Art Theory

Beautiful Forms and Ugly Motifs

Why Beautiful Sounds Awkward in Postmodern Discourses?

Two Old Ones Eating Soup

Two Old Ones Eating Soup (Dos viejos comiendo sopa). One of Black Paintings created by Francisco Goya between 1819–1823. Museo Del Prado, Madrid. Image PD

It is sad when we have a paradoxical situation that people in technology are quite aware of the existence of beautiful algorithms while, at the same time, art academics whose job would be to teach art and, one would assume, also protect their jobs by arguing for the independence of art as the realm of aesthetic function, are often arguing for the populist understanding of beauty as the property of an object to please the eye.

The term “beauty” often sounds a bit awkward because it is in popular language associated with beautiful motifs. A painting of a beautiful woman, for example, is often seen as a beautiful painting just because of beautiful female body parts depicted. Throughout history people had problems distinguishing subject matter of the painting from the painting itself. The ambiquity comes from the fact that when someone is saying that a work of art is beautiful she may be referring either to the artwork or to the motif, to the object or to the experience. In postmodern circumstances artwork is commonly not perceived as ending within its frame, so, in popular language when discussing art, it is common to speak about motifs and surrounding literal references instead of about the experience of the art object. In our time it is not strange when discourse about films ends, for example, as a discourse about food in crime fiction. Of course, such discourses are not about particular art experience but are small narratives inspired by the experiences of quotations which are mainly irrelevant to our aesthetic experiences of an artwork.

The origin of Aesthetic Formalism

Many artists throughout the ages were frustrated because people did not see their paintings through their skill but enjoyed in what was depicted in their paintings instead… Artists painting better-looking women and more beautiful nature scenes were therefore throughout history considered to be better artists… Paintings representing ugly people were commonly recognised as ugly paintings. For a long time only art experts would recognise, for example, Goya's fourteen Black Paintings created between 1819–1823 as beautiful paintings of ugly scenes. When judging art in conversations about art only the initiated would be able to distinguish art from the subject matter of art.

This confusing of art with subject matter often happens in our time as well. For example, people call heavy metal music “violent” just because lyrics represent violent content, or will deny that horror films or dramas can be beautiful because of “ugly” motifs and disturbing narratives.

In the 18th century people in the arts realised the problem and started to distinguish between the “motif” of an artwork, representing what is depicted, from the “form” of an artwork - how it is depicted. The awarenes of the difference between the two, as well as the strong oposition to the long tradition of identifying art with motifs, with divine words or representations of beautiful nature, resulted in the rise of aesthetic formalism. While the mainstream interpretation of art saw it as an activity having function outside of itself, such as a social purpose in representing either sacral concepts or beautiful forms, formalism appeared as an opposition to this understanding. It follows that the skill of an artist is not in the choice of the motif but mainly in how the motifs were depicted. This recognition coincides with recognition of fine art as a separate mode of human activity as well as aesthetics as a philosophical discipline concerned with beauty (natural and artistic) and taste.

Aesthetics was established by Alexander Baumgarten at the beginning of the 18th century as a study of good and bad taste and good and bad art in which the principal reference was the concept of “beauty”. Beauty was traditionally seen as an ultimate value just as “truth” and “good”. As such “beauty” was not seen as any other aesthetic property which may be assigned to an object by an aesthetic judgement but the default property of an aesthetic object.

The argument was that the judgement of taste was the judgement of the senses essentially different from the judgement of the reason. The pleasure experienced in relation to beautiful objects was therefore the pleasure defining an object as an art object. Objects not able to trigger the feeling of beauty were considered as not being art but aesthetic failures. The notion of fine art is related to the aesthetic beauty defining an art object as a beautiful object and not what the object is representing.

