The Nature of Beauty in Contemporary Art
by Suzi Gablik
A new paradigm of an engaged, participatory and socially relevant art is emerging.
If you’re out, you’re out - you simply don’t count," the artist Sandro Chia once declared in an interview in Art in America. Referring to the art world, he said, "Anything that happens must happen within this system," which he went on to describe: "I work for a few months, then I go to a gallery and show the dealer my work. The work is accepted, the dealer makes a selection, then an installation. People come and say you’re good or not so good, then they pay for these paintings and hang them on other walls. They give cocktail parties and we all go to restaurants and meet girls. I think this is the weirdest scene in the world."
Sandro Chia’s description of the art world as a suburb of hell is all too familiar; it is a world in which artists are defined through showing or not showing, selling or not selling, and through the goals of money, prestige, and power that are so crucial to our whole society’s notion of success. Within the modernist paradigm under which I grew up, art has been typically understood as a collection of prestigious objects, existing in museums and galleries, disconnected from ordinary life and action. Defined entirely in individualistic terms, the modern artist’s quest was enacted within the inner sanctum of a studio, behind closed doors. This mythology of the lone genius, isolated from society, and relieved of social responsibility, is summed up for me in these comments by the painter Georg Baselitz: "The artist is not responsible to anyone. His social role is asocial; his only responsibility consists in an attitude to the work he does. There is no communication with any public whatsoever... It is the end product which counts, in my case, the picture."
Recently, when he was asked on the occasion of his Guggenheim retrospective what role he believes art plays in society, Baselitz replied, "The same role as a good shoe, nothing more." And he has stated elsewhere: "The idea of changing or improving the world is alien to me and seems ludicrous. Society functions, and always has, without the artist. No artist has ever changed anything for better or worse."
Many of the beliefs about art that our culture subscribes to, that the problems of art are purely aesthetic and that art will never change the world, are beliefs that have diminished the capacity of artists for constructive thought and action. The critic Arthur C. Danto has referred to this state of affairs as "the disenfranchisement of art", because the hidden constraints of a morally neutral, art-for-art’s sake philosophy is that it has led artists to their marginalized condition in society. I first began to question this mythology myself when I wrote Has Modernism Failed?, and since then, many things have happened to change the situation. The environment is disintegrating, time is running out, and not much is being done.
Many artists now see their role as sounding the alarm, and have felt the need to alter the direction of their art so that it is more socially and environmentally defined. Such artists incarnate different ideals and a different philosophy of life. Performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña states, for example, "Most of the work I’m doing currently comes, I think, from the realization that we’re living in a state of emergency. I feel that more than ever we must step outside the strictly art arena. It is not enough to make art." In a similar vein, Chicago artist Othello Anderson states: "Carbon and other pollutants are emitted into the air in such massive quantities that large areas of forest landscapes are dying from the effects of acid rain. Recognizing this crisis, as an artist I can no longer consider making art that is void of moral consciousness, art that carries no responsibility, art without spiritual content, art that places form above content, or art that denies the state of the very world in which it exists."
As many artists shift their work arena from the studio to the more public contexts of political, social, and environmental life, we are all being called, in our understanding of what art is, to move beyond the mode of disinterested contemplation to something that is more participatory and engaged. Such art may not hang on walls; it may not even be found in museums or beautiful objects, but rather in some visible manifestation of what psychologist James Hillman refers to as "the soul’s desperate concerns." For such artists, vision is not defined by the disembodied eye, as we have been trained to believe. Vision is a social practice that is rooted in the whole of being.
Breaking with the Paradigm of Vision
Writing The Reenchantment of Art represented my own philosophical "break" with the paradigm of vision and the disembodied eye as the axiomatic basis for artistic practice.
For instance, I wrote at some length about an art project initiated by a friend of mine in Santa Fe, Dominique Mazeaud, which she calls "The Great Cleansing of the Rio Grande River". For several years, armed with garbage bags donated by the city, Mazeaud and a few friends who sometimes accompanied her, would meet once a month and ritually clean garbage out of the river. Part of the work involves keeping a diary, entitled Riveries, in which she writes about her experiences. Briefly, here are some extracts:
November 19 My friend Margret drops me off at Delgado promptly at 9:00 am. Because of the snow I was not sure of the conditions I would find but did not doubt a second that I would put in my day. I find a stone warmed by the morning sun which makes a perfect site for my beginning prayer. Yes, I see what I am doing as a way of praying: Picking up a can/From the river/And then another/on and on/It’s like a devotee/Doing countless rosaries.
