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March 14, 2017 / Congau

Art and Beauty

Art does not have to be beautiful. No one believes that nowadays when art galleries are crowded with the most repugnant images. Yet art is essentially an aesthetic enterprise. It strives to say something in an attractive language.

Art must have a message, but that message must be conveyed in a special way. All other means of communication are only concerned with transferring objects or ideas from the sender to the recipient as efficiently as possible, but art cares about how it is done. The mode of communication should itself be interesting.

For visual art “interesting” means that the spectators would want to look at it because they are attracted to it and in a sense, whatever is visually attractive may also be said to be beautiful.

True, we are also attracted to what is disgusting and that’s partly the reason why those modern galleries get visitors. We want to be shocked and emotionally stirred up and in a curious psychological double movement we are drawn toward those objects at the same time as we are repulsed by them. We glance at it through our fingers, wanting to look while fighting the urge.

But this phenomenon is by no means restricted to art. We are all somehow attracted to cruelty no matter how much we hate it. (People are ardent readers of news stories about murders and accidents for example.) But using this piece of human psychology in an attempt to make art does not automatically make it art.

Suppose you have a picture of a war scene that is absolutely horrifying and disgusting to look at. There is a message: “War is terrible”, and there is a visual language to express it. But that is not enough to make the picture a work of art. Any war photo that is sufficiently disgusting would then be art. There must be something more that would make us want to look at it for another reason than our perverted attraction to cruelty. There must be something in the composition of the picture that makes it effective so that we can look at it and understand in a deeper way. And that thing, proportionality or contrast or whatever it is, inasmuch as it delights the eye, is a form of beauty.

Then it may be the case that a good piece of art, even if it is ugly, is beautiful.

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