Aesthetic beauty is seen as the property of an object made by human which is distinguishing an object as an artwork. As such aesthetics was the basis of establishing art as a separate discipline in a society. The fact that in our time we speak about art as a separate realm of human experience and that people have jobs as artists and teachers of art is thanks to establishing aesthetics which asserted that the experience of beautiful art forms was essentially different goodness from the rational experience of truth. Furthermore, the implied aesthetic concept of disinterested pleasure in beautiful forms and “pure beauty” were the conceptual foundation without which it could be difficult to imagine the existence of modern art such as abstract painting or Duchamp’s “Fountain”. Besides attempting to solve philosophical questions about art, aesthetics was a part of social discourse feeding back the art praxis and articulating the conceptual background of the artworld (art discourse as text and context).

Before Aesthetics the discourse about art was commonly not distinguished from the discourse about the motifs. After the beginning of the 18th century people could speak about art aside from motifs and beauty was subsequently seen as a quality assigned to art objects. Subsequently, people enjoying in content of paintings are by early aesthetics recognised as having a lower taste than people enjoying in the form (the way how is something depicted in relation to the motifs.) In contemporary terms, when observing the paintings of nudes, pornography - the fetishised concern for the particular subject matter depicted, was substituted with erothica - the metaphysics of sexuality in the relation to particular motif. The early formalism was not aiming at separating form from motifs but at recognising art forms as beautiful aesthetic unities, as particular forms reaching universal values when recognised as being beautiful. Emanuel Kant called the beauty of the form reaching metaphysical realm a “pure beauty” and the pleasure in the form (the pleasure experiencing the way how something is depicted in the relation to the motif) a “disinterested pleasure.”

Of cause, the concept of pure beauty is later criticised as an idealist concept with the notion that it is difficult to exclude an empiric experience in the experience of representational work of art. On the other hand the concept of pure beauty pointed to what we in our time call a "syntagmatic" character of a work of art where the meaning of a representation is constructed by the way how rather than what. Our contemporary culture in distinguishing experiences of art from kitsch experiences and experiences of pornography from erothica is established on the fact that the early aesthetic formalism opposed to the mistic confussions between object and its representation, between a painting of a pipe and a real pipe.

Big Theory of Beauty and Abstract Painting

At the time of beginnings of classical Aesthetics artists saw beauty as the property of the art object. Every artwork had sensible qualities dependent of the medium such as ‘line’, ‘tone’, ‘colour value’, ‘colour’ in painting… These elements were seen as arranged into an artistic unity, the unity called ‘composition’ organised according to the principles of proportion, harmony and symmetry of forces.

Composition had to balance the elements as forces in the field according to the principle of “unity in variety”. Integrity of the art object is seen as a necessary condition of the beautiful form since Aristotle. The conceptual background is known as a Classic or Big theory of beauty. In our time it is preserved as a “secret knowledge” of artist’s studios and is together with other principles of beautiful forms such as a “golden ratio” rediscovered by cognitive psychology.

Following the theoretical framework of good taste and the appearance of photography, which made the visual representation the issue of technology, visual artists in last century were encouraged to play with art form and finally to disregard the representation of the content altogether. This is how we ended with works of visual art without motifs. By following principles of music, which commonly does not have motifs, visual art aimed to open the potential to the play of imagination and intellect to the extent that it became completely open to interpretation. By following ancient principles of formal organisation and metaphysics of universal order the visual art ended as pure form allowing to spectators to add the content (transcendental meaning) if and when they will. To be beautiful without any reference, just like flowers in a field.

People remembered that both Plato and Aristotle understood art as representation but that Plato saw representation as a representation of principles and not appearances; representation of particulars (nature) was of a lesser value then the representation of universals (ideas represented by nature). Abstract painting is therefore a painting which does not represent any “content” and hits us with rules of the beautiful organisation free from constrains of any figurative reference. In the Classic theory of beauty the rules of beautiful organisation were seen as rules of divine organisation. Rules of the visual organisation which appear to us through an artwork as an assertive aesthetic unity are defining a beautiful abstract painting. It appeared that a painting can be experienced as beautiful without beautiful women or beautiful nature, just by following the ancient rules of visual organisation recognised in beautiful nature as the universal principles of natural and artistic unity.

