[Paleopsych] Common Review: Sleeping Beauty by Laurie Fendrich

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Sleeping Beauty by Laurie Fendrich
The Common Review, Vol. 3, No. 3

First, the summary from the Chronicle of Higher Education (5.1.19)

Beauty is no longer an essential part of art, and modern 
philosophy is largely to blame, says Laurie Fendrich, a 
professor of fine arts at Hofstra University and an abstract 

"Beauty considered in the purest and narrowest sense, as 
something where the visual parts fit into a whole in a pleasing 
way, and where this balance and harmony suggest to sensitive 
viewers something they think is transcendent or nonmaterial, is 
now extremely rare in serious contemporary art," she writes.

That is because philosophy and science no longer encourage the 
idea that transcendence is possible, she says.

"In particular," she writes, "the philosophical collapse of 
belief in natural law -- which is the idea that principles to 
morality exist outside of manmade conventions, and that reason 
can discover them -- inadvertently, by sheer accident, took down 
beauty with it."

The idea that there is no larger truth reduces beauty to a 
subjective experience, she says. Yet, as a painter, she cannot 
quite accept that. She has to believe that somehow the choices 
she makes in pursuit of beauty matter absolutely. Otherwise, she 
says, "it might as well be art therapy."

"I'd just as soon toss my brush in the trash and head for the 
white wine," she says.


While I was in Rome this past May, wandering around looking at art and 
architecture, newspapers carried the story of a London warehouse fire that 
destroyed millions of dollars worth of contemporary art. Works by (not so) 
Young (anymore) British Artists (originally called "YBA" for short) in the 
famous Charles Saatchi collection, were incinerated. Included among other 
similarly spirited works of art was Damien Hirst's dead shark, somberly 
suspended in a tank of blue formaldehyde. And then there was Tracey Emin's 
tent, its insides brazenly embroidered with the names of everyone she's 
ever slept with. Curators publicly bemoaned the loss to culture, and 
insurers hunkered down to do the depressing arithmetic.
      Meanwhile, many journalists covering the story couldn't help but 
smirk. Once again, a collision of a commonsense and practical human 
endeavor (in this case, firefighting) with the fatuous delirium of the art 
world had exposed the tinny arrogance of contemporary artists and the 
moneyed idiocy of contemporary collectors. Even I, an abstract painter, 
had a nice laugh thinking about smart art people huffing over the 
disappearance of chemically preserved dead sharks and camping tents with 
funky stitching.
      To permissive me, however, whatever serious people call art is art. 
The London warehouse fire destroyed art that is at the center of a 
vigorous cultural debate, and it follows that there was a genuine cultural 
loss. Logically speaking, that's hard to deny: the fire consumed some of 
the most well-known and-within the art world, at least-respected artwork 
of our time, bought and sold for very high prices by very astute and 
competitive collectors. I'm not a fan of these particular British artists, 
but contemporary art in general interests me. I follow it, and I include 
some of it in my Top 100 "play list" of art that I'd take to the 
proverbial desert island.
      And like most contemporary artists, I'm ambitious, which means I want 
my art to be favorably recognized in my own time. But during the past 
forty years, most contemporary art hasn't been like mine. Where I still 
try to make something beautiful, a lot of the best and most serious 
contemporary artists have turned their backs on beauty. Their real 
interests range from sex and death to politics, race, ethnicity, popular 
culture, religion, math, science and the theoretical underpinnings of art 
itself-in other words, to anything but beauty.
      Broadly speaking, this kind of art all fits into the category of 
"conceptual" art, rather than "retinal" art (to use Marcel Duchamp's 
famous distinction). Its first and primary concern isn't aesthetics. 
Beauty considered in the purest and narrowest sense, as something where 
the visual parts fit into a whole in a pleasing way, and where this 
balance and harmony suggest to sensitive viewers something they think is 
transcendent or nonmaterial, is now extremely rare in serious contemporary 
art. (High-end schlock contemporary art by an artist like Thomas Kincade, 
the self-described "painter of light," or illustrator-fauvists, with their 
either cynical or oblivious exploitation of a kitsch idea of beauty, 
doesn't count here.) But even broader ideas of beauty-where art might take 
a while to assimilate as beautiful because it's presented in the form of 
expressionist distortion of some sort-are becoming rarer. Overall, art 
that is about beauty usually doesn't command the same attention, nor, 
frankly, does it seem as compelling, as the widely varying art-from, say, 
Lawrence Weiner's austere work consisting purely of words, to the Chapman 
brother's penis-nosed, sneakered, mannequin kids-that eschews beauty.
      During the past decade, it looked briefly as if beauty might make a 
comeback. The word itself started popping up in New York Times art 
reviews, and a flurry of books about beauty appeared, notable among them 
Dave Hickey's The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (1993), 
Uncontrollable Beauty (1998)-a collection of essays by a variety of 
art-world ponderers, selected by Bill Beckley and David Shapiro-Elaine 
Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just (1999), and Arthur Danto's The Abuse of 
Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art (2003). For all their 
differences, these books argue the same point: The value of beauty has 
been in decline for a long time, but because beauty is essential to human 
beings, it can and will be resuscitated-even if that requires a little bit 
of tinkering with its meaning.
      All that writing on beauty-much of it coming from within the art 
world-hasn't, to my eye and experience, changed contemporary art's 
antibeauty tilt all that much. And now there are books that argue the 
opposite-that contemporary art is in crisis-such as Julian Spalding's The 
Eclipse of Art (2003) and Donald Kuspit's The End of Art (2004). For 
Donald Kuspit, art is past the crisis stage; it's simply over, and we're 
into an age of something awful that he calls "postart." Of course, in the 
wake of Francis Fukuyama's famously wrongheaded pronouncement that we've 
reached "the end of history," one should take with a ton of salt any news 
flash that something is "over." Whether or not art is over, however, 
beauty is in big trouble.
      If Plato is right-if you do become like what you imitate-ambitious 
art students incubating in art schools will only aggravate things once 
they hit the streets. Art students imitate art that gets the most 
attention, and these days, it's anything but beautiful art. Yes, balance, 
harmony and unity are still taught in beginning design classes, but 
they're taught as techniques, rather than convictions. In art schools, 
postmodern ideas that knowledge shifts according to who's "producing" it, 
that identity is "socially constructed" and therefore "slippery," and that 
"authorship" is a fiction and doesn't matter, permeate the studios like 
the smell of turpentine.

