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Works That Work, No.1, Winter 2013

Custodians of Beauty

by Dingeman Kuilman (1629 words)

Dingeman Kuilman examines how art has divorced itself from aesthetic considerations and argues for a return to beauty as a measure of artistic merit.

Cover photo: Pope Benedict XVI waves as he arrives at the Sistine Chapel for a meeting with the artists on 21 November 2009 at the Vatican. Around 500 artists of various genres were invited by Pope Benedict XVI to the Sistine Chapel to discuss the renewal of the alliance between art and the Church while encouraging the artists to infuse spirituality into their work. Around 250 artists accepted the invitation to the gathering. (Photo: L’Osservatore Romano, Getty Images)

Some time ago the jury of the Rotterdam Design Prize outlined the following factors in its selection criteria: vision, authorship, execution, context and international relevance. According to the explanatory notes, the domestic jury added execution as a criterion because of the increased significance of craftsmanship and the process of realisation. Strikingly, any association with the aesthetic quality of a design—its beauty—was avoided.

The domestic and international jury members seemed to have found it difficult to give beauty a clear place in their adjudication. They are not alone: beauty has become a source of discomfort for most design professionals. It is as if they no longer dare utter the word aloud, while at the same time they both know and feel that it refers to something fundamental. So what went wrong between design and fashion on the one hand and beauty on the other?

In 1952, the poet and painter Lucebert wrote an untitled poem containing these lines:

in this age which people always termed
beauty beauty has burnt her face
she comforts mankind no longer
she comforts the larvae the reptiles the rats
but she startles mankind
and moves him with the sense
of being a breadcrumb on the skirt of the universe

Lucebert was 20 years old when the Netherlands was liberated from the Nazis. In his words, we hear his rage and despair over the injustice of the war years and the narrow-mindedness that followed. For him and the rest of his generation, beauty had become something unfathomable: the old trinity of truth, goodness and beauty was no more. Their experience of the aesthetic had been upset by a crippling awareness of futility.

We also see this phenomenon illustrated in Dick Elffers’s famous poster ‘Weerbare Democratie’ (‘Resilient Democracy’). He created the image in 1946 for an exhibition at the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam with which a group of artists hoped to strengthen leftist liberationist fervour. The expression of the man on Elffers’s poster reflects the horror Lucebert alludes to.

In the 1960s, beauty was attacked a second time. In an era of increased prosperity, people learned through media and advertising to link aesthetic experience to lifestyle. Their behaviour thereby conflicted with the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s notion that aesthetic judgements are selfless, that we take pleasure in things because we find them beautiful, rather than finding things beautiful because they give us pleasure. According to Kant, the true experience of beauty is separate from all self-interest in the form of enjoyment, ownership or status.

Is it naive to believe that the world should be beautiful, and that artists can help to make it so?

The consequences of the alliance between beauty and commerce are most starkly visible in cosmetic surgery. The Internet search terms ‘beauty’ and ‘design’ lead us to countless medical and paramedical clinics performing facelifts and nose jobs. Beauty is sold as a cure for old age and loneliness, a guarantor of success and happiness.

With its face both burnt and reconstructed, beauty loses much of its lustre. On one hand, we have the mistrust and nihilism of a society traumatised by war; on the other, the greediness and superficiality of an affluent state. This situation has consequences for design and fashion. As the judging criteria and jury reports of design contests show, beauty has been displaced by ideas like authorship, concept, inquiry and vision. Designs no longer stand out for their aesthetic quality but are praised for being authentic, interesting, original, poetic, personal or inventive.

One defence of beauty comes from an unexpected quarter. On 21 November 2009, Pope Benedict XVI received about 250 artists in the Sistine Chapel. Among them were the writers Kader Abdolah and Cees Nooteboom, the filmmaker and exhibition curator Peter Greenaway, the singer Andrea Bocelli and the architect Zaha Hadid. The Pope did not mince words:

‘The world in which we live runs the risk of being altered beyond recognition because of unwise human actions which, instead of cultivating its beauty, unscrupulously exploit its resources for the advantage of a few and not infrequently disfigure the marvels of nature. What is capable of restoring enthusiasm and confidence, what can encourage the human spirit to rediscover its path, to raise its eyes to the horizon, to dream of a life worthy of its vocation—if not beauty?’

Every pope, of course, preaches to the converted, but Benedict XVI did his best to make his speech relevant to non-Catholics too. For example, he cited Georges Braque (‘Art is meant to disturb, science reassures.’), who was certainly not a religious painter. The Pope did explicitly refer to the mystical aspect of the experience of beauty and link it to faith and Catholicism. He concluded his speech with a call to artists to place beauty at the centre of their work:

‘You are the custodians of beauty: thanks to your talent, you have the opportunity to speak to the heart of humanity, to touch individual and collective sensibilities, to call forth dreams and hopes, to broaden the horizons of knowledge and of human engagement.’

Benedict XVI was arguing for a via pulchritudinis: a road of beauty that leads to a reconsideration as necessary as it is fundamental. The same route is recommended to us by the British writer and philosopher Roger Scruton. In his 2009 book Beauty, he argues that beauty is an essential and universal value, vital to how we shape our society. Unlike the Pope, Scruton expresses a preference for a conservative aesthetic (he vehemently opposes the Turner Prize, artists like Tracey Emin, and ‘starchitects’ like Koolhaas), but this detracts little from the like-mindedness of the two men. Thus, Scruton writes:

‘Without the conscious pursuit of beauty we risk falling into a world of addictive pleasures and routine desecration, a world in which the worthwhileness of human life is no longer clearly perceivable.’

Benedict XVI and Scruton seek a restoration of the trinity of truth, goodness and beauty and the primacy of selflessness. In this, they hope to kill two birds with one stone. The work of artists, architects and designers will come to occupy a central place in society. And it will spur citizens to perceive the world in a more conscious way, so that they feel welcome again and begin to behave differently.

Dick Elffers, ‘Weerbare Democratie, Tentoonstelling volk in verzet’, 1946.

Beauty has become a superficial commodity to be sold and exploited, unworthy to be considered an artistic value.

I believe our times call for bold talk. Rather than seeking to legitimise culture through popularisation or social support (insofar as anyone can tell the two apart anymore), it seems to me more advisable to accord a central position to a rich concept like beauty in all its complexity. When I think of design and fashion, images present themselves on the basis of an experience—an aesthetic one, I suspect. For instance, I see Maarten Baas’s Sweeper clock, Hella Jongerius’s Non-Temporary earthenware, Viktor & Rolf’s Russian Doll show, and Bas Warmoeskerken’s RED Revisited plate. But I also see Anthon Beeke’s Globe posters, a brooch by Onno Boekhoudt, Andries Copier’s vases, Karel Martens’s telephone cards, Gerard Unger’s Hollander typeface – and Studio Joost Grootens’s atlases. In all these designs, I perceive a certain power.

This power is not conservative (that is a misconception on Roger Scruton’s part) but transformative. Like the ancient torso of Apollo in Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous sonnet, it spurs us towards change. It is a power that comes not from outside, like the financial crisis or the climate crisis, but from within us. Because we need it now more than ever, Pope Benedict XVI would be the ideal jury chairman for the next major design contest.

‘Custodians of Beauty’ is an edited version of the essay ‘Aesthetic Awakening’ first published in Premsela booklet, spring/summer 2010

Dingeman Kuilman was trained as a graphic designer, and is a former director of Premsela, the Netherlands Institute for Design and Fashion; he is currently Chairman of the Board of ArtEZ Institute of the Arts.

This article comes from Works That Work magazine, No.1.
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