The Eyes Have It?
By Tom Wachunas
“Beauty is truth - truth beauty – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” (John Keats)
“Beauty is the purgation of superfluities.” (Michelangelo)
And let’s not forget that arguably most time-worn of pronouncements on beauty by Margaret Hungerford, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
Does post-modernism signify the death of beauty in art, or does it point to a radical paradigm shift in our definition of beauty? Indeed, is there now and has there ever been a “universal” definition of beauty? And to further muck up the works, must art, by definition or intention, demonstrate beauty? Yikes, what a hole I’m digging. Look for my instructions for getting out of it in a yet unwritten book.
For now, suffice to say that in some past reviews of “controversial” contemporary art, I’ve moaned about how sheer ugliness (often, though certainly not always, perpetrated by truly unskilled artists), in the name of social relevance or “meaningfulness”, has usurped nobility, purity, and yes, beauty. In those reviews I added the observation that the post-modernist art context seems to have become, on too many occasions and in too many venues, a cultural junkyard of esthetic and even moral relativism. Maybe I should just accept the status-quo, go with the flow, and be content with the simplistic notion that art is, really, just “self-expression” (the ‘I’ factor). But art is much, much more.
What, exactly, is the “eye of the beholder”? Is experiencing beauty merely a chemical or biological response? A culturally dictated one? One that can be trained into those that have eyes? Let’s consider the “eye” in the broad sense of all our perceptual capacities informed by history (tradition). Then perhaps we can think of beauty as something that necessarily “happens” in both the mind and the heart – something that by definition lives in cerebral and emotional spaces simultaneously. Something perceived by (dare I say it?) the soul. I think it’s possible, then, for art that is not superficially pleasing to the eye by traditional standards, to nonetheless be beautiful by virtue of what it suggests or conjures in the soul of the beholder. Which is to say that certainly not all post-modernist art is categorically ugly.
All in favor say I.