The Nature of Beauty in Contemporary Art
A new paradigm of an engaged, participatory and socially relevant
art is emerging.
If youíre out, youíre out - you simply donít count," the artist
Sandro Chia once declared in an interview in Art in America.
Referring to the art world, he said, "Anything that happens must happen
within this system," which he went on to describe: "I work for a few months,
then I go to a gallery and show the dealer my work. The work is accepted,
the dealer makes a selection, then an installation. People come and say
youíre good or not so good, then they pay for these paintings and hang
them on other walls. They give cocktail parties and we all go to restaurants
and meet girls. I think this is the weirdest scene in the world."
Sandro Chiaís description of the art world as a suburb of hell is all
too familiar; it is a world in which artists are defined through showing
or not showing, selling or not selling, and through the goals of money,
prestige, and power that are so crucial to our whole societyís notion of
success. Within the modernist paradigm under which I grew up, art has been
typically understood as a collection of prestigious objects, existing in
museums and galleries, disconnected from ordinary life and action. Defined
entirely in individualistic terms, the modern artistís quest was enacted
within the inner sanctum of a studio, behind closed doors. This mythology
of the lone genius, isolated from society, and relieved of social responsibility,
is summed up for me in these comments by the painter Georg Baselitz:
"The artist is not responsible to anyone. His social role is asocial; his
only responsibility consists in an attitude to the work he does. There
is no communication with any public whatsoever... It is the end product
which counts, in my case, the picture."
Recently, when he was asked on the occasion of his Guggenheim retrospective
what role he believes art plays in society, Baselitz replied, "The same
role as a good shoe, nothing more." And he has stated elsewhere: "The idea
of changing or improving the world is alien to me and seems ludicrous.
Society functions, and always has, without the artist. No artist has ever
changed anything for better or worse."
Many of the beliefs about art that our culture subscribes to, that the
problems of art are purely aesthetic and that art will never change the
world, are beliefs that have diminished the capacity of artists for constructive
thought and action. The critic Arthur C. Danto has referred to this state
of affairs as "the disenfranchisement of art", because the hidden constraints
of a morally neutral, art-for-artís sake philosophy is that it has led
artists to their marginalized condition in society. I first began to question
this mythology myself when I wrote Has Modernism Failed?, and since
then, many things have happened to change the situation. The environment
is disintegrating, time is running out, and not much is being done.
Many artists now see their role as sounding the alarm, and have felt the
need to alter the direction of their art so that it is more socially and
environmentally defined. Such artists incarnate different ideals and a
different philosophy of life. Performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña
states, for example, "Most of the work Iím doing currently comes, I think,
from the realization that weíre living in a state of emergency. I feel
that more than ever we must step outside the strictly art arena. It is
not enough to make art." In a similar vein, Chicago artist Othello Anderson
states: "Carbon and other pollutants are emitted into the air in such massive
quantities that large areas of forest landscapes are dying from the effects
of acid rain. Recognizing this crisis, as an artist I can no longer consider
making art that is void of moral consciousness, art that carries no responsibility,
art without spiritual content, art that places form above content, or art
that denies the state of the very world in which it exists."
As many artists shift their work arena from the studio to the more public
contexts of political, social, and environmental life, we are all being
called, in our understanding of what art is, to move beyond the mode of
disinterested contemplation to something that is more participatory and
engaged. Such art may not hang on walls; it may not even be found in museums
or beautiful objects, but rather in some visible manifestation of what
psychologist James Hillman refers to as "the soulís desperate concerns."
For such artists, vision is not defined by the disembodied eye, as we have
been trained to believe. Vision is a social practice that is rooted in
the whole of being.
Breaking with the Paradigm of Vision
Writing The Reenchantment of Art represented my own philosophical "break"
with the paradigm of vision and the disembodied eye as the axiomatic basis
for artistic practice.
For instance, I wrote at some length about an art project initiated
by a friend of mine in Santa Fe, Dominique Mazeaud, which she calls "The
Great Cleansing of the Rio Grande River". For several years, armed with
garbage bags donated by the city, Mazeaud and a few friends who sometimes
accompanied her, would meet once a month and ritually clean garbage out
of the river. Part of the work involves keeping a diary, entitled Riveries,
in which she writes about her experiences. Briefly, here are some extracts:
November 19 My friend Margret drops me off at Delgado promptly at
9:00 am. Because of the snow I was not sure of the conditions I would find
but did not doubt a second that I would put in my day. I find a stone warmed
by the morning sun which makes a perfect site for my beginning prayer.
