“Real beauty knocks you a little bit off kilter.”
Beauty is a vast topic. It has engaged the minds of humanity’s best thinkers since the days of Plato. And it has motivated human beings to decorate themselves and embellish the world around them since the beginning of recorded history, if not before. To please the eye and to observe that which pleases the eye are the province of beauty. The visual arts—painting, drawing, sculpture, architecture—stem from that fundamental human urge to please as well as to inform the eye. It is the beauty we create, rather than the beauty we find in nature or in a pretty face, that I want to discuss. Specifically, I want to take a look at beauty in the context of our postmodern times.
Historically, art and beauty were assumed to be synonymous. To make a work of art meant to make an object or an image of beauty, even if the subject matter was less than genial—say, a battle scene or a mythological rape. Take Greek art, for example. Combat scenes and warriors were common themes of vase paintings from the earliest periods of Greek art, and even the story of Leda and the swan, in which the god Zeus takes the form of a swan to seduce Leda, can be found as subject matter in art from ancient Greece. Though depicting acts of violence, these themes were portrayed with grace, proportion, fine drawing, and emotional restraint. One of the great paintings of early Renaissance art is a battle scene: the Battle of San Romano by Paolo Uccello. Images of lances, spears, armor, fallen horses, and wounded soldiers are used to transform the confusion and chaos of the event into a scene of harmonious forms, complex patterns of richly colored shapes, and ornate and luscious detailing, all with a remarkable mastery of the newly discovered technique of linear perspective. Yes, honoring Florence’s victory over its arch rival Siena was the purpose of the painting, but in Uccello’s hands the reality of warfare is elevated to a meditation on the underlying structure of the physical world.
Beauty as an essential element of painting or sculpture was rejected in the early part of the twentieth century, and for good reason. A group of artists in Europe and the United States known as the Dadaists reacted to the atrocities that were occurring as World War I broke out. In the midst of slaughter and destruction, the only sane response for artists, they posited, was to refuse to make art of beauty and meaning. The world had gone crazy, and art should reflect that madness by being itself nonsensical and without beauty.
In a sense, the Dadaists opened a Pandora’s box of art taboos. As the century unfolded, more and more expectations about what constituted a work of art were discarded. At the same time, the market for art expanded exponentially, making the purchase of a work of art for many people as much an act of financial investment as it was an affirmative aesthetic response on the part of an art connoisseur. What came to be valued most in art was, as art critic Robert Hughes pointed out, the shock of the new. Add to that the escalating price tag associated with that shock value, and a situation developed that today we take for granted: auction sales in the millions of dollars for works such as a gleaming stylized puppy sculpture or a disheveled bed that belongs to the artist or a depiction of postcoital ennui in an anonymous high-rise living room. In short, objects and images that flaunt their disdain for beauty, serious content, and universal truth sell.
Under such circumstances, the return of beauty to art would be not only a balm to the eyes but a significant way to imbue art with meaning and purpose. Here’s why.
First, beauty takes your breath away, at least momentarily. You come to rest, are silenced, in awe. While working as a tour guide in Florence, Italy, I took nearly all my clients to see Michelangelo’s noble, larger-than-life marble sculpture David. And every time I turned the corner in the Accademia Gallery and saw the heroic youth standing at the end of the hall, I would stop in my tracks. Not once was I unmoved by the extraordinary beauty of Michelangelo’s masterpiece.
In those moments of stillness, when confronting beauty, many things can happen. Perhaps most important, we forget ourselves. Absorbed by the luminosity of a painting by the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Jan Vermeer or lost in the intricacies of a sensuous line in an etching by Rembrandt van Rijn, we forget where we are and who we are. Simone Weil referred to this loss of self-centeredness as “de-centering.” Our attention is not occupied with how we appear to others—the narcissist’s self-concern—but with what appears before our eyes. We see a vision of perfection. We see a glimpse of the divine. For the divine is godly perfection.
Harvard professor Elaine Scarry, in her book On Beauty and Being Just, makes the case that this temporary dropping of self-preoccupation that beauty can elicit also promotes justice. When beauty opens our hearts, she proposes, our capacity to care for what is just and true enlarges. Indeed, the triumvirate of values—truth, beauty, and goodness—has long served as a cornerstone of Western philosophical thought and deserves deeper consideration than this brief essay allows.
Beauty also sharpens our awareness. Awakened by the beauty we observe in a great work of art, such as Georges Seurat’s stately pointillist tableau A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, our vision becomes enlivened and our perception is heightened. That vision, I’d like to suggest, has as much to do with observing art and the outer world that surrounds us as it does with knowing the inner landscape of our dreams, meditations, and aspirations. The outer stimulus feeds an inner response and vice versa. What we see takes us deep within ourselves, and awakening to the most intimate sense of who we are impels us to respond to the external world. Often when we see a beautiful image we are inspired to create beauty ourselves, whether we are artists or not. We long for more beauty in the world, and we strive for the splendor that we want to behold. Beauty is the ultimate attractor. It pulls us out of ourselves and tempts us with the possibility of ever more beauty and more perfection. It arouses us to do better.
The Jesuit priest, scientist, and visionary Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “More primordial than any idea, beauty will be manifest as the herald and generator of ideas.” He understood the power of art to express spiritual energy, which he believed was first produced on earth symbolically in art. It is this spiritual and evolutionary function of beauty—the power to generate life-affirming change—that is so vital to the visual arts and culture in general, and it is what is intentionally absent in much postmodern art. Though the horrors of warfare that the Dadaists were protesting are still with us today, eschewing beauty does not have the impact it did nearly a century ago. On the contrary, restoring the centrality of beauty in art may signal more than visual relief from the tawdriness of today’s art. It would also be a confident assertion that the future we seek is connected to our desire for beauty and to an appreciation of how beauty can help lead us to a more perfect tomorrow.
Carol Ann Raphael is a lifelong student of the arts and a contributing editor to EnlightenNext magazine. She currently lives in London.
Listen to Carol Ann Raphael’s interview with art critic Suzi Gablik about the role of art in the evolution of consciousness at enlightennext.org/raphael