Items of Beauty
November 22, 2013 6:51 AM   Subscribe

Gilded Birds: A Snapshot of Contemporary Ideals of Beauty. Writers, artists, and philosophers are prompted to select a piece that they consider beautiful, and then interviewed about their reasons for choosing it.
posted by painquale (8 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting how embarrassed we remain about simply talking about "beauty." A lot of these images were chosen primarily because of personal, political or other resonances that are really quite independent of their "beauty." There's an immense fear of being thought the clueless rube who just likes stuff because it's pretty. This is particularly true among art historians, actually, who typically see any expressions of enthusiasm for a work of art's "beauty" as evidence of a complete lack of sophistication.

I wonder when that particular pendulum will swing back again. I do think a failure to confront sheer aesthetic pleasure makes for a rather impoverished critical discourse with respect to a very large part of the world's artistic heritage.
posted by yoink at 7:31 AM on November 22, 2013 [9 favorites]

well stated, yoink. my own opinion (as someone pretty far removed from the art world culture) is that even within the last decade the term "beauty" has become loaded with all sorts of cultural baggage, such that it's a bit tough to even articulate how it affects you without seeming shallow, or classist, or whatever. I mean it's hard for me to even admit that I find things like a Lady Gaga video absolutely gorgeous in all its decadence, without immediately having to launch into some postmodern defensive analysis of my appreciation. I mean, seriously people: Louboutin shoes, ffs!
posted by lonefrontranger at 7:53 AM on November 22, 2013

Interesting how embarrassed we remain about simply talking about "beauty."

The question "why do you find this beautiful?" seems almost unanswerable, though, at least in a detailed way. We can all agree on what is pretty, or what is aesthetically pleasing, what has the requisite symmetry, proportion, and qualities we associate with things that many have told us are beautiful.

But to find something really beautiful is personal in a way that is difficult to convey with words, though words can be quite beautiful themselves - the description of something that the author finds beautiful can be beautiful, but the beauty the reader perceives is of the words, not of the original described beauty.

Which is why it can be embarrassing to try to describe why one finds something beautiful. It's an emotional experience.

Sometimes the only answer to that question, "why?" is 'I just do."
posted by louche mustachio at 8:19 AM on November 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sometimes the only answer to that question, "why?" is 'I just do."

That may well be true, but it's interesting that in the C18th, for example, people felt absolutely no embarrassment whatsoever in writing at length and in detail about why it is we find, say, a flower or a sunset beautiful, about what lies behind such a claim and what it implies about the ways our mind works and the kinds of beings we are etc. etc. If an exercise like this had been performed in the C18th, people would have been entirely happy to choose works that they regarded simply as "beautiful" without worrying that they might appear shallow or unsophisticated if the works were ones which an unsophisticated observer might also easily agree were "beautiful." And it's not that the notion of sophisticated and unsophisticated taste didn't exist back then or that had the question been "choose what you think is the greatest work of art" people wouldn't have felt inclined to choose works that unsophisticated viewers might find initially disturbing or offputting.

I think it's a really singular characteristic of the last century or so that the art world is so deeply suspicious of "beauty" as such, and so completely bankrupt of a useful critical terminology to discuss or evaluate it.
posted by yoink at 9:44 AM on November 22, 2013

Greyson Perry discussed the idea of beauty being a quality that is not desired in the art world during his recent Reith Lectures (which I think I found out about from a link here.) He describes the judgmental "sucking of teeth" that occurs if you call something beautiful.
posted by PussKillian at 10:02 AM on November 22, 2013

Which is such a shame. What drew me to studying art and wanting to become an artist was experiencing the beauty of impressionist paintings in museums. It was so odd to me that I could have such a profound moment standing in front of these paintings, that in a way I was having an intimate communique with someone long dead, and that that emotion was able to be transmitted across centuries, oceans and generations. In a world where horrific acts and even simple indifference are everywhere, I think there's a real value to cultivating and preserving beauty wherever you can find it.

I wonder if the reason that simple beauty is looked down upon in the art world is simply because there's no real mystery to it; anyone who trains to be a painter or photographer can spend the time gaining mastery and then make pretty pictures all day from then on. As a practical concern, beauty in the art world is not something we're in danger of running out of, I suppose.

What is certainly harder, regardless of how valuable it really is, is coming up with a conceptual idea that may or may not be bullshit dressed up in big words, and convincing people that it's worthwhile to pay attention to or buy.
posted by malapropist at 3:29 PM on November 22, 2013

Why the urge to assume that these rather earnest, loving responses are disingenuous?
posted by johnasdf at 7:55 AM on November 23, 2013

Why the urge to assume that these rather earnest, loving responses are disingenuous?

I don't think people here are assuming that the responses are disingenuous. I think they are commenting on the very first interview on the page, where Jason Stanley says that he chose a piece he considers interesting rather than beautiful because he is not the kind of person who has the patience to stare at pretty waterfalls.

I've been sitting on this link for a while. Maybe I should have posted it to Metafilter when the interview at the top was more in line with Gilded Birds's own mandate. However, it was actually Stanley's comments about beauty and aesthetic interest that prompted me to finally make the post. I found them provocative. It's notable that the artists interviewed tend to unabashedly praise beauty, and many of them speak of myth or emotion or absorption. The philosophers who are interviewed, on the other hand, either criticize the notion of beauty...
Stanley: I'm simply not the kind of person who has any patience at all for sitting around staring at pretty waterfalls ... I think that beauty plays such a marginal role in art appreciation that the question must be shifted.

Rosen: To be quite honest with you at the outset, I have problems with “beauty”. I don’t know whether “beauty” is something I can work with ... the end of beauty isn’t the same as the end of art – art doesn’t have to be “beautiful” to be valuable.
... or they intellectualize beauty. They make it clear that 'beauty' is not purely sensory, and it demands that we deploy more cognitive and intellectual capacities.
Appiah: What is merely pleasurable is pretty. Beauty has an element of that thing that makes you want to come back, that engages you cognitively.

Wedgwood: Beautiful things reveal their beauty in experience, in a kind of contemplation. The kind of contemplation is one in which many of our mental faculties are engaged at a very high level but without strain.
I find these four to be the more thought-provoking interviews on the site. Rosen's in particular. I do think that the worry that beauty might turn out to be mere sensory prettiness --- like a visual version of the taste of sugar --- is a straw man. No one on the site describes beauty in this way.
posted by painquale at 12:31 PM on November 23, 2013

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