Venus in exile
This post relates to my earlier one about Hiroshima roses.
A short review article by Will Gompertz on the Royal Ballet’s joyful ‘The cellist’ raises a question about the current status of ‘beauty’. He began with the assertion that ‘beauty isn’t getting the respect it deserves’. In effect he was saying that ‘Venus’ has been exiled. He contrasted this with a time ‘not so long ago’ when there was great enthusiasm for beauty; for example, the enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant valued beauty and actually considered it a form of morality. Einstein, too, thought that beauty served to draw out our inner child; it is certainly true that we may respond with an almost childlike delight (and even unself-conscious expressions of awe) when we encounter beauty.
Gompertz moved on to recognise that it ‘used to be the job of artists, authors and composers’ to celebrate and portray beauty. But he acknowledged, regretfully, that even pop culture’s recent ‘New Romantics’ proved to be no match for the ‘relentless march of modernism’ with its pared-down ‘less-is-more dogma’. He argued that the blame for the demise of beauty in art originated with Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp chose his objects precisely because they were, in his words, ‘anti-retinal’: they provided an unattractive sight and were intended as a ‘weapon aimed at the heart of a bourgeois art establishment aligned to a political class responsible for a horrific, bloody war.’ As Duchamp argued, ‘it was no time for beauty.’
According to Gompertz, an emerging post-Duchampian doctrine of art held that if ‘art meant anything at all’ it should address the truth about what was happening all about us – and what was happening was ugly and base; romanticism and decoration were dead; beauty was superficial and frivolous; a deep cynicism came to characterise the ethos of the secular age. In consequence, as Gompertz puts it, ‘Music became dissonant, literature became fragmented, theatre became absurd, and art turned ugly.’ Recently, Matthew Collings has underlined this anti-aesthetic tendency that was, for example, an obvious feature of what used to called ‘Young British Art’.
I was pleased to read Gompertz’s short review because I too think that something is amiss if we are somehow disallowed from acknowledging and exploring manifestations beauty. My earlier post about finding ‘Hiroshima roses’ touches upon the strange seductions of beauty. And, I was reminded of issues surrounding our engagement with beauty whilst I was making my screen-prints. In fact, during the process, I was never fully conscious of what I was actually accessing from my memory store of images. However, I was dimly aware of some early work I had completed in the ‘graphic-design’ module of my Foundation Studies – especially in that style of design called ‘raw’ as well as the ‘cool conceptual’. But I also knew that, in addition to these influences, I had made work that was ‘good’ to look at. It yielded a certain immediate pleasure. I had even used a gold paint that the tutors had specially prepared for me …
Whilst I was in the screen-print workshop area I enjoyed some good if spasmodic conversations with a few of the other students who were working in the spaces adjacent to me. Then, one woman who had devoted herself to a very sophisticated project for her PhD, said, at the end of my third week of print-making: ‘You work is beautiful.’ She did not appear to say this pejoratively. Nonetheless I was surprised to hear her comment. I had imagined that ‘Venus’ was still in exile. Maybe she is about to return.
In the late 1800s the philosopher Santayana noted that cultures not only esteemed artists almost as much as they did their political and military heroes but that an inordinate amount of time went in to designing the look and appeal of even the most commonplace things. He found that the facts of human-being indicate that perceptions of beauty are central to our lives. I think he is right.
Whilst I know that the world is also full of the vile and the horrible, in truth, I enjoy finding and experiencing beauty in the world. I also like ‘having a go’ at making something with at least a touch of beauty …
The photograph above was taken in Dana, Jordan. It is part of my ‘Hiroshima roses‘ series and shows an explosion of life and death.