Beauty it seems has taken a back seat in the last little while as a criterion in art criticism. It has been replaced by a plethora of other concerns most notably the navel gazing of Post Modernism. When I first started writing about art some thirty years ago, beauty, as far as I was concerned, placed a distant second to my more earthy Marxist concerns. Wasn’t everyone a Marxist thirty years ago? Art was a tool of social engineering. Move over Arnold Hauser, here I come. The passing of time, if anything, as taught me that art does not change society; report on it, perhaps, but change it, no. The visual arts have alway been, and remain, elitist. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Many good things are elitist. It all depends on how you define the word elitist. An elitist should not be confused with the Marxist stereotype of a Capitalist. You need not be an enemy of the ‘poor’ to be an elitist. You can be poor and be an elitist. Most intellectuals are not rich, yet remain staunch elitists. How else can you explain the narrow sales of good literature compared to the best seller status of pot boilers; the small sales of classical recordings compared to those of popular music ( something on the order of 3% to 97%) or the difficulty serious visual artists have making a living compared to the outrageous salaries of sport stars and rock ‘artists’? In truth, very few people read journals like this one and those that do could very easily be called elitists.

The tragedy of much contemporary visual art, and by necessity, art criticism, is the confusion arising out of the fact that there is always much more to a work of art than meets the eye. What meets the eye is what much of art is and nothing more. How one ‘sees’ what meets the eye is another matter. Many people have come not to trust their ‘vision’ and by vision I mean what is seen not the abstraction of an inner vision. Beauty can play an important role in the first flush of seeing, or vision, of a work of visual art. I would be the first to admit that much of what one calls beauty is by its very nature culture specific and, to use the very useful cliché, is in the eye of the beholder. These self-evident truths merely point out that each of us is the product of our experiences.

There is no guarantee that any two people see the same thing when they are viewing a work of art, in fact, we really don’t know, leaving colour blindness aside, that any two people even see colour the same. However, there is every reason to believe that many of us visually organize what we see in similar ways. Generally this agreement is between those who share a common cultural tradition (i.e. Judaeo-Christian Western culture), but certain geometric forms, such as meanders, are common to, and found attractive by, many cultures. Certain compositional devices, such as the placement of objects within a rectangle, seem to be cross cultural. Nevertheless, what one culture finds ‘beautiful’, foot binding, flat foreheads, big breasts, another culture might consider an abomination. A colour that equates with death in one culture is equated with purity in another. (White is the colour of mourning in Korea while it the colour of purity in Christian iconography. Yes, I know that white is not a colour, but bear with me.) The use of colour in an Indian miniature can still be found to be pleasing to the Western eye notwithstanding the fact that the viewers might be unaware of any symbolic meaning by the use of colour in the work such as the use of blue skin colour for Shiva.

I am not suggesting that ignorance is bliss in equating beauty as a criterion for art criticism. Obviously knowledge of the history of art and culture adds to the appreciation of a work of art. I am suggesting that bliss is an admirable quality not only to be looked for in a work of art, but in what is regarded as human feeling. Yes, I am mired in tired old ideas of Tolstoy, but it could be worse. I could have no ideas at all. Beauty is such a relative term. Indeed, there can certainly be beauty in the grotesque. Beauty can be simply the result of something being done well–all the pieces fit together. Hence a Goya ‘Black Painting’ is beautiful. Perhaps the best simile for beauty in the visual arts can be found in music. Rhythm, harmony, tone and, most of all, the chromatic scale are attributes of music that can be related to the visual arts. Music based on the chromatic, or tonal, scale sounds ‘right’ to the ear the Western listener. A non-musical layman would find it difficult to describe why a piece of music sounds ‘right’ yet he or she would know when it was right and when it was not. Most listeners know when something in a piece of music is even a little off-pitch. Atonal music, such as Schonbergian 12 tone music, however artful, does not sound pleasing. This is not to deny that such works are music, but only to state that they don’t sound pleasing to the ear. It is the interval, the ordering, in tonal music that makes it pleasing to our ear. Such things can be said about the visual arts. Order, interval, can make a painting, a sculpture, pleasing. Again, an intelligent lay viewer might have difficulty trying to describe why the order in a given work of art makes it pleasing, but he or she would know when it was right and when it was not. Of course, it is possible to have a pleasing, but utterly dismal work of art and conversely a non-pleasing, but fine work of art.

