The Return of Beauty? How Contemporary Art Re-imagined Aesthetics

Shane Hodges will be ruminating on the state of contemporary art and reflecting on current theories that surround it. This week, he wonders if beauty has returned. Have we moved beyond ‘aesthetic religion’ and anti-aesthetics into a new realm of beauty?

November 12, 2013
by Shane Hodges
Louise Hearman, Untitled, 2009

Louise Hearman, Untitled, 2009

In 1917, Beauty died. In 2013, beauty’s fate remains unclear; its role in Western art unaccommodated. It was Marcel Duchamp’s original version of Fountain in 1917 that ushered in the new era, later taking the mantle of ‘anti-aesthetic’. This was a collapse of traditionalist and purist values, which inadvertently destabilised and eventually replaced the very definition of ‘art’.  There was a cacophony of revisionist tactics across the art world, promptly challenging every preconceived idea of what art could be. It was the ‘readymade’ or everyday object, like Duchamp’s urinal, that spoke to the reality of modernisation and not to the ambivalence of God, morality, the sublime and divinity. These were the characteristics of beauty that survived until the early 20th century, and the very same that were quashed by the anti-aesthetic revolution.

Move forward to present day, 2013, and the aesthetic debate has totally transmuted: the judgement of beauty in art is now a lost art in itself. Many today consider ‘beauty’ as a thing relegated to magazines – of the body or the advertisement, of ‘inner-beauty’ and the products that we’re told help us to find it. The word ‘beauty’ itself has always been adaptive and in age of globalisation and information media the meaning of it has never been more contested. Whatever the case, beauty in contemporary art remains a tangled and unpopular thing, ironically driven wayside by the very definitions that have tried to support it.

Beauty in art is now a montage of realities. Art theorists like Thierry de Duve and Nicolas Bourriaud take position at opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum, yet both agree that ‘culture’ is the modern equivalent to nature. De Duve asks that we replace the word ‘beauty’ with the word ‘art’, so that the principles of German thinkers like Kant remain relevant. Essentially, rather than seek aesthetic experience through the natural landscapes of your Turner’s or Friedrich’s, we can instead encounter a shared understanding of concepts through disparate, cultural landscapes. In this way, beauty is found in the exchanges between participants, in the uniform meaning of the concept at hand, and in the expression of the shared experience which still utilises an aesthetic basis. Bourriaud certainly wouldn’t argue that any relational aesthetic has a basis in beauty, but it is the art works capacity for any kind of aesthetic that promotes that very possibility. To paraphrase Dave Hickey, if any art work is not grounded in beauty and the pleasure of the viewer, then it calls into question the efficacy of the art work itself, becoming inconsequential.

Olafur Eliasson works are an example of this ‘novel’ contemporary beauty, consistently creating installations that simulate communal models. The Weather Project does this by bringing participants together, creating a psychological falsehood of ‘warmth’ and managing to impart some kind of familiarity between its viewers; a grand soup of participants, if you will, all combining underneath a universal sun. The sun is of course the familiar entity that operates as the link between participants, becoming a kind of shared allegory that brings them all together. If we are to think of beauty, or at least allegories as something culturally defined, the experience of beauty must be read in terms of its participants, and the artist’s ability to bring those participants to that experience. Perhaps we should think of such installations as an interactive Turner? A three dimensional reality fleshed out as if from a landscape painting? It’s certainly an attractive idea to think that we are experiencing beauty rather than just viewing it, but of course, this is the very same philosophical principle that has followed the rhetoric since aesthetics were defined.

It’s obvious that there will always be art works, not just installations, that hold some romantic hold in the contemporary sense. The question, really, is one of ubiquity: is there a capacity for all art works to be considered as ‘beauty’ in the classical sense? The difference between then and now is that we can see beauty in the everyday, in the product of our exchanges with one another when it’s understood through familiar things, through likeness or meaning. Contemporary works certainly do not have to work through anatomical symmetry or mythology in order to achieve this. Whatever the case, there has certainly been a shift between the consumer-like subjects of the postmodern era and the transcendental subjects we encounter today. Take the paintings of Louise Hearman: they speak to both eras, yet dominantly encapsulate that dreamy, exploration of the subconscious quality we have come to associate with beauty. Some have labelled this kind of thinking as archaic, difficult to define and yes, ‘wishy-washy’, but the process of seeing ourselves in others, in the natural world, or in any kind of metaphysical encounter, still speaks to a culture of viewers that seek both pleasure and meaning in the art works they experience.

For those theorists clinging to any kind of ‘aesthetic religion’, they are at least moving the terminology forward and updating our understanding of what this ever-elusive thing called beauty is. Some may argue that these attempts are merely there to promote conservative viewpoints. At times, I might be compelled to agree. Others may argue that a simple workaround of the wording, e.g. nature to culture, isn’t sufficient enough to describe such a multifarious ethos. What needs to be kept in mind is the adaptive nature of beauty itself – it has never just been about the goddess Venus or vibrant landscapes. Whatever one thinks, Duchamp’s realm of anti-aesthetics is no longer the only alternative to beauty from which artists can capitalise. The two opposing realms have melded, and we now have everyday objects but with clearer interventions made by the artist, designed to evoke reactions from an aesthetic basis.  If aesthetics weren’t re-imagined, we wouldn’t have the pleasure of experiencing works whereby we become part of a visceral, meaningful exchange. Is it universally beauty? Only time will tell.