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Raymond J. Steiner
ART TIMES April 2006

THE IDEA OF art having to defer to the concept of beauty has been given short shrift in these our modern times. Yet, the marriage of “art” and “beauty” had enjoyed such a long relationship that the sudden divorce of the two by the pundits has left many feeling that something special had been torn asunder. Especially when so much of what passes for art these days appears to go out of its way to champion ugliness for ugliness’ sake. Of course, as we all know, beauty is still in the eye of the beholder — but, by this time, so many beholders have been confused by the hullabaloo raised by the divorce, that few are confident to aver just what they mean when they use the term “beauty”. It is, after all, a wriggly thing to catch hold of. Like all abstractions, one is sorely tried to attach a single, definitive meaning to the concept. What “love” means to you, might not mean the same to me — and so on. Small wonder then, that the jury is still out on the art-love nexus. Try as the pundits have to deem it irrelevant, there are still a considerable number of people who stubbornly refuse to accept the divorce as either valid or final. There are still those who, when they hang a painting on a wall or stand a piece of sculpture in the corner of their living room, want the addition to bring something pleasant — call it “beauty”, if you will — into their homes. But again, what’s “beautiful” to one beholder, might still be “kitsch” to another. Where do we — or can we — draw the line? If almost any fair-minded beholder can find “beauty” in a Constable landscape, by the same token any art lover will concede that there is a certain amount of beauty in Schongauer’s rendition of the demons tempting St. Anthony. Is it merely a matter of enlarging our definition of “beauty”? How far can we stretch our sensibilities to include what, at first glance, might appear “ugly” to us? One might ask, must we so extend ourselves? However, if “beauty” does reside in the mind of the beholder, then surely this puts some obligation on the viewer. Any lunk-head can see the beauty of a blown rose; it takes a refined sensibility to see its beauty at every stage of its existence, from seed to crumbling dust. Surely then, we must allow the artist some leeway — or is it perhaps an obligation on their part — in making us see “beauty” where we once could not discern it. It might take some effort, but many an art lover has learned to behold the “beauty” in both Sargent’s “Madame X” as well as Manet’s “The Dead Toreador”. So, it’s a sliding scale. All well and good, but does this mean, then, that we must jettison the concept of “beauty” altogether? I think not. By doing so, I believe that the door has not merely been opened to ugliness for its own sake — and surely there seems to be enough of that around — but has also brought about a general breakdown in the inherent “beauty” of any craft. If we can depict “ugly” subjects then, the argument goes, why not debase the technique as well — and blame the perceived lack on the unsophistication of the beholder. For my part, having to look at a great deal of this “unbeautiful” art on my gallery rounds, I do think that by insisting on the divorce, we’ve tossed the baby out with the bathwater. Let’s be honest — we’ve all lost a little something here

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