"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Beauty is Not In The Eye Of The Beholder

There are some people who think Richard Serra is the finest artist of his generation, if not many generations.  He is the foremost interpreter of modern life depicting its harsh reality with a naked simplicity that speaks to the more noble aspects of the human condition. The installation below is perhaps the most poignant statement of Serra’s vision. The metal container is disturbing because of its incomplete closure.  Our eyes ‘fill in’ the separation, for it is human to want completeness and security. The installation unsettles us because it is reminiscent of society’s detritus, derelict homelessness, and callous indifference, but its starkness and rectangularity, although broken, suggest strength and individuality.

Many other observers think Serra is a pretentious ass, and anyone who pays to see his work are crazy. The metal container installation belongs in a scrap heap.

Rubens has been recognized as a master of substantiality.  His nudes celebrate the female form, not for classic beauty but for feminine fertile beauty, for the rounds and folds that make women sensuous and fulfilling.

Some observers, on the other hand, are disgusted by this display of exuberant and shameless lesbian sex.

Mark Rothko was considered a genius of the Modern Art movement.  His uncompromising presentation of color as substance forced us to reexamine our perceptions.  He demanded us to see red, not just to look at it. The elegant simplicity of his works transcend time and place.  They are universal representations.  The color is never luminescent but dark and solid.  It has mass and gravitas.

Most people, however, react very differently. One day I was viewing a Rothko retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and was standing in front of the above painting along with two young women.

“You know what that reminds me of?”, asked one. 

“No, what?”, replied the other. “To me it looks like that old-fashioned modeling clay we used to play with in second grade”.

“I can see that; but its more like the test paint section at Walmart – you know, so you can decide what color living room you really want.”

The point is, no two people will agree on what makes a great painting, sculpture, photograph, or drawing. 

Along comes Denis Dutton, an art philosopher/anthropologist who claims that beauty is by no means in the eye of the beholder, but hardwired in all of us.  Not only do we agree on beauty across cultures, but there is one particular artistic representation that touches us down deep in the amygdala – a painting of meadows, streams, flowers, and birds. While that proposition seems ridiculous since we can buy schlocky versions of this in any drug store, Dutton persists.

Consider landscape painting and calendar art. Studies of landscape preferences repeatedly show a human liking for alternating copses of trees and open spaces, often hilly land, with animals, water, and a path or river bank that winds into an inviting yet mysterious, bluish distance. This preference for the landscapes of the Pleistocene era, which has been experimentally verified as a cross-cultural constant today, shows up in the painting of early European artists, such as Albrecht Altdorfer and Salvador Rosa… It is very marked in 19th century Australian landscape painting, the result of European artists taming their new vistas.

This rather tired pastoral scene indirectly depicts our primitive instincts for survival. From early humans to the early 20th century, we have looked for a well-watered, fertile patch of land to raise our families; one with abundant game, insects to pollinate plants, herbs and plants to provide medicinal cures and essential nutrients.

Dutton provides no real proof of his theory other than the fact that all peoples in the world have preferred the same scene.  If everybody likes something, preference for it must be hardwired.

Of course this is nonsense. Cavemen painted pastoral scenes because there was nothing else to look at. Animals held particular interest for them because they were hard to catch and very tasty.

Painters paint what they know, and art is a reflection of culture and environment, so it is not surprising that landscape painting has been popular throughout most of history. 

The persistence of pastoral art into the late 20th century can be explained differently.  Most of us who reside in urban areas – 80 percent in fact – live a stressful life of crowds, noise, traffic, and pollution. We are bombarded by media, advertising, and endless viral and guerilla promotions. Smartphones, tablets, and computers rule our world.  It is no wonder that we want to get away for the weekend – a trip to the Chesapeake, the Shenandoahs, Southampton, or the Adirondacks. 

Most modern urbanites at one time or another have mused about a simpler, uncomplicated 19th century life.  Only cows, pigs, chickens, and corn to think about. There we would respond to the rhythms of nature, wake to the sound of songbirds and retire with the setting sun. It is no wonder then, that we linger in front of the English landscape paintings of the 18th century rather than the distorted, disturbing images of modernism and contemporary art.

Dutton thought that the works of Frederick Church best expressed this native, innate human sentiment for a benign, fertile, temperate, and well-watered landscape.

It is hard to say whether or not anyone in the Museum of American Art in Washington actually likes the Church paintings displayed there.  They really are corny and a bit lame for modern tastes; and it is more likely that the landscape calendar in the kitchen is enough to remind most people of their summer vacations.

I don’t buy the Dutton theory, and even he admits that “Darwinian aesthetics have hardly got off the ground, and much work remains to be done”, which means that deep down he must have sensed the New Age flakiness of his theories. 

I don’t doubt the appreciation of landscape art over the centuries and across cultures; but it seems rather fanciful – given the very reasonable cultural and social determinants of artistic creation and viewer preference – to assume that we are hardwired for it.

In fact, I wouldn’t call landscapes art at all.  Any genre which inserts people into the frame only to establish perspective and dimension is not worth much.  Personally, the greatest artists are the ones for whom people are the focus of their art – Sargent, Whistler, Leonardo, Velazquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and David; but that’s just me. I know many people who whiz by what they call the static, posed, and formulaic paintings at the National Portrait Gallery just as fast as others zip by Church’s.

A more interesting question is “What constitutes art?”.  Most academics dismiss the glass-blower Chihuly as a craftsman. How does his art address the human condition, they ask. Even a brief glance at his fanciful works seems to confirm this view, but thousands of tourists flock the Renwick Gallery in Washington just to ogle his sculptures.


In any case, I have filed the Dutton Darwinian Art Theory in with Gaya, crystals, channeling, fairies, and pyramid power.

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