The Perception and Merit of Beauty in Aesthetics.
“Aesthetics is that branch of philosophy whose function is to investigate what is meant to be asserted when we write or talk correctly about beauty”
Aesthetics is a broad term that covers a vast area of ideas in contemporary art today, and sadly something that will remain incompletely explored within the scope of this essay, as all the themes provide too lengthy a debate. To this end I shall be focusing on the ideas of beauty, or more intelligibly the ideas of perceived beauty, and its contribution as to what is considered as aesthetic merit. Inspiration for this topic has stemmed from an occasional personal dissatisfaction with the art I see today, I perceive quite a lot as ugly, I feel a frustration with the idea of concept being of a higher importance than aesthetics. This is further exasperated by the fact that when I see a work or works that I perceive as beautiful, I later find an unbeautiful concept behind it that has driven the beautiful imagery, I find this difficult and would like to explore the ideas of aesthetic merit to deepen my understanding, and hopefully enhance my already thriving enjoyment of art.
I plan to focus firstly on the nineteenth Century Aesthetic movement and secondly on philosophers interpretations as to what is perceived as beautiful and what is the measure of that beauty and how that beauty relates to aesthetics. I will then go on to reference works by contemporary artists Gary Hume and Yayoi Kusama, whose aesthetics I have a strong personal reaction to, whose aesthetic I find beautiful.
The Aesthetic movement at the end of the nineteenth Century consisted of two distinct strands; firstly it was intellectual and concerned with both abstraction and synaesthesia- the stimulation of one sense by another, for example colour and music . I find this an ever interesting comment, as with music, sound is the language, so with art, vision is the language. The point of the language is to engage the audience- the viewer or the listener with regard to art and music, and so with art it is the aesthetic engagement. The aesthetic engagement in accordance with the philosophy of the aesthetes is the stimulation of the viewer by visual imagery which is then deepened by other sensory processes such as cognition and atmospheric perception.
Secondly, it was commercially driven with designers and manufacturers exploiting new technologies and materials to produce new products for consumers who sought for the “House Beautiful”. The Aesthetic movement then was concerned with the exploration of beauty, and bringing an aesthetic of beautiful into the home and the everyday. This can be seen pioneering in Frederic Leighton’s “The Sluggard” (Fig. 1). “The Sluggard” is a sculpture made from a brief sketch of a life model stretching during a drawing session, painted to imitate bronze to give it “more life”2 as a little extra flourish to the sculpture, and is therefore the creation of a timeless ideal from a moment’s observation, and epitomises the credo of the Aesthetes, Hippocrates’ “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis”, “Life is Brief, Art Endures” in lovely symmetry. “The Sluggard” was then recreated many times in miniature for people to have as decoration in their homes, thus reflecting the two ideals of the Aesthetic Movement, beautiful art and commercial decoration.
The focus on beauty developed into symbolism throughout the movement, peacocks as a resurrection of beauty and beauties pride, sunflowers as vigorous beauty and lilies as contemplative feminine beauty. Flowers were used in abundance, something used wonderfully today in the work of Gary Hume who I shall later discuss. This can be seen in James McNeill Whistlers’ “Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks” (Fig.2) in which the title emphasises the focus on the abstract qualities of the work by placing the colours first, focusing on the aesthetic of the painting rather than its story telling quality. “The six marks” refers to the pot that the figure is painting, underlining Japanese influence of the time, the “craze” for blue and white from where Wedgewood took its famous design, an aesthetic craze. We can see in the painting how the home is decorated with these beautifully painted ceramics, the idea of the “House Beautiful”.
For me, the Aesthetic movement is perfectly characterised by “The Sluggard” but ideas are really opened up by Thomas Armstrong’s “Hay Field” (Fig.3) in which we see an early example of the subjectless picture, composition and atmosphere of a painting being more important than its narrative. There is a three graces classical theme running through the painting, the Venus De Milo style, the Grecian drape of their clothes, it is a romanticism of rural life concerned with classical beauty.
The leaders of the aesthetic movement wanted to promote good simple designs for all types of utilitarian objects including furniture, textiles, glass and ceramics. For me this idea has a close relationship with the Bauhaus school founded only 20 years later in 1919. It’s the idea of being an artist of everything- being a maker, an aesthete of all things, creativity in all its forms. It is a departure from the more conventional approach as to what “art” is, i.e. a painting or a sculpture; it’s innovative of functional objects. Like the aesthetic movement, the Bauhaus was concerned with romantic ideals; it was quickly tempered by an understanding of the need for realism and the use of industry, again driven by revolutionary technology of materials and machinery .
Bauhaus was influenced by William Morris, an eminent designer of the aesthetic movement; however they differ in crucial ways. Bauhaus was marked by the absence of ornamentation and by harmony between the function of an object or a building and its design , for example the much recognised “Wassily Chair” (Fig.4) can be seen to be simple in design in accordance with its primary use. In a contrast to the aesthetic movement which whilst focused on good, simple design, had a higher concern with decoration, on flourishes (like the bronzing on “The Sluggard”) and beautiful ornamentation, none the less both were concerned with bringing objects into the home with a focus on their aesthetic.
Eighteenth Century philosopher Immanuel Kant commented on the subjective nature of aesthetic qualities in the chapter titled “Analytic of the Beautiful” of his 1790 book “Critique of Judgement”. “Beauty is not a property of an artwork or natural phenomenon, but is instead a consciousness of pleasure which attends the free play of the imagination and understanding” This promotes the synaesthesia idea from the aesthetic movement- it is a personal reaction- not a decision making process from the viewer- but a sort of, gut reaction based upon their own personal experiences, mood, their perception of the atmosphere, that projects onto the art the level of perceived beauty, or indeed ugly. The imagery of the work evokes in the viewer the perception of the beauty, but the judgement is not a cognitive one, and so is consequently not logical but aesthetical. Kant puts forward the opinion that the decision of whether something is beautiful or not is not an intellectual decision, but an abrupt judgement.
