiences but commonly shared within society. Old Greek language recognised it as the realm of mythos essentially different from the realm of logos. In time of modernism the term beautiful took that important linguistic function of framing the class of objects as the realm of metaphorical language. No one can deny that the context giving the meaning and significance to the Duchamp’s urinal was the context of beautiful objects (an art exhibition). Without the context of beautiful objects there would be no “Fountain.” The “Fountain” was defined by its belonging to the class of objects which may be experienced as beautiful regardless of the fact that by itself the object may not be seen as beautiful. Of cause, in our time we no longer speak about the beautiful being an immanent property of an object. We speak about experience in the relation to the object and the fact is that what is artistic in Duchamp's Fountain is not the object itself but the gesture; by saying that the Fountain is beautiful we are not claiming that the urinal itself is beautiful but the concept of placing it within the artistic context. When saying that a conceptual work of art is beautiful we are saying that the idea is beautiful. That we recognise it as a wow statement.

      In our time we no longer deny that ideas can be beautiful.

  2. James ScottApril 22, 2018

    I know for sure that in mathematics there are more and less beautiful ways to come to the result. Beautiful solutions are elegant and inspiring while boring and predictable solutions are not perceived as beautiful .

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