December 2 Why in all religions is water such a sacred symbol? How much longer is it going to take us to see the trouble of our waters? How many more dead fish floating on the Rhine River? How many kinds of toxic waste dumpings? When are we going to turn our malady of separateness around?
March 19 1 can’t get away from you river/In the middle of the night/I feel you on my back/In my throat, in my heart.
July 20 Two more huge bags I could hardly carry to the cans. I don’t count any more. I don’t announce my "art for the earth" in the papers either. All alone in the river, I pray and pick up, pick up and pray. Who can I really talk to about what I see?... I have also noticed that I stopped collecting the so-called treasures of the river. It was OK at the beginning, but today I feel it was buying into the present system of art that’s so much object-oriented. Is it because I am saying that what I am doing is art that I need to produce something?
Eventually, as the artist’s connection with the river deepens into that of friend and confidante, and even that of teacher, she reaches a point where her relationship with the river becomes even more important than her original ecological incentive to clean it. "For the first time last month," she comments, my meditation directed me to go and be with the river and not do anything. The instructions were clear: "Don’t even take one garbage bag." Her activity had subtly shifted, until it was no longer a systematic retrieving of everything in sight, but has become her own personal dialogue with the river. The river as a living being has something to say. "I have landed in a new landscape," Mazeaud states, "where I discover the river is as true an artist as I am."
The hegemony of the eye is very strong in our culture, and to challenge the commitment to its ocular-centric, or vision-centered aesthetic, replacing it with a paradigm shift that displaces vision with the very different influence of listening, is to open oneself up to the complaint that what is being described here is not art at all, but environmental activism, or social work. Many individuals who saw their own ideas reflected in my book’s agenda were enthusiastic and friendly, whereas those who thought that art should be unencumbered by any moral or social purpose were resistant and unfriendly, because it seemed to undermine the way they see their task.
When I lectured together with the critic Hilton Kramer a few years ago in Madison, Wisconsin, he proclaimed, with the force of a typhoon, on the podium after my talk, that things with no relation to art were now being legitimized and accepted as art, when, he claimed, art is incapable of solving any problems except aesthetic ones. Kramer is in the forefront of those who believe that when art is actively engaged with the world, its aesthetic quality is necessarily compromised. I, on the other hand, consider that such art is often intensely aesthetic, because in responding compassionately to whatever it touches, it is helping to create a more beautiful world. Artists whose work helps to heal our soulless attitudes toward the physical world have my full respect and attention because, for me, beauty is an activity rather than an entity, a consciousness of, and reverence for, the beauty of the world.
Art and the Return of Soul
I’d like to conclude with some pertinent comments between myself and Thomas Moore taken from my new book Conversations Before the End of Time.
Suzi: As I understand your sense of the soulful life, it would mean bringing art back into a more vernacular, everyday world, and taking it out of the more rarefied sphere of professionalism. You mentioned in the letter you wrote to me that you are very interested in the role of the arts in the world today. Do you see art as being an important vehicle for the return of soul?
Moore: Probably its most important vehicle.
Suzi: Do you want to elaborate on this?
Moore: Yes, there’s so much to say here. First, though, I’d like to pick up on this point of yours about everyday life. There are a number of ways in which we could bring the artist back into everyday life, so that we don’t just have this fringe art world that doesn’t really touch on the values of the way we live, essentially. One way would be for the artist truly to feel a sense of conviviality in the society, in being part of that community, so that there’s a responsibility, and a pleasure, in going into the world and being part of, say, actually designing the city... We can’t suddenly begin living a more artful life, which is the avenue to soul, if in the public life around us, and in everything we see and inhabit, art is invisible.
Suzi: And so, in your thinking, that could be a whole new paradigm for a socially relevant kind of art—not precisely in the sense that’s being talked about in the art world now of "political correctness" and social critique, but rather a kind of art that celebrates and participates robustly in the life-world.
Moore: Exactly. And here’s another point about soul.., soul enters life through pleasure. It’s an erotic activity: psyche and eros going together, rather than principle and responsibility. Responsibility suggests a kind of outward superego coming in and saying, "You know, this is what you should be doing." That is not a new paradigm; we’re not moving out of the modernistic world then. We’re just feeling we should do something different and more responsible.