A work of art is a carrier of content. It is hard to imagine a work of art without content. Non-objective paintings, such as the work of most of the Abstract Expressionists, have content; it is more difficult for many people to access, but nonetheless it is there. Content is the most important single factor in a work of art. Content is the voice of the artist. However, without a method, or way, into a work of art, its content can be lost. If I limit the discussion here to painting, the first task for the artist is to arrest the viewers, to catch their attention. Let’s face it there are many paintings. Anyone in a gallery or museum is often faced with variety of choices. (Indeed, because works are in a gallery or museum some choices have already been made. Those left out are not a possibility of choice.) The most obvious choice is to look at the works that viewers are drawn to. I would suggest that, more often than not, viewers are first drawn to are those works which they find attractive-beautiful. Beauty is the combination of many separate factors. Chief among them is the relationship of shapes and the use of colour. Perhaps a better term for colour would be value, as in the quality of the range of tone from light to dark, for many pleasing works of arts, such as prints and drawings, are monochromatic and rely on the transition of light to dark to make a ‘pleasing’ image.

Within the confines of shape there are a variety of factors such as balance and scale. All paintings are in truth abstractions or to quote Maurice Denis; “ It is well to remember that a picture–before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote–is essentially a plane flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.” It is possible to look at the use of shape in an abstract way in a representational work and begin to understand why it ‘works’ or why it does not work. There are rules of composition that hold in all two dimensional art be it non-objective, abstract, or representational. These are rules that have held sway for a long time and have more to do with visual perception than anything else. Of course artists can, for effect, break such rules, but this generally calls more attention to the rule being broken than it would if the rule were being followed. The graphics of M.C .Escher are an example of this rule breaking for effect. Most well trained artists to not think a great deal about the rules of composition, but go about their work intuitively. The emphasis is on the ‘well trained’ because as an artist learns his or her craft well, technique can be placed on the backburner of the subconscious and imagination and ideas given precedence. However, what is right is always there tucked away in the subconscious ready to be used when needed. What is interesting is that the intuition of what is correct is not limited to the trained artist, for the so-called primitive artist seems to get it ‘right’ as well and certainly members of the viewing public often know when something is off in a painting. They may not be able to put their finger on it, but they know that something is wrong. This points directly to the idea that rightness in visual imagery has more to do with the human condition than any esoteric art theory. Simply put, humans see in a particular way and organize visual material in a similar way. Visual art does not always come to the same conclusions in all cultures. African tribal art, Australian bark painting, and Western realist paintings are not the same thing. Arguments can be made that African tribal art and Australian bark painting are not really art in the way that western painting is, but rather an integral part of a culture. Something that I don’t believe can be truthfully said about Western painting. However, we have for sometime looked at the products of other cultures as fine art disregarding their primary original uses. I don’t believe that this is necessarily a bad thing. The misreading of African art had a tremendous influence on early twenty century European art. Japanese prints influenced impressionism, although Japanese prints do fit the definition of fine art, but it was their esoteric qualities that appealed to the impressionists. I maintain that we are drawn to beauty despite ourselves. It is passion over reason.

The concerns of what is and what is not beauty go right back in antiquity to the very roots of art writing. To Plato beauty was an ethical and moral issue; to Marsilio Ficino, who uses Plato as a starting point, beauty is God’s gift; to William James it was transcendental, but each of them knew beauty when they saw it and they might find it in the same object. Mind you, Plato had little use for painting, it corrupted the good citizens away from the goals of the state (He would fit right into modern North America.), but perhaps all this time in Heaven might have mellowed the old Greek. If there were a Heavenly jury I would like to think that all three dead white guys might think that Rembrandt’s King Saul and David (Collection of the Mauritshuis, The Hague, The Netherlands) is a beautiful painting.

I am positive that my pleadings for a reexamination of the concept of beauty as a criterion in judging contemporary art give pause to the post-modernist who would label me an old fuddy-duddy at best and, at worse, a dangerous reactionary. Those that do, miss the point. I am not suggesting that the subject matter of art be limited to benign landscapes, still lifes, and, perish the thought, luscious female nudes. What I am asking is that works of art have pictorial value. I am tired of being preached to by the practitioners of Post-Modernism. Whose product, fellow curmudgeon Quentin Bell might call ‘Bad Art’. I really do care about the plight of the planet, women, gay, blacks, aboriginals and A-bomb testings–feel free to complete my list– and I am sure that many contemporary artists have valid points to make about such issues, but more good would be generally served if most of these artists got out of their studios and performed direct action–run for office; picket; give their, hard earned, money to favourite causes or join a Green Peace expedition to ram a whaling ship.

