3. Project 3: The Beautiful and the Sublime

“Beauty and art were once thought of as belonging together, with beauty as among art’s principal aims and art as beauty’s highest calling.”

Beech, D., (ed) (2009) Beauty (Documents of Contemporary Art) London: Whitechapel; Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. p.12.

In his introduction to Beauty, an anthology of essays on the subject, Dave Beech asserts that art and beauty have a special relationship. This is perhaps most acutely felt within the genre of landscape, and the representation of nature more broadly. Think back to the beginning of Part One, when you were asked to consider why you elected to study this particular course. Surely we all share a desire to capture, or render photographically, a sense of what impresses upon our senses most strongly and most positively?

Beauty is very much an aspect of aesthetics or, more simply, our ‘senses’. Sensuous music and sounds, luxurious textiles and textures, pleasant flavours and smells are all things of beauty. There are essentially two perspectives on beauty. The first sees beauty as something universal within human nature. Mathematical and geometric evaluations of pieces of music, human features and pictorial composition have been used to support this point of view. The other perspective argues that a sense of beauty is in fact subjective and unique, as summarised by the cliché that ‘beauty lies in the eye of the beholder’. Beauty is almost always a matter of cultural identity as well; what is considered to be beautiful to one group of people might be vulgar and repulsive to another.

Beauty is often confused or conflated with the notion of taste. We think of taste as something that is culturally specific; for instance, a certain action within one group of people might be seen as inappropriate within another. As Peter Corrigan puts it;

far from taste being something bizarrely individual, ineffable and innocent, it seems to lie at the very basis of social life, orchestrating it in a way that should ensure harmony and social order, while at the same time reflecting social struggles.”

Corrigan (1997) Pg 32.

Interestingly however, in A Philosophical Enquiry (1990), Edmund Burke (1729-97) describes taste as something that is in fact universal, “...the same in all human creatures” relating this specifically to flavours. He describes how we use these descriptions to apply to other, unrelated things, for example, “...sour temper, bitter expressions...a bitter fate...” in contrast to “a sweet disposition, a sweet person, a sweet condition”.

The relevance of beauty as something that relates to aesthetic harmony within the arts has been hotly contested throughout the twentieth century and continues to be a topic of discourse today. Modernist debates and Marxist critiques of beauty have made it a political matter – a bourgeois preoccupation and even a tool of repression. Dadaists like Otto Dix (1891–1969) satirised images of conventional, romantic notions of beauty and fascist ideals of perfection in his politically challenging paintings made around the dawn of the Second World War. The conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) confronted the relevance of the relationship between beauty and art by controversially placing a signed (with a pseudonym) porcelain urinal within a gallery context (Fountain, 1917). Duchamp intended viewers to consider the ideas behind the art, rather than just the object itself or the formal qualities of its representation. By appropriating an object completely and holding up an object of pure function, he divorced it from the troubling matter of aesthetics.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (1917) Image via creative commons.