The first mistake of art is to assume that it’s serious.—Lester Bangs, 1971
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.
Studio in the Batignolles, by Henri Fantin-Latour, 1870. Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France.
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.
But in the twentieth century, artists rarely depicted such themes. In fact, the more programmatic a modernist work, the more likely it was to dissociate its appeal from that of images of women. Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is a brothel scene with prostitutes gazing out at the viewer, but what it shows are a teasing set of space relations, faces transformed into African masks, and fragmented body parts. Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase renders its female subject as a mechanical puppet or robot frozen in successive stages of motion, and his Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even contains nothing recognizable as a woman. Duchamp added a mustache to the Mona Lisa as well as the caption L.H.O.O.Q., which translates phonetically from French as “She has a hot ass.” René Magritte’s 1947 painting La Belle Captive (the beautiful female captive) is a seascape with a rock, an empty frame, and a flaming tuba—no female figure in it at all. And in his photomontage for the 1929 cover of La Révolution surréaliste, Magritte collects pictures of his fellow Surrealists closing their eyes to the nude woman in the center of the page, who is surrounded by a handwritten caption that reads, “I do not see the…hidden in the forest,” the ellipses eliminating the very word “woman.”
The avant-garde was clearly at pains to revise the notion of beauty it had inherited from the previous century. As the painter Georges Braque stated in 1910, “I couldn’t portray a woman in all her natural loveliness. I haven’t the skill. No one has. I must, therefore, create a new sort of beauty, the beauty that appears to me in terms of volume, of line, of mass, of weight, and through that beauty interpret my subjective impression…I want to expose the absolute, and not merely the factitious woman.” Braque’s contemporary, the painter André Derain, advocated much the same idea: “Why, what after all is a pretty woman? It’s a mere subjective impression—what you think of her. That’s what I paint, another kind of beauty of my own…In my ideal I bring that beauty forth in terms of line or volume.”
The evocation of “another kind of beauty” reflects a wholesale shift in the meaning of beauty away from not only the female subject but what she symbolizes more generally. We might call this the “siren real,” the lure exerted by “the world” that is expressed in representational art. Modernists resisted this temptation in favor of a beauty to be found in the formal nature of art itself, turning away from representation and initiating an era of abstractive movements. The critic
Clement Greenberg, one of the foremost champions of the avant-garde, declared representational art to be “unredeemable.” The theorist Meyer Shapiro praised abstractionists for being like Platonists in rejecting the surface look of the world and depicting the “‘essence’ or underlying mathematical order of things.” In the 1950s, the abstract expressionist Adolph Gottlieb confidently predicted, “We’re going to have perhaps a thousand years of nonrepresentational painting now.” A few decades later, conceptual and minimalist art eliminated even form as a requirement for beauty.
But while avant-garde painting was rejecting the female figure in favor of the beauty of form and concept, film and photography were fixated on her. Indeed, this contrast between the status accorded the female subject in elite and popular culture is one of the most striking aspects of twentieth-century art. Film and photography chose a subject that specifically evokes desire—woman. Think of Busby Berkeley musicals in which female dancers form themselves into ornamental designs with their elaborately costumed bodies, or the sexualized female images in comics, advertising, and fashion photography, or the movie star caressed by the camera. Advertising, photography, and cinema grew bolder and bolder in presenting the allure of the female image; the more abstracted the nude became in painting, the more explicitly the female body was revealed in the mass media. The allure of the female nude becomes all but indistinguishable from the allure of the art in which this subject appears. No doubt, this “vulgar,” quasipornographic confusion, in which the viewer responds to content rather than form, is one of the factors that confirmed the photographic arts as “low” in elite eyes for such a long time.
