what do we talk about –

– when we talk about beauty?

Here is a question for you: Is it at all possible to talk about beauty as a defined or delimited concept? Let me show you some examples of art usually described as beautiful. Do these works have a common quality of any sorts – a quality which could be named beauty?

The Virgin and Child with Angels, Jean Fouquet . Oil on panel, 94.5 x 85.5cm, c. 1452, Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten.

In The Waning of the Middle Ages the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga described this painting as a most appalling example of a dangerous blend of amorous and religious feelings. “There is a flavour of blasphemous boldness about the whole,” he wrote.

Blossoming Almond Tree,Vincent van Gogh, Saint-Rémy: February, 1890

Blossoming Almond Tree is one of Vincent van Gogh’s best known paintings and is noteworthy in that both Van Gogh and his closest family held the work in high regard. This painting is one of a small handful that Van Gogh produced with a particular person in mind–in this case, his brother and sister-in-law’s newborn baby. Van Gogh was deeply moved when Theo and Johanna chose to name the child Vincent and he always harboured a great deal of affection for the child. Van Gogh painted Blossoming Almond Tree to honour his namesake and it remains a tour-de-force, both the product of Vincent’s fondness for his nephew as well as the Japanese art which he so greatly admired.

Today’s life and War, Gohar Dashti, 2008, Iran

Gohar Dashti is a contemporary favorite of mine, this is what she says about her series Today’s Life and War:

The series Today’s Life and War emerged from my experiences during the eight year Iran-Iraq War. This conflict has had a strong symbolic influence on the emotional life of my generation. Although we may be safe within the walls of our homes, the war continues to reach us through newspapers, television and the Internet.

This body of work represents war and its legacy, the ways in which it permeates all aspects of contemporary society. I capture moments that reference the ongoing duality of life and war without precluding hope. In a fictionalized battlefield, I show a couple in a series of everyday activities: eating breakfast, watching television, and celebrating their wedding. Though they do not visibly express emotion, the man and woman embody the power of perseverance, determination, and survival.

Sensuality, nature and the human condition; it is possible to find beauty everywhere. But are we talking about the same kind of beauty in different circumstances, or are we using a word which is out of synch, trying to group things much too different to be compared?
in short:
what do we talk about – when we talk about beauty?

34 Comments Add yours

  1. Rio says:

    Beauty has to be realized. It has to be intimate. A lot of people have never realized beauty and if they have, it was so fleeting and unsubstantiated that they forgot it immediately, but what a terrible thing to admit, so they look around for people with strong opinions and say, “Yeah, I agree, that’s beauty!” Often, the positive opinion is for something conveniently within the bounds of what is acceptable to the society, or at least on the edge of it.

    If it has to be explained it is second hand and beauty is never second hand. What can be explained is the experience of realizing beauty because it is universal. It is as if the strings of our being are being strummed and we are instruments of unselfish joy.

    1. Sigrun says:

      thank you, Rio!

  2. pulpfictionme says:

    I reflect on going to an art museum and seeing two dollar bills folding and placed on top of each other. The person leading the tour pleaded her case on why it was art. I don’t feel there should ever have to be a case for why something is art. Rather, art is dependent upon the ability to reach into the unknown of our soul and pull out something both foreign and known to us. This is reliant on the recipients ability to be vulnerable. It also has to relate to the recipients life somehow. Even as generations pass, our wars fought over seas, we are all still human. Art is the connection through medium between two people. The question is, “do we want this connection?”

    1. Sigrun says:

      “… art is dependent upon the ability to reach into the unknown of our soul and pull out something both foreign and known to us”, interesting – will think about it; thank you!

  3. c m wilson says:

    I think it goes without saying that beauty is subjective. What is beautiful to some is ugly to others. I think there is something to be said about what education can do to enhance one’s experience of beauty. I notice this particularly with regard to art, and I think part of it ties into the comment above, about being vulnerable. To understand is to be as vulnerable as to not understand. This could take longer space than I have here to explain what I mean, but to me, part of experiencing beauty is to experience an appreciation for the subject at hand. The question is, is one’s appreciation greater the deeper one’s understanding of the subject?

    1. Rio says:

      is one’s appreciation greater the deeper one’s understanding of the subject? I think definitely. But a need to know can start with the experience and understanding is only going to increase the appreciation of it.

