Art without Beauty

By Kinball, Roger | The Public Interest, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Art without Beauty


Kinball, Roger, The Public Interest


Few things tell us more about a culture - what it esteems, what it disparages - than its art. The plays of Sophocles distill an essence of Periclean Athens just as the paintings of Titian bring us near to the heart of seventeenth-century Venetian culture. Closer to our own day, it is easy to see how Modernist art - with its dissonances and anxious novelties - epitomizes the giddy, Promethean ferment of the early twentieth century. Le Sacre du Printemps or The Wasteland could no more have been composed in 1850 than Les Demoiselles D'Avignon could have been painted then. Such works belong to and help define their time.

What, then, of contemporary culture? What does the art of the past few decades tell us about it - and about ourselves? Alas, anyone interested in understanding what is at stake in the "culture wars" - those many battles about values that, since the 1960s, have loomed increasingly large in American society - must ponder contemporary art. I say "alas" because the spectacle that the contemporary art world presents is distinctly unappetizing. Whatever merits individual artists here and there may exhibit, most of the established art of our time is pretentiously banal when it is not downright pathological.

Celebrating the grotesque

These are, I know, harsh words. But they are not excessive. We live in a time when art is often indistinguishable from perversity. Everyone knows about the cases of Andres Serrano, with his photographs of crucifixes immersed in urine, and Robert Mapplethorpe, with his photographs of sexual torture and humiliation. And everyone knows, too, that work by these men was supported in part by public monies from the National Endowment for the Arts and other government bodies.

But such well-publicized cases are only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. For every Andres Serrano or Robert Mapplethorpe there are scores of other artists - celebrated and acclaimed ones, too - producing "work" that is equally repellent. It would be a simple matter to fill a book with examples: Karen Finley smearing herself with chocolate and denouncing the evils of patriarchy; Ron Athey, an HIV positive "performance artist," who slices abstract designs into the flesh of another man and then mops up the blood with paper towels and suspends them above his audience on clotheslines; Carolee Schneemann, who slowly unravels a text from her vagina while reading it aloud to her audience; and on and on. As I say, it would be easy to produce a fat anthology of such grotesqueries.

But the problem is not, or not only, numbers. The real issue is not the existence but the widespread celebration of such images and behavior as art. As a society, we suffer today from a peculiar form of moral anesthesia. It is the delusion that, by calling something "art," we thereby purchase for it a blanket exemption from moral criticism - as if something's being art automatically rendered all moral considerations beside the point. A juror in the Mapplethorpe trial in Cincinnati memorably summed up this attitude. Acknowledging that he did not like Mapplethorpe's rebarbative photographs, he nonetheless concluded that, "if people say it's art, then I have to go along with it."

It is worth pausing to digest that terrifying comment. It is also worth confronting it with a question: Why do so many people feel that, if something is regarded as art, they "have to go along with it," no matter how offensive it might be? Part of the answer has to do with the confusion of art with "free speech." (More precisely, it has to do with the confusion of art with a debased idea of free speech that supposes any limits on expression are inimical to freedom. In fact, freedom without limits quickly degenerates into a parody of freedom.) Another part of the answer has to do with the evolution, and what we might call the institutionalization, of the avant-garde and its posture of defiance.

In any event, when we step back to consider the nature and significance of contemporary art, we are immediately struck by a number of peculiarities.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Art without Beauty
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.