Host 6: Beauty about | essay | credits | ©



Lesley Guy: The Problem of Beauty

This project constitutes a beginning for me. In previous work I examined the pose in photography, here I feel as though the exploration has gone wider and that later the different strands will be reconciled. My decision to focus on the problem of beauty was made when I received the following invitation from Host artists group [1]:

"HAG would like to receive pieces from invited artists that creatively respond to the idea of beauty. HAG feels that among the plethora of aesthetic strategies available to contemporary artists, the concept of beauty is often overlooked. While many artists see beauty as something antithetical to their practice, HAG would like to put forward the question: can it still be possible for beauty to be a viable force in contemporary art practice?"

This brief prompted further questioning:
What is meant by 'beauty'?
What other aesthetic strategies are available to artists?
Why is the concept of beauty overlooked?
What sorts of practice is beauty antithetical to?
What is meant by 'viable force'? [2]

This project, entitled Host 6: Beauty, is part of a larger project entitled the Sheffield Pavilion, a publication that will be launched at the Venice Biennale and alongside Documenta12 in June 2007. The curators of both events, Robert Storr and Roger Buergel are making important contributions to the debate around the role of beauty (or aesthetics) in contemporary art practice, and provide important insights into the issues raised by the brief within this context.

What is beauty? The common understanding of the word is 'the 'purely' aesthetic; the pleasurable; the pretty; the well designed; the elegant...that which causes sensate pleasure … moving or stirring to behold' [3]. Philosophers such as Hume have argued that beauty is subjective and related to the perception of the beholder, it is seen by Kant as being of a lesser order among perception to, say that of the sublime. Beauty is harmonious, gratifying and passive, a correspondence between experience and the intellect whereas the sublime is an experience of synthesis with the Other [4]. Even 'things which are ugly, dull, repulsive or indifferent are also candidates for aesthetic perception' [5] so why is beauty a problem? [6]

In his article 'Art and Beauty' JJ Charlesworth describes his experience of looking at an abstract painting during a break from a debate based upon Bourriaud's book, 'Relational Aesthetics'.

"An attempt to describe the perverse pleasure to be had from this interminable wild goose chase round the painting, an attempt that sooner or later founders in a word like 'beautiful'. Checking myself from such private, aesthetic reverie, I took myself back to the raucous, public space of critical debate" [7]

This may suggest the view of some of the role that beauty plays in critical debate. The aesthetic experience is clearly a separate entity and contemporary art seems uncertain about how it can contribute to the 'politics of responsibility'. His use of the term 'private, aesthetic reverie' makes me think of some kind of Stalinist vilification of art. It is private and therefore counter revolutionary. [8]

So what is art's social function? Marxists would say that art either sustains ideology or is critical of it. To Walter Benjamin, discussion of a work's beauty, if it excludes social context, contributes to a false 'aura'. He states, "outmoded concepts such as creativity, genius, eternal value and mystery are completely useless for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art." [9] I don't believe, however, that this means that aesthetic qualities of art can't contribute to its having a social message. [10] Surely for something to be art it requires a modicum of aesthetic struggle? Trotsky himself declared 'art can become a strong ally of revolution only in so far as it remains faithful to itself' [11]. Similarly Claire Bishop argues that 'It is fine for socially engaged and activist work to operate within the domain of art discourse, providing it also contributes to that discourse' otherwise it shouldn't be called art, it is social activism. In fact, there are those who claim that activist art hasn't even lived up to its political expectations, that it is impossible for art to be 'a repair business for removing misery and injustice from the world' [12]. There seems to be a difficulty in reconciling these problems.
'The emergence of criteria by which to judge social practices is not assisted by the present day standoff between the non-believers (aesthetes who reject this work as marginal, misguided and lacking artistic interest of any kind) and believers (activists who reject aesthetic questions as synonymous with cultural hierarchy and the market). Is there ground on which the two sides can meet?' [13]

Bishop finds this ground in the work of artists such as Artur Zmijewski, she uses the example of 'The singing lesson 1 and 2', ' a perverse assemblage of conductor, musicians and deaf choir that produces something more complex troubling and multilayered than the release of individual creativity'. Indeed, the artist Francis Alÿs offers this hopeful statement in a recent work, 'Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can be poetic'; the image shows him walking through an Israeli checkpoint trailing yellow paint from a punctured can: a beautiful act of transgression.

There are some who believe that a 'shift in emphasis from inherent uniqueness of the individual artwork to the spectators experience has important political connotations.' [14] Gregory Williams describes the priorities of Roger Buergel for the organisation of Documenta12, "The realm of aesthetics operates at a productive remove from the everyday world of social crises and political machinations and thus has the capacity to offer alternatives to the 'dominant fiction'" [15] Perhaps there is something to be gained from 'reverie'? Buergel is influenced by Leo Bersani, who describes the aesthetic experience as, 'one involved in the creation of subjectivity that extends beyond ourselves, because we see shadows of ourselves in other people and things (forms) and this in turn gives us…critical distance' [16]. Charlesworth interprets Buergel's stance in the wider context of 'the political status of pleasure in contemporary culture' [17].