Suzi: "If we are going to care for the soul," you say in your book, "and if we know that the soul is nurtured by beauty, then we will have to understand beauty more deeply and give it a more relevant place in life. It’s not only pleasure and conviviality, but also beauty that is necessary for the return of soul..." It’s interesting, don’t you think, that archetypal psychologists are the ones who seem to be taking the lead for a renaissance of beauty in our lives, even more than artists or aestheticians?
Art in service of humanity
In my new book, Conversations Before the End of Time, James Hillman and I discuss the river project of Dominique Mazeaud in a way that is relevant, I think, to the issues being addressed in my paper.
Suzi: The point is, James, that within the traditionally accepted model of the artist, based on isolated individualism, it’s very difficult to perceive any strong connection or direct influence that art could have on the world. That’s why in my writing I have been drawn to artists who are using their creativity in ways that can have a more direct effect.
Hillman: We’ve talked about this before, and I think there’s a problem, about, first of all, why that’s art, and second of all, what’s the difference between that artist cleaning the river and l’art pour l’art? Because in the end, her art has no worldly effect. You say yourself that it’s not really even meant to clean the river; it becomes a devotional ritual. (But for me the real problem is) what gets metaphorized in her work? Doesn’t she remain in the literal world? And, as such, it’s not art? She’s literally cleaning the river!
Suzi: But that’s a problem only if you want to define art as a separate aesthetic realm, divorced from life and quarantined to the museum or art gallery. And only if you want to insist on the Cartesian split between art and life, self and world.
Hillman: I certainly don’t define art that way, but I do believe it transforms the literal to the metaphorical and mythical. Otherwise, the social comment, politics, advocacy, protest exist on one level only... For me, art is dedicated to beauty; it’s a way to let beauty into our world by means of the artist’s gifts and sensibilities... I think beauty needs to come into it somehow. Ideas of beauty and metaphor are necessary to what I call art.
Suzi: In another of these conversations, Satish Kumar says that in India, art was never meant to hang on walls—it’s part of life. He thinks that the desert of ugliness all around us is connected with concentrating our notion of beauty in a great body of works of art to be found only in the oases of museums. In India, art is not separated from the normal flow of life. A lot of discussion is being instigated by people now who feel that until—or unless—art can reconnect with life, it’s going to stay marginal, without any part to play in the larger picture.
Hillman: That’s a very good point, because it shows something crucial to this civilization: that the work in the river can be put in a different context altogether, which is art in the service of... life. Like the way dance was originally in the service of the tribal community; it wasn’t dance for an audience on a stage. It was a dance that helped the crops to grow.
Suzi: In our culture, the notion of art being in service to anything is anathema. Aesthetics doesn’t serve anything but itself and its own ends. I would like that to change. When Hilton Kramer says that the minute you try to make art serve anything, you’re in a fascistic mode—well, I don’t believe that.
Hillman: I’d like to defend the cleaning of the river, for a moment. I’m going back to what you said a little earlier: it’s the attempt to put art in the service of something.
Suzi: Yes, that’s where the issue is.
Hillman: Art in the service of something. If we say that it’s life, and if we think, for instance, of the Balinese village where everything is made to be functional and useful, for celebrations or ceremonies... you’re still in service to the gods, somehow. Now we don’t have that—we’ve wiped the gods out... So the god that art now serves is the god that dominates the culture, which is the god of commodity, of money. So it is in service, it’s in service to gods we don’t approve of... Now suppose the question doesn’t become what art should do, but rather how do we find that which art should serve? Art is already in service, so we could perhaps change that to which it is in service?
Suzi: So the question is what could art better serve than the things it has been serving, like bourgeois capitalism, throughout our lifetimes?
Hillman: Right! And I think the artist in the river is serving a different god.
Suzi Gablik is an artist, writer and teacher whose books include Has Modernism Failed?, The Re-enchantment of Art and Conversations Before the End of Time. This article is from a symposium on The Nature of Beauty in Contemporary Art sponsored by the New York Open Center and the International Society for Consciousness in the Arts in October 1995.
This article was published in New Renaissance magazine Vol. 8, No. 1 Copyright © 1998 by Renaissance Universal, all rights reserved.