So You Think Today's Art Isn't Pretty? Look Again

By Timothy Cahill, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 21, 1998 | Go to article overview

So You Think Today's Art Isn't Pretty? Look Again


Timothy Cahill, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Most people would probably be surprised to hear that beauty is making a comeback, because

for the majority of us beauty has never been missing. Those things commonly described as beautiful - a breathtaking view, an inspiring painting, a blooming garden, or an attractive face - have long been and still are bringing pleasure to the world at large.

Yet while poet Robert Bridges once called beauty "the best of all we know," in many quarters of the art world the very mention of the word has been taboo for the better part of 30 years. Artist Aaron Baker remembers as recently as three years ago feeling embarrassed to bring the subject up among his classmates in art school.

"It was very unfashionable to discuss beauty or aesthetics in any way," he recalls. "It wasn't something you talked about."

Today, the young Las Vegas painter is part of a counterrevolution taking place in studios, galleries, and the pages of art journals across the country.

Artists are rebelling against the visual starkness and political agendas of art of the recent past, and are growing increasingly unafraid to discuss their work with words like "vibrancy," "lushness," even "glamour." For them, beauty is definitely back in style.

History of hostility

This growing movement is reassessing attacks on beauty that reach back to the beginning of the century. In a 1922 "Lecture on Dada," poet Tristan Tzara proclaimed that "Beauty and Truth in art don't exist." By 1938, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had declared that beauty carried no meaning in aesthetic judgments.

The 1970s and '80s gave rise to movements even more hostile to values of visual pleasure. Conceptualism debased the appearance of artworks in order to emphasize the abstract ideas behind them, while so-called "agit-prop" - art driven by its ideological agenda - pronounced aesthetics incompatible with political struggle. Beauty was driven into exile, and a rupture occurred between the average artgoer and contemporary art that has yet to be healed.

During that period, "the visual object didn't have any meaning," remembers artist and author Bill Beckley, who was in the forefront of the conceptual movement in the 1970s. "The intent was to have art not look like anything. It was a total denial of the senses."

Essays on aesthetics

Today, Mr. Beckley's sympathies are tuned to the exact opposite end. He and poet David Shapiro have edited "Uncontrollable Beauty: Toward a New Aesthetic" (Allworth Press/School of Visual Arts), an anthology of 30 contemporary essays that seek to place the language of beauty back into the artistic vocabulary.

The essays, some previously published, others produced for the book, are by artists, philosophers, critics, and poets. Nearly all contributors are well-known in art circles, including Arthur Danto, who reviews art for The Nation, painter Agnes Martin, poet (and former art critic) John Ashbery, and Museum of Modern Art curator Kirk Varnedoe.

Though not entirely free of the intellectual jargon that has made much contemporary art writing nearly opaque to the average reader, the book nevertheless gives a thorough account of current notions of beauty. Included is Village Voice critic Peter Schjeldahl's influential 1994 essay "Notes on Beauty," which argues that beauty "entails a sense of the sacred," and a conversation with Louise Bourgeois, in which the sculptor states that "the beautiful changes me from day to day."

This is the fourth book on aesthetics that Beckley, a longtime instructor at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, has edited. …

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