Beauty, real life, and ideas

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - Temptation (1880)

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) – Temptation (1880)

While accepting a Bradley Prize this year, critic, writer, and self-described aesthete Terry Teachout shared some thoughts worth of consideration in his acceptance speech. I read this some time last week and have been mulling over it ever since, so thought to share it, hoping for your own thoughts (again, the entire essay may be read here).

After noting that the Taliban Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice banned “any equipment that produces the joy of music”, for instance, he writes

…America, too, has its share of earnest, well-meaning, narrow-minded folk who don’t much care for art. Not that this should surprise anyone. Ours, after all, is a can-do, no-frills culture shaped by the frontier experience and the Protestant work ethic, and even in this Age of Leisure, the notion that a person might want to look at a Balanchine ballet or a Cézanne watercolor purely because it makes him happy is alien to many Americans. It’s not enough that art should please us: We want it to improve us, to make us smarter and richer, and maybe even thinner.

(emphasis added, emphasis always added, you know me!)

Jas de bouffan

Jas de Bouffan (The Pond), Paul Cézanne, 1876

 Part of this, I suppose, is because Americans are very often simply not taught much about art or how to really enjoy it; also, I think many Americans are simply more and more put off by a great deal of what is hanging in our nation’s galleries and museums. Still, Teachout surely has a point that stands all by itself—to be worthwhile, art has to do more than just please us!

He quotes Fairfield Porter, who said

“When I paint, I think that what would satisfy me is to express what Bonnard said Renoir told him: make everything more beautiful.”

Sort of funny that this would be used, really, because to call one thing beautiful is now seen as a value judgment against everything else—to call something beautiful is to call other things not beautiful or even ugly, so we can’t call anything beautiful, and who can agree upon what beauty is, and your idea of beauty is wrong because it’s conventional (or unconventional), and so forth and so on. No wonder people shy away from art!

Gérôme - Summer Afternoon on a Lake

Gérôme – Summer Afternoon on a Lake

Even so…I love beauty. I appreciate it and chase after it to absorb it and try to surround myself with it (though admittedly not without a little silly kitsch, either because it’s sentimental to me because of a family connection or simply because I could not resist—the perils of loving bygone decades!). Moreover, I dislike ugliness (hence my contempt for our strip-malled world, utterly bereft of beauty) and do my best to avoid it; I simply cannot take the assault on my mind and spirit anymore (I’m just so old, aren’t I?). And yes, that means I am, either verbally or otherwise, suggesting one thing is beautiful and another is not, or perhaps that the latter could be beautiful if somehow manipulated—but if we cannot, are not allowed, to make those distinctions, or even try to do so, where are we as human beings?

William Bouguereau - El primer duelo

First Mourning, William Bouguereau, 1888


Teachout talks about political art, something we’re all familiar with (especially these days—though very often it’s so, so subtle I’m not sure people realize what they’re absorbing is such art).

…making reality over into art, while it necessarily entails a measure of simplification, also demands that the artist simultaneously acknowledge the proliferating complexity of human nature and experience. Therein lies the problem of political art: The artist whose chief goal is to enlist his audience in a cause, no matter what that cause may be, is rarely prepared to tell the whole truth and nothing but. He replaces the true complexity of the real world with the false simplicity of the ideologue. He alters reality not to make everything more beautiful, but to stack the deck.

Well, the artist here cannot tell the whole truth and nothing but—though he may know the whole truth, he is still to bend it to the ideology. He doesn’t even really have the option to give it beauty for beauty’s sake! He’s manipulating his viewer, often unable to portray anything resembling truth. This is of course one of the great dangers of doing only political or politically- or ideologically-fueled art of any kind, though obviously all kinds of artists are willing to do it…because the ideology is more important to them than beauty and perhaps even truth (if truth is in any way beauty, as Keats wrote).

The Christian Martyrs Last Prayer

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1883 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Happily, unlike some who wail without offering another path, Mr. Teachout discusses the other path, one which is still concerned with politics:

To strive toward the higher end of beauty, the serious artist must seek to tell the truth as he sees it about the world he sees around him, a task that can be pursued to the fullest degree only under the aspect of freedom. Where there is no freedom, there is no art, save at the risk of the artist’s neck. This freedom includes, among other things, freedom from the paralyzing obligation to persuade. Great art doesn’t tell—it shows. And this act of showing is itself a moral act, a commitment to reality. The greatest artists seek not to change the world, but to see it as it is, then show it to their fellow men with the transforming clarity that is beauty, thereby heightening our perception and enriching our understanding.

Hence Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a work of the creative imagination that uses history as its raw material in the same way as (say) Shakespeare’s Richard III, Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, or Manet’s Execution of Emperor Maximilian. The beauty of these works is not contingent on their historicity, nor was it the goal of their creators to persuade those who read, heard, or viewed them to take any specific form of action, political or otherwise. Their purpose, rather, was to make us say, Yes, life is like that.

Even dramatized, even with beauty heightened—don’t we recognize the reality in such works, as well as the beauty? I think we do. Good art just highlights, sharpens our focus, brings it home.

Cezanne - Skizze eines Hauses

Sketch of a house by Paul Cézanne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

…in addition to giving comfort and joy, great art has the miraculous ability to let us live in other men’s skins, to test our perceptions and beliefs against theirs and to be transformed as a result—not infrequently in the unpredictable ways that are the fruit of freedom alone.

As I said, just food for thought. It is quite a bit to chew on, but I’d love to hear your thoughts, too!

Edouard Manet 022

Édouard Manet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


2 thoughts on “Beauty, real life, and ideas

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