Oscar Wilde proposed that art mirrors not life, but the viewer. I believe 
that modern ideas in philosophy and science that had nothing to do with 
art-that were outside of it, and unconcerned with it-have been more 
powerful in weakening the power of beauty in art than anything that ever 
happened within art itself. By dragging beauty from its original lofty 
connection to a transcendent world and placing it squarely on the ground, 
next to all the other qualities of all the goods of the material world, 
modern philosophy and science cultivated a new kind of viewer. In 
particular, the philosophical collapse of belief in natural law-which is 
the idea that principles to morality exist outside of manmade conventions, 
and that reason can discover them-inadvertently, by sheer accident, took 
down beauty with it.
      Up until modernity, Western ideas about beauty and morality were 
connected by a powerful structural analogy. Plato, in particular, 
continually explored the deep connection between beauty and goodness. 
True, the analogy is subtle, and it is never so stupidly understood as to 
mean good people are physically beautiful or have good taste. But morals 
and beauty were each of a hierarchical system that ranked things from 
highest to lowest, and, in a complicated way that only a genius could 
trace, the moral realm and the aesthetic realm merged. Beauty and morality 
both lived under the protective wing of natural law right up until the 
modern age, when powerful ideas arguing that natural law was an invention 
of human beings-and that beauty and morality were products of history 
rather than aspects of universal truths-finally took over.
      Western art started out with an understanding of the world that was 
the opposite of what it is today. Beauty was in an ordered world, not just 
in the ordering mind, and human beings and gods were both a part of 
nature. At the foundation of Greek art was the general Greek worldview, 
which Plato's philosophy, in particular, articulates, out of which the 
classical political philosophy of natural law developed. Modern liberal 
political philosophy rejected classical natural law, of course, favoring a 
variety of social contract theories instead. Although there are some who 
still defend natural law-most notably, the Catholic Church-it's become an 
old-fashioned notion.
      The trouble with natural law begins in its claim to universality, but 
it doesn't end there. Natural law involves ranking things from low to 
high, which clashes with our own practice of justice that stress equality, 
rather than distinctions. Worse is the incontrovertible fact that natural 
law has been used over and over again to justify egregiously offensive 
institutions and ideas, such as slavery and the inferiority of women, or 
economic or social inequalities, such as the divine right of kings and the 
privileges accorded to aristocratic classes. Social contract theories can 
be equally adept at justifying inequalities-the parts of Rousseau's 
thought that turn women into Stepford wives can't be ignored. To be fair 
to natural law, however, people have turned to it at critical moments when 
rebelling against unjust institutions or rulers-as Jefferson did, for 
example, in writing the Declaration of Independence.