For reasons that are not really clear to me many artists seem to think that because they deem themselves to be sincere that their art is automatically good, beyond criticism. New Yorker dance critic, Arlene Croce, brought a storm down on her head when she explained in an article why she decided not to go and review, a dance performance by AIDS activitist Bill T. Jones. She could have saved herself a whole lot of trouble had she just reviewed some other event and ignored Jones. However, the issues she raised were more important than if Jones’ performance did or did not have value. What she questioned was whether the type of art, because of its subject, placed itself beyond criticism. It brought forward the whole issue of so-called victim art. What is there to say about a troupe of dancers some of whom are actually dying from AIDS, accompanied by the voices of persons dying of AIDS? Not much, if you are smart. It is possible to be dying from AIDS and still be a bad artist. It is just as possible to not be dying from AIDS and perhaps be a good artist with something to say in an artistic form on the subject.
Having something to say on a subject, while being removed from it, opens another whole can of worms. We have backed ourselves into a corner where only those who are part of an event or members of a particular group have the ‘right’ to address the issue through art–thus women’s art, gay art, native art and so on. What has ever happened to aesthetic distance? Surely one of the beauties of fiction is that it is fiction that, while sometimes resembling reality, it is made up. It is the product of the writer’s imagination. Visual art can be as much a fiction as that of the novel. An artist can paint places where he has never been and do so convincingly. Indeed, the best places an artist paints may not relate to real places in the actual world, but to places of the mind–the subconscious. Jackson Pollack’s non-objective paintings are landscapes of the mind and they transport the willing viewers to places they have never been before.

Beauty may merely be a window or a door into a picture. However, without such an entrance the content of a work of art is very likely to go unnoticed. The life of a painting is unlike most things. It sits, or rather hangs, mute and only becomes alive when the viewer is looking at it. You could say the same thing about a book. A book only becomes alive when the reader opens it and begins to read, but you see a picture all at once not seriatim as is the case with a book. How often I have gone into a gallery or museum and been drawn to a picture, or pictures, while ignoring others. What forces drew my attention? More often than not, it was beauty, and beauty alone, which made me want to take a closer look at a painting. Other paintings, some, no doubt, containing upstanding moral lessons, go unnoticed. At New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art I find myself drawn time and again to the portraits of Joshua Reynolds. Lord knows that most of this 18th century master’s sitters were quintessential British upper class twits, but Reynold sure knew how to handle a brush. There are few, if any, moral lessons to learn from Reynolds’ paintings. They are about as elitist as you can get, yet they are beautiful. It drives my socialist soul mad that I am attracted to them. Surely I should be looking for more from art than the seduction of a luscious surface. What Reynolds proves is that beauty is in itself valuable and possibly moral. The colour field painters of the 1960’s and 70’s, such as Morris Lewis, are contemporary Reynolds. Their works are beautiful in themselves. I am not trying to argue in favour Roger Fry’s, Clive Bell’s and Clement Greenberg’s ideas because great works of art must go beyond beauty or art for art’s sake and have something significant to say. I am also drawn at the Metropolitan to the works of Rembrandt. His paintings are beautiful, but, in addition, his content is often profound. I learn something from a good Rembrandt painting. I am a better person from my contact with a good Rembrandt. My love of Reynolds is an affectation. My love for Rembrandt is heartfelt.

Let me place my ideas of beauty in a more contemporary setting by comparing two works from DOCUMENTA IX (1992): Anish Kapoor’s Descent into Limbo and Joseph Kosuth’s Passagen-Werk. Neither work is a painting both are installations especially constructed for the exhibition. Kapoor’s work was a hole covered with blue pigment within a simple pavilion. Kosuth, for his work, covered a number , of less than memorable, 18th and 19th century art works hanging in two long corridors in Kassel’s Neue Galleria first with black drop sheets on which philosophic quotations were silkscreened in white and, then, the whole exercise repeated, in reverse, with white drop sheets with black lettering, down another corridor. The corridors were themselves painted one black and one white, respectively, and other quotations screened on the walls. I found Kapoor’s work to be beautiful and was drawn to it time and again during the three days I had in Kassel. On the other hand, I found the Kosuth work sophomoric. An apt description because the work reminded me of self- important, not very good, undergraduate art work. To be fair to undergraduates it is artists such as Kosyth that they are aping rather than the other way around. Kosuth, and his kin, are, in part, responsible for the near absence of craft in contemporary art education. It is has been replaced, I’ve been assured, by intellectual rigour. It is the rigour, in a work such as Passagen-Werk, that is the problem. I prefer to use the term rigor mortis rather than rigour as the installation totally lacks any visual value. Instead I was provided with a reading list, via pithy quotations, of the artist’s favourite thinkers. I would have been happier had he just provided me with a printed bibliography: the artistic canon as envisioned by Joseph Kosuth. I am totally convinced that he has read all the right books, or at least knows all the good quotations, but I fail to see what this has to do with visual art.

The Beauty ofKapoor’s Descent into Limbo is seared into my memory. I looked at the piece with a sense of wonder. I am sure that there were as many interpretations of the work as there were viewers. A floating blue disk in a void that is, at the same time, the entrance into the unknown. I was transformed by the work. The viewing was a transcendental experience. Kapoor’s Descent into Limbo is everything that Kosuth’s Passagen-Werk is not. In short, Descent into Limbo is a work of art, Passagen-Werk is a bad illustration of philosophy. Kapoor’s work is a work of art because it has the formal qualitities of an art work and certainly, front and centre in this piece, is the quality, the sense, of beauty.

