Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
Beauty, like supreme dominion
Is but supported by opinion
— Ben Franklin
Good Lord Boyet, my beauty, though but mean,
Needs not the painted flourish of your praise:
Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye,
Not utter’d by base sale of chapmen’s tongues
— William Shakespeare
When discussing beauty, it’s hard, if not impossible, to keep your own perspective and opinion out of it. After reading The Abuse of Beauty by Arthur C. Danto, I have little additional insight as to what the connection between art and beauty is than before I read it. Perhaps it’s his disjunct style of writing or the assumption that his reader will know many of the names and artworks dotted throughout his essay, but I found Danto’s writing to be a long-winded exploration of art that resulted in very little insight – it was mostly an aggregation of various perspectives on art and beauty.
It was interesting to me that Danto cites art from all genres, including visual art, paintings, photography, sculpture, writing, and others, but fails to include any music in his discussion. Does music somehow stand against a different rule? Is music less prone to discussion about beauty?
Admittedly, I am not a philosopher, nor do I particularly enjoy writings on philosophy. Thus, my reflections of this essay fall short of any real insight of their own. However, two curious thoughts keep reverberating through my head throughout this reading, so I will explore those curiosities in the coming paragraphs.
It seems to be a common idea that nature is beautiful. We see photographs of Ansel Adams or read writings by Henry David Thoreau and can appreciate the beauty of the world around us. I can’t help but see all of this as a farce – the world is ugly. Human beings are ugly. One can find beauty in anything, if one looks hard or long enough. Danto discusses the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. He also cites Kant, “we are conscious of art while yet it looks like nature.” But displays of sexuality or mortality are often protested and shunned by society. Both of these concepts lie at the heart of nature; they are the essence of nature. We are born; we breed; we die, as does the living world around us. Depictions of blood and gore, often labeled grotesque, are pure and natural in their honesty of the world around us. Danto quotes Freud: “the genitals themselves, the sight of which is always exciting, are hardly ever regarded as beautiful.” Why is beauty often reserved for the “made-up” or “created” world we create?
The Evolution of Protest
This idea of beauty brings me to my other contemplation regarding two of the museum exhibits Danto mentions early in his essay: The Perfect Moment by Robert Mapplethorpe (1989) and the Brooklyn Museum’s Sensation exhibition (1999). Danto recalls both of these exhibits as having been protested and cites controversy surrounding each of them. Out of curiosity, I searched around the internet for samples of works at both exhibits, and frankly, after living through the age of six (!!) Saw films, the collapse of the Twin Towers, the era of motion pictures on the internet, Eyes Wide Shut, and snuff films, I just don’t see what the controversy surrounding either of these exhibits is/was. Mapplethorpe’s pictures are explicit, but the overall quality of work exhibited within them surely can’t be compared to some of the raunch of the 1970s. The Sensations exhibition, from what I was able to uncover, was surprisingly tame – I was reminded of the Bodies exhibit that toured the US a few years back; here, again, I was confused about where the controversy was coming from.
Things are happening across the world that infinitely outweigh the grotesqueness (for lack of a better word) of this art. Why do people waste their time and energy quibbling over a few exhibitions?