I wondered if pleasure could be subversive. I used the work of Giorgio Morandi as an example. The still life paintings he made during the Second World War, in politically troubled Italy, are the epitome of harmony, balance and a source for aesthetic contemplation. Yet they could not be described as frivolous, meaningless or shallow.[18] The philosopher Theodor Adorno said 'there can be no art after Auschwitz' [19], yet why deny pleasure when there is so much suffering? Morandi's paintings are a metaphor for suffering, loneliness and the human condition and they use beauty to communicate these notions. There may also be a 'perverse pleasure' to be had from looking at images by Bosch, Goya or the Chapman brothers, where there are elements within the visual language these artists use that would conform to our definition of beauty, although the effect may be more inclined toward the sublime. Is this what Ranciere meant when he said that 'aesthetic is the ability to think contradiction' [20]? It is interesting that one of the leitmotifs of Documenta12 is the question 'What is bare life?', continuing: 'bare life deals with that part of our existence from which no measure of security will ever protect us. But as in sexuality, absolute exposure is intricately connected with infinite pleasure.' [21]

Robert Storr discusses the conflict between activism and the aesthetic in his 'Thoughts for the 52nd. International art exhibition'. He states that the poetic is dismissed as a diversion from the political, which is an irony, so he refers us back to Duchamp, advocating 'fresh ways of seeing as well as thinking' [22]. Storr's aim for the upcoming Venice Biennale is to avoid the restrictions of taste or dogma, 'art in its very essence is plural' he reminds us. It will be interesting to see how Storr and Buergel will manage to reconcile the aesthetic with the critical and hopefully answer the question of beauty's viability in contemporary art. Buergel has ventured to push the idea a little further and asked, 'Can we use an aesthetic experience to get out from under the capitalist imperative?' [23] He makes the comparison of capitalist relationality, where you appropriate objects for a certain price, and aesthetic relationality, where you don't get the object but have a chance to transform yourself. [24]

This brings us back to the question of art's social function. The answer for Buergel is education: 'Artists educate themselves by working through form and subject matter. Audiences educate themselves by experiencing things aesthetically' [25]. I find this idea similar to Ranciere's notion of 'Emancipation' where the teacher 'does not teach his knowledge to the students. He commands them to venture forth in the forest, to report what they see, what they think of what they have seen, to verify it, and so on.' [26] Likewise, artists, through 'the distribution of the sensible' use 'Artistic practices … ways of doing and making' that intervene in the general distribution of ways of doing and making as well as in the relationships they maintain to modes of being and forms of visibility'. [27] It is interesting that when asked the question 'Do you believe that an aesthetic practice that critiques and subverts the becoming- merchandise of art is still possible?' he replied,

'Money is necessary to make art; to make a living you have to sell the fruits of your labor. For me the fundamental question is to explore the possibility of maintaining spaces of play. To discover how to produce forms for the presentation of objects, forms for the organization of spaces, that thwart expectations. The main enemy of artistic creativity as well as political creativity is consensus.' [28]

Is beauty antithetical to this type of practice? Only if it becomes a part of the 'consensus'. It is possible for beauty to be transgressive in the right context. The problem with HAG's question about beauty is that it is so subjective: 'all images can be beautiful depending where you stand.' [29] And what was once deemed ugly, shocking or transgressive can soon be regarded as acceptable, safe and even beautiful, which has an ef fect on the marketability of such work. JJ Charlesworth recently outlined the state of affairs regarding the contemporary art market,

'It took 100 years for the bourgeoisie to realign their aesthetics with the contemporary artists … they're all smart, and they make the perfect objects for bourgeois environments. Artists today don't have any intention of reforming the bourgeoisie. They're actually happy with it.' [30]

I don't agree that all artists operate on this level, but as Ranciere says, we can't escape the market, and when the market booms regardless of whether the work is critical of it or not it really is difficult to fully escape consensus and commodification. I guess this was the reason why artists like the Dadaists rejected forms of beauty: it was what the establishment wanted and supported systems of ideology and control. I don't think that rejection is still valid partially because what we regard as beautiful has changed so much, but also because the way art is made is so different. I agree with Ranciere's notion of play and believe that beauty can be a valuable tool for the distribution of the sensible. Many art works would not be able to deliver their message without it. The problem is not with beauty itself, it is about how it is used. I think that Freud was mistaken when he said that 'Beauty has no use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it' [31]; it helps us to communicate pleasure, and invokes emotions. It embodies a variety of complex ideas which are difficult to explain because an encounter with beauty is different for each of us. Perhaps this is why Freud went on to say that 'civilization could not do without it.' [32]

Lesley Guy is an artist and researcher based in Sheffield, UK.




