On Beauty in Art

Philosophers through all
ages have included art among the topics of their thinking, since pre-history
when the ancient Greeks were concerned about beauty and art. Since those times,
philosophy, religion and art have been intertwined.

Today few people (in the UK
at least) are even vaguely aware of any philosophy, and yet great thinkers of
the past gave long and thorough consideration of issues that are very relevant

Similarly, today we are living in an increasingly non-theist world, where
people are less concerned about an all-powerful spiritual entity. For over 100
years, artists and their art have moved a long way away from the previously
dominant theme of producing work for the glorification of a supreme being, but
does that leave art with no points of reference? If there is no meaning in art,
is it purely decorative? Just another kind of wallpaper?

The ancient Greeks believed there were many gods and consideration of art was
thought to be best approached from a duality of those – the intuitive or
sensory on the one hand and the rational on the other.

Church domination of the
world began to crumble in the 17th and 18th century after
Luther and Henry VIIIth had challenged papal infallibility and thinkers again
turned some attention to questions of ‘the sublime’. The ancient Greek notions
of the duality between sensory and rationality was – and is – carried forward.

A painting is likely to be
judged against both – the technical / rational (is the drawing effective? Do
the colours work well together? Is it well-presented? etc) and the more
elusive, ephemeral – Do I LIKE it? Does it appeal to my taste?

It seems to me that this is a two-legged stool. There are, in my view, tonnes
of paintings which meet those two criteria, well painted technically and
pleasant to look at, but …. Are they challenging at all? Do they ask any
questions of the viewer? Do they convey something more than ‘nice’?

I don’t often have anything positive
to say about installation art, but I can at least use it to argue that the
stool must have three legs:

Sensory and rationality (as
per the classic notions) plus the third leg – The Challenge. 

A piece of art needs to stimulate the viewer somehow.

Through the 20th century
that stimulation came from challenging new styles of painting, but even in the
19th century, Ruskin commented that a landscape painting should be

Installation art, all too often, goes for ‘challenging’ at the expense of
beauty and technical excellence, but the best of it manages to cover all three

Having said all this, I know
that people buy art for their own often complex reasons. I was once excited at
the prospect of selling a large oil painting, until the customer turned and
said “No, it needs to match my carpet.”

So much for Philosophy!

But – do I want to produce

Just look at fashion - how people dressed 50 years ago compared with today. Or furniture - that clunky solid stuff that filled the space? 
Taste in Art changes faster than either of those so what you might think of as ‘beautiful’ is not likely to be the same as you did ten years ago, UNLESS you can apply some sort of ‘timeless’ test - is this painting something that is exciting only because it is ‘on trend’ right now, or does it have qualities that will still stand out at some time in the future?

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