A Return to Beauty and Civility?

By Valentine Rossetti

The question of beauty in art has, over the past few years, come more and more into question. Both critics and philosophers alike have been reassessing the modern trends of seeing beauty in art as archaic and démodé, with Professor Roger Scruton being the most vocal. In his recent essay, Why Beauty Matters, Professor Scruton argued that our ability to truly appreciate beauty has been lost in the midst of self-aggrandising conceptual art and trumped up desires for utility over aesthetics, pointing to Marcel Duchamp, who sought to devalue art as an object, as the catalyst for this steady slip into a swamp of feculent imagery and lubricious ideologies. For something which has been the basis of Western civilisation since the time of ancient Greece, Scruton says, we have now created a world where ‘beauty and good taste have no place in our lives’.

Before Duchamp and the dramatic shift which Western art was to take, it was the civilised smile of the Enlightenment, taking the place of the sacred, which inspired artists, writers and poets, drawing on the beauty that emanated from the nature that surrounded them. With every artistic movement, the core aim was always the same: to project the beauty of human life and the world around in different ways—not, as the artists of the modern age have sought to do, to debase the human being and his world as ugly and ultimately pointless.

If we look at the 20th century, the demise of appreciation for artistic beauty and civility is nowhere so clear as in the all-around dismissal of the Parisian artist and founding member of Les Nabis, Pierre Bonnard, who throughout the 1920s and 1930s created some of the most astonishingly beautiful paintings of the century, his seminal work being ‘Nu dans le bain’ (‘Nude in the bath’) now on show at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. It is one of the most undervalued artistic masterpieces of the 20th century. Completed by Bonnard in 1937, its sense of visionary purity is overwhelming. His intricate compositions, layers, and use of vivid colours inspired by Paul Gauguin make the mundane scene come to life with an almost blinding beam of sensuality. Bonnard, unlike the majority of his contemporaries, did not see the classical artistic canon as in any way moribund, but as inspirational, and this attitude is most clear in ‘Nu dans le Bain’ which is not just a beautiful piece of art work, but a love letter to both his wife and muse Marthe Boursin (who though in her sixties at the time, still radiates with ethereal youthfulness) and to the history of art itself.

In 1909, a prominent member of the Futurist movement, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, proclaimed ‘a roaring motor car, which runs like a machine-gun, is more beautiful than ‘The Victory of Samothrace’ a statement which carried weight for a number of years. In 2009, however, a hundred years on, the Turner Prize, Britain’s most esteemed art prize, was given to the Scottish installation artist Richard Wright, for what was an immense blast of much needed beauty in an otherwise stale world of unmade beds and blood-stained dolls. Upon seeing Wright’s work, a dazzling explosion of serpentine twists and swirls in gold leaf covering a wall inside the Tate gallery, which exuded an almost dream like air of intense emotion, the Poet-laureate Carol Ann-Duffy said ‘it is pure poetry, a link between image and imagination’. Wright’s expertise in creating such a masterpiece is in its self worthy of the old masters, using the techniques of Renaissance fresco-making.

In 2010, it is safe to say that a shift is occurring once again, this time, away from the vacuous and the obscene; an ever-increasing sense of ‘de nouveau’ is now surging through the citadel of contemporary art. As the art critic Alastair Sooke pointed out, ‘Art can be many things, but one of its most important functions is surely its capacity to console in times of crisis, to lift the spirit, and inspire people to carry on. This, I believe, is what we are experiencing today’.

Earlier this year, the Paris-based artist Baptiste Debomberg exhibited a mesmerising creation titled ‘Aggravure’ displayed in a small back street warehouse. Created with 35,000 staples fired with a nail gun onto white plasterboard, it was his interpretation of Icarus, the Protagonist and mythical son of Daedalus, taking inspiration from the Dutch artists of the early Baroque, Hendrik Goltzius and Cornelisz Van Haarlem, fusing together the themes of artistic fragility with sublime power, exuding sensual beauty and artistic supremacy. The exhibition drew much attention from the contemporary art hierarchy, who hailed it a modern masterpiece. Debomberg is an artist on the cusp of his career; he is part of a new breed, who, like Wright, is laying the ghost of Duchamp and all he stood for to rest, finally respecting the classical artistic traditions, without fear of ridicule from a dismissive clerisy.

Both Wright and Debomberg have shown us that a need for beauty as a spirit soaring remedy to our cruel and capricious world is an essential component for human survival.

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Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/

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