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PEEKS and PIQUES!

Beauty Redux

By RAYMOND J. STEINER
ART TIMES Jan/ Feb 2010

A COUPLE OF issues back, in my “Peeks & Piques!” editorial, I wrote about beauty and its distressing absence in so much of today’s art and, in doing so, invoked the memory of Bernard Berenson with his belief that art ought to be “life enhancing.” I also suggested that what made art transcend the time and place in which it was created was the ability of the artist to imbue his or her work with a universal element that made it possible for human observers from any age and from any culture to experience and appreciate it. In the past, it was usually felt that such ideal principals as the Truth, the Good, or the Beautiful were what served artists in search of a less transitory superficiality in their work — whether it be the features of a famous countenance, the sweep of a natural vista, or the cunning arrangement of objects in an engaging interior. If artistic motifs partook of beauty, or the truth, or the good — in spite of their local subject matter or interpretation in different ages and cultures— then the commonality of all mankind might be touched, spoken to, moved — in short, “enhanced”. So integral, in fact, was the inclusion of beauty that it was once believed that it, beauty, revealed the splendor of truth — the combination of both in creative works resulting in a “good” for mankind. One might ask, however, what do we mean by “Truth” or “Good” or “Beauty”? Had not Socrates pointed out the impossibility of defining such abstracts centuries ago? Still, you and I might disagree about a precise definition of “Justice” or “Decency” or “Morality” —  but does that imply we must abandon such concepts out of hand? Until modern times, the idea persisted that art could reflect such lofty concepts, and it has been this art that has endured through the ages, whether it be a pre-historic cave painting or the most brilliantly created work of some Renaissance genius. How to separate the genius from the simple artisan, however — aye, there’s the rub! Berenson once wrote when discussing the properties of ‘genius’ that it was most evident in those artists who had the “…capacity for productive reaction to one’s training.” This is a pretty weighty statement — one that Coleridge might agree is “loaded with ore”. At first blush, it appears to justify the modernist manifesto to jettison all traces of past academicism, past training. But Berenson specifically says “productive” reaction — not “negative” reaction, or even, simply, “reaction”. What, however, did he mean by “productive”? I submit that one could only come to a reasonable definition by reading it in the context of Berenson’s greater aesthetic philosophy. Assuming that the “training” Berenson is referring to (against which “genius” ought to productively react) is that which had been hammered out and refined during the Italian Renaissance and held sway in academies until well into the 19th-century, one has to wonder to what degree a “reaction” had to manifest itself in order to qualify as “genius” — and not merely as a break from routine for the sake of ‘being different’. In that Berenson made his mark in a milieu surrounded by masterpieces of art — in particular, works from and which grew out of the Italian Renaissance — the chances seem great that whatever “reactions” he is speaking of would not be obvious departures from tradition, but those discerned by the eye of the connoisseur — by, say, someone like himself, i.e. someone closely familiar with the evolutionary nuances that took place in painting from the 14th to 16th-centuries. “Art” was felt to evince ‘levels’, the number of “readings” one might dis- or uncover dependent, first upon the “genius” of the artist and, second, on the depth of sophistication of the viewer. Works that had no such “depth” — that had only a surface (that, as I mentioned in our last issue, were no more than their obvious, visible “messages” — a still life, a landscape, a portrait — whatever) — were dismissed as merely decorative by knowledgeable viewers. When works without any discernible “message” at all came out — mere swabs of color smeared across a canvas — what was the purpose of beauty? Or, for that matter, anything deeper than image?  One may argue that a painting of swaths of color is “beautiful”, but it is beauty that is self-referential, signifying nothing deeper. Such work may “enhance” a wall, but falls far short of “enhancing” a life. After all, any dauber can make a statement — political, social, moral or otherwise — through pictures. When art merely reflects our society, it tells us nothing that we cannot learn from newspapers or television. It takes “genius” to lead a viewer toward some answer, some respite from the message. It takes Art. Any hack can “break the rules” and wield a brush, strum a guitar, write a story, string some words on a page that resemble poetry.  They offer no evidence of “genius”, however, since they are stating the obvious and bring nothing from past teachings. They must re-live the history of empty art since, by reacting so totally against traditional teaching, they know no history. A total break needs an entirely new set of eyes…usually in the form of some bombastic manifesto such as, in fact, those that accompanied many modern excesses (nowadays, most do not even bother with the intellectual rigors of concocting a manifesto, merely hiring a glib wordsmith to hype the empty artifact). However, when we must resort to the written word to help explain what stands before our eyes then we are no longer talking about the same thing, viz. “art”, but a new “product”, a new phenomenon. If, for example, I design and make a chair that resists our sitting upon it, breaking entirely away from all former chair-like creations, then it is no longer a chair…no matter how cleverly I might argue otherwise. Lowering the bar by indiscriminately reacting against training does not produce more “art” — it simply opens the door to less talented, less disciplined artificers who have not the depth and breadth of soul to be artists. No matter how you parse Berenson’s observation, the fact remains that reaction must be “productive” and not merely destructive. It takes little insight to see that there is a dearth of “genius” in much of what is being peddled as “art” today — and this seems to hold true in all artistic disciplines. Scorning beauty in art merely underscores how shallow we’ve become — and, sadly, no amount of hype can spirit that disturbing fact away. I leave you with a quote from Goethe (1749—1832): “Man surrenders so readily to the commonplace, his mind and his senses are so easily blunted, so quickly shut to supreme beauty that we must do all we can to keep the feeling for it alive. No one can do without beauty entirely; it is only because people have never learned to enjoy what is really good that they delight in what is flat and futile so long as it is new.”