[1] HAG is an artists group based in Sheffield. <>. [return]
[2] A set of questions similar to this was sent to all Host 6 participants as part of my research. [return]
[3] Morgan, M. ‘Regarding beauty’ in Jones, A. (ed) ‘A companion to contemporary art since 1945’ 2006 (Blackwell) [return]
[4] A feeling of numinous or Jouissance. Fear and excitement you could say. [return]
[5] Collinson. ‘Aesthetic experience’ in Hanfling, O (ed) ‘Philosophical Aesthetics: an introduction’ 1992 (Blackwell). My own response to the Host 6 brief was chosen on the basis that it had been called ‘ugly’ during a tutorial. [return]
[6] It is probably worth rewording this question to ‘Why is aesthetic experience a problem?’ For some groups such as Oda Projessi, any aesthetic representation beautiful or not is discarded as a distraction from their real business of social engagement. [return]
[7] Charlesworth, J. ‘Art and beauty’, Art Monthly, September 2004. [return]
[8] Socialist Realism would be a case in point here. Ideology dictated the aesthetic of art and stunted its growth. Malevich became a painter of peasants. [return]
[9] Benjamin. W ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’ “Illuminations” (Fontana) 1973 [return]
[10] How else would Malevich’s ‘Black square’ function? [return]
[11] Trotsky, Leon, ‘Art and politics’, Parisian review, vol. 5. no.. 3, (aug-sept) quoted by Margaret Morgan, ‘Regarding beauty’. [return]
[12] Roger Buergel quoted in Williams, G. ‘Heir unapparent’, Artforum, Feb 2004. [return]
[13] Bishop, C ‘The social turn: collaboration and its discontents’, Artforum, Feb 2006. [return]
[14] Williams, G. ‘Heir unapparent’ Artforum, Feb 2004. [return]
[15] Williams quotes Buergel from ‘Die regierung’ [return]
[16] Connor, Valerie. Paraphrasing Bersani. [return]
[17] Charlesworth, ‘Art and Beauty’. I would like to continue with this line of enquiry in later work. Jan Verwoert touches upon this notion of pleasure and rebellion in his essay ‘I can, I cant, who cares.’ [return]
[18] A major concern of one of the Host6 organisers when deciding on a theme was that the work submitted would be ‘shallow’. [return]
[19] Kul-Want, C. and Piero ‘Introducing aesthetics.’ 2007 (Icon books) [return]
[20] Ranciere, J. ‘The politics of aesthetics’. 2005 (Continuum) [return]
[21] Documenta 12 website, leitmotivs.<> [return]
[22] Storr, R. ‘Thoughts for the 52. International Exhibition.’ He describes Duchamp’s ‘radical tendencies’ as ‘distinct from anti-aesthetic’. [return]
[23] Connor, V, ‘Roger Buergel: Correspondences’ Circa Autumn 2005 [return]
[24] This is another line of enquiry that warrants deeper analysis. It could be taken up in my future research. [return]
[25] Documenta 12 website, leitmotifs. ‘What is to be done?’ <> [return]
[26] Ranciere, J. ‘The emancipated spectator’, Artforum. March 2007. [return]
[27] Ranciere, J. ‘The politics of aesthetics’, 2005 (Continuum). [return]
[28] ‘Art of the possible’ Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey in conversation with Jacques Ranciere. Artforum, March 2007. [return]
[29] Fraga, Hondartza, in a discussion about this project. [return]
[30] Charlesworth, JJ, ‘’Bonfire of the vanities’ Art Monthly, April 2007. [return]
[31] Freud. ‘Civilization and its discontents’, Gay, P (ed)‘The Freud reader’ 1995 (Vintage) [return]
[32] Ibid. Freud gets the last word! [return]



Benjamin. W 'The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction' "Illuminations" (Fontana) 1973
Bishop, C 'The social turn: collaboration and its discontents', Artforum, Feb 2006.
Collinson. 'Aesthetic experience' in Hanfling, O (ed) 'Philosophical Aesthetics: an introduction' 1992
Connor, V, 'Roger Buergel: Correspondences' Circa Autumn 2005
Charlesworth, JJ. 'Art and beauty' Art Monthly, September 2004.
Charlesworth, JJ, ''Bonfire of the vanities' Art Monthly, April 2007
Documenta 12 website, leitmotifs
Freud, S 'Civilization and its discontents', Gay, P (ed)'The Freud reader' 1995 (Vintage)
Kul-Want, C. and Piero 'Introducing aesthetics.' 2007 (Icon books)
Morgan, M. 'Regarding beauty' in Jones, A. (ed) 'A companion to contemporary art since 1945' 2006
Ranciere, J 'Art of the possible' (in conversation with Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey). Artforum,
March 2007
Ranciere, J. 'The emancipated spectator' Artforum. March 2007.
Ranciere, J. 'The politics of aesthetics' 2005 (Continuum).
Storr, R, 'Thoughts for the 52. International Exhibition.'
Trotsky, Leon, 'Art and politics', Parisian review, vol. 5. no. 3, (aug-sept)
Williams, G. 'Heir unapparent' Artforum, Feb 2004.

© Lesley Guy 2007.