Wednesday, 25 November 2009

beauty is not the only fruit (or why the Pope no nothing)

The Pope seems to be one of those figures, a little like the Queen, that people just can't resist. He summons: you come. That sort of thing. And so when he summoned 300 or so artists from all over the world for a meeting to discuss the state of contemporary art and aesthetics, they came.

It's not altogether surprising that while the rest of the art world has moved on, the Papal court is still stuck in the Renaissance. To be fair, I'm not that surprised, given that the Catholic Church's hold on art was never as strong as it was during the Renaissance. And what art it was! Certainly some of the most beautiful works of fine art ever created were done so because of the Church's patronage. The gorgeous frescos within the Vatican itself are testament to this, as is the nearby Galleria Borghese - one of the most splendid museums in Rome, if not the world. We'd most likely not know of the brilliant Bernini were it not for Cardinal Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V, who was one of Bernini's earliest patrons.

Having defended the Catholic Church far more than I intended to, I still find Pope Benedict's comments during the symposium somewhat limited. Essentially his holiness brought these artists together to urge them to get back to beauty. He told the artists, '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.' Sure the sentiment is nice, but the view is especially limited. As I'm sure we're all aware, beauty is not the only fruit...

The idea that beauty is the most appropriate force for inspiration and positive change is ridiculous and limited. Let me bring the following works of art to your attention:

As even just the four works above demonstrate, there are a hundred ways to be moved by art and only one of them is beauty - if anything, beauty is one of the most superficial emotions provoked by art. It's beautiful, but so what? What moves you about beauty? What about beauty makes you think differently about the world? What is so profound about artistic beauty? As Conrad says so well with his idea of the 'fascination of the abomination' sometimes it is the terrible, the awful, or the sublime which elicits the most profound thoughts. Or maybe it's something that you can't quite put your finger on - this is what people talk about when they break down in raptures over the Mona Lisa - certainly not a 'beautiful' painting.

Maybe what the Pope really means by 'beauty' is actually 'nature' or 'truth'. This is something the eighteenth-century writers speak about a great deal. They don't say that art should be beautiful, they say that it should imitate, yet surpass nature. The best art is recognisable as something true, but which manages to surpass mere empirical truth.

A piece I love by Canova - the statue of Cupid and Psyche - illustrates this well. With the exception of mythic Cupid's wings, the figures resemble humans, but their sculptural perfection surpasses nature - these lovers will never age - and I think there's something in that which moves people. It's not necessarily the beauty that moves you - though this is certainly a contributing factor - it's the melancholy that comes from comparing the imperfection of love in real life with the perfection of Canova's two lovers. They will never argue, never part, never do anything but stay locked in each other's embrace for eternity (ignore the fact that this is sort of creepy, really...) and that's part of what moves us, it's not just that the statue is a thing of beauty.

So I guess if you're an artist and you want to get into heaven, paint pretty flowers or clouds or whatever, but if you want to provoke some kind feeling in the viewer, you're going to have to try a bit harder.

1 comment:

David Barrie said...

Great post. American art critic Dave Hickey once wrote something really useful on this beauty thing. The idea - if I remember it right - is that the beauty merchants promise a grandeur that's an illusion. Fortunately, the grandeur is often so grand - or -eur - that the illusion is demystified. 8:-)