Be it Art

A reflection about art and all its meanings

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Art as Beauty, Art as Sublime

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, by PicassoProfessor Shad Wenzlaff, at Edgewood College, recently asked his Art History class to site works of art that they considered beautiful and others they could consider Sublime.

Prof. Wenzlaff offered quotes by Gavin Hamilton as well as Edmund Burke to help formulate the perceived difference. I found this question intriguing and offer up my opinion of work that fall into these separate categories.

To put a framework around the following quotes, here is a brief note about art in the mid1700’s. At this time, Europe entered an era of Enlightenment. People began to base their thinking upon reason and order. New discoveries in science were being made and shifts in philosophy were giving ‘mankind’ great confidence through intellect. (‘Man’ being gender neutral!) This new thinking gave way to a revival in classical art from ancient Rome and Greece.  Within this new context, art theorists began to discuss beauty in art.

Cavin Hamilton provoked discussion among other Enlightenment era art theorists by stating:

“According to strict classical theory, the visual arts were concerned with the production of beauty, and therefore could not engage in any kind of theme that produced distortions of extreme emotion, as this would interfere with the display of pure beauty.”

Edmund Burke responded to Hamilton’s theories, but went on to revive the role of  The Sublime in art:

“Beauty was generated from our sense of love and attraction, the sublime from our sense of aversion and fear.”

If we adhere to these theorists’ definition of art that is strictly beautiful we would be inclined to find work based on aesthetic merit, with little overriding emotional display – especially of anything negative or disturbing. Here are examples I believe to be simply – beautiful

  • Doryphoros, by Polykeitos, c. 450-440 BCE Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, Naples
  • David, by Michelangelo, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence
  • Birth of Venus, Botticelli, 1484-1486, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
  • Symphony in White NO.II: The Little White Girl, by Whistler, 1864, Tate, London
  • Blue Dancers, Degas, 1899, Pushkin Museum, Moscow

On the other hand, work that could be considered Sublime, can be beautiful, but carries with it an emotional charge, often dark, thought provoking and sometimes uncomfortable.

  • Allegory with Venus and Cupid, Bronzino, 1540, National Gallery, London
  • Garden of Earthly Delights, Bosch, 1505-1515, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
  • Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, Picasso, 1907, The Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • Olympia, Manet, 1863, Musee d’ Orsay, Paris

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Wrestling with Modernism

There are endless writings and discussions based on the question of : ”what is art?” This question is fun to grapple with because there is no universal, correct answer. Must it be beautiful? Must it have moral purpose?  Each of us as artists contributes to ‘art’ in our unique way, and as viewers, take from it what resonates with our individual souls. Art fills different needs for different people, and the definition of ‘good art’ has changed depending on the cultural context it was created in. As we look back through the history of art, we see art serve many purposes from pure, ideal beauty to the ancient Greeks, to spreading religious dogma through the commissions by the Roman Catholic church in the Middle Ages. As time passed and art patronage moved from the church, to the aristocracy to individuals, to gallery representation, artists themselves changed their role in art. They moved from being ‘skilled’ craftsman serving a patron to individuals with power to direct and express themselves through their art – hence the gradual emergence of the age of Modern Art and new concepts of beauty.

We as a culture are just far enough outside the bubble of Modern art to begin to see it objectively (as juxtaposed with Post Modernism). I am currently reading the book, Has Modernism Failed?, by Suzi Gablik.  Gablik has raised some good (and controversial) points about Modern Art: its loss of tradition, its disassociation from spirituality and disconnection from the general public. In my opinion, she sees the work of this era as a movement of self-indulgence for inner world of the artist. Gablik expresses that modern art has become little more than a commodity in Western society. She emphasizes that art must serve a social need to have value. Gablik calls on art to speak of social responsibility, morals and stress anti-consumerism. She suggests that what modernism really needs is a return to “soul.” She argues for “reintroducing the artist in his role as shaman – a mystical, priestly, and political figure”.  Gablik also gives me the impression that the artist needs to reflect or acknowledge the traditional rules of ‘classical’ art once again – reel in the concept of ‘anything goes’. “Rebellion and freedom are not enough,” she states, “Modernism has moved us too far in the direction of radical subjectivity and a destructive relativism. At this point we might do well to make the most of a few well-observed rules again”.

What she is missing in her critique, I believe, is the simple recognition of art’s aesthetic value and its power to transform the spirit through beauty and form. Art can serve as a mode of change both as ‘social activism’ art and through privately touching the soul of the individual through simple beauty.

Has Modernism Failed?

motherwellThe public history of modern art is the story of conventional people not knowing what they are dealing with. (Robert Motherwell)




pollockThe modern artist, it seems to me, is working and expressing an inner world in other words – expressing the energy, the motion and other inner forces. (Jackson Pollock)

Modern art did not just happen. It came as a result of a deep reversal of spiritual values in the Age of Reason, a movement that in the course of a little more than two centuries changed the world.  (H.R. Rookmaaker)