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.
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.”.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.