What is this feeling of beauty? It is difficult to put feelings into words, but I’ll take a shot at it as beauty is the subject of this text and I feel that it is my responsibility to do so. I have told my students of having stood in front of the Ghent Altarpiece and having the hair on the back of my arms stand on end and of hearing the music of inner trumpets. This is a physical reaction to beauty. Granted it well may be a learned response. I expected Ghent Altarpiece to be a great masterpiece before I saw it and my expectations were fulfilled. The reason for my expectations was my university education in art history. I was told by my professor that this was a great, and key, work in the history of Western art. I respected my teacher; ergo, his ideas became mine. Of course I questioned all of all my professors’ ideas at the time; what student does not? However, in reality, we are all the products of our experiences. Ideas we reject at twenty-five have a way of finding their way back at fifty. That is why yesterday’s radicals become today’s conservatives.

Beauty in its purest form is a physical reaction. Beauty is what we see with our eyes, which our mind transforms and, which finally, we feel in our gut. I am not sure if we have any control over what we perceive as beauty once we have set our personal, and ever changing, perimeters. This is not a contradiction. Beauty can be personal–what I find beautiful, someone else might not–and what I regard as beautiful can change as, hopefully, I gain more knowledge. I do not want to confuse beauty with taste or fashion. Although both taste and fashion have a role in dictating a society’s contemporary concept of beauty. The tightly corseted women of the turn of the century were considered to be beautiful. Today we consider these women’s surrender to fashion, not to mention to men’s fantasy, as grotesque. What passed for good taste in most Victorian living room furnishings we now consider to be, at best, laughable. Of course there were beautiful Victorian furnishings and beautiful women’s fashion. There are always exceptions to any generality, but it does not alter the fact that taste and fashion change over time.

I would like to think that there is a type of beauty, or perhaps a mere definition, that can be timeless. Philosophers have written many tomes on the subject, each thinking they got it right. Thomas Aquinas names three formal criteria for beauty: proportion, integrity, and clarity. Santayana put it more simply, when he states: “ Beauty is pleasure regarded as the quality of a thing.” The parts that Aquinas identifies make up the pleasure of Santayana’s definition of beauty. However, only an ardent deconstructionist would be able to split an object of aesthetic desire neatly into three equal parts. In my experience those that take things apart, especially art theoreticians, have about as much luck putting them back together as did the soldiers with Humpty Dumpty. Pleasure must be somehow equated with beauty not simply the pleasure of well being, but something far more complex. A masochist receives pleasure from pain while a sadist from giving pain. Both receive pleasure. A corollary can be drawn from the appreciation of art. A piece of music or a painting can give me a feeling of sadness, pathos, and even pain, yet it is pleasurable because I am able to maintain aesthetic distance. Of course, the opposite is true. I can have feelings of pure joy from works of art while still maintaining distance. The concept of distance is important because without it there is confusion between ‘real’ life and art. It is the fiction in art that allows us to be voyeurs without guilt or crime. We can take part in the past, the present, and perhaps, in visions of the future.

Within the constructs of an art work moral issues, lessons, if you prefer, can be raised–the artist as moral teacher–Beethoven on freedom, Corbet and Daumier on the plight of the working class. However, without these artists’ excellence as individual artists, their use of beauty, if you will, their message would have been overlooked. Even so, I doubt that the huddled masses at a Metropolitan Opera performance of Fidelio give two hoots for anybody’s plight, but their own. I don’t believe that contemporary opera gets its message across any better. Philip Glass’ Nixon in China still falls on deaf ears at least as far as message is concerned. The medium, and its delivery, is the problem. Opera has become the exclusive property of the rich. The delivery of the visual art is not much better. ‘Good’ art tends to be in museums and museums are becoming too expensive for casual visits by the poor nor, even if they were free, they are not particularly inviting places for many to visit. I realize that this flies in the face of recent record attendance figures for museums, but I maintain that museums’ main audiences are the upper middle class and above. Art museums are not machines of social change. They are, instead, mausoleums of culture. The social content of art works are often lost in such an atmosphere. They become instead societal icons which, if anything, reenforce the status-quo. I am not suggesting that museums be closed or that van Goghs be hung on lamp posts, but that museums be recognized as the institutions they are rather than what we think they are. Again, let me repeat, there is nothing inherently wrong with elitist institutions like art museums and opera houses. We elitists need them. They keep us off the street and out of trouble. Escapism is an attractive alternate to grim reality.

