‘I want to persuade you that beauty matters; that it is not just a subjective thing, but a universal need of human beings. If we ignore this need we find ourselves in a spiritual desert.’ The aforementioned quote comes from Sir Roger Scruton in his documentary ‘Why Beauty Matters’. This question comes to my mind when I step into a cathedral, see a child laughing whilst interacting with its parents, encounter an artwork such as John Martin’s Pandemonium, and when I encounter a beautiful surrounding such a river flowing through a countryside.
This question as to why beauty matters does not arise when I step into most art galleries. That is because I am inundated with art that unfortunately can’t be described in any other words than shit. And no I don’t mean Piero Manzoni’s “Artist’s shit” that actually made it into art galleries. The art that litters most modern art galleries is fakery writ large. It is this fakery which leads to attacks against beautiful art, such as the recent removal of Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs to ‘prompt conversation’.
So how did fakery become the standard of art? For the answer, one turns to Scruton again. Great, and beautiful works of art are original: Mona Lisa, Pietà, Le Penseur, The Starry Night. To gain this level of artistic excellence is not easy. This is because:
Originality requires learning, hard work, the mastery of a medium and – most of all – the refined sensibility and openness to experience that have suffering and solitude as their normal cost.
Thus, naturally the rewards for originality are enormous. Hence there is a motive to fake it, and the consequence has been that:
Artists and critics get together in order to take themselves in, the artists posing as the originators of astonishing breakthroughs, the critics posing as the penetrating judges of the true avant-garde.
Marcel Duchamp set the standard with his urinal. An interview with Duchamp illuminates the logic that has led to where we sadly are today:
Interviewer: “What you were also attempting to do, as I understand it was to devalue the art as an object simply by saying if I say it’s a work of art that makes it a work of art”
Duchamp: “Yeah but the word “a work of art” is not so important to me, it’s been so discredited as it were”
Interviewer: “But you in fact contributed to the discrediting, didn’t you? Quite deliberately”
Duchamp: “Yes deliberately. So I want to get rid of it.”
Unfortunately, any attempts to rescue tradition fell foul to the easy reality of simply continuing the fakery: Duchamp’s moustache on Mona Lisa, Oak Tree by Michael Craig – Martin, and Equivalent VIII by Carl Andre. However, an interesting reality arises emerges from this ‘progression’:
‘The interesting fact, however, is that the habit of faking it has arisen from the fear of fakes. Modernist art was a reaction against fake emotion, and the comforting clichés of popular culture. The intention was to sweep away the pseudo-art that cushions us with sentimental lies and to put reality, the reality of modern life, with which real art alone can come to terms, in the place of it. Hence for a long time now it has been assumed that there can be no authentic creation in the sphere of high art which is not in some way a ‘challenge’ to the complacencies of our public culture. Art must give offence, stepping out of the future fully armed against the bourgeois taste for the conforming and the comfortable, which are simply other names for kitsch and cliché. But the result of this is that offence becomes a cliché. If the public has become so immune to shock that only a dead shark in formaldehyde will awaken a brief spasm of outrage, then the artist must produce a dead shark in formaldehyde – this, at least, is an authentic gesture.’
Most can deal with these shock factors by avoiding art centres. It is when this attempt at shocking goes after beautiful art that one must take a stand. In relation to the Waterhouse paintings being removed Clare Gannaway the gallery’s curator of contemporary art, said the aim of the removal was to provoke debate, not to censor.
“It wasn’t about denying the existence of particular artworks.” The work usually hangs in a room titled In Pursuit of Beauty, which contains late 19th century paintings showing lots of female flesh. Gannaway said the title was a bad one, as it was male artists pursuing women’s bodies, and paintings that presented the female body as a passive decorative art form or a femme fatale. Gannaway said the debates around Time’s Up and #MeToo had fed into the decision.
Disregarding the obvious ugliness of Piss Christ, Yoko Ono screaming, artists using their menstrual blood, it is the supposed offensive soft porn of Waterhouse’s nymphs which merits removal. However, maybe it’s because it’s a male depiction of beauty that it should be removed. But it won’t end there will it? The aim is to shock so the brutality will continue. Maybe defacing a Picasso, Gogh, Da Vinci, or a Rembrandt would be shocking. It now seems irrefutable that in terms of art ‘we have a cult of ugliness. This has made art into an elaborate joke, one which by now has now ceased to be funny.’