What is beauty? What is art? These classic questions have been asked again and again over time. The fact that these questions are so old proves perhaps that there is no simple answer; that the answer is fluid and changes from era to area and from man to woman. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a well known phrase that illustrates this subjectivity very well. But is it really? Is it really something we can never fully comprehend and catch? Is it something I as an artist should strive for?
Innovation, Shock and Magic Dust
I have heard plenty of artists and art critics say that art has to be innovative, thought provoking, shocking even. Others take a more gentle approach and see it as something that provides life with that little bit of magic dust, that little bit of depth and meaning, perhaps even beauty. I am in the latter camp. I can only speak for my own art, and I do search for beauty.
I believe that wanting to be innovative is like wanting to fall in love. It will never happen if you aim for it, it will always feel awkward and contrived. I have no idea why art has to be shocking and find that statement nonsense. I am sure we can all agree that Vermeer was a pretty good artist and most of his art was not shocking to his contemporaries (although some of it was innovative). I find many contemporary painters true artists, but little of their art shocks me. There are plenty of shocking things going on in the world, I don’t need art to provide some extra. In fact I want art to do just the opposite: provide some relief, hope and depth.
So now we have done away with the shocking bit in art, we have to move on to the innovative and thought provoking bits, and the magic dust.
What is Art?
What is art all about then? The question ‘What is Art?’ has now been asked so many times it has probably lost any meaning. I think we can all safely agree there is no simple answer to that. To lovers of ‘junk art’ or ‘found objects’ anything can be art. To lovers of the old masters perhaps nothing that doesn’t exist within the method and realm of the old masters can possibly be art. Is that picture painted by that hobbyist and hung on grandma’s wall, art? Do only professional artists make art? (and when does an amateur become a professional anyway?). It is really an impossible question.So what about beauty then. Does beauty feature in art? I think that experiencing beauty is a fantastic thing. Exerpiencing beautiful things is something that adds that little bit extra to life. Life that can get you down sometimes. Life that can get boring and repetitive. Life that can get ugly. As Picasso said “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life”. And so perhaps that is my preferred answer to the question of ‘What is Art’ and ‘What is Beauty’. Art is that which washes away the dust from everyday life. And the same applies to beauty. Are Art and Beauty the same thing? No, not quite.
Beautiful art is an escape from the grub of life and a way into a life that feels more worthwhile and meaningful. It helps you to see the other sides of life. Those other sides can be anything from an added philosophical depth, to sociological or political awareness to the simple joys of seeing the sunshine.
Beauty can be anything
And so beauty, I believe, can be anything and everything for everyone. We will all find beauty in different things. But we will also commonly find beauty in some things. Some of it we actually agree on. The things most of us find beauty in are no doubt prescribed by our humanity, our culture and the era we live in. Some ‘beauties’ will last centuries, others are short lived.
Beauty is Harmony and Happiness
But what is beauty? I believe it is whatever gives us a sense of harmony and happiness. It can be fairly shallow or it can be deep and meaningful. It can be seeing your children enjoy themselves, or the view from the top of the mountain. It adds to life that extra little bit we all need. And many of these things are universal, though some are not.
This is how beauty is used in art. There is a universal beauty (sometimes culturally dependent) that we can all recognise. That is why most of us like Rembrandt and Vermeer’s work. There is also a more historically specific type which explains why Rothko or Giacometti could work in the 20th century and not before.
Art picks up on these universal things and plays with it. On a simple level it can provide a bit of beauty that we can all recognise and enjoy. Sometimes art can pick up our concept of beauty, throw it up in the air and let it smash on the ground. It is not broken but fragmented and we can see pieces of it here and there. A fresh approach can create a new experience, a sense of meaning and depth even. Perhaps that is what they meant with the word ‘Art’. Taking something we all know and recognise and giving it a slightly different spin in order to show a different side of beauty (looks like we found the ‘innovative’ side of things).
Some contemporary artists have taken the ‘innovative’ thing a little bit too literal however and provide a ‘different spin’ just for the sake of it with little intent or meaning. They throw up things in the air and let it smash in a random order and leave it there. Although it can provide the viewer with refreshing ideas, there is little intent and thought behind it and therefore no more art than nature.
And so beauty has its staple elements that most of us would recognise (Vermeer, a sunset), it also has its more specific elements that only some of us would recognise (your children, Rothko, Stravinsky) and it probably even has its unique elements that really only works for individuals. Those latter elements are useless in art as nobody will recognise what is going on in the art work. The first staple and generic elements are a safe bet for artists. They border on the decorative and pretty because they are so familiar (beauty which does not have the effect of feeling depth or meaning).
Where does Art live?
Art lives in the generic and the specific category of beauty, I believe, where it has elements that most of us would recognise as beautiful, but where it has been changed or transformed into something else. Or where beauty has been used in combination with other things with purpose and intent. Where we can recognise bits of beauty but the context has changed. Where we can recognise lots of beauty but the topic is different. Where we can recognise beauty that we know only speaks to us and few others that came before us. Where we feel the effects of beauty but we don’t recognise the (disguised) staple elements. And so forth.
Extra Added Depth
Beauty has the effect of giving us relief, giving us a perceived insight into the spiritual side of life, the deeper meanings of life, the reason why life is worth living or just down to earth happiness. That is why beauty matters. Because of the effect it has on us. Beauty can be found in many staple, generic things. That is why we like pretty things, colour harmonies, cool things, grit and steel, or pretty flowers and polkadots. We are so used to this type of beauty that we often just pass it by as pleasant and decorative. It does not always give us this extra added depth anymore and lost its claim to being called beauty. But an artist can play with these staple elements and provide the extra bonus of surprise, thought, shock even, and recognition. If the audience recognises the play that is happening in front of them they might well appreciate it and call it art.