      1. Sigrun says:

        But what about moments when you, totally unexpected, are “taken” by beauty?

      2. Rio says:

        Those are the best! I think they cause us to want to learn more about it. Is collecting this information a sort of stepping down of the initial experience? It is hard to maintain a state of rapture after all.

    2. Sigrun says:

      But how come we can agree on something being more beautiful than other things if it is a pure subjective judgement?

      1. Harold Rhenisch says:

        But is beauty actually subjective? Might it be that beauty is there and people apprehend it according to their subjectivities?

      2. Sigrun says:

        … beauty is something objective, out there, that you (every one of us) can realize in a subjective way?

      3. Harold Rhenisch says:

        Perhaps. I meant, though, that the beauty is stable. We all get different views of it. That would accord with brain development science, how we all see a world determined by our pre-pubescent environment, that all humans do NOT see the same earth.

  4. Harold Rhenisch says:

    Intimate, that’s a good word. What strikes me here as a point of commonality is the act of paying attention. With that goes the act of being present in the moment of seeing. If I think of the Gallery of Old Masters in Dresden, many floors of images designed to be beautiful, it’s the one Rembrandt room in the midst of it all that stands out heads and shoulders above that sense of beauty, because Rembrandt made himself present in those paintings, far more than the Old Masters did, who concentrated on ecclesiastical and administrative criticism within a carefully couched language of gestures and motifs, within very polished, cool surfaces. Maybe classical beauty is not what we, today, post-Rembrandt, see as beauty? Maybe that difference can unlock a pattern?

    1. Rio says:

      I think we miss a lot of beauty because of circumstances.

      1. Sigrun says:

        Can you say a bit more about what you mean by this?

      2. Rio says:

        Initially what I saw in the painting you used in this post was that the exposed breast was much larger than the other. It is a odd detail but it reminded me of a comment made about a young woman who I consider the most beautiful woman I had ever met. “Breathtaking” was the expression and I don’t mean in a sexual way, her face, complexion and serenity struck me as such a blinding contrast to the crass gutter of her circumstances. Was she less beautiful because of the company she kept? No but I didn’t say, “I think she is beautiful” for a lot reasons and didn’t remember her until I saw that painting. (I was very young myself at the time.) Poets and artists who aren’t as lazy or forgetful as I will see beauty and recall it. But even they may never have their work seen or be gifted enough to render it well… Van Gogh for all his brilliance needed Vincent. If not he would have just been a mad man. The brilliance and beauty of so much of his work never realized.

    2. Sigrun says:

      Very interesting Harold! Here are some follow ups:
      – I’m sure many would agree with you about the Rembrandt room, what I’m interested in is why – why will so many agree on the same judgement (taken that appreciation of beauty has a subjective foundation)?
      – What if I claim: today, in the 21cent we agree on the beauty and importance of rembrandt because we all have become extremely self-centered. So that what we see in Rembrandt actually is ourselves?

      1. Harold Rhenisch says:

        Finding ourselves in Rembrandt… sure. What I saw there was Rembrandt. He was, in the Elvis sense, in the room. That’s part of it. But I think part of it is that the classical idea of beauty, balance and right form, is not what we talk about today as beauty. We see that as static. Maybe we have become more attuned to the movement of energy. But it could also be that the classical sense was romance or tapestry and the modern sense is linear narrative, novels or film. Very different.

      2. Sigrun says:

        Rembrandt as Elvis, hadn’t expected such a parallel – thats for sure. Most appreciated!
        (Not sure how I’m gonna integrate it in my writing yet, but time will show)

  5. Jen says:

    For me witnessing beauty is to find a novelty in something… something which sets it apart from everyday. You can’t really see anything but beauty in Van Goghs and Rembrandts… until the mastery of prints gluts the market and makes what was extreme novelty a common-day thing. So I think beauty changes with time and for instance, taking into account the rapidly evolvling and over exposure to media… beauty has morphed into a much smaller thing for me. Whatever can be left to be considered a novelty? That is beauty !

  6. Sigrun says:

    Thank you, Jen! I wonder; do you think of this as a kind of definition which could be put into praxis?

    1. Jen says:

      Naivel and provincial me says ~~ Um…. if I could understand your question, I could answer better…lol.