Ancient Greek artists have not left us evidence that they worried about 
natural law. Generally speaking, people thought that creatures were 
ranked, with man close to the top, and the animals, earth, trees, sky and 
all the rest of the natural world below him. Man was more wonderful than 
anything else in the natural world because even though he had a material, 
bodily existence, he also had reason, as well as a soul. But man was fixed 
in a place lower than the gods, who occupied the highest place. He had the 
tragic fate of not merely dying, like all living things, but knowing ahead 
of time that he must die. On occasion, a potentially divine side of man 
appeared, albeit in fleeting, bold moments and in only a few, blessed 
lives-for example, when a warrior was young and perfectly fit, and the 
blaze of combat in a just cause could compel him to forget his fear of 
death, reaching instead for glory and honor in battle.
      This kamikaze-pilot kind of beauty is too extreme for us to embrace 
today. And even though we can understand the Greek principle that art was 
about pleasure, we think of our pleasures differently from the way they 
thought about them. In Greek thinking, everything, from human beings to 
pleasures, seems to have been ranked, and the highest pleasure was always 
connected to the highest and most noble ideas. In art these highest ideas 
showed up as beauty.
      The Roman historian Pliny noted that the Greeks valued likeness (what 
we call "naturalism"). It's not hard to see this, even without Pliny's 
help. All we have to do is look at classical Athenian statues from the 
fourth and third centuries BCE (marble Roman copies of which are now 
scattered in museums around the world). Everything is under control in 
these statues; proportion, balance and rhythm all work to convey an 
extraordinary naturalism. And we still take pleasure in likeness today, 
valuing it so much that most people prefer photography-based images ("it 
looks real" kinds of images) to patterns and designs or expressionist 
distortions of things.
      We don't love likeness, however, in the same way as the classical 
Greeks did. No matter how naturalistic, Greek ideas of imitation were 
always modified by the overarching Greek conviction that transitory 
artistic imitations referred to something permanent. The highest or best 
likeness showed up in the statue of the perfect male nude, the beauty of 
which revealed that a man had the potential to be divine. The Greeks 
thought that by applying in art the proportions of geometry to the body, 
they created a link to the realm beyond and superior to the senses.
      Accurate proportion-which is the trick to achieving likeness, by the 
way-was a special kind of imitation. It imposed on the biological body the 
clarity of geometry. And the intriguingly special proportion of the golden 
section, where the ratio of the smaller part of a whole to the larger part 
is the same as the larger part is to the whole, also fascinated the 
Greeks. It shows up in the proportions of the Parthenon, for example-in 
mathematics, it's a proportion of about 5:8. Proportion was so important 
in Greek art that the canon of Polyclitus, now lost, stated that beauty 
lies in the proportions of the parts of the human body.
      Today, geometry is confined to the tenth grade, pushed to the side by 
modern physics. And Greek statues, although mesmerizing for their awesome 
antiquity, do not move us by how close they are to something divine. Who 
can believe in Sophocles' idea of man as a wonderful thing when, whether 
we're practicing Christians or not, most of us harbor residual traces of 
the Christian idea that at bottom man is a bad sort of fellow? Even 
without accepting Christianity's cloud of sin hanging over the human race, 
we look around us and perceive humanity constantly at work on a stupefying 
variety of evils: genocide, terrorism, wars of aggression, racism, 
subjugation of women, exploitation and abuse of children-who can list it 
      The medieval Christian thinker Thomas Aquinas fundamentally changed 
natural law by adapting it to Christian theology. Natural law was still in 
force, and man was still near the top of its hierarchy. But the plurality 
of merely superhuman gods who existed within natural law was replaced by a 
single omnipotent God who, after creating the world and its Christian 
morality, floated of necessity above the human hurly-burly on earth.
      But natural law was turned upside down with the publication of 
Machiavelli's The Prince. In his blatant reduction of justice to sheer 
power, Machiavelli turned morality into a question of who wins rather than 
who is right. Machiavelli was subversive, however, and ahead of his time. 
Aquinas' natural law-that God created each living thing and gave it its 
nature-continued to pervade Western culture. Without Aquinas, for example 
the Renaissance Sistine Chapel ceiling would not be adorned with all those 
sensuous, dangling nudes. The classical Greek art that had been lost 
during the Middle Ages-either suppressed for its pagan qualities, or 
simply melted down for its bronze-was rediscovered during the Renaissance 
but also reinterpreted to fit Christian beliefs. The nude was now 
explained as beautiful because God made man in his own image.
      From its inception until now, beauty in Renaissance art was attached 
to illusion. Although there were internal artistic struggles over whether 
color should be the most important part of painting (as it was for 
Titian), or design should dominate it (as Michelangelo thought), art used 
illusion to try to capture not just physical likeness, but the underlying 
design accepted as inherent in the natural world. There was a fierce 
longing, particularly in painting, to capture the roundedness of nature 
and even to compete with it over which was more powerful. Raphael's 
epitaph exposes the ferocity of the struggle to get a hold of nature and 
aesthetically subdue her: "Here lies the famous Raffaello Sanzio. When he 
was alive, the Great Parent of things feared she would be beaten by him; 
when he was dead, she feared she herself would die."

