Beauty, the Ultimate Survivor

The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Beauty, the Ultimate Survivor


THE SOURCE: "The Attack on Beauty" by Robert Boyers, in Salmagundi, Spring 2011.

BEAUTY HAS NEVER HAD AN easy time, whether tinder scrutiny from suspicions Puritans or picky Renaissance critics, but the attack on beauty over the last century by modernist artists is the "most serious and sustained," writes Salmagundi founding editor Robert Boyers. They "have dismissed all things relaxing, easy to take in and enjoy, and therefore inimical to the spirit of an art intended to be rigorous, difficult, unpopular. To be impressed by what passed for beauty was felt by many modernist writers and artists to be philistine."

In past generations, quarrels with beauty have mostly been concerned with what beauty was or how it ought to be valued, but the attack of modernists differs in kind, questioning whether beauty is anything more than a personal preference shaped by a particular cultural outlook at a particular moment in time.

Yet while there may be something to these arguments, beauty won't go away. It crops up in the least likely places, the same pieces of art meant to repudiate the very notion. Marcel Duchamp's 1917 urinal (which he titled Fountain), an early example in a long line of such modernist works, may even seem "beautiful by virtue of its form or the pristinity of its gleaming surface," Boyers says. Duchamp "could not [have imagined] how inventive artists would be in clinging to improbable versions of the beautiful."

Artists "have often found it useful to deny or to disguise their predilection for the beautiful." Wassily Kandinsky, for example, said he sought to "apply the methods of music" and to capture "the spiritual" in his abstract canvases. …

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