1. The term art can be suitably applied to any deliberately created product of the human imagination. This definition makes room for children's art, folk art, and decorative crafts, but excludes dreams and the elegant trails left by sidewinders slithering across desert sands. It also excludes the nifty nests of bower birds, although if someone insists on making a case for them, I won't contest the point.
2. Aesthetic judgment - a claim that an object is beautiful or not - is a prerogative of rational beings.
3. We call a work of art beautiful when it occasions in us a high degree of pleasure.
4. One thing can be more beautiful than another.
5. The judgment of taste is about the beautiful object, not about the subject's state of mind. (#3, 4, and 5 are from R. Scruton, A Very Short Introduction to Beauty).
6. Shared agreement about what is beautiful and what is not is common both within and across different cultures, along with lots of disagreement.
Given these initial ideas, our task is to attempt to make a case, either for or against the proposition that art must be beautiful. Metallica and St. Anthony provide an easy first answer, but a more careful look reveals some interesting subtleties. James Joyce distinguished proper from improper art. The latter refers to works that tend to arouse some kind of desire in the experiencer. Examples include pornography, didactic and propagandistic art. Art is proper when it is experienced without any inclination to possess its subject or to perform some action. In that opinion, Joyce agrees with other thinkers, such as philosopher Roger Scruton and historian Umberto Eco. The idea is that the experience of beauty is disinterested appreciation - contemplation of a beautiful object solely for the delight, pleasure, joy, or spiritual feeling it evokes in us.
It is not clear from the above that Joyce would claim that only proper art is beautiful, but we can be pretty certain he would say that a lot of improper art is not beautiful. He would find lots of takers for that position. We can add a number of particulars to his broad category: boring art, poorly executed art, most children's art, raw sketches, doodles, and conceptual art (20th century) come to mind. There may be others, but I think the most fascinating opposite-to-beauty is ugliness. It may come as a surprise to many people to learn that alongside the history of beauty is a history of ugliness in art that is equally compelling, although in a different way.
Since earliest times, artists have not hesitated to portray ugliness in its many forms: the deformed, the chaotic, the disgusting, the monstrous, the diabolical, the terrifying, the gory, etc. Tender-minded philosophers like Plato and Marcus Aurelius have tried to avoid the reality of ugliness in various ways, but the persistent attention to ugliness by artists throughout the ages makes for a strong case that ugliness is not merely the absence of beauty but that, in art, it delivers powerful symbols of a dark component of reality itself.
In Part 2 of this essay, I will explore in greater detail the concept of ugliness in art.
- C. Marxer