Beauty and banality in the fine arts

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What is the nature of beauty? How do we recognize it in the fine arts? Although 20th century artistic trends shunned depictions of beauty that had endured for millennia, most people still recognize it when they see it or hear it.

The word aesthetic comes from the Greek word aisthesis, meaning perception and discernment through the senses and intellect. So, the senses and intellect simultaneously intuit and discern the attributes of an object. There is an immediacy to beauty: anything that requires detailed explanations from experts to prove its artistic merit probably has very little of it. Aristotle said, “The beautiful is that which is desirable in itself.” Aquinas added, “The beautiful is that which when seen pleases.”

The question of aesthetic value is nevertheless deeper than form alone. At its core, a work of art represents the vision of the artist. It is usually an exterior manifestation of his or her interior values. The artist or poet, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, “brings the whole soul of man into activity.”

‘complex pile’ (2013) by Paul McCarthy (Nicholas Tse; courtesy of M+Museum)

‘complex pile’ (2013) by Paul McCarthy (Nicholas Tse; courtesy of M+Museum)

For centuries, the characteristics of beauty included integrity of form, proportion, symmetry, harmony, and splendor, or luminosity, which enlighten our mind and our senses. Producing quality work meant mastering basic techniques and adhering to rigorous standards. In recent years, however, many artists eschewed these aims, viewing structure as stricture rather than a liberating impetus for creative exploration. But their subjective criteria often result in works that many people find ugly and meaningless.

Most contemporary “classical” music, often called experimental, reflects the new priorities.  It primarily consists of dissonance and formlessness. The music usually sounds like a chainsaw massacre scene in a horror movie or a cat running down a piano. A tiny elite hail it as avant-garde genius. But for many people, experimental compositions transform the universal language of music into a cacophonous Tower of Babel.

But for many people, experimental compositions transform the universal language of music into a cacophonous Tower of Babel.

John Cage’s 4’33” is an example of 20th century postmodernist music. The three-movement piece consists of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of complete silence. He called it his most important composition.

Can an abstract or minimalist work of art be beautiful? Many viewers and listeners would say yes. A sculpted apple, a single line of poetry, or a solo voice can all have exquisite attributes. But what makes a masterpiece?

Among other things, a masterpiece displays the artist’s superior skill and technique, inspires the viewer/listener on the profoundest level, and demonstrates exceptional creative virtuosity. While a few blocks of color on a canvas may be aesthetically pleasing, common sense recognizes that it cannot be called a masterpiece.

Shakespeare, on the other hand, is a genuine master because of his ability to portray the human condition in a way that is clearly understood across national and generational boundaries.  His themes and characters resonate throughout the centuries, and the artistry of his language is unparalleled.  The beauty of his text is characterized by elegant syntax, diction, and rhyme; nuanced metaphor and imagery; and of course, wit!

Rembrandt, Portrait of Nicolaes Ruts (1631) (Wikimedia)

Rembrandt, Portrait of Nicolaes Ruts (1631) (Wikimedia)

One of the easiest mediums in which to observe an artist’s vision and technical mastery is portraiture. The subject does not need to be attractive for the painting to be beautiful, since the artist’s work can radiate an inner luminosity and brilliance. Rembrandt’s portraits are some of the finest examples.

By contrast, this portrait from 20th century sculptor Jean Dubuffet conveys an entirely different vision of its subject and art form.

Jean Dubuffet Portrait of a Man with a Bowtie (1946) (Flickr)

Jean Dubuffet Portrait of a Man with a Bowtie (1946) (Flickr)

Some recent artists have departed from the 20th century trends, and are producing innovations of their own. One example is New Hampshire sculptor Amanda Sisk, who has been the Sculptor-in-Residence at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site. Compare McCarthy’s “Complex Pile” sculpture at the top of the page to Sisk’s “Zuleica” below, which is a rendition of a local park ranger.

Amanda Sisk, "Zuleica" (

Amanda Sisk, “Zuleica” (

Sisk’s atelier is like water in the desert for devotees of classic aesthetics. For them, the cognoscenti who dominate the fine arts scene are narcissistic and banal. If most people do not like a work, they reason, it’s probably not because they are unsophisticated, but because it’s genuinely not pleasing to the eye or ear. They yearn for a 21st century renaissance of beauty in new and unexpected ways; one that builds and improves on thousands of years of artistic tradition. To the arrogant “experts” they side with Shakespeare: “The fool doth think he is wise …”

Contact Mary McCleary at [email protected]