If the avant-garde replaced the female subject with form or disguised her as a fetish, it had as fraught a relation to another traditional beauty symbol, the ornament. Ornament became a veritable pariah for modernists. “Since the beginning of bad writing,” fulminated Ezra Pound, “writers have used images as ornaments. The point of Imagism is that it does not use images as ornaments.” Manifesto after manifesto vilifies ornament: from Pound on imagist poetry to Hemingway on artistic honesty in prose, from Adolf Loos to Le Corbusier in architecture, from Futurism and Dadaism to Surrealism in the visual arts. In locating beauty in form, modernism placed a premium on the functionality of every element in an artwork. Ornament, in contrast, implies a hierarchy among these elements in which some are essential and structural whereas others are incidental and decorative. Ornament is beauty as add-on, a process in which an element is stuck on to “lend beauty” to functional elements that might lack it. This idea is incompatible with the modernist concept of “all-over” art—Clement Greenberg’s term for canvases in which no element carries more value than any other. Moreover, ornamental “prettifying” was far too benign an objective for artists intent on shock and alienation. Thus, ornament joined the female subject as a modernist outlaw.
This resistance to ornament has occurred at other times in the history of the arts, of course, and often implies an association between ornament and woman. In describing the virtues of the Attic style, for example, Cicero argued that “just as some women are said to be more beautiful when unadorned, because this suits them, so this plain style delights, even though it lacks embellishments.” Almost two millennia later, the architect Louis Sullivan, a proponent of functionalism (who later used ornament freely), wrote that architects “should refrain from the use of ornament for a period of years in order that our thought might concentrate acutely upon the production of buildings well formed and comely in the nude.”
Ornaments, beautiful in themselves, lend their virtues to the larger wholes in which they figure. Symbolically, a conscious gesture of pleasing and gratifying is implied, an appeal that is conventionally gendered feminine. Not only are women seen as wearers of ornaments, but they are explicitly equated with the ornament’s nonfunctional beauty in such clichés as “the ornamental sex,” “the ornament of the home,” and so forth. For all the apparent innocence and generosity of this gesture, it often provokes skepticism. “Charm” is a strategic concept after all: the use of beauty to exert power through pleasing. The contradictoriness of this gesture—dominating another by fulfilling the other’s desire—has produced an age-old history of distrust and resentment. To be “merely ornamental” is to be on the one hand devalued as useless or without practical effect, but on the other to be suspected of an illicit power and attraction.
A good deal of the history of misogyny and of anti-art puritanism is summed up in the word “ornamental,” however much it may appear that only fineness of taste is at issue. Modernism was particularly vociferous on the subject. In 1908, the Viennese architect Adolf Loos wrote a diatribe against decoration that he sensationally entitled “Ornament and Crime.” Loos equated the impulse to embellish with eroticism, barbarism, and immorality. Decorating a building is like tattooing one’s body. “The Papuan tattoos his skin, his boat, his oar, in short, everything that is within his reach. He is no criminal. The modern man who tattoos himself is a criminal or a degenerate…If a tattooed person dies at liberty, it is only that he died a few years before he committed a murder.” “The evolution of culture,” Loos went on, “is synonymous with the removal of ornament from objects of daily use.” And in a sentence that Jean-Michel Basquiat and other graffiti artists would have enjoyed, he declared, “One can measure the culture of a country by the degree toward which its lavatory walls are daubed.”
The impulse toward “purity” led the avant-garde to condemn decorative styles such as baroque and art nouveau, in which the female subject and ornament are virtually interchangeable. Gustav Klimt’s portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer and Alphonse Mucha’s theater posters of Sarah Bernhardt are dramatic examples of this conflation: women whose figures almost merge with the surrounding pattern. The art historian E.H. Gombrich points out that the rise of abstraction in the visual arts coincided with the suppression of decoration in architecture. If architecture was to be exclusively practical in function, “a machine for living,” as Le Corbusier stated, painting was to be exclusively formal in nature—not tethered to any reality beyond itself. However, when abstract art eliminated representation, the distinction between painting and ornament all but collapsed. Modern artists insisted that they were creating essential, pure canvases, but there is considerable irony in the fact that Abstract Expressionism looks so good over sofas.