Yes, I see what I am doing as a way of praying: Picking up a can/From the
river/And then another/on and on/Itís like a devotee/Doing countless rosaries.
Eventually, as the artistís connection with the river deepens into that
of friend and confidante, and even that of teacher, she reaches a point
where her relationship with the river becomes even more important than
her original ecological incentive to clean it. "For the first time last
month," she comments, my meditation directed me to go and be with the river
and not do anything. The instructions were clear: "Donít even take one
garbage bag." Her activity had subtly shifted, until it was no longer a
systematic retrieving of everything in sight, but has become her own personal
dialogue with the river. The river as a living being has something to say.
"I have landed in a new landscape," Mazeaud states, "where I discover the
river is as true an artist as I am."
December 2 Why in all religions is water such a sacred symbol? How
much longer is it going to take us to see the trouble of our waters? How
many more dead fish floating on the Rhine River? How many kinds of toxic
waste dumpings? When are we going to turn our malady of separateness around?
March 19 1 canít get away from you river/In the middle of the night/I
feel you on my back/In my throat, in my heart.
July 20 Two more huge bags I could hardly carry to the cans. I donít
count any more. I donít announce my "art for the earth" in the papers either.
All alone in the river, I pray and pick up, pick up and pray. Who can I
really talk to about what I see?... I have also noticed that I stopped
collecting the so-called treasures of the river. It was OK at the beginning,
but today I feel it was buying into the present system of art thatís so
much object-oriented. Is it because I am saying that what I am doing is
art that I need to produce something?
The hegemony of the eye is very strong in our culture, and to challenge
the commitment to its ocular-centric, or vision-centered aesthetic, replacing
it with a paradigm shift that displaces vision with the very different
influence of listening, is to open oneself up to the complaint that what
is being described here is not art at all, but environmental activism,
or social work. Many individuals who saw their own ideas reflected in my
bookís agenda were enthusiastic and friendly, whereas those who thought
that art should be unencumbered by any moral or social purpose were resistant
and unfriendly, because it seemed to undermine the way they see their task.
When I lectured together with the critic Hilton Kramer a few years ago
in Madison, Wisconsin, he proclaimed, with the force of a typhoon, on the
podium after my talk, that things with no relation to art were now being
legitimized and accepted as art, when, he claimed, art is incapable of
solving any problems except aesthetic ones. Kramer is in the forefront
of those who believe that when art is actively engaged with the world,
its aesthetic quality is necessarily compromised. I, on the other hand,
consider that such art is often intensely aesthetic, because in responding
compassionately to whatever it touches, it is helping to create a more
beautiful world. Artists whose work helps to heal our soulless attitudes
toward the physical world have my full respect and attention because, for
me, beauty is an activity rather than an entity, a consciousness of, and
reverence for, the beauty of the world.
Art and the Return of Soul
Iíd like to conclude with some pertinent comments between myself and Thomas
Moore taken from my new book Conversations Before the End of Time.
Suzi: As I understand your sense of the soulful life, it would
mean bringing art back into a more vernacular, everyday world, and taking
it out of the more rarefied sphere of professionalism. You mentioned in
the letter you wrote to me that you are very interested in the role of
the arts in the world today. Do you see art as being an important vehicle
for the return of soul?
Moore: Probably its most important vehicle.
Suzi: Do you want to elaborate on this?
Moore: Yes, thereís so much to say here. First, though, Iíd like
to pick up on this point of yours about everyday life. There are a number
of ways in which we could bring the artist back into everyday life, so
that we donít just have this fringe art world that doesnít really touch
on the values of the way we live, essentially. One way would be for the
artist truly to feel a sense of conviviality in the society, in being part
of that community, so that thereís a responsibility, and a pleasure, in
going into the world and being part of, say, actually designing the city...
We canít suddenly begin living a more artful life, which is the avenue
to soul, if in the public life around us, and in everything we see and
inhabit, art is invisible.
Suzi: And so, in your thinking, that could be a whole new paradigm
for a socially relevant kind of artónot precisely in the sense thatís being
talked about in the art world now of "political correctness" and social
critique, but rather a kind of art that celebrates and participates robustly
in the life-world.
Moore: Exactly. And hereís another point about soul.., soul enters
life through pleasure. Itís an erotic activity: psyche and eros going together,
rather than principle and responsibility. Responsibility suggests a kind
of outward superego coming in and saying, "You know, this is what you should
be doing." That is not a new paradigm; weíre not moving out of the
modernistic world then. Weíre just feeling we should do something different
and more responsible.