The pure "aesthetic experience" as we know it wasn't possible until the 
eighteenth century, when beauty rose to the top of the charts as its own 
hot topic. While political philosophers coming after 
Machiavelli-especially Hobbes and Locke-had been doing the hard work of 
systematically replacing classical natural law with modern natural right, 
beauty was on the back burner. During the Enlightenment, however, 
philosophy's beady eyes turned to beauty. Kant's revolution established 
that abstract universals like beauty derive from how the human mind works, 
rather than from objective qualities in objects themselves, and paved the 
way for subjective feeling, or taste, to become the standard for beauty.
      By the middle of the nineteenth century, confidence was high that 
direct, individual experience was the final arbiter of taste was high. 
Logical positivism had a huge impact on early modern artists, particularly 
the impressionists, who based their art on their sensations. Meanwhile, 
beauty in traditional art had devolved into academic formulae for good 
taste and teachable tricks for achieving an expedient naturalism. 
Nonartists seldom realize how deft many artists can become at making 
illusions. After four hundred years of the Renaissance model, illusion had 
become the sine qua non of beauty, and beauty was ready for the assembly 
line. The invention of the camera (in 1839) helped artists with mediocre 
talent achieve the same effects as masters. The rising ubiquity of 
beauty-in the sense of good-looking industrially produced goods and easy 
reproductions of beautiful images-made the old idea of beauty as "high" 
and "rare" antiquated. Modern artists who were truly artists-who truly 
wanted to make beauty-were essentially forced to break with Western art's 
tradition of beauty through naturalism.

