The Importance of Beauty

An Essay by Jesse Waugh

hat category of art produced from the Renaissance until the Romantic era is now perceived as being traditional; whereas Impressionism and most popular art thereafter is grouped into Modernism. The “Stuckists” reject the validity of conceptual art, while also denying the importance of trained figurative art. This precarious stance has earned them the wrath of the conceptual art industry [1], and the disdain of representatives of the Traditionalist movement.[2]

It is my contention that all three parties are neglecting beauty. 

Stuckism and Its Enemies versus Beauty

‘Stuckism’ is a term derived from the reaction of Tracey Emin to the art of Billy Childish.

The name "Stuckism" was coined in January 1999 by Charles Thomson in response to a poem read to him several times by Billy Childish. In it, Childish recites that his former girlfriend, Tracey Emin had said he was "stuck! stuck! stuck!" with his art, poetry and music.[3]

The proponents and organizers of Stuckism operate under the following maxim: 

[We are an] International art movement for contemporary figurative painting with ideas. Anti the pretensions of conceptual art. Anti-anti-art. The first Remodernist art group.[4]

In the manifestos, descriptions, or arguments of the Stuckist movement beauty is seldom given a primary importance. Only painter Paul Harvey, with his Mucha-style paintings of celebrities such as Nigella Lawson and Madonna, communicates any interest in the necessity of beauty in art: When asked by the Newcastle Stuckists “What would you say if you were accused of just painting something beautiful but superficial?” his response is 

It's incredibly hard to produce something of beauty - if I have ever managed that, wouldn't it be enough?[5]

His seeming obsession with the style of the commercial prints of Alphonse Mucha reveals a very interesting potential meaning underscoring the frustration from which was born Stuckism: namely disillusion with the stranglehold that the art industry has on what gets shown in museums, and consequently in galleries which are dependent on sales and therefore must conform to the demand of customers indoctrinated by institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art and Tate Modern into believing they desire conceptual art.

The Stuckists seem to be stuck in a realm of not knowing the true socio-politico-economic forces behind the art establishment’s promotion of relativist art. They react by taking what they consider to be the middle ground of figurative modern art. Charles Thomson states:

It is essential for the future of art that the values that do emerge are not 'conceptual' or 'traditional' but 'Stuckist', namely the primacy of truth, both through content which has experiential, emotional, and philosophical veracity and also through expression which has fidelity to that content by making, in the artist's own fashion, symbolic visual creations, which allow the 'transference' of consciousness from creator to viewer. To put it more simply, it is about making a picture that means something real. It is not about ephemeral fashionable art games; it is not about adhering to rigid out of fashion technical standards.[6]

Nowhere in his explanation does Charles Thomson even mention beauty. His only concern is subject.

On one end of the schism - into the middle of which Stuckism has stuck itself - is traditionalism. The self-styled champion of traditional representative art - David Lee of The Jackdaw Magazine - makes virulent and vitriolic near slanders against the hegemony of the conceptual art industry, but like the Stuckists, refuses to ponder the possibility that the true problem with the cultural establishments of the globalist nations today is a lack of emphasis on beauty in art. A quick search through most of the pages on The Jackdaw Magazine’s website turned up not a single reference to the word ‘beauty.’ [7]

On the other end of the schism - the realm of Saatchi and Gagosian and MOMA and Tate - the concept of beauty is paraded around by “avant-garde” sardonicists as just another feather in the clever collective hipster cap - on a good day. On a bad day beauty is derided as the tacky vice of unintelligent and naive wanna-be artists who can’t manage to get attention from museums or galleries. There is little question that beauty has become an unfashionable subject of scorn in contemporary conceptual art venues and circles.

