Has beauty been usurped in contemporary art?

Expelling the beautiful

At the top of the hill in a small Mexican village are the home and gallery of the ex-pat artist, Anado McLauchlin. Standing on the cobblestone road, looking through the wooden fence that surrounds the house, I can see bright colors bursting through the slats of the fence like watchdogs.

Anado McLauchlin’s house in Mexico (Photo courtesy of the author)

Purple is the dominant color I see, in a hue so insistent I am reminded of an art teacher’s criticism. She corrected my use of the word purple, iinsisting, “A real artist never refers to violet as purple.This may have been a put-down, but I was happy to hear only a single word held me back from being a real artist.

What the teacher failed to understand is that violet is purple tamed, brought to submission by the addition of its complement, ochre. The color I see through Anado’s fence will not be tamed by terminology or a complement: It is pure purple.

When Anado opens the gate and invites me in, I discover this is no place for the modulation or taming of color. Behind the fence I am confronted with exuberance of color, textures, and imagery upon every structural surface.

Anado and his partner Richard have lived in this small village for the past 13 years, after a period in art school and a series of different jobs. Settling in Mexico, they bought a house with land and began the project creating these beautiful, colorful mosaics and art structures in the interior and on the exterior of the house, outbuildings, and the Chapel of Jimmy Ray, a gallerylike space dedicated to Anado’s father. Through these efforts they have developed strong rapport with the small community

Of Isaiah Zagar, Anado says, humbly, “Isaiah’s the master.” Like many visitors to Zagar’s Magic Gardens or Anado’s house, I find magic in the art and in its transformation of place. When I ask Anado his definition of art, he answers in one seemingly uncomplicated word, “adornment.”

Humble adornment

I’m not surprised, yet I wonder how many artists would assess their work as adornment — is that word grand enough for someone who is creating art? In a New York Times profile, Anado said his art school instructors criticized his work as too decorative. I wonder if decoration and adornment are the same phenomenon. Are they are extensions of "the beautiful"? Would Anado have been criticized for creating beauty, as he was for decorative art? Did his instructors not make a distinction between beauty and decoration?

Artist Ann Reichlin recalls similar criticism, though she doesn’t remember if instructors had specifically discouraged it or if this was her interpretation. In an email she writes:

At the opening for my MFA thesis . . . various people who saw my work told me that it was beautiful. Rather than take this as a compliment, I felt as if I had failed. If my work was beautiful then it must somehow be tame.

Like Anado, Ann creates transformation of place in her large-scale sculptural installations. I experience these transformations in their aesthetics rather than conceptual prescriptions. Although Ann suggests a “concern with the idea of abandonment with forces that are out of control, breaking down, and transforming into another state,” and feels beauty is byproduct of this process, the structures seem defined by beauty, albeit with a sense of loss.

Not part of the curriculum

It’s understandable that beauty has been discouraged in art school. Traditionally, it has been codified, held to a standard, beginning with a Greek ideal. Consider the aquiline nose, appearing first on Greek and Roman sculptures, then on Michelangelo’s David, and finally on the women by the Pre-Raphaelites.

In contemporary portraits, artist Malcolm Liepke replaces aquiline noses with red ones. How many red-nosed women do we have to view? Or does one need a red or aquiline nose to fit the schema of beauty? But throwing out the beautiful in contemporary art is a mistake: the critic thus fails to differentiate between beauty as an assessment (judgment through an ideal) and beauty as experience.

By treating beauty as an assessment, beauty is limited and becomes a tool for oppression. Consider beauty in the Nazi regime or the way that fashion defines beauty affects how we feel about ourselves. By treating it as experience, however, beauty cannot be codified — it is constantly expanding. I learned the expansive nature of beauty through social work rather than art school.

Finding traces of beauty

As a social worker in protective services, I was confronted with families who had murdered and raped their children. What exactly had I to offer a family whose father had just been released from prison for raping the toddler with a broomstick and the mother shouting on the phone, “I’m going to beat your ass,” if I showed up at their home in a South Philly housing project? I suspect my agency wanted me to discuss the real issues (as in, “don’t rape or murder your kids”) or come up with ways to prevent it from happening again.

I didn’t. Instead, I looked for the single thread of beauty that might exist in such a family even if the only thing in this family broken by poverty and drugs is the child’s ability to make beautiful letters in her school notebook. In this conviction, I explored with the family the beautiful letters while making certain each family member felt he or she enabled the child to create beauty, knowing as a family therapist that beauty is never an individual accomplishment, but is created by a system, communally. Knowing also that pulling upon this single thread may lead to another in exploring the expansive nature of beauty.

Ann Reichlin, sculpture, “Translucent Home.” 23' x 17' x 22', Steel, lath, reinforcement rod, house foundation; Sculpture Space grounds, Utica, New York, 2008. (Photo courtesy of the artist)
Ann Reichlin, sculpture, “Translucent Home.” 23' x 17' x 22', Steel, lath, reinforcement rod, house foundation; Sculpture Space grounds, Utica, New York, 2008. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Pulling beautiful threads from unfortunate families is much like than Ann Reichlin’s exploration of the decaying foundation of an abandoned house, finding transformative beauty of place in her piece Translucent Home (2008).

And the family’s involvement in beauty is similar to Anado’s understanding the communal dimension of beauty — the community in the village where he lives enables him to bring forth adornment that asks the viewer to participate in an experience that is ever expanding.

In its capacity to be a tool of oppression or path for transformation, beauty is no simple fairytale.

Our readers respond

William Benson

of Ithaca, NY on March 02, 2016

I found your essay compelling as it encourages us to experience some form of discovered beauty in our lives, wherever and whenever we can find it— not only from those who wish us to see their interpretations (Anado and Reichlin). However, I was hoping you might have delved into the more controversial aspects of the usurpation of "beauty" in contemporary art — whether or not "beauty" has anything to do with "art" as it is manifest by contemporary critics today. Where does the rotting head of a cow fit into anyone's wildest ideas about what is either beautiful or even acceptable as an essential visual experience?

In current issues of the New York Times Sunday Magazine is a full page ad for the (something fancy, expensive, uptown) hotel that features foremost a sculpture of Neptune and Persephone (fashioned rather crudely after the exquisite marble by Bernini), plated in gold and sporting (as a planter) some daisies by (who else?) Jeff Koons. It is, to my eye, such a disgusting take on "art" that it would be more at home in Saddam Hussein's inner brothel/sanctum — though even he might have a more refined sense of taste than this! And yet, this hotel displays this shit to attract the wealthy: "Hey, it's by Jeff Koons. Surely you've heard of him. Didn't know he did sculpture, did you?"
 

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