The Cognoscenti, by Thomas Patch, c. 1765. Petworth House and Park, West Sussex, England.
As the twentieth century progressed, ornament and woman became targets of heated debate among feminist theorists who were more concerned with the overly dominant masculinity of formalism than with artistic purism per se. By the 1960s, feminism was changing social attitudes so fundamentally that the contemplation of a female figure in art could no longer be seen as an innocent appreciation of beauty. The “pleasure of the gaze,” once subjected to ethical and political scrutiny, became shorthand for male chauvinist exploitation and oppression, and female self-subversion as well. Feminists of the 1960s and 1970s such as Dana Densmore were particularly vocal about the dangers beauty posed, warning women against “The Temptation to Be a Beautiful Object” and vilifying beauty contests as demeaning rituals of female oppression. The growing epidemic of eating disorders was laid at the feet of the media and the fashion and cosmetics industries, which incite women to pursue physical perfection at the risk of physical destruction. Thus, ironically, feminism and the avant-garde were allies in suppressing the female subject in art.
As we emerge from modernism, beauty has returned as a central preoccupation for both artists and theorists. But the legacy of the past century is causing many to conceive it as a choice between modernist self-reflexivity and classical revival. For the classicist, beauty is a formula invented by the Greeks, revived by the Renaissance, and periodically invoked by later artists until the “great mistake” of modernism. The formula calls for representation, though not documentary realism. It is idealizing, locating value in (fetishizing, some would say) the Vitruvian proportions of the human body, the geometrical perfection of the golden ratio, and the alleged grandeur and heroism of Greco-Roman mythology and culture. Beauty in this view uplifts its audience by putting them in touch with unchanging truths and values. The canon of classical buildings, statuary, and pictorial art is a sanctified heritage of beauty-embodying icons. And its most hallowed devotional practice is the life-drawing class, in which aspirants—whether painters, sculptors, or architects—become inducted into the nature of beauty by drawing human models posing in the nude.
These assumptions are anathema to the present-day heirs of the modernist avant-garde. For them, past art—even indigenous or non-Western art—is not a model to emulate but a complex to be quoted and recontextualized, the jumping-off point for a new train of thought. Throughout its history, modernism exploded one traditional technique or convention after another in an unfolding process of innovation. Indeed, one might say that its only real model was innovation itself, a value associated with the rapidity and violence of twentieth-century change. Modernist innovation was a quasiscientific experimentalism, with each artwork a new moment in a critical investigation of form, material, and meta-artistic issues. Unlike the situation in classicism, the avant-garde work was to be valued for its place in this ongoing inquiry rather than as a masterpiece or a monument in its own right (though once these works enter collections, the distinction tends to blur). The avant-garde laid claim to certain enlightenment principles—openness, disengaged objectivity, and skepticism toward dogma—that made art a laboratory for the new.
To be a poet is to have a soul so quick to discern that no shade of quality escapes it, and so quick to feel that discernment is but a hand playing with finely ordered variety on the chords of emotion—a soul in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge. One may have that condition by fits only.—George Eliot, 1872
The warring alternatives of classicism and the avant-garde are now both in decline. The fading orthodoxy of modernism is still influential, but its artistic goals are steadily losing ground. The heroic history of the twentieth-century avant-garde, leaving no traditional assumption intact, is a closed chapter in aesthetics rather than an ongoing plot. Formal innovation for its own sake is by now tired and the paradoxes of self-referentiality are neither striking nor witty. The artist’s ironic distance from the audience no longer seems a matter to celebrate. At a time when the categories of art, craft, fashion, and design more and more overlap and when “beauty” and “pleasure” have become critical watchwords, the avant-garde equation of art with an assault on the viewer has begun to sound distinctly rearguard. Classicists proclaiming “I told you so” are rushing into the void, bearing the dubious gift of a time-honored beauty formula. But either alternative at this point means retreating into an Old Guard, derrière- or avant-. Given the extraordinary challenges we face at the moment in processing all that is new, we will surely see entirely different approaches to beauty emerging in the twenty-first century.
