“Regarding Beauty”


The same old questions. The same old answers. Nothing like them.
—Samuel Beckett

Situated between aggressive electronic media and two hundred years of industrial vandalism, the long-held idea that a tiny output of art objects could somehow “beautify” or even significantly modify the environment was naive.
—Jack Burnham

Back in 1919, as Dada was coming on in Paris, Marcel Duchamp designed L.H.O.O.Q. like a flaming arrow crackling with sympathy for the movement. He described the Mona Lisa with mustache and goatee as “iconoclastic Dadaism.” Forty-four years later, the ruthless purge of beauty led Robert Morris to the point that he felt duty bound to eradicate every bit of aesthetic content from his Litanies—legally. Accompanying the sculpture is a “Statement of Esthetic Withdrawal,” a notarized document that reads in part: “Robert Morris, being the maker of the metal construction LITANIES . . . hereby withdraws from said construction all esthetic quality and content.” By 1963 Duchamp’s whimsical gesture had become a matter of gray and airless bureaucracy, with all the requisite signatures and seals necessary to make it official: When it came to beauty, no one was kidding around anymore.

That was then. Today, beauty is the new Lazarus. It took breath within the pages of Dave Hickey’s radiant 1991 essay “Enter the Dragon.” Hickey admits that “Beauty,” his answer to the question of what would be most central to the culture of the ’90s, was “a total improvisatory goof—an off-the-wall, jump-start, free association that rose unbidden to my lips from God knows where.” And a jump start it was. Philosophers, artists, critics, curators, and other art-world denizens scrambled to grease their brains on the subject. After all, we’re a little rusty when it comes to beauty: Not much fresh thinking has gone on there since the appearance of the readymades, when—to para-phrase Joseph Kosuth—art’s focus changed from the form of the language to what was being said. If Duchamp flipped the beauty switch to Off, Hickey flipped it back on.

Our response to beauty’s comeback, though, has by and large not been virtuoso. The greater part of what you hear on the subject is bland, monotonous recitations, not at all what Hickey, Peter Schjeldahl, Arthur C. Danto, Jean-François Lyotard, and very few others had in mind: to know what it means to utter, “is beautiful”—that is, to know something of how the very form of this utterance modulates in the present. Instead, the same old questions and the same old answers have seemed handy, the expedient way out of the hullabaloo beauty stirred. This comfortable path is certainly the one taken by the curators at the Hirshhorn Museum, where “Regarding Beauty: A View of the Late Twentieth Century” was presented.

“Regarding Beauty,” as the title implies, is more than a little passive. There are eighty-eight works of art on a checklist that runs aground in predictability. Historically, the entire exhibition sits on this side of 1960; stylistically, it’s all the usual suspects: the requisite late Picasso and de Kooning; John Baldessari’s PURE BEAUTY; a bunch of Richters, and the Polke painting of Playboy bunnies. Matthew Barney and Sugimoto put in appearances, as do Pipilotti Rist and James Turrell. One supposes that “daring” in this context means the inclusion of Warhol’s Oxidation Painting.

The exhibition is tidily divided into two categories: “Beauty Objectified,” which brings together the likes of Giulio Paolini and Warhol’s Gold Marilyn, and “Intan-gible Beauty,” which includes (among others) Vija Celmins and Roy Lichtenstein. That creaking sound you hear is the wobbling wheels turning as the old subjective/objective dualism lumbers into view. There is also a gaggle of wall-text quotes about beauty (Aristotle: “Chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry”; John Cage: “Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look”; Gandhi: “Show them the truth and they will see beauty afterwards”). In other words, the exhibition’s framers settled for indexing the mothballed sorts of loveliness at a time when beauty requires a total makeover.

Did none of the organizers bother to consider what beauty might have become since Duchamp cut the juice? For example, didn’t Stanley Kubrick’s menacing film A Clockwork Orange rearrange our attitude toward the beautiful at something like a genetic level? What were the consequences of Francis Bacon luring vivid beauty out of the muck of humanity? Or what about J.G. Ballard’s sense of awe-inspiring splendor? Or the pure and haunting magnificence that was Albert Speer’s Nürnberg Rally? Isn’t the powerful impression left behind by these instances of beauty, in all their horrible sublimity, evidence enough that today, when we utter, “is beautiful,” the sound is distinctly different from before?

And then there is the flip side to the shifting variety of beauty streaming through this century. Beauty is as pow-erful in our culture in its very absence as it was in earlier times, when present and deployed as the spellbinding agent of church and state. In his essay for the exhibition catalogue, Danto makes this point, describ-ing the moral aspect of the Dadaists’ decision to withhold the beautiful in order to effect social change: “That art need not be constrained by aesthetic considerations was probably the major conceptual discovery in twentieth-century art.” The terms of beauty’s power have been deeply altered not only by its moments of indelible aura throughout the century but equally, if dia-metrically, by the sway of its disappearance.