For me Kant’s view is something that I can see sense in, I look at work that I find beautiful, for example Yayoi Kusamas’ “Infinity Nets” (Fig.5). For me the bold colours and the simple repetitive design to this seductive surface; created from patterned geometric shapes is beautiful. It is beautiful in that it is a conundrum, it is fresh but involved, it has a spontaneous explosive feel but is controlled and mathematical and it’s simple but intricate. The abstract shapes and colours really appeal to me, it’s the sort of thing that infers my own work as an artist, and it’s inspiring in its minimalistic qualities. But to look at it, I perceive it as beautiful before I know why, but the fact that it is beautiful makes me want to discover why, so the perception of the beauty is not logical as Kant suggests it isn’t, but it prompts me to think logically about it, about why I perceive it as beautiful, once that minute or so of “wow” has faded.
Kusamas’ work is interesting when discussing aesthetics for two reasons. Firstly, when discussing her work in the context of the aesthetic movement, her designs often like the Infinity nets, have been used as a surface design for objects, such as in “Still life” (Fig.7.) Again to me there is a continuation of the idea of the House Beautiful, a decoratively inspired way of working.
Secondly her work is of interest because of the content it has. Abused as a child Kusama works in this way to communicate her mental illness with the world, she makes visual representations of the images that she hallucinates; she decorates her own world with bright colours and boldly simple shapes. Once you know that, particularly when you look at her installation works, you can see her madness, her obsession, and to me this where I begin to question the works beauty, when I see it in its context. The knowing of what is behind the work has sort of, transformed it into what I perceived to be a beautiful celebration of colour and material into something incredibly sad, it’s a-“you must suffer for your art” kind of thought process that I tend to not agree with. She is using her art to escape her life, it’s become a self therapy for Kusama, which then again turns the whole thing back around and makes me reconsider it as beautiful once more, it helps her, the aesthetic beauty helps her.
Whilst Kant discusses the psychological processes behind the decision of beauty, twentieth Century American philosopher Nelson Goodman talked about the idea of beauty being seen as an equivalent to aesthetic value and praise. Goodman puts forward the hypothesis that aesthetic value includes ugliness, as it is the presence of beauty or its deliberate redundancy that carries aesthetic value of the artwork. Therefore beauty as aesthetic praise would suggest a polar opposite for ugliness, beautiful art would have the highest value and ugly would have none, which is massively incorrect- if beauty excludes the ugly, then beauty is no measure of aesthetic merit . Goodman puts across two main points, firstly that beauty is confusing and is therefore a useless measure and concept, and secondly that beauty cannot possibly be considered as a top consideration when valuing an artwork as many “Good” works are ugly.
Other philosophies seem to lean in the general consensus that the term “Beauty” is restricting and unreliable, like that of 20th Century Polish philosopher Władysław Tatarkiewicz who claims “Beauty bears little explanation for the variety of the aesthetic experience7”. And J.A. Passmore wrote that beauty is limiting, bourgeoisie, boring, nice and unreliable too often used as a generalisation.
Painter, Gary Hume, is a self confessed decorative artist. He paints the things I wish I’d painted first; I think he’s infuriating and brilliant. His flat planes of high gloss colour are magnetic to me, his colour combinations are intoxicating. I can say with no shadow of a doubt that Hume’s paintings are for me, absolutely beautiful. “Bouquet” (Fig.7) shows Hume’s use of flora and fauna, which he states as imagery he adopts in order to show human emotions, flora can make things incredibly beautiful or incredibly sad . This is a thought that was used in the aesthetic movement also, as we can see in George Frederic Watts’ “Choosing” (Fig.8), where the figure can be seen holding two types of flower. She is torn between the showy scentless camellia and the modest violets in her hand, the flowers here used symbolically and to infuse the painting with emotion as Hume says. Looking at the two pieces next to each other on the figures sheet, you can’t help but notice the similarities in colour palette, deeply romantic reds and charcoal tones. In an interview with Hume, he goes on to talk about his own paintings in which he strives for beauty, “if beauty is about capturing a truthful essence of something then I want them to be perceived as beautiful”; Hume strives for efficiency and truth in his pictures, as he calls them.
The main problem that I have come across is the fact that beauty is so hard to pin down and define. It’s temptingly easy to churn out “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” but in terms of art that is a limiting rationale. The most fitting conclusion that I can agree with, with any conviction is that of my coincidental namesake Harold Osborne;
“Beauty in a work of art is defined in terms of expression: any work of art is beautiful in accordance with the adequacy with which it communicates the inner life or experience of the Artist and in accordance with the quality of greatness and originality inherent in that experience.”
This is similar to what Hume has said, in order to be able to label something as beautiful, there is a certain amount that we must disregard taste, but take into account context and the personal experiences of the viewer. I feel that I can conclude that we cannot use beauty as a measure of aesthetic merit; beauty does not make art “good” and does not need to be considered beautiful to be thought of as such.
It’s very difficult to quantify something so subjective, and as further work to the points I have made here, I feel further exploration should be taken into the realms of “ugly” art in order to assess that’s aesthetic qualities.
“Love of Beauty is Taste. The Creation of beauty is Art”