If I follow my own logic, then art is on a slippery slope. When artists abandon beauty as a primary criterion in their work, as I believe that many contemporary artists have, all that is left is content which is often not enough to hold the interest of the public. What I want, indeed demand, from a work of art is that it be a transforming experience. Art without beauty becomes a house without a door. It is possible to gain enjoyment, pleasure, from a beautiful work of art with sparse content, as is the case with many colour field paintings done during the 1970’s, but the enjoyment is rather like a one night stand. Great while it lasted, but not much staying power. The reverse is more problematic. An encounter with an ugly, or a better description would be, a work without beauty, such as the before mentioned Joseph Kosuth work is about as pleasant as being made to stay after school because you failed a spelling test. Given the choice between a night of wild sex and school detention, I’ll take the sex every time.
Too much contemporary art, at least that of North America, suffers from a heavy dose of Protestant puritanism–much finger wagging and pointing–aesthetic cod liver oil. To dare to criticize any of a myriad of politically loaded works of art is to risk the wrath of the self-righteous. To suggest that some of this work is not only banal, but totality lacking in artistic interest will immediately result in being labelled a right-wing reactionary. In truth, some of these self-righteous artists are closet reactionaries who produce their work for very narrow corporate and state markets propped up by the real right-wing reactionaries. The market controls what is and is not art. It has done so for sometime–art as fashion and as meaningful as the length of hemlines and neck tie widths. This market recycles art trends to maximum profit with little regard to artistic merit. There are exceptions. In North America, more so in Canada than the United States, there are artists who expect to live indefinitely off the public purse. They expect continuing grants to support their ‘vision’. Their results are almost always shown in ‘alternate’ spaces. They are often galleries where nobody goes except the artists themselves and like-minded individuals. This group of artists is likely due for extinction as more and more government funding dries up leaving only market forces in place.

The government does have a place in the studios of a nation, particularly in encouraging younger artists, but the agenda in Canada, and elsewhere, has been hijacked by narrow politically motivated artists. However, unless there is a wide swing to the left in governments, which is doubtful, the point is moot. Art will be on its own. Art policies will be dictated by either the marketplace or individual artists choosing their own paths. There was a time in the past when hordes of barbarians swept down from the north and nearly destroyed all that was ‘civilized’. Not everything was destroyed, much was kept alive for centuries by a few monks who understood the power, and need, for beauty. When it was needed again, they were ready and released their treasure once again. Civilization bloomed. The barbarians are not only at the gates again, they are victorious, these barbarians are the market forces, the free traders, who have impoverished our lives and replaced beauty with greed and ignorance.

You may ask where does all of this leave art criticism? It appears that we may be left as latter day scholastics once again counting angels on pinheads. I realised sometime ago how powerless my craft was in this age of global cynicism. I am an observer of events that I cannot control hence my retreat to beauty which is least a quality that I can understand. I leave the last word on the role of the critic to Quentin Bell: “his main job, as I see it, is to write about works of art in a way that will enable others to share his affections. To this end, he has three main duties: to be sincere, to be readable, and to be intelligible.” I wish that I said that, but I would go happily to my grave if my readers thought that I fit his definition.

16 March 1996 ©Virgil Hammock, Sackville, N.B., Canada E0A 3C0


  1. I read it!


    First, thanks for sharing this very thoughtful and personal piece of writing!

    A few thoughts occured to me, and I will give voice to a them.

    I found myself applying the “beauty” ideas that you have suggested apply to good visual art, to “women”. I simply subtituted the word “women” or “a woman” for the word “art”, and what happened as a result I found interesting.

    A woman should be “pleasing” to the eye. The first “task” of a woman who wishes to have a relationship with someone,is to grab their eye. If she does not, she will probably not be noticed. A person will be drawn to the woman who, in a crowd, catches his/her eye because she is beautiful. This beauty provides an entrance in. Without beauty, a woman will likely go unnoticed.

    You get my drift.

    I think your piece is superb in the places where you describe in detail what attracts YOU to a piece of art, what continues to attract YOU about certain pieces such as the Ghent Alterpiece, and how these works of art make YOU feel. You write that certain works have been, and continue to be, life-altering and transformative for YOU. These words inspired me to remember about how specific experiences of listening to music both live and recorded, and certain experiences of playing music myself, have transformed ME, not only in the moment but throughout the rest of MY life.

    But the parts of your article where you extrapolate from your own personal experience and attempt to define for others (me, for example!) how and why we react to certain things (including so-called “works of art”) the way we do, saying, among other things, that we are attracted to works in which their beauty provides us with an entrance into them, I find unconvincing and actually quite wrong, from my point of view.

    To put it rather simplistically, I would have to BE YOU in order to react to the Ghent Alterpiece the way you do. I appreciate the Ghent Alterpiece very much, in large part because you shared with me your expertise about painting techniques, your insightful historical understanding of the work, and you revealed your personal emotional reaction to the piece, but the Ghent Alterpiece will never have the same impact on me as it does on you because I will never bring to it the unique combination of things that you do — your life — that allows a door to open wide for you when you stand before the painting and “receive” it. I am not you.

    Nor are you me. You will never know or experience what I do as I listen, to cite but one example, to Schoenberg’s Opus 11. I have been “receiving” this work, over and over again, since 1960. At first hearing I was utterly unable to receive anything that it had to offer, even though I analyzed the 3 pieces and learned to play them. My entire life experience, both musical and non-musical, now make it possible for me to be open to, and to receive, the Schoenberg. But believe me, it did not beckon me to walk through a “beauty entrance” when I first heard it 49 years ago!

