Plato bequeathed us a trio of ultimate values—truth, beauty, and goodness—but through the ages, the arts have been most closely allied with beauty. By the nineteenth century, the romanticist John Keats would open his epic Endymion with the line “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” and close his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” with the paeon “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Beauty became a virtual religion for aestheticist poets and painters a few decades after Keats. But at the height of this worship, the winds were already shifting. “The time for beauty is over,” declared Gustave Flaubert in 1852, and one short century of avant-garde experimentation later, the balloon was punctured once and for all. “Beauty is shoe, shoe beauty,” quipped Andy Warhol, transforming the romantic ideal of beauty into a joke and a fetish.
Every age construes beauty somewhat differently, but it has seldom if ever happened that the arts have rejected it outright. But that is what happened in artistic practice and theory throughout much of the twentieth century. The great modernist innovators had little interest in providing their audience with uplifting experiences, gratification, or transcendent joy, or any of the benefits previously assigned to beauty. They were intent instead on questioning all assumptions from the past, expressing the unprecedented speed and violence of twentieth-century life, provoking, disorienting, shocking. With these aims, the beautiful, which Immanuel Kant had described in terms of harmony, symmetry, and balance, could only seem retrograde and counterproductive. If we speak at all of the beauty of modernist art, we mean something entirely different from what Keats—or Plato or Vitruvius or Oscar Wilde—had in mind.
But it is no easy matter to say what that difference is. Beauty is a formidably complex notion approached head-on. A wiser tack is to come at it through its perennial symbols, for example, the female subject in art, which has over time served as an analog for the beauty of art itself. The ornament is another carrier of the idea of the beautiful. It is possible to understand twentieth-century beauty as a dance among four interconnected symbols of beauty: woman, fetish, form, and ornament.
We might begin with Warhol’s “Beauty is Shoe.” This little literary spoof was added as a legend to one of Warhol’s whimsical shoe drawings. On the face of it, the quip seems innocuous enough: just a passing joke. But jokes have their serious underside, and we should recall that the shoe is the archetypical fetish object: a neurotic substitute, according to Freud, for the “normal” object of sexual desire, the female body, which an early trauma has rendered threatening to the fetishist. Warhol’s joke might be construed, then, as implying that the “truth” in Keats’ exalted notion of beauty is in fact just a cover for the overvalued object of sexual desire. Indeed, Keats repeatedly used woman as a symbol of the value arrived at through artistic striving. “The imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream [of Eve]—he awoke and found it truth.” Warhol outs Keats, as it were, by replacing the “truth” of the hidden woman with a real fetish, a shoe, radiating glamor, trauma, and taboo. In doing so, he conveys an ambivalence toward beauty common among twentieth-century artists: at once repelled and attracted, contemptuous and threatened, modernists demeaned beauty as something trivial, tawdry, pretentious, or sentimental. Many in the twenty-first century still find it necessary to do so.
Obviously, it was not always so. Throughout much of the history of art, female figures present themselves to the viewer’s gaze as objects of beauty. We might recall the elegant female portraits of Thomas Gainsborough or John Singer Sargent, the odalisques of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, the bold peasants of Francisco Goya, and the allegorical or exotic nudes of Titian. In a much repeated trope, female figures gaze at their own images in mirrors with a narcissistic pleasure and fascination meant to echo or incite the viewer’s response. The beauty and allure of these subjects are offered as unashamed analogs to the appeal of the art in which they figure.