Phoebe Brown: Seeing, Thinking, Feeling: on Artistic Beauty



‘Seeing, Thinking, Feeling: A discussion about the morality and use of artistic beauty within curatorial practice’ by Phoebe Brown

The relevance of beauty within specific curatorial practice is most clearly established when Arthur Danto wrote in After the End of Art (1997), that

Contemporary art is too pluralistic in intention and realization to allow itself to be captured along a single dimension, and indeed an argument can be made that enough of it is incompatible with the constraints of the museum that an entirely different breed of curator is required, one who bypasses museum structures altogether in the interests of engaging the art directly with the lives of persons who have seen no reason to use the museum either as tresorium of beauty or sanctum of spiritual form. For a museum to engage this kind of art, it has to surrender much of the structure and theory that define the museum in its other two modes. But the museum itself is only part of the infrastructure of art that will sooner or later have to deal with the end of art and with art after the end of art. The artist, the gallery, the practices of art history, and the discipline of philosophical aesthetics must all, in one or another way, give way and become different, and perhaps vastly different, from what they have so far been. (Danto, 1997, p.17).

Danto’s evaluation of how contemporary art has set itself so much apart from the rest of art and history, to the extent that it requires new formulas for how it is to be experienced, greatly affects the curator. He declares that contemporary art has made all things new, and the focus is on where beauty fits, either rightly or wrongly, in this new territory. For the curator, acknowledging Danto involves re-examining one’s position and reassessing one’s engagement with art according to contemporary aesthetics (the era which Danto labels as ‘art after the end of art’).

Danto’s remark regarding the need to disregard the notion of ‘the museum either as tresorium of beauty or sanctum of spiritual form’ (Danto, 1997, p.17) implies a uselessness of beauty within contemporary exhibition contexts. Isobel Harbison and JJ Charlesworth argue this matter in their Tate Etc. article Head to Head: Does Beauty Still Matter in Art? Charlesworth concludes with ‘The idea of beauty was always about how much human beings valued their own humanity- about how beauty stood in for the optimism that everything could, eventually, be beautiful, or Good. But since we see the human world as an ugly place, beauty no longer matters in art. It should- but it doesn’t.’ (Charlesworth, 2016, p.24). Lamenting his resignation to the seemingly inappropriateness of beauty today, Harbison provides a different perspective: ‘if we accept that [beauty] might assume many guises, but be primarily a force of attraction that is somehow alluring- often but not exclusively visual- then how can we reasonably argue against its value in art?’ (Harbison, 2016, p.25). Harbison also requires beauty to act; to not be visually pleasing without reason: ‘something within it has to arrest and work upon us in order to transform… I need art to inhabit beauty as a temporary stratagem, a Trojan horse, in order to go beyond the borders of the norm or the benign and enable us to see things anew.’(Harbison, 2016, p.25). In this way, beauty is more than a visual aesthetic, becoming the intellectual catalyst for ‘transformation’ and refreshed insights- not simply a hollow or inactive tool, but fulfilling the dual definition beauty claims, as mentioned above.

However, the notion of beauty having a use, a purpose, a moral function is exactly what Kathleen Higgins believes to be impossible: ‘After the World Wars and the Holocaust, after the many wars and atrocities since, we cannot, like God in Genesis, pronounce the world entirely good. To the extent that beauty says otherwise, we see beauty as kitsch. Beauty shamefully screens off whatever is morally offensive in our lives.’ (Higgins, 1996, p.32). The political appropriateness of beauty resigns itself to no more than a lie. The ancient belief of beauty, truth and goodness being inseparable values is broken by Higgins’ contemporary thought on contemporary life.

Similarly, Raqs Media Collective describes the world as hopeless in their text On the Curatorial, From the Trapeze, offering the idea that ‘the curatorial could be seen as making a graveyard walkable through inventive gardening.’ (Raqs Media Collective, 2013, p.19). Perhaps the graveyard is not the world at large, but the world of art- artworks being brought to life through curatorial practice- bringing life where there is death, light where there is dark. It could be that the moral qualities within the aesthetic of an art work are held in the decisive, active, soil-stained hands of the curator.

Roger Scruton draws these claims even further by acknowledging the hopelessness of the world, but insists that art is the only tool to allow our minds to be elevated and liberated beyond ordinary scepticism, by allowing us to contemplate the beautiful. ‘Beauty is the true ground of the value of art, for it is what art, and only art, can give.’ (Scruton, 2011, p.108). Scruton further explains that ‘a work of art that moralises, that strives to improve its audience, that descends from the pinnacle of pure beauty to take up some social or didactic cause, offends against the autonomy of the aesthetic experience, exchanging intrinsic for instrumental values and losing whatever claim it might have had to beauty.’ (Scruton, 2011, p.110). Scruton and Higgins views may in fact align in agreement: beauty is not moral, perhaps. Scruton charges beauty with the power to transport one to places better than reality. Higgins condemns beauty for hiding the truth about reality. But does an artwork automatically become immoral by nature of it not explicitly reflecting on specific current events or political issues? And can an artwork not, therefore, be beautiful if it comes charged with a didactic cause?