By getting rid of constraints of figurative representation visual art was suddenly free to explore its own naked nature and the highlighting of the conceptual character of organisation necessarily revealed that art might not be about representation at all (theories of art as expression), that communicating meaning in a beautiful way is the essence of artistic beauty (theories of art as communication) or that a work of art is supposed to stay open and resist conceptual closure (theories of art as an open form).

Arguments Against Beauty in Art

In old Greek the term “aesthetic” is related to sensory perception and is introduced to philosophy to emphasise immediacy of taste faculty as opposed to the reason. Subsequently, it was often argued that the beauty is a matter of emotions while the meaning is the faculty of the mind, hence they were separated like passive “percept” is from active “concept”. By following same linguistic haritage beauty is still often understood as a property of the object appealing to eye or as an immediate consequence of the perceptual pleasure.

This link between perception and beauty is embedded deeply in language. Art objects seen through perceptual pleasure can be beautiful while ideas can not. And this is the basis why it seems reasonable to argue that, for example, Goya’s painting “The Third of May 1808” is not beautiful as well as that Duchamp’s Fountain is not beautiful. The first one insists on the art content as a concept (a political statement) and the second on the concept of the context which defines the object as an art object. It seems that neither “concept” nor “context” are in our linguistic realms no longer even remotely associated with the feeling of beautiful.

At the second half of the last century some young theorists, disregarding the history of art discourse, started arguing why do we need ‘beauty’ as part of art at all if art is the issue of meaning and not of beautiful representation? In their understanding, which followed cartesian dichotomy of passive perception versus active reason, one object or statement can not be ‘meaningful’ and ‘beautiful’ at the same time. Furthermore, in a manner of ancient confussion illustrated in anecdotal inability to distinguish between an actual pipe and a painting of a pipe they often associated artistic beauty with beautiful motifs, therefore with beautiful women or beautiful nature depicted. They never asked themselves why the ugly forms were throughout history considered to be beautiful artworks. In their contextualist arguments it is apparently impossible to judge a work of art without the reference to the represented. For that reason the meaning of art in postmodern discourses often ends with linguistic logocentrism, in judging about linguistic social references instead of about the works of art. When confronted with Magritte's "This Is Not a Pipe", they are more likely to end with speaking about the pipe depicted and social consequences of smoking instead of enjoying the immediate experiences of the painting if not grasping the pun about their inability to distinguish an object from the representation of the object.

Majority of postmodern criticism addressed to aesthetics is based on the popular notion that in our time art is no longer concerned with “beautiful” but rather with “meaningful.” Therefore, the argument is that the Goya’s painting, as well as Duchamp,s “Fountain” are supposed to be seen as conceptual statements and, therefore, can not be seen as “beautiful”. It is clear that such arguments are based on a false premise since in our time we know that Cartesian dichotomy separating passive percept from active concept is false and that something always has to be seen as meaningful before it can be experienced as beautiful (Gestalt psychology). In this sense in contemporary aesthetics “beautiful” is no longer in opposition to “meaningful” since both are the consequence of the same cognitive process. Rudolph Arnhem called the process “visual thinking.” Certainly, we can speak of music in a similar way.

The concept of “beauty” was throughout history one of most controversial concepts in philosophy and one of main reasons for numerous misunderstandings were deeply anchored differential relations of language. In Greek language the word “kalos” is still used to designate both beautiful forms and beautiful ideas. Therefore for Greeks, due to unchanged linguistic background of the word “beautiful” it is much easier to understand contemporary aesthetics. It is similar in some other European languages. In our time aesthetics we no longer see “beautiful” as a property of an object emerging from passive perception. In many languages people did not have to stretch the meaning of the word “beautiful” because it was already used in a way to allow ideas to be beautiful and hence smoothly allowed the shifting of the aesthetic perspective from the aesthetic object (aesthetic formalism) to the aesthetic process (phenomenology) and, finally, to the social context (poststructuralism).