One that is already taking shape involves the model, a figure previously dismissed as too prurient, too female, or simply too real to be a worthwhile subject for art. Now we find her everywhere. The artist Marlene Dumas papers whole gallery walls with her Models, ink-and-chalk portraits of real women of all sorts—from Naomi Campbell to bag ladies and the artist’s friends. In some of her performance pieces, Vanessa Beecroft assembles undressed women who freeze in place like mannequins, suffering our gaze and at the same time undermining it. The British artist Tracey Emin stripped naked in a public gallery and struck model-like poses for her installation Naked Photos—Life Model Goes Mad. Cindy Sherman photographs herself in endless impersonations, the roles of model and artist overlapping seamlessly in her posing and composing. This model-centered aesthetics pervades contemporary culture: from reality-TV shows like America’s Next Top Model to the studio-model memoir Live Nude Girl to popular novels and films such as Girl with a Pearl Earring and Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me.
These works are not just representational; they are about representation. We are witnessing not a sophisticated dissociation of art from reality, as in modernism, but a desperate attempt to see the difference between the two. Gender theory has taught us to think of masculinity and femininity not as essential traits but learned—and easily enacted—performances. Bioengineering and cloning efface the line between nature and artifice as never before, and virtual experience through the media is infiltrating every aspect of lived experience. This year, the New York Times reported a study showing that the average American child is using one electronic device or another at practically every moment he or she is not supervised in the classroom or asleep. We interact with screens all day, compose our Facebook profiles and choose our avatars, post our pictures for the world to see, carry on our private lives in public view, identify ourselves with our representations. Noting the Abu Ghraib torturers grinning at the camera beside their victims, Susan Sontag despaired that we had reached the point where, “To live is also to pose.”
Pygmalion and Galatea, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, c. 1890. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Louis C. Raegner, 1927.
What happens to art when life is already a virtual sphere? Suddenly issues of value and contact become paramount. The model becomes a key symbol for art, and in the process suggests a new idea of beauty. To include the model in an account of art is to point not only to a real person outside the artwork but to her interaction with another real person, the artist. As an interaction, this process raises issues of power and justice. Many contemporary artists show model and artist communicating and collaborating as equals or even sharing each other’s roles. The viewers of art are part of this interaction, too. In Thomas Struth’s photographs, for example, the models are visitors in museums, people looking at artworks and often looking like the artworks they see. Struth connects the act of modeling, the artwork that results, and the experiencing of that artwork into a seamless whole, and since we are the audience gazing on those gazers, the circle of modeling and communicating keeps expanding. The gazers in the photos are as beautiful as figures in the paintings they might see, and we encounter the possibility of our own beauty as their analogs.
Unlike the various formalisms of the twentieth century, such an aesthetic envisions art as an interaction with the potential for mutuality, equality, and empathy, and these are emerging as the new attributes of beauty. This value-laden interaction takes place in reality—in a circuit involving a real model, a real artist, and a real audience—and it may have consequences that go far beyond the artistic situation. Once we have enacted mutuality and empathy, we know how to reenact it again and again. The model, this interactive bridge between the real and the virtual, thus opens new possibilities for engaged art. The critic Nicolas Bourriaud proposes a relational aesthetics in which “The role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be…models of action within the existing real.” The sculptor Olafur Eliasson, who recently created freestanding waterfalls in New York City’s East River, likewise conceives of “each artwork [as] an option or model. Thus, the artworks are experimental setups, and experiences of these are not based on an essence found in the works themselves, but on an option activated by the users.” In the twenty-first-century treatment of beauty, Walter Pater’s famous dictum is being revised to read: all art constantly aspires to the condition of the model.