Old beauty bankrupt—new beauty vital? It’s not that simple either. The translucent walls of light in Milk Run, 1996, Turrell’s contribution to “Regarding Beauty,” create subtle, ethereal geometries hosting the most delicate optical illusions. Few would argue that Kant’s notion of disinterested beauty is not germane to the experience of the work. But pronouncing the “is” in the phrase “the Turrell is beautiful” is linked to the power that a certain sort of beauty can exert at a specific moment. If beauty’s power, in many of its earlier guises, has indeed waned, it is only because what we require of beauty has been reshuffled. Both the Dadaists and Albert Speer understood this. Andy Warhol did too. The cynical mistrust of picturesque beauty in Warhol’s half-done painting, Do It Yourself (Landscape), 1962, also included in the Hirshhorn exhibition, is total. Above all, Warhol’s painting declares that the picturesque has been ground down to a formula reproduced at will and can thus no longer continue as a pretender to beauty’s power. His pictureis emblematic of the weight of beauty’s influence in its own disappearance.

Warhol’s underlying aim was to find where beauty lived within the pop culture he trafficked in. He ultimately did so, but in a form without a hierarchy, as far as he could discern. “I just see [Marilyn] Monroe as another person,” Warhol reflected, before saying: “As for whether it’s symbolical to paint Monroe in such violent colors: it’s beauty, and she’s beautiful and if something’s beautiful it’s pretty colors, that’s all. Or something.” As blithe as Warhol’s groping for beauty’s power may be, at its core is the spirit of Charles Baudelaire’s 1846 observation: “Since every age and every people have had their own form of beauty, we inevitably have ours.” And isn’t it from this position that a recon-sideration of the beautiful should unfold?

At the moment, it seems that untethered speculation is running the hunt for beauty’s whereabouts. Perhaps that’s why an exhibition like “Regarding Beauty” has turned out as it has: What we get is the droning rehearsal of what beauty has been about, rather than the all-out research-and-development project required. How does one square the beauty of those towering lights as the lights rose into the cool Nürnberg evening, for example, with the store-bought light bulbs strung together by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, stirring souls as the lights flicker and die, one by one? It is this very kind of question that would provide rough company for this exhibition. Unfortunately, “Regarding Beauty” never asks a question about beauty without knowing the answer beforehand. But indeed there are answers. In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard offers insight as to how the awe of beauty, or the sublime, could draw meaning from spectacles as far removed as these: The sublime “puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms.” If beauty somehow breathes in both examples, then Lyotard could be correct about beauty in our time: that what is at stake is no longer tying beauty’s form to truth or goodness, but rather to suspend the rule of perfection for the sake of heterogeneity.

Could it be that the thing to take away from the exhibition is that every expectation that the beautiful have a canon, a form, an order, or even some weird sense of perfection is merely a self-fulfilling prophesy yielding something about beauty, but never what it is? Think for a moment about Robert Mapplethorpe’s “X Portfolio.” This series of photographs (of fist fucking and the like) is not easy on the eye. But without a batting a lash, Dave Hickey nominated beauty as the impassioned setting where the appreciation of the photos takes place. In the face of the storm over these pictures, Hickey described them (in “Enter the Dragon”) as “fine photographs,” as in fine art, as in things of beauty. He assigned beauty a new function—not merely to produce awe, but to awe and then negotiate that awe. “The task of these figures of beauty was to enfranchise the audience and acknowledge its power—to designate a territory of shared values between the image and its beholder and, then, in this territory, to argue the argument by valorizing the picture’s problematic content.” Beauty is simply not being beautiful anymore; among other things, it can be utterly impure.

Mapplethorpe and Hickey have shown us how beauty, resistant to a perfect order or form, was authenticated within the media culture and called out from what was once simply pornography. These are hot leads in a period where the “is” of beauty has begun to spin out of control. But in fact our trouble with Beauty is only just beginning. If the transition from an industrial to a media society has taken us into the realm of the information society, under the conditions of which the power of creativity is increasingly understood as a product of information, how will beauty express itself? Jack Burnham perhaps best described the dilemma we face when he wrote nearly thirty years ago that “in the automated state power resides less in the control of the traditional symbols of wealth than in information.” Whatever else it is, beauty is power. For it to sustain its relevance, a deep appreciation for the beauty of information will be vital. Today, such an appreciation is rare but does exist, never more persuasively than in the fresh thinking of Edward Tufte in books like Envisioning Information, and Visual Explanations. I think of his brilliant discussion of cosmonauts Georgi Grechko and Yuri Romanenko’s vivid flight plan, or “cyclogram,” for their ride aboard Salyut 6. And sometimes I think the essential precursor to Tufte is Charles and Ray Eames’ 1968 film Powers of Ten—which turns all of us into time-space travelers moving lyrically through the beautiful imagery of the “new physics,” from a view of earth from the farthest known distance in space to the pulsating nucleus of a carbon atom. As architect Craig Hodgett described Powers of Ten, it is “a clear exposition and a poem, too.” As our culture’s paradigms of influence and power shift, it is natural to continue to wonder how beauty will migrate. Or perhaps the more interesting question is whether the answer will continue to rest in the hands of artists.

Ronald Jones is an artist and frequent contributor to Artforum.