    And who would think that the memory of Ed Nyland climbing a high ladder, dressed in a wet suit, orating some sort of words he had written, while cracking a whip, in an art gallery in the mid-60’s would have deeply influenced my relationship with music? But it did. At the time, I had no idea what to make of it. It certainly was not beautiful.

    And who would have thought that listening in the dark of a rotunda in the ROM to Pauline Oliveros and David Tudor, both bathed in brilliant red light, playing enormous bandoneons (David’s was shiny red) accompanied by electronic music so loud after, would stay with me, vividly, for 44 years as one of “the” most powerful life-altering experiences of “new music/new art” I have ever had? It was not beautiful either, although it certainly “grabbed” my attention.

    Or that the art gallery experience of some composer’s “cooking piece” complete with the sounds and odours that arose from about ten pans on hot plates of frying bacon and onions, would remain as important in my mind as the moment when I stood in the back of the Vancouver Playhouse at the age of 16 with my first love and listened in the dark to a rehearsal of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto? At the time I saw and heard the cooking piece, I sought to understand what it was all about. I guess you could say I was seaching for content and found it unsettling when none could be found. At that point in my life, I had not yet encountered John Cage…

    And how life-altering my experience of what we lovingly referred to as “The Balloon Piece” was! The task of finding in a catalogue, ordering, receiving in the mail, and simultaneously blowing up (with several vacuum cleaner hoses)several huge weather balloons in a large indoor art gallery was deeply and artistically satisfying! (In retrospect, it was a lot like learning and performing a Bagatelle of Beethoven, actually.)

    Each of these events spoke to me, but in very different ways. All of these pieces provided me with important “entrances” into different and interesting ways of relating to “art” (and life) than I had previously had. I am glad that I participated in librarian Ed Nyland “Happening” piece, and the other pieces such as those I described, that cannot be described as beautiful. They have all opened doors to me through which I have had glimpses of the enormity of art/music/life. Indeed, some of these “strange” and unbeautiful “pieces” that I have seen and heard have been life-altering experiences — experiences that transformed me.

    I can appreciate that you, too, have had experiences that have allowed you to glimpse something far more vast than you can ever imagine. I believe that each of us has had these moments — and I include here both rich and poor, priviledged and not priviledged. To be human is to have transformative experiences, and if you believe, as I do, that art is life, and life is art, then this will not seem surprising.

    Kouchibouguac National Park on a clear and moonless night in the autumn offers a glimpse. The greatest “gallery” of them all lies above in the great blackness, illuminated by dead stars! Just imagine!

    Thanks for writing this piece and sharing it, Virgil. How terrific that you care about such things! I look forward to reading what others have to say.

  2. Thanks Virgil and Janet,

    May I begin by saying, Virgil, I believe you fit Q. Bell’s definition squarely, but moreso, you are witty, and genuinely you, which I appreciate above all. I found your assertions – or perhaps more aptly named confessions – such as, “I prefer to use the term rigor mortis,” or “I’ll take the sex every time,” refreshing, endearing, and delightfully entertaining. I am grateful to you for initiating this conversion on “Beauty.” Although we have discussed these issues at length countless evenings over vino, somehow slowing the process to the written word adds a clarity our verbal debates frequently skid wildly around.

    For me, and in response to each of your definitions, I wonder if that illusive quality we name “Beauty” might more aptly be named “Truth.” When we recognize “Truth” in a work of art we are drawn to its light. When we identify in some way with some truth (that may not be on any conscious level of perception) we say it is “beautiful.” I do believe each experience is personal, as you mentioned Virgil “the eye of the beholder,”is a very useful cliché. However, in my opinion great art communicates on a level beyond form, and this is one point where we may disagree. The “Beauty” we see in various artforms, in fact, has little to do with formal attributes, such as balance, repetition, et cetera.

    Maude Lewis was, with all due respect, a terrible painter, yet, we recognize in her work something else, something “beautiful,” something we don’t find in copycats of her work. Why is this? It is because of authenticity. I spoke earlier of “Truth.” Truth is something we can all recognize because Truth has no cultural, temporal, or geographical barrier. We find “Truth” in her work, we see truth because we see “Love.” Her love for painting, we understand “Love”as part of The Human Condition, which you lit upon. I think it is this “Love” the love of painting that drew you to Renolds, Virgil; not his skill, but the “love” that went into each stroke of his brush – the love he had for his craft. Sometimes it is the love of the idea which shines through, which transends, I think this is the allure of Warhol and Duchamp.

    Pointing to the Sublime, we know “Beauty” need not be “pretty” or “picturesque” to reveal “Truth” or “Love.” I will refer to Kathe Kollwitz “Woman with Dead Child,” an horrific and essentially grotesque image, yet so very “beautiful.” One does not need to know its title, have lived in this century, this culture, continent, have lost a loved one, or be a woman, to see, to understand its truth, its beauty.

