In class we talked a little bit about Kant and the difference between something being beautiful and personal preference. The difference is beauty is in the thing and it is something you can agree on or describe that is outside of self. Personal preference is about how you like something, subjective, and relies on criteria you have set out yourself. We talked about beauty in art being supplanted by various things like talent, expression, etc. There are other ways to evaluate a work of art aside from whether it is beautiful or not and it seems that generally, beauty is out of the equation in contemporary art. I think, though, that even though beauty is no longer how we judge an artwork, that's not to say it's not a part of the work. Beauty, according to Kant, seems to go beyond a mere appreciation of the formal or visual qualities of a work of art. It stimulates an intuitive response, a felt response that you cannot explain rationally. It also goes beyond our own personal experience, towards a universal appreciation.
Beauty in art has been closely related to Academic painting and is synonymous with good taste. The criteria for something to be beautiful was dictated by the authoritative nature of Salon painting (the Academy telling you what you should consider to be beautiful). Beauty then has associations with the notion of bourgeois taste and this is something that any Avant-Garde art would have tried to distance itself from if it wanted to be truly progressive. You can see this as evident in Duchamp's Fountain as you can in Andre's Lever: art that challenges the current bourgeois idea of what art is.
I think the reason why beauty isn't discussed often in art anymore is because it seems outdated, kind of like saying art is magical. I mean, it certainly could be seen as magical (ie. illusionistic space on a flat surface), but most viewers may back away slowly and smile nervously if the artist presents the work in that way. I, personally, think this is a product of modern life, we don't seek beauty anymore. We are cynical about it, don't trust it. Instead we rush to and fro, doing errands, being good consumers, a tamed mass, acting like productive members of society. But then we wonder why it all seems so empty, and that's because it is. That's where the role of beauty in art kicks in, it feeds our hungry souls when the meaninglessness of our lives begins to show at the seams. And we either search for beauty or continue to numb ourselves with consumer goods, the vicious cycle continues. I think it is our job as artists to connect to other people and shake them out of this cycle, or at least show them some glimmer of meaning beyond everyday consumer goods and experiences.
When it comes to beauty as it relates to Minimalist work, you could describe Judd's pure cube shapes as beautiful because they deal with elements of craft and precision (terms which are often packaged with beauty). In Andre's stacks of bricks, you get the sense of the beauty in the way that he is actually carving into lived space, the bricks are just a convenience and also very neatly stacked. Minimalist work may be obdurate (to use one of Judd's words) but you can get a sense that there is some meaning beyond the object even though the art is art about the art.
I doubt that the Minimalists would ever say "I wanted to make something beautiful," but they made beautiful things anyway. Perhaps it was through avoidance that beauty crept back into the work. I think beauty is essential to art because that seems to be where the soul of any work resides. As Duke Ellington said, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."
|Equivalent VIII by Carl Andre|