Saturday, March 31, 2018

Essential Questions: Who's Afraid of Beauty?

Edited by Jane Guthridge

Jeri Eisenberg, Autumn Ash, No. 5, 2014, pigment ink on Japanese Kozo with encaustic medium, 36 x 34 inches


For much of the history of Western art, physical beauty was the expression of an ideal and by the Renaissance, beauty and divinity became intertwined. As abstraction developed, formalist ideas, which had their own elegance, became paramount, but by the era of Abstract Expressionism beauty in art was something to be scorned. Now the pendulum is slowly swinging back.  



Deborah Kapoor I’ve been grappling with this one in my own work of late. My undergraduate experience was one that disdained beauty, so I have that awareness in my own history. I think part of the concern is over-sentimentalizing things. But I am compelled in this era to seek beauty as an escapist relief from our times. Is that over sentimentalizing? Maybe, but right now it feels like emotional and even intellectual survival.

Jeri Eisenberg I spent a significant portion of my MFA thesis addressing the 'beauty dilemma'. Given the work I was—and still am—producing, I had to. I felt then, and still feel, as if I am flying in the face of strong winds with regard to the extent to which my work seeks beauty. As a child of my times, I have long accepted the truism that art need not be beautiful, as much as I accepted the truism that not everything beautiful is art. I have chafed, however, at the contemporary notion that something could no longer be art if it were beautiful. Or at least it could not be 'good art' or 'meaningful art' or 'important art'.

After reading and writing on philosophers, critics, and theorists addressing the notion of beauty, I concluded that for me beauty plays an essential and vital role in life, and that to banish it from art for political or other reasons would only leave us poorer. I found myself most in sync with the theories of Elaine Scarry, a Harvard aesthetician, who proposes that the value of beauty is that it produces a "radical decentering." You are no longer the center of your universe. Beauty acts "like small tears in the surface of the world that pulls us through to some vaster space . . . Beauty quickens. It adrenalizes. It makes the heart beat faster. It makes life more vivid, animated, living, worth living."

I believe these effects justify the seeking of beauty in art. Beauty consoles, and that serves to place suffering in a philosophical perspective. It allows us to go on, even in face of suffering, injustice and other social ills, precisely what you have to do to fight the battle the next day. This seems like reason enough for beauty to me.


Paula Roland, Language of Beauty VI, 2011, encaustic monotype on shikoku paper, 39 x 25 inches 


Joanne Mattera Reflecting on Jeri’s comments, particularly "the notion that something could no longer be art if it were beautiful," I will share a bit of the lead to the essay I wrote in 2007, for Luxe, Calme et Volupt√©: A Meditation on Visual Pleasure, which I curated for the Marcia Wood Gallery:

“Earlier this year, after a day of studio visits and an evening of gallery openings in Chelsea, I took a short taxi ride up Eighth Avenue with Marcia Wood and the editor of a New York-based art magazine. The back-seat conversation was, of course, about art. Marcia mentioned that I was curating a summer show for her gallery, and because we were nearing our destination, I described it simply as ‘a meditation on visual pleasure.’

“’Ah, beauty,” said the editor. ‘Isn’t it nice that we can talk about it again?’”

Christine Shannon Aaron I want beauty to be part of my work, but not beauty alone. Perhaps beauty draws the viewer in, but the more the viewer is engaged the more unsettling, bittersweet, uncomfortable, intimate, powerful, ugly, uncertain, or evocative the work becomes. I want there to be reasons and questions that urge the viewer to come back again.

What I find most interesting in my critique groups is this: Someone hangs his or her work. Usually there are a couple of pieces we sigh or ooh and ahh about initially. They are the ones that are most conventionally beautiful or accessible. Interestingly, after moments it is usually not the one that we engage with most fully. We end up talking about and being most engaged with the more difficult, less easily definable work, the work that digs deeper and has more to say and reveal. I think people can use the medium of encaustic (and other mediums too) in the same way. While it can be a surface attraction without much beneath, it also has the possibility of being a material that allows an artist to create work that speaks to the artist's voice and concept and authentic expression.