      1. Jen says:

        Pardon my ‘loose’ L on my keyboard… far too many unwanted ones in my replies. 😉

      2. Sigrun says:

        You know me, all my keys sit rather loose …!

        I guess the question would be something like this: What is novelty? You say “a novelty in something… something which sets it apart from everyday”. What is this novelty, is it beauty, or is it something that can become Beauty?

  7. Anthony says:

    It is fascinating that, as in these discussions, people think of beauty and immediately think of art, yet art can only ever be a representation of a thing. Art can present us with the beautiful representation of an ugly thing. For this to be true there must be some rules or commonalities in what is beautiful in art. Rules, yet applied by genius, because how could anyone less than a genius represent beauty?

    1. Sigrun says:

      I very much agree with this, with the idea that …”Art can present us with the beautiful representation of an ugly thing.” And many of us has also seen art (?) rendering beautiful things in an ugly way. The question-mark indicates that I’m unsure whether the result still can be called art.

      But, as a continuation, do you think that there can be a standard – a canon of beautiful art?

      As I see it, the easy way out here is to say: appreciation of beauty is a subjective thing. I do not believe it’s right, but I do not know what is more right either.

      1. Anthony says:

        For me, beauty can only be subjective because it cannot be an intrinsic property of whatever is being observed. I can look at a desert and find it beautiful, yet beauty is not a property of that desert. So if beauty is not actually there, it can only be cognitive, a property of my imagination dependent on time, mood, and perhaps other things. But in a way beauty is also more than subjective, because it goes beyond mere projection. This is further complicated when we talk of representations of things rather things in-themselves.

  8. c m wilson says:

    If the definition of Beauty as a standard (as you seem to be seeking, Sigrun) purely defines an aesthetic, then I still say beauty must be subjective. If, on the other hand, we are talking about Beauty as an experience or a feeling, then mustn’t that also be defined subjectively? Shouldn’t one start by defining what is meant by beauty before seeking to define it’s intrinsic values or characteristics? Or maybe it’s the other way around? Wonderful ideas above, thank you all for the discussion.

  9. Harold Rhenisch says:

    “Art can present us with the beautiful representation of an ugly thing.” Ah, but is it an ugly thing? And is art a representation? Are viewers responding to the representational aspects of the art, or to something else? If someone has found beauty in it, is it an ugly thing? Or is the term “ugly” only a social distinction at that point? During the wars of the iconoclasts in Byzantium, the fight was over images of Christ — not over their beauty but over the spiritual significance of any image at all. It was a major artistic struggle, which paved the way for islamic calligraphy (and orthodox icons), on the one hand, and Titian on the other. Both are what might today be called beautiful, but from within their art practices other issues are far more essential. That suggests to me that what is being responded to is not purely content or representation. One might say it is colour and form, and that responses are biologically coded, but the iconoclasts would likely respond that colour and form are representations of God, not of biology, and, of course, that is also true. As for the iconoclasts, it was in one sense a male-female divide, and that one has ancient roots, especially in spiritual contexts. Jung would likely cheer us on in that direction.

  10. Rio says:

    We can talk about Art, capital A. There are rules, history and commerce that help define what it is, those things are not subjective but they are debated. Beauty can be found in Art but is not dependant on it. Rather Art sometimes pretends to dictate what is beauty, often following the tastes of it’s benefactors.

    Sometimes I am afraid that people devalue beauty that they have realized because they feel it is not Art. I am glad that there are forums that are not financially dependant on a governance to exist where people can share their experiences of beauty. Hooray for blogs! (There are also places where they can share their experiences of ugliness. These seem to be very popular, which is unfortunate but perhaps it is because beauty, we have been told, is the province of the rich or famous. It’s not true, but it can be intimidating. The weird thing is even in the endless depictions of suffering and cruelty a kind of integrity starts to flower, like flowers in an artic winter. So perhaps beauty is resilient and will always find expression regardless of any fascism.)

    1. Rio says:

      I think I should clarify that my definition of suffering and cruelty is rather PG. I am not referring to anything criminal, but stuff along the lines of the average television series these days.

    2. Sigrun says:

      I share this concern of yours “Sometimes I am afraid that people devalue beauty that they have realized because they feel it is not Art.” – it is to some degree the reason for my study.

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