Suzi: "If we are going to care for the soul," you say in your
book, "and if we know that the soul is nurtured by beauty, then we will
have to understand beauty more deeply and give it a more relevant place
in life. Itís not only pleasure and conviviality, but also beauty that
is necessary for the return of soul..." Itís interesting, donít
you think, that archetypal psychologists are the ones who seem to be taking
the lead for a renaissance of beauty in our lives, even more than artists
Art in service of humanity
In my new book, Conversations Before the End of Time, James Hillman and
I discuss the river project of Dominique Mazeaud in a way that is relevant,
I think, to the issues being addressed in my paper.
Suzi: The point is, James, that within the traditionally accepted
model of the artist, based on isolated individualism, itís very difficult
to perceive any strong connection or direct influence that art could have
on the world. Thatís why in my writing I have been drawn to artists who
are using their creativity in ways that can have a more direct effect.
Hillman: Weíve talked about this before, and I think thereís
a problem, about, first of all, why thatís art, and second of all, whatís
the difference between that artist cleaning the river and líart pour líart?
Because in the end, her art has no worldly effect. You say yourself that
itís not really even meant to clean the river; it becomes a devotional
ritual. (But for me the real problem is) what gets metaphorized in her
work? Doesnít she remain in the literal world? And, as such, itís not art?
Sheís literally cleaning the river!
Suzi: But thatís a problem only if you want to define art as
a separate aesthetic realm, divorced from life and quarantined to the museum
or art gallery. And only if you want to insist on the Cartesian split between
art and life, self and world.
Hillman: I certainly donít define art that way, but I do believe
it transforms the literal to the metaphorical and mythical. Otherwise,
the social comment, politics, advocacy, protest exist on one level only...
For me, art is dedicated to beauty; itís a way to let beauty into our world
by means of the artistís gifts and sensibilities... I think beauty needs
to come into it somehow. Ideas of beauty and metaphor are necessary to
what I call art.
Suzi: In another of these conversations, Satish Kumar says that
in India, art was never meant to hang on wallsóitís part of life. He thinks
that the desert of ugliness all around us is connected with concentrating
our notion of beauty in a great body of works of art to be found only in
the oases of museums. In India, art is not separated from the normal flow
of life. A lot of discussion is being instigated by people now who feel
that untilóor unlessóart can reconnect with life, itís going to stay marginal,
without any part to play in the larger picture.
Hillman: Thatís a very good point, because it shows something
crucial to this civilization: that the work in the river can be put in
a different context altogether, which is art in the service of... life.
Like the way dance was originally in the service of the tribal community;
it wasnít dance for an audience on a stage. It was a dance that helped
the crops to grow.
Suzi: In our culture, the notion of art being in service to anything
is anathema. Aesthetics doesnít serve anything but itself and its own ends.
I would like that to change. When Hilton Kramer says that the minute you
try to make art serve anything, youíre in a fascistic modeówell, I donít
Hillman: Iíd like to defend the cleaning of the river, for a
moment. Iím going back to what you said a little earlier: itís the attempt
to put art in the service of something.
Suzi: Yes, thatís where the issue is.
Hillman: Art in the service of something. If we say that itís
life, and if we think, for instance, of the Balinese village where everything
is made to be functional and useful, for celebrations or ceremonies...
youíre still in service to the gods, somehow. Now we donít have thatóweíve
wiped the gods out... So the god that art now serves is the god that dominates
the culture, which is the god of commodity, of money. So it is in service,
itís in service to gods we donít approve of... Now suppose the question
doesnít become what art should do, but rather how do we find that which
art should serve? Art is already in service, so we could perhaps change
that to which it is in service?
Suzi: So the question is what could art better serve than the
things it has been serving, like bourgeois capitalism, throughout our lifetimes?
Hillman: Right! And I think the artist in the river is serving
a different god.
Suzi Gablik is an artist, writer and
teacher whose books include Has Modernism Failed?, The Re-enchantment
of Art and Conversations Before the End of Time. This article is from a
symposium on The Nature of Beauty in Contemporary Art sponsored by the
New York Open Center and the International Society for Consciousness in
the Arts in October 1995.
was published in New Renaissance magazine Vol. 8, No. 1
Copyright © 1998 by Renaissance Universal, all rights reserved.