Debra Claffey Beauty, not attractiveness, prettiness, and/or symmetrically appealing, is our glimpse into the nature of the universe (which is, of course, love). It can be ugly like decomposing, destructive like fire, fractal and self similar, simple elegance, but it's all the life force (chi). The best art taps into this, no matter the surface appearance or subject.

Heidi F. Beal My personal definition of beauty is that which epitomizes absolute truth and authenticity. It often provokes a sense of Godliness. When this truth and authenticity is edited and composed with artistic precision, it becomes more beautiful. But for me, beauty can also be painful, uncomfortably emotional, or what the conventional would consider repulsive. One of the most beautiful moments of my life was the day my father passed. My mind is still filled with beautiful truthful images of that hospice room.

Anna Wagner-Ott When I paint I tend to disrupt the image if I see too much sweetness or prettiness. My personality comes through my work; it is not my intent to achieve a beautiful painting. Having said that, I find that as I am getting older I am longing for the peace, quiet, and simplicity, staying away from the busy, over-painted surface. I think looking for the beautiful is in the eye of the beholder, and often what is beautiful for one viewer/maker is not beautiful for another.


Anna Wagner-Ott, Some Like It Hot, 2918, encaustic on canvas-wrapped panel, 20 x 24 inches


Joanne Mattera Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but there are acknowledged aesthetic elements that comprise formal ideas of beauty: harmony of order, pattern, shape, texture and color put together in ways that evoke feelings of pleasure, maybe feelings of the spiritual as well.

Jeri Eisenberg I think one of the biggest traps in the debate about beauty is the demand that it be definable. I am troubled little by the fact that what is deemed to be beautiful may vary so from era to era, and from culture to culture. What is critical to me is not beauty's theory, but beauty's impact. And perhaps that is the point: Beauty defies theory. It refuses to be placed within intellectual categorizations because it is a phenomenon that does not speak to the intellect. And yet this is certainly not to suggest that beauty's effect is not real and knowable.

In the words of Peter Schjeldahl: "Beauty will be what it always has been and, despite everything, is now in furtive and inarticulate ways: an irrepressible, anarchic, healing human response without which life is a mistake."

Amy Weil Confucius said of beauty, "Everything has beauty but not everyone sees it." I think it is experiential rather than intellectual and therefore difficult to say why something is beautiful. You can talk about composition, color and line, but in the end it is my physical and emotional reaction to the work that determines whether something is truly beautiful to me. Yes, wax is seductive, but it must transcend its materiality in order for the work to hit me on that level. I believe intention has to be present, otherwise it is just decorative.

Paula Roland I have wrestled with the beauty issue for ages. I think the conflict is with beauty versus decoration. Beauty can have depth and meaning, whereas decoration does not.

In 2012, after fighting (and winning!) against a dastardly disease, I decided that I wanted my next work to be less intellectualized. I only wanted to see beauty, but wanted to find what was essential in it for me. I titled the series Beauty's Language and wrote this as a prelude to my statement: “Charting the resonance of personal meaning, of fluctuating networks, fluid and layered, and how and where they take me. An experience and a form of knowing, beauty’s language, is something that I must experience to understand myself.”

Deborah Martin When I was in graduate school beauty was definitely frowned upon, considered unimportant and frivolous work. My paintings and drawings were considered out of touch with important issues of the time because of my commitment to the beautiful. I still am committed to beauty and my job as an artist is to create something worthy and beautiful. In a world today where there is so much ugliness and despair beauty is more important than ever a tonic for our souls.

Lorraine Glessner 
There is nothing wrong with beauty! Adding beauty to the world is one of the most important reasons for being an artist.

Lorraine Glessner, Flowers of Laughter, 2017; encaustic, collage, pyrography on panel; 24 x 24 inches

. . . . .


Further reading

Books recommended by Deborah Kapoor
. The Sense of Beauty  by George Santayana
. A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman

Recommended by Jeri Eisenberg
. On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry
. The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty by Dave Hickey
. The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetic and the Concept of Art by Arthur Danto
. Essays by Peter Schjeldahl, including Notes on Beauty


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