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History of Beauty

September 23, 2010

Arthur Krystal in Harper’s Magazine:

There is no shame in confessing that part of the pleasure we derive from modern art is the satisfaction of “understanding” it. Pleasure, of course, is a loaded term, but not one we can ignore. It is, after all, what first draws us to art. The sensible George Santayana observed that beauty begins with sensation: what we immediately, and especially what children like immediately, is the best proof of sincerity. And when “sincerity is lost, and a snobbish ambition is substituted, bad taste comes in.” But so does ambiguity. Standards of taste cannot be limited to what is immediately apparent. Hume understood this when he proposed the “disinterestedness” that comes from experience. At some point, if one makes a fetish of art, the appeal of immediacy wanes and the artworks become significant rather than beautiful.

The great aesthetic lesson of the twentieth century was that we could have art without beauty. Anyone could make something beautiful, but only a genius could make ART. A child, after all, might draw a line or put a daub of color on canvas and create beauty — but is that art? For all the dismay expressed, by people both in and outside the arts, at the prospect that art could exist without beauty, a great deal of “art” over the last eighty years has assiduously avoided the beautiful. But then, artists like Barnett Newman would not have it any other way. Toward the middle of the last century, Newman was exhorting artists “to destroy beauty” in order to elevate art into a more sublime, more self-referential realm. Although he didn’t rid the world or the art world of beauty, he did make it harder to find the latter. To state the obvious, there are variations of beauty in art. [More]

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