In Philosophy grad school I heard the story about the student taking an exam on existentialism, and the answer he put in his blue book, the essay he wrote, contained only the single word: “Why?”. The student got an “A” on the exam for his brilliance!
That’s too deep for our discussion here, right? And I’m not even sure I like that answer (though it does demonstrate the difference between showing and telling). “Why?” is a real question, after all. Instead, the reason I bring this up is that there are conflicting perceptions that art either needs to be justified or that it does not. I’m not an art historian, probably a decent enough potter, and only a middling/mediocre ‘Artist’, but here’s my take on things: There are views that a person’s art needs to answer the question of “Why?” and other views that say this is irrelevant. For instance, the fascination of modern academic art seems torn between valuing the contribution of artists on the basis of how well it embodies intellectual content and appeals to our cognitive side, the part above the shoulders, while others value the contribution of artists because they are the rule breakers who advance the field in new directions, and one of those directions is spurning a system of established values. Sometimes this can reach the level of mere contrariness for the sake of being contrary alone.
And so occasionally academic art can give the appearance of novelty for the sake of novelty, and the sense is that the only stance to take against this creative dissonance is to tether ourselves to some intellectual grounding, like the universal unconscious, sociopolitical criticism, or to an artist’s own self examination. Its as if an abject nihilism can only be avoided by creating the fable of Art’s own intellectual self importance, as if the value of Art was contained solely in its capacity for abstract erudition. And today things like beauty no longer cut the mustard.
I don’t want to discount the real merit of Art considering such questions of human existence, but it seems to have only come at the expense of casting issues of beauty in the world aside. These days you can’t always slide through Art school merely on the basis of investigating and giving birth to beauty. And that’s why potters now have such a hard time in academia. They are being quietly led to the back door where they will be unceremoniously evicted. A potter’s quest for humble and intimate beauty is simply less important than the grand ideas of…. Well, take your pick from any academic’s artist statement. It almost seems that the more opaque and indecipherable the idea the less artistically trivial it becomes. And its as if the bigger the words used to describe the Art the bigger the ideas. The fact that beauty stares us in the face, is so obvious, challenges us below the neckline rather than above it(to paraphrase Jack Troy from a Ceramics Monthly article I can’t seem to lay my hands on), and always is subject to ‘the eye of the beholder’ makes it less impressive academically than the myopic flagellations of their jaundiced solipsism.
And so, if it were up to Art departments Beauty might die a sudden death. Certainly it would wither and die from neglect. Academics these days are often too important to sully their hands with mere beauty. They are too involved in the vital task of applying their incredible creative skills (and their sometimes stunted, hide bound intellects) to the greater and most obscure questions of the world. That may seem unfair, but for art to not lay claim to beauty, we trade what we are naturally good at for something we may be less well equipped to explore. And by saying that beauty is less important than ‘critical deconstructed formal interpretive minimalist modernist seduction metaphor’, we are saying that it is someone else’s job to promote it.
We are saying that we don’t care how much beauty there is in the world, that it doesn’t really matter if there is less of it everyday. And if it is up to us artists, new beauty will find its path into the world only in the hands of amateurs, plumbers, and bank executives. Beauty is no longer the special subject matter of artists, and artists are essentially wasting their time when they explore it. Beauty is no longer the creative birthright of artists, but a lapse in judgment. Our special provenance is now a humble and embarrassing pastime better left in the hands of dilettantes, posers, anachronists, and fakers.
And so, I always seem to need to ask the question of “Why?”. I see someone’s art and I wonder why they spent so much time on it. And sometimes I “get it”, and am impressed by the new things that have been brought into the world. But at other times it goes right over my head. The world is filled with poetry, real magic, humble examples of the transcendent, and hidden treasures of the mundane. It is also filled with crass self importance, meanness, diseased ignorance, divisiveness, and shallow dogmatism. Art plays with all these qualities. And as I say, sometimes I get the “Why?” and sometimes I do not. An artist’s striving for beauty never has that complication for me. I may not like what they’ve done, I may disagree that it is beauty, but I always understand why they were moved to create.
When the answer to the question is something preposterous, inane, or entirely self-indulgent I always get queasy. I feel as if I have shaken hands with something unclean. Or disappointing. When great minds settle for petty and ridiculous expression I always feel the world has been let down. It is a crime when ability and talent are squandered in directions that waste it. Its as if Einstein decided it was more important to be the best patent clerk he could be and never spent his free moments working on Physics. Its as if Shakespeare decided that it was better to direct other people’s plays than to write them himself. As if Rembrandt painted houses instead of canvas.
Art can safely be about anything. That is one of its great attributes: Its universal applicability. But the need to disown beauty is unconscionable. And flogging disciplines like pottery out the doors of academia is a sorrowful lessening of what the world can and perhaps should be. Don’t give up on beauty. If you are an artist you are one of the special breed who have the tools to manifest your imagination. You have been trained to do things that others have mostly forgotten. You are a creator who can make new things come alive, and teach others to see the world in new ways. And while everyone has a key that unlocks their personal appreciation of the beautiful, it is really only artists who are trained to give it expression. The world deserves to be more beautiful, and we deserve to live in a more beautiful world. If you are any kind of artist, please don’t give up on beauty.