"Regarding Beauty: A View of the Late Twentieth Century" at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Naves, Mario, New Criterion
"Regarding Beauty: A View of the Late Twentieth Century" at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. October 7, 1999-January 17, 2000
Prior to entering the exhibition "Regarding Beauty: A View of the Late Twentieth Century," visitors to the Hirshhorn Museum come upon a wall covered with quotations that alternately define, question, repudiate and buttress the subject at hand. These epigrams, which also pepper the text of the catalogue, are fun to read and encompass a variety of figures: from Immanuel Kant, Charles Baudelaire, and Arthur Rimbaud to Sophia Loren, Barnett Newman, and Camille Paglia. Yet, taken together, what do these often contradictory comments suggest? That beauty is a multifaceted ideal for which artists should strive? Or that it is a tool of oppression whose time has come? Certainly, the only thing the recent vogue for beauty has done is rendered the term meaningless by linking it with the "transgressive." The best comment on this curiously brittle phenomenon comes from, of all people, Peter Schjeldahl. "There is something crazy," The New Yorker art critic rightly declares, "about a culture in which the value of beauty becomes controversial." One hesitates in sanctioning Schjeldahl's opinions --here is, after all, someone whose notion of the beautiful includes Cindy Sherman yet slams the door on Pierre Bonnard--but he has a point. Has beauty really been, as an introductory wall would have us believe, "dismissed as a measure of quality in art"?
Beauty has preoccupied and vexed philosophers, writers, artists, and just about everyone else through the ages, and it is an entity subject to evolution and redefinition. Writing in 184-6, Baudelaire stated that "since every age and every people have had their own form of beauty, we inevitably have ours." "Regarding Beauty" purports to "raise rather than answer questions about the nature of beauty." Yet anyone familiar with the machinations of the art world will realize that these particular "questions" have long been answered, and that those answers are propped up by theory and nihilism--the dynamic duo of contemporary art. It's no coincidence that the curators have chosen to concentrate on the last forty years, a time frame distinguished--or do I mean degraded?--by the triumph of the Duchampian aesthetic. "Regarding Beauty" is less a reflection of our culture's "own form of beauty" than a predictable manifestation of one of its more insular subsets--the art establishment.
"All negative art," the painter Agnes Martin stated, "protests the lack of beauty in our lives." There is plenty of "negative art" in "Regarding Beauty," but those who practice it don't protest a lack of beauty; they revel in it. …