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [8] we learn the role - or lack thereof - of beauty in conceptual art:

  • ...art should be about intellectual inquiry and reflection rather than beauty and aesthetic pleasure.
  • The properties in question here are generally aesthetic properties, and the assumption motivating the experiential requirement is that the appreciation of artworks necessarily involves an aesthetic element (i.e. not necessarily beauty per se, but something aesthetically pleasing or rewarding nonetheless).
  • Conceptual art, as we now know, is about conveying meaning through a vehicular medium, and not to provide its audience with experiences of, say, beauty. Any attack on this fundamental feature of conceptual art targets not so much an individual piece but the artform as such.
  • Also, it will call for a deeply revisionary conception of art, one fundamentally hostile to the very notions we are probably most used to associate with art, namely beauty and aesthetic pleasure.
  • Yet most artistic institutions are not conducive to reflection and continue to promote a consumerist conception of art and artists based on beauty and technical skill and this, conceptual artists in the mid-1960s to the early 1970s agreed, must be denounced. The job of conceptual artists is instead to encourage a revisionary understanding of art, artist, and artistic experience.

Beauty is not neglected by the conceptual art establishment - it is annihilated. This was not necessarily true of the modern art establishment during the first half of the twentieth century: beauty was allowed, if not emphasized.

Art For Art’s Sake

“Art for art’s sake” is a phrase and philosophy which arose in the early nineteenth century prior to the Arts and Crafts and Aestheticist movements [9]. Art Nouveau became the ultimate manifestation of this ethos, and put it into wide-scale practice. Art Nouveau has suffered much from its embracing of this philosophy. Critics have always thrown scorn at it claiming that it is in essence vanity. But this is unfair, because it is the direct descendant and foremost example of the precepts of important thinkers such as William Morris and Oscar Wilde, as well as the end result of Pre-Rafaelitism, despite William Holman Hunt’s assurance that he never modified his 'uncompromising assertion of the principles of truth in preference to beauty'. The Cult of Beauty is really the best descriptor assignable to the entirety of late-nineteenth-century sub-canonical art culture - including Impressionism which is generally separated from movements in the Aestheticist strain. Art Nouveau is the mature form of the object of The Cult of Beauty. Art Nouveau was Beauty come of age.

Considered collectively, Arts and Crafts, Pre-Rafaelitism, Aestheticism, and Art Nouveau, can be defined as an intelligent push to reestablish the foremost importance of beauty in art, which had become watered down by centuries of baroque regurgitation, and muted in drab neoclassicism.

William Morris’ motto sums up the entirety of the Arts and Crafts movement: Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful. He reiterates: 

You may hang your walls with tapestry instead of whitewash or paper; or you may cover them with mosaic; or have them frescoed by a great painter: all this is not luxury, if it be done for beauty's sake, and not for show: it does not break our golden rule: Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.[10]

The Resurrection of Beauty

       Is there beauty in reductive Modern art? This question must be answered with another question: Is there beauty in Traditional art? The sad truth is that both are abounding in mediocrity - The Bonfire of The Vanities was a reaction against the vomitous excess of the latter Medici dynastic inheritors who crammed their Pitti Palace full of mostly ugly and arguably mediocre tat in the form of priceless ornaments, furniture, and decor. Hitler's crusade against entartete kunst was in reaction to what he considered to be the destructive social consequences of exposure to degenerate art. Mostly high-brow and traditional renaissance art was burned in The Bonfire of The Vanities. Mostly low-brow modern art was seized and sometimes destroyed by the Third Reich. Politics aside, both were at their core an attack on the mediocritization of artistic expression. Hitler destroyed entartete kunst in an effort to bolster his eugenics program; and The Church reacted against the excesses of the Medicis and their ilk by rounding up their supposedly refined and purportedly beautiful luxuries and setting them ablaze. These two examples illustrate what can be considered opposing ideologies with the same underlying - perhaps subconscious - goal: to rid humanity of the ugliness of mediocrity.

Nonetheless, a visit to the British Museum in London or New York’s Metropolitan tends to be more satisfying - or at least less disturbing - than a visit to the Tate Modern or the Museum of Modern Art. Perhaps beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all. Or perhaps modern art is a conspiracy against beauty.[11]

Stuckists have made a noble attempt to restore some meaning to art. But they have fallen into the trap of reactionism, without clearly realizing what make art have value. Beauty may not be relative after all.

