On Art and Beauty

It is a sad age in culture where beauty requires its own defence, but there is a great quantity of appalling, incompetent art that justifies its existence on grounds of standing for an important social cause or for making a life affirming statement. I only have a problem the moment so-called artists and critics give aesthetic beauty less than first billing. Who are these insensitive brutes? Are they plagued by dark terrible childhoods or do they suffer genetic conditions?

Frederick Turner, an American Humanities professor, wrote a lucid and fascinating book of impressively wide-scope called The Culture of Hope which, “sharply indicts the bankrupt tribe of venal mediocrities who now infest the arts.” He rips on the radical left’s avant-garde for being indifferent or in blatant violation of technique and craftsmanship, and for relativizing beauty out of existence. He also lambastes the right’s two conservative views of art—art as either harmless entertainment to divert citizens or propaganda for traditional views of things like morality and religion. He stakes a claim for the middle ground he terms the “radical centre” that isn’t a compromise between these left and right ideas, but a rejection of both. He deals at length with every specific subsection of the left and right who abuse classical ideas of beauty, but it’s beyond the scope of this piece. He is anything but glib.

The subtitle of his book A New Birth of the Classical Spirit suggests the source of his hope and the place where beauty is to be found. Modernists like Joyce and Picasso understood the links from all previous movements and built on them. Those who judge art from a political lens are horribly wrong. The left is a blues player refusing to learn the minor pentatonic scale because they think it’s oppressive, while the right denounces blues altogether as the subversive music of the devil.

You have to know the roots of what you do before you can go on and create anything worthwhile. To discard the knowledge that the greatest minds in your medium have accumulated over centuries because you know better is the height of presumption, and nothing beautiful will come of it.

Inverted Warhol Soup

I really think that most critics who denounce Western views of art and beauty for being patriarchal or imperialistic don’t understand it whatsoever. They’ve probably never put the time in to learn it, or their comprehension was distorted because the intellectual baggage intimidated them. These Western denouncers (OISE types, social constructionists, politically correct censors and all their illiterate colleagues) seem to me like scared insecure children who make up bogus jargon for the purpose of distracting actual children, credulous undergrads and mediocre art people from realising that they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

It’s much easier to denounce the Western Canon, for example, than to read it. Only a hopeless moron or a total fraud can read and censure Rabelais, Joyce, Kafka, or Melville (all “Western” writers from wildly different cultures, you’ll note). Literature is my background, so I focus on it, but unfortunately these frauds infect every branch of art, their slime trail defiling beauty wherever they crawl.

The case is anything but complicated: beauty doesn’t need a second reason to exist. The question, “is it art?” ought to be replaced permanently with “is it beautiful?” I took a course once literally called, “is it art?” We read Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Dewey, all those hombres. Lovely reading, but I think the entire course could have been settled before it started by redirecting the question entirely—whether something is art is of, at best, second importance. Mind you, the writing was beautiful so settling the question was irrelevant. Still, those who care about whether or not something can be called “art” are free to do so, but I’d much rather behold something beautiful that isn’t art than something hideous which technically is.

I saw a canvas in a gallery a couple weeks ago that was almost as white as the day it left the factory. Almost totally unaltered, it showed open contempt for beauty. If the “artist” had something very pertinent or urgent to say, they missed the opportunity to say it in the painting. How curious! If I wasn’t so offended by the concept of an almost entirely neglected canvas selling for $1200 I might have read the accompanying blurb. I made a principled decision and refrained from that.

There’s something in this: if the art offers nothing to the eye and it means nothing to the mind without an accompanying blurb, then the canvas is better off as an essay, or perhaps a Tweet. Its creator chose the wrong medium. Visual art must offer something appealing to look at. You know, visual.

It doesn’t need to be cheery, like healthy looking fruit in a bowl or a lovely landscape. The emphasis is on the presence of aesthetic consideration. There’s no rule the content can’t be political or whatever else. But there is no cause higher than beauty. Whoever neglects beauty is second-rate at best. Even Orwell, commonly considered the best political writer of the 20th century, made turning political writing into art his explicit goal. He knew that pamphleteering was not art, however effective it may be.

city-on-my-back-acrylic-on-canvas
Art by OMS (Click for more in a new tab)

Art that tries to communicate something without being beautiful is the literary equivalent of a menu. Smart left-wingers read Waugh, Eliot and Pound despite knowing they were reactionaries. Hitchens’ opponents describe the same enjoyment from reading him, even if they disagree with his politics. In hockey, all goals count the same no matter how they go in. But what kind of monster sees a garbage rebound goal the same way as a Crosby dangle?

Beauty doesn’t need an established art form to exist. I applaud the sandwich maker who makes a mustard smiley face, but I take my hat off to the artist who makes mustard eyebrows! Of course the sandwich tastes the same, and the face becomes invisible and then immediately mashed out of existence, but, like Crosby’s goal, beauty doesn’t need to exist because it has no purpose outside itself. That is its charm—it is fleeting and entirely unnecessary.

I’m not here to say what is or isn’t beautiful, but do your homework. Great people have been at this a long time. Humility, please! So find beauty wherever you want, so long as you look for it. Search widely and deeply and slowly. Luxuriate in beauty when you find it, and when you go to create art yourself you’ll likely end up doing something beautiful. For a position claiming to be of the radical centre, loving and absorbing artists whose work have endured for centuries doesn’t seem like a very radical idea. Remember: ignore the pseudo-intelligence from kooks, idiots and frauds of all stripes. Don’t be taken in by bohemian lifestyles or dignified letters preceding the name of an acadumbic. Naturally, I close with Keats’ immortal ending to his poem, “Ode to a Grecian Urn”:

’Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ –that is all

Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.

About Jeff Halperin

Jeff Halperin was a city hall reporter at the Toronto Standard, but his writing has also appeared at Maclean's, the Grid and elsewhere. He also writes on literature, Leafs, music, chess and more. Jeff's website is [here] For other PP posts by Jeff click [here]