It might help if the translation of the word “beautiful” in English, as it is commonly used in contemporary aesthetics, is “wow” instead of “beautiful”. By that way, for the purpose of the argument, we might temporarily exclude the connotations of the term to kitsch objects. It might be easier to understand it when applied to describe experience of modern art, the forms which are experienced as beautiful statements. So, in our time when we say that art is beautiful by definition we actually say that art is “wow” by definition. Something has to be “wow” to be seen as art…

Arthur Danto’s criticism of Aesthetics pointing to inability of coping with Duchamp’s urinal as an aesthetic object is rightly aiming at criticising the extreme formal school in aesthetics - the one which was basing the aesthetic judgement on formal properties of the aesthetic object exclusively. Proponents of abstract painting, for example, often argued that only the forms without motifs and any references to reality should be considered as a true visual art objects. Against such aesthetic normativism Danto was pointing to the fact that what makes the Duchamp's urinal an art object is obviously not in the urinal itself (in its form). It is not the form which is making Duchamp's urinal an artwork. This is why we do not speak about the Duchamp's urinal as a beautiful object but about the gesture as a wow gesture. Of cause, Danto's later analysis of the term beauty in arts suffers from the inability to separate the realm of representation from physical reality which is simptomatic for the number of postmodern writings unable to frame the subject matter of discussion. Arguments about supposed abusing of traditional beauty with Avant-Garde's ugliness are missing the point that it is not in motifs the artistic beauty was ever about but in the mithopoetic experience of universals recognised as an experience of beautiful.

At that time Aesthetics was already shifting the focus from art objects to the modes of communication - to the experience of text as “a tissue of quotations". All subsequent criticism of Aesthetics (as an art theory insisting on the concept of beauty) at the end of the last century is missing the point that our time aesthetic thought is not ignoring the fact that modern art is based on "meaningful” rather than “beautiful” but was always using the term “beautiful” in a way to include the experience of meaningful (as a “wow” experience).

The experience of the metaphysical (transcendental) layer of an artwork, as set by Ingarden and Hartmann, was therefore from the beginning the experience of beautiful ideas (hence, maybe better referred to in English as a “wow” than “beautiful”). Certainly, after Saussure and Semiotics it was clear that the ideas defining experience of beautiful objects are the issue of linguistic connotations and as such the art objects, as well as the experience of beauty, are defined by dynamism of cultural context just as it was asserted by the reading of Duchamp’s "Fountain". Of cause, the idea suggested by postmodernists that art is only what artworld says art is, is another definition of art between many and certainly not the ultimate one.

Regardless of all the criticism of aesthetic concepts and ubiquitous academic relativism, there is still no valid argument to exclude the experience of “beautiful” (“wow”) from art experience. There is no reason to deny possibility that someone can see Goya’s "The Third of May" or Duchamp’s “Fountain” as beautiful (“wow”). In a same way as old Greek tragedies were perceived as beautiful even when representing disturbing content we can say that contemporary horror films and paintings representing horrible actual events such as Picasso's Guernica or Goya's "The Third of May" may be experienced as beautiful works of art. There were many examples of ugly forms throughout art history but they were seen as ugly art, just as beautiful art due to beautiful motifs exclusively, by superficial readings only.

Goya - Third of May

The Third of May 1808 Francisco Goya, 1814. Museo Del Prado, Madrid. Image PD

People no longer feel the urge to argue that art is “good” but, in aesthetic sense in our time it is assumed that an artwork is “good”, “beautiful” and a “truth statement”. Certainly, we can live without archaic terms commonly referencing absolute values such as “truth”, “goodness” and “artistic beauty” but such intellectual reductionism would make our cultures poor shadows on the wall.

It is sad when we have a paradoxical situation that people in technology are quite aware of the existence of beautiful algorithms while, at the same time, art academics whose job would be to teach art and, one would assume, also protect their jobs by arguing for the independence of art as the realm of aesthetic function, are often arguing for the populist understanding of beauty as the property of an object to please the eye.