Los Angeles based artist Mark Miremont has come up with a manifesto entitled “The Resurrection of Beauty - A Manifesto For 21st Century Art,” [12] excerpts follow:

Now. Here we stand in the 21st century. The progress of science and art has brought a marriage of marvels and horrors. 

The worst of the horrors grew from a cynical relativism... In art, it could be the artist who thinks just because he can, he should say a urinal in a gallery is art.

The sarcastic relativism of dada has been widely embraced by the collectors, museums and publications that profit from the marketing of its philosophy. Its impact has been felt in all aspects of western culture. So much so that Beauty is commonly believed to have no place in art.

This is cynicism. This is nihilism. This is the art world in the first steps of the 21st century.

Sarcasm, empty intellectualism, decay and the desperate need to shock have been in vogue for too long now.

We do not doubt the genius of dada questioning what art can be. Yet, the values derived from anti-art's nihilistic ontology do not free us, they doom us.

Just as we continue to search for meaning after Nietzsche's madman claimed, "God is Dead", so too we still search for Beauty after dada raped art.

It is easier to desecrate something of Beauty than to create something of Beauty.  The former is lazy intellectualism at best. The latter is the path of art.

Perhaps because he could not create it at the time, Duchamp sought to de-value Beauty. And as his followers fetishize the early works of dada, his philosophy has paradoxically become the status quo.

The resurrection of Beauty will be resisted at first. It will be called naive, superficial and simplistic.

Here, now, it is far more revolutionary to be sincere, romantic and idealistic.

And while we reject the values derived from 20th century relativism, this does not make us neo-classicists.

Classifications are meaningless to anyone seeking Beauty.

There were works lacking Beauty before dada and there have been works of Beauty despite dada.

Beauty is the purpose of art, just as a building is the purpose of architecture.

Dysfunction in the individual, the family, the society and the world is often due to a lack of Beauty.

This is our destiny: to resurrect Beauty and to rally others to do the same. Think of what art could be in the 22nd century. Then the 23rd. Does empty relativism provide a path that will bring about something new and meaningful?

Value creates culture. Culture informs action. Action defines history.

While it is refreshing to read such a strong defense of Beauty, it will be ever more satisfying to see artists put Miremont’s words into action.

References

1 "The Stuckist movement has offered the Tate 100 paintings by its members for their collection. If the Tate accepts these ridiculous daubs the Jackdaw will dance naked - except for his favourite swastika armband - down Whitehall singing Mamma Mia." - David Lee, The Jackdaw, 2005 (on the Stuckists), from http://www.stuckism.com/Daubs.html

2 "These vociferous opportunists are revealed to be nothing more than a bunch of Bayswater Road-style daubers, without an original idea between them. Typical of the laughably bad work are...crude portraits." 

- Sarah Kent, Time Out, 2002 (on the Stuckists), from http://www.stuckism.com/Daubs.html

3Thomson, Charles (August 2004), "A Stuckist on Stuckism: Stella Vine", from: Ed. Frank Milner (2004), The Stuckists Punk Victorian, pp. 7–9,  National Museums Liverpool ISBN 1-902700-27-9. Available online at “The Two Starts of Stuckism” and “The Virtual Stuckists” on stuckism.com.

4Main page opening message http://www.stuckism.com/

5 Stuckism, Paul Harvey, Newcastle Stuckists, Nigella Lawson Painting: Interview http://www.stuckism.com/Harvey/InterviewLawson.html

6 Stuckism - Daubs and Daubers by Charles Thomson http://www.stuckism.com/Daubs.html

7The Jackdaw - a newsletter for the visual arts http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/index.html

8Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, article on Conceptual Art, 7 June 2007 http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/conceptual-art/

9“Art for art’s sake” article, "L'art pour l'art", http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_for_art's_sake

10 The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Victorian era, William Morris, p. 564

11The National Trust has joined the wicked modern conspiracy against silence, 31 May 2011, http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/harrymount/100053722/the-national-trust-has-joined-the-wicked-modern-conspiracy-against-silence/

12http://markmiremont.com/manifesto.html