    Brooching briefly the subject of your mention of “victim” art, or postmodernist notions of speaking from the “I.” I would have to say that when we see “Beauty” “Truth” “Love” we recognize it, and therefore, when I, as a woman, make art from the “distant” vantage point of an “other” it is simply less likely to be “beautiful” than if I speak my own truth. Subsequently, if you, Virgil, “Love” women, and desire to paint their nude bodies, I would say that is your authentic self and therefore holds the full potential for “Truth” and “Beauty.”

    The contrast you drew between Kapoor’s and Kosuth’s works was quite revealing to me. One was truth; one spoke of truth. One had beauty; one spoke of beauty. One, love; the other a sign for love. “Truth” “Beauty” “Love” We rocognize these when we see them…our souls just know. imho

    • Jen, thanks for this. It makes my day. Yes I do like Quintin Bell, and his book Bad Art, but I am more attune to Clive Bell who wrote Art. You are right about beauty and truth as I read your comment I went back to John Keats and his line: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” —that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. (Ode on Grecian Urn). Love, yes love, is art and more important, life. Where are you Jen? Still in Sackville? I still have a cellar full of wine. I do need to talk about these things as I have an awful feeling of my own mortality. At my age my life is behind me and I feel that what I have looked for has alluded me. Mind you, I am not so sure I know what it is, or was, that I was looking for. I would like to think that it is beauty. I have had moments of real beauty and they have not all been related to art or at least what we think of as art. I am looking through the glass darkly and trying to see myself as others see me. It is not a pretty picture, but it is me. Do talk to me.

    • Jen, I replied to you on the blog. At least I think I did. God love you. I know I do. Virgil

      • Awww, Virgil, thank you, you know I love you right back! You are a very special person, please don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise. Look not into that dark glass, it is a feeble reflection – remember all that you seek is already within you. “Outwardly we are one among many apples; inwardly we are the tree” – Alan Watts.

        I’d love to visit you and have wine and chat as we used to, maybe over a cigar, sadly, I’m currently nursing a very sick baby boy. Our fragile existence becomes even more pronounced when we have children don’t you find? It’s like our fear literally multiplies with each new life; suddenly we have x number of times more to worry about.

        It was so kind of you to mention Keats, I was afraid I was coming across as a bit naive with all of my “Truth” “Love” “Beauty” mentions. Of course, there is also a case to be made for familiarity and repeated exposure, or “acquired taste” as it were. Even so, I rest upon my high ideals and the notion that truly great art has the potential to transcend our limited personal experiences.

        I had an interesting experience recently, I took my two monsters to The Beaverbrook, and my daughter (almost 4) could not stop talking for days afterwards about two Canadian artworks: one a “primitive” looking wooden mask “Edward (Ned) Bear” and the other a film called “Monkey & Deer,” meanwhile she didn’t seem to even notice the entire Impressionist exhibit. Each of these two works had an element of “Ugliness” while many other aesthetically “Beautiful” pieces didn’t even catch her attention. Perhaps these are genetically coded preferences, I’m not sure, but she hasn’t been exposed to so much art that we would consider her an informed connoisseur by any means; I found her raw choices interesting.

      • Well I hope that your little boy get well soon and we can have that bottle of wine. There is a book you, and others, should have a look, but I doubt that it is still in print by Henry Miller, yes the Henry Miller of Tropic of Cancer fame, titled “To Paint is to Love Again”. Written late in his life at Big Sur. Very nice book by a writer who took up paint late in his life. He was not a great painter, but he did know a lot about love. The great thing about young children looking at art is they know what they like without being told what is good, what is beautiful and what is ugly. They have a honesty that we often lack. That being said I share your high ideals.

  3. Thank you Virgil, I will try to catch up on some reading then, if possible, before we next endeavor to polish off a big red whilst hammering out a definition of beauty. Please stay healthy until we meet again. ❤

    • Jen, I look forward to this time. Virgil

  4. Hi, thank you putting this up – I have just read it.
    I am a student, and have just recently finished writing my extended essay on Plato’s philosophy of beauty. As such I very much sympathize with his view. This being said I would like to adress the role of attractiveness and beauty – I noticed that sometimes you (and many others) like to relate the two together. However I am curious, as my own opinion differs. Are attractiveness and beauty a set? I generally take attractiveness as something personal so obviously it changes from person to person. However beauty similarly to Plato’s view that it was a constant aspect, I think should similarly remain constant.

    If we are not ‘attracted’ to something; a painting, a person etc. does that deny the fact that it can be beautiful? I am not sure – perhaps it’s just that I would like to believe that something beautiful is always constant and that generally it is ‘attractiveness’ people are talking about when discussing how beauty appeals to them.