The argument that historically art was always seen to be about the meaning as statements and experiences of universal by using particular compositions and that beauty was just like a code defining the specific mode of communication still does not get through. Even the argument that ‘immediate appreciation’ is necessarily a cognitive experience according to contemporary cognitive psychology can not persuade some people that ideas and algorithms can be beautiful and that there is absolutely no reason to remove the experience of beautiful from art experience. Term "beautiful" was always used to describe the experience of art objects as aesthetic unities and not their beautiful motifs or quotations. When saying that a painting is beautiful we do not mean saying that a female features depicted are beautiful as it is often interpreted by contextualists. When saying that one film is beautiful we are judging our experience of the film as an artistic unity of form and content, our experience of the whole statement and not of a particular quotation that may be observed in its own right and interpreted as a beautiful detail and potentially a subject of some social critical scrutany. It is not to deny the posibility to discuss the social circumstances surrounding the making of a film but to insist on distinguishing films as artistic forms and artefacts we can discuss about without recourse to the elements of form supposedly bearing significance but which are outside of the whole mythopoetic naming. It is about an intellectual ability to distinguish film as a subject matter from filmed as a subject matter, a painting of the pipe from the referenced real pipe.

It is not difficult to understand why people in our time might find the aesthetic use of the term “beautiful” awkward. After the fall of Greenberg in American artworld kitsch forms became liberated from bad taste stigma and were onwards often interpreted as beautiful. Postmodern discourse insists on avoiding taste value judgements and kitch production is defined by the will to be recognised as art. The result is the mass production of kitsch artefacts marketed as beautiful objects and corporate takeover of culture in the name of free market of beauty commodities. In the attempt to avoid such connotations of the term beautiful I proposed the "wow" as a temporary substitute. Growing up in a society with linguistic background in which term “beautiful” is commonly associated with kitsch forms would subsequently define former art Avant-Garde as the opposition to the forms with beautiful motifs. Besides the fact that "beautiful" was traditionally used to define physical properties of an object it is in our time obviously associated with kitsch forms. In this sense we can understand contemporary arguments against beauty in arts. (Footnote: Gianni Vattimo in “Beyond Interpretation”, for example, argues that, “idealization of beautiful and ethical life” became impossible because the “classically perfect identification between content and form, and the completeness and definitive quality of the work, is anachronistic, illusory and in the end positively kitsch (nowadays only merchandise promoted in advertising is presented in this way)”. Pointed out by Thorsten Botz-Bornstein in “The conversation” forum argument. ).

In such circumstances “art” will be necessarily seen as subversive in relation to sweet conservative “beautiful” motifs and forms that used to be known as “kitsch”. In our time the main problem is not polysemy of the term “beautiful” but rather that kitsch is no longer recognised as kitsch but obviously something that becomes part of the culture often even described by art professionals as “irresistibly beautiful”. So, as kitsch is progressively recognised as "beautiful" the art practice is increasingly insisting on avoiding the association with "beautiful".

Term “beauty” has a long history, much longer then “art”… Art comes from Latin word signifying “skill (in creating beautiful objects)” and it is semantically anchored in a meaning similar to contemporary in 17th century. There is a long history of terms “beauty” and “beautiful” in a way that they can smoothly function in judgements like “beautifully subversive”. This kind of flexibility where “beautiful” may be assigned to ideas is my linguistic heritage. Arguments that, for example, Picasso would have never seen Guernica "beautiful" does not hold. At the time Picasso was painting Guernica, Kant’s understanding of “pure beauty” and it’s applicability to modernist art forms was a part of European linguistic culture just as it was the common ability to distinguish a subject matter of any conversation. The habit of speaking about art by, for example, speaking about depicted female bums or an artist's girlfriend who commited suacide by jumping from the fifth floor, is a rudiment of the long heritage of art discourse enslaved by functions other than artistic the criticism of which in early 18th century engendered the revolution ending with the modernist notion of Fine Art as well as the appearance of Aesthetics as attempts to think about the experience of beautiful forms without the exclusive reference to represented.

Share this Post:

Related Posts:


Leave a Comment