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The Rejection of Beauty in 20th-Century Art
Beauty, as personified by Venus or Aphrodite, has been in evidence as a core concern of human beings for tens of thousands of years, since the time of the glorious cave paintings and sculptures found in ancient Palaeolithic caves. Its celebration in modern times has been degraded and rejected, its application to creative works a term of devaluation causing suspicion and anxiety in audiences and artists alike. In her book, Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in 20th-Century Art, Wendy Steiner underlines the assertion that modern art is purposely ugly and attempts to trace the intellectual roots of this monstrosity through the philosophies of Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke, early twentieth century arguments of the avant-garde and the movement to banish the feminine, the sentimental and the beautiful in striving to attain the shattering experience of the sublime. Steiner’s thesis throughout is that the result has been a “double dehumanising” and severe alienation of human interest. She provides an interesting account of what she perceives to be the inhumanity of modern art and its exorcism of women as objects of desire through a misogynistic attack on feminine beauty.
Steiner locates the avant-garde and modernist stance in Kant’s earlier distinction between the sublime and the merely beautiful. She idiosyncratically but deftly explores how philosophers at the height of the Classical Revival in the eighteenth century considered the problem of beauty in art. With reference to Kant’s Critique of Judgement of 1790, she explains how beauty came to be seen as having no function, whether spiritual, moral (or Sensual) or practical. Beauty, it was believed, could no longer find any definition in reason or laws, but could be produced only by genius, an intuitive faculty regarded as both innovative and unpredictable. Kant’s beauty not only looks different from Classical Beauty, it is different in kind: it is the sublime realisation of a state of mind, an intense awareness of life produced by aspects of nature that often lack rational form and threaten to engulf or destroy us. If beauty involves ease and idleness, the sublime involves difficulty and activity; if beauty grants repose and drowsiness, the sublime requires effort and tension. The sublime transcends everyday experience and is to be found in uncultivated nature, exotic strangeness and imagination pushed almost to the grotesque. Sublimity overpowers whereas beauty entices and embodies subservience.
Steiner invokes Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as a clear example of what she hails the modernist adaptation of the sublime: “Why not journey to the very heart of impurity to bring back the formal treasure? The logic of the avant-garde led ineluctably to the obscene, the pornographic, the abject.” Brutal, fantastical and fragmented, Picasso’s depiction of prostitutes on display is charged with undermining conventional expectations of female beauty. It is intended to shatter what the modernist perceived to be complacent, comfortable social hypocrisies and, in so doing, “shock … both the senses and sensibilities of the general public.” Appreciation by the modernist audience par excellence required the viewer to be able to come face to face, through the mediation of the artist, with an otherwise inaccessible, frightening reality as an experience of the sublime. Steiner maintains that, ironically, this desire for art to reach beyond the limitations of human experience, to “demonstrate its transcendence by including, indeed celebrating, every form of transgression” often resulted in the evocation of something depressing rather than sublime.
Steiner observes moreover that the beauty of women is strictly the beauty of sex, and this is a beauty, disturbingly enough, that builds on weakness, smoothness, delicacy and inferiority. As the beautiful, charming and agreeable were expulsed from artistic endeavour, so the domesticating female associated with these qualities was similarly rejected. Whilst perhaps reducing the admittedly infamous sexism and contempt for women of modernist artists to lyrical rhetoric by her style of writing, Steiner’s general tenet is sound. She claims, “Eliminating [women] from art was the most programmatic way to reveal the logic of the sublime, to divorce avant-garde art from bourgeois values, and to dismantle the ideology of female value enshrined in chivalric romance.”
Steiner frames the modernist rejection of the female subject as an aesthetic symbol in an understanding of the experience of beauty as a form of communication, in which an appreciation of beauty in another or in an object leads the perceiver to recognise his or her own beauty. In this view, beauty is not an inherent property of an object, existing independently of the act of judgement. Rather, beauty forms an act of discovery and an exchange of power, “an opportunity for self-revelation rather than a defeat.” Steiner explains how modernism undermines this dynamic understanding of beauty. She describes a one-way model of power in which “the perceiver, perplexed and ungratified by such a work, had no choice but to see the artist as the real centre of attention.” In reading Steiner’s book it is clear that it takes social courage to express taste now. It is no longer a matter of individual preference, but something you can get badly wrong …
Steiner argues convincingly and provocatively that the modernist rejection of everyday experience in turn “perpetuated a cultural deprivation from which we are only now recovering.” She explains in detail how the success de scandale may at once claim to be the epitome of modernist artistic creation that liberates us from limitations but in actuality be only dehumanising and desolating, provoking widespread public repugnance. Reflecting on this paradox, Steiner writes, “The procedure has turned the reception history of modern art into a repetitive farce, each episode of which typically begins with outrage concerning some shocking subject matter packaged in unprecedented formal means, and ends with an act of aesthetic mystification: the taming, denaturing, and stilling of threat by the calming discovery of form.” More hopefully though, Steiner’s book also signals that the dismissal of the beautiful as an artistic subject, triggered by the favouring of the sublime over the sensual, may gradually be going into reversal. She proposes the choreography of Mark Morris, the paintings of Marlene Dumas and the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald as examples of a new trend towards “the reimagination of the female subject as an equal partner in aesthetic pleasure”. Furthermore, she contends that this development goes beyond a mere reinstatement of premodernist conventions of beauty: “beauty appears in a new perspective. A female subject may symbolize it, but so may one who is male.”
Steiner’s exploration is detailed and generously illustrated, albeit sometimes to the detriment of systematic development. Meanderings aside, Venus in Exile offers intriguing flashes of astute understanding into the apparent destruction of beauty and the rejection of the female subject as an aesthetic symbol in twentieth-century art. It is a powerful read for anyone interested in discovering the resurrection of beauty and aesthetic primacy as acceptable terms of judgement and evaluation.
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