    • Kitty, Let’s talk about attractive. I find it a word akin to interesting. As an art critic I often use the word interesting when I really don’t want to say something negative about an art work. Usually I will be invited to see someone’s art collection which turns out to be awful. Not wanting to insult someone’s taste (another interesting word) especially if they have plied me with a glass of wine or two I will say that the works are interesting and try to find something nice to say. Something can be attractive and not beautiful. I can be drawn to something that is attractive–a person, a work of art–and like it. Yes, it is personal as is taste. Now I would like to think that beauty is something different and to use your word ‘constant’. Plato speaks of archetypes such as the idea of a chair which would be the perfect chair then an actual chair and, finally, a representation of a chair. Perhaps there is an idea of beauty which exist somewhere, but we as mortals are only faced with the representations of beauty. I do see beauty as a ‘thing’. Not a physical thing, but something in my mind which transforms me. Have you read William James? That what I am talking about. Let me think some more about this and get back to again. I am very interested in your thoughts as well. By the by, love your email address: kittycat from hell. Virgil

      • Haha, I made the e-mail when I was alot younger. Strange how I’m still using it. Thanks very much for your consideration of the question. I also very much agree with your point of how beauty may not coexist with attractiveness in the same object – perhaps there is a correlation but I feel that it is not a direct causation. Similarly, if something attractive may not be beautiful then would if follow to say that something beautiful might not be attractive? If so, as humans are generally drawn to things they find attractive, perhaps as a race we have neglected many ‘beauties’ which do not appeal to us.

        I think it is very important for a student of the arts to formulate an approach towards beauty and this helps with that part of my growth. So thanks again for the comments and consideration.

      • Kitty, Yes, something beautiful might not be attractive, but I think it’s less likely than the reverse. An example might be a spider–say a Black Widow spider. It may not be found attractive, indeed likely feared, but it does have a strange beauty. I did in my paper talk about Goya’s Black paintings which might be viewed the same way. So where are you in your art education? Are you a studio major or in art history? How important is beauty to you? I have been fighting with this question for over fifty years and no closer to an answer than when I started. Keep reading, keep being confused. I am at a period in my life where I need beauty. Death is closer than I would like. Who likes being dead? I can’t fall back of religion as I have a problem with the whole concept which leaves beauty. Mind you, I quite like religious art and music and the King James Bible is a beautiful book. Where does that leave me? Regards, Virgil

  5. Love your writing. Always have from your Arts Atlantic days to now.

    • Thank you, but that was some time ago. I think that many of the things I said years ago still hold. There is a need for the beautiful and we see far to little of it in present day art, pity.

  6. great site and I am so glad I have another chance to hear your thoughts on these topics.

    • And I am certainly glad to hear from you.

  7. I really enjoyed this, thank-you.

    Last year I submitted a series of work to a LinkedIn group to get some peer feedback, and was told (to paraphrase) that galleries wouldn’t take me seriously because my work was too ‘pretty’. Harsh.

    Lets ignore that the subject matter is the cosmic universe, something I’m personally fascinated with and passionate about… and lets ignore that it took me 1500 hours to paint them. Sigh. I showed them once. The harshest critique came from a gentleman who has spent the past 30 years painting stripes.

    I used the feedback to spark a group debate about beauty in art that went on for months. There seemed to be very few of us who actually enjoy a well-crafted beautiful painting, let alone any form of realism. My argument was, and still is, that the authenticity of the vision of the artist should be more important that whether something falls into a “beautiful” or “grotesque” category. The world is ugly enough, sometimes its important to focus on the beauty in it.


    • Not only did I get this twice. WordPress seems to want me reply twice. Did you get my first reply?

  8. I really enjoyed this, thank-you.

    Last year I submitted a series of work to a LinkedIn group to get some peer feedback, and was told (to paraphrase) that galleries wouldn’t take me seriously because my work was too ‘pretty’. Harsh.

    Lets ignore that the subject matter is the cosmic universe, something I’m personally fascinated with and passionate about… and lets ignore that it took me 1500 hours to paint them. Sigh. I showed them once. The harshest critique came from a gentleman who has spent the past 30 years painting stripes.

    I used the feedback to spark a group debate about beauty in art that went on for months. There seemed to be very few of us who actually enjoy a well-crafted beautiful painting, let alone any form of realism. My argument was, and still is, that the authenticity of the vision of the artist should be more important that whether something falls into a “beautiful” or “grotesque” category. The world is ugly enough, sometimes its important to focus on the beauty in it.


    • Dear Mila, I seemed to have got this twice, but no matter. I would be very interested in seeing your work. Beauty, in the long run, will out, and pretty is not a bad word or thing. I have been fighting this battle for over a half century. Yes, I am that old. Stick to what you are doing. My friend Stephen, the guy who is painting my portrait, in my posts, has been painting ‘beautiful’ pictures longer the guy has been painting strips and he is doing just fine.

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