Of all the nineteenth century's ideas, Darwin's theory of evolution 
undermined beauty the most. Evolution had nothing directly to do with 
beauty, but in time it would have a brutal effect on it. Darwin revealed 
that life begins with the simplest organisms and, over eons, evolves to 
the most complex creatures such as apes and human beings. The change is 
mechanistic, occurring through random mutation-not through designed 
mutation, or acquired characteristics that are inherited, but through 
sheer accident. The species whose history of random mutations makes them 
survivors survive, and the others don't. Darwin called this mechanism 
"natural selection." Darwin's theory that humankind's appearance at the 
summit of the animal kingdom could be explained simply materially, by the 
concept of evolution, was the scientific repudiation of natural law that 
philosophy had been anticipating since Machiavelli.
      For all his avowed love of Aristotle, Darwin replaced design with 
accident-and cruel accident, at that. The Descent of Man (1871) turned 
human beings into creatures who weren't even particularly important 
accidents, just another species-accident that happened to derive from the 
same ancestor as apes. Forget both divine spark and divine design. Human 
beings became biologically defined material creatures, on a par with newts 
and chimps. All three are equally worthy or unworthy of delight and 
despair, or preservation and extinction.
      In the famous ending to The Origin of Species (1859), Darwin observes 
the beauty in evolution:

 	There is a grandeur in this view of life with its several powers, 
having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, 
whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of 
gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most 
wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

      But Darwin's elucidation of the mechanism of natural selection, 
whereby new species emerge from earlier forms of life, was not such a 
beautiful idea to everyone when it was first introduced, and it remains 
loathsome to many people today. When it comes to beauty, it can present a 
serious problem-and not just for creationists. Pondering beauty after 
Darwin demands a reconciliation of the idea of beauty with human beings 
who are no more than mechanistic products of random mutations in lower 
life forms.
      To my husband, who is an abstract painter like me, but an avowed 
materialist of the Daniel Dennett sort, there is no problem here. For him, 
beauty needs no connection to transcendence in order to be beauty. If he 
has the sensation of beauty when he paints, and a small but attentive 
audience responds with a like feeling to what he's painted that's all he 
asks of his life as an artist. He fully accepts that beauty is material, 
and considers my yearning for a transcendent beauty to be a weakness, a 
sign of someone who can't face the truth and wants to be comforted.
      There are many artists like me who find Darwinian materialism so 
dispiriting that it affects our overall confidence in our art. Absorbing 
Kant's teachings-that our paintings aren't in themselves beautiful-is hard 
enough. But to absorb Darwin's teaching-that beauty is only one of the 
myriad material explanations for reproductive success-is heartbreaking. 
When I intuitively adjust something in my painting to make the color more 
beautiful, for example, I believe the adjustment matters absolutely. If 
it's only for me and a few other deluded souls, it might as well be art 
therapy. I'd just as soon toss my brush in the trash and head for the 
white wine. There is no reconciliation of beauty-which is irrational, or 
at least nonrational-with rational, material explanations of the world.
      It's hard even to be a deist after Darwin, despite Darwin's final 
ringing sentence in The Origin of Species. Sure, the Harvard professor and 
popular science professor Stephen Jay Gould managed to stay upbeat, as do 
college-town Episcopalians with a couple of scotches under their belts. 
Both resort to the fallback idea of a distantly removed winder-upper of 
clocks. But many people, especially the pitiable fundamentalists, find 
hard-core evolution, with its lack of intentional design, too bitter a 
pill to swallow. In fact, half of all Americans won't swallow it and still 
believe that God directly created Adam. A quarter of them want creationism 
taught in the public schools. But contemporary artists, whether like my 
husband or like myself, are by nature outsiders. We're more aligned with 
freethinkers than religious fundamentalists. Many artists know very little 
math or laboratory science, but almost without exception they 
instinctively rebel at fundamentalist rebuttals to religiously 
inconvenient scientific ideas.

Among the art world cognoscenti, blame for the lack of beauty in 
contemporary art (or, more often, credit) is laid at the feet of Marcel 
Duchamp, the granddaddy of conceptual art who made it abundantly clear, in 
both his art and memorably sly ironic comments, that he had nothing but 
contempt for beauty. By the time Duchamp appeared on the art scene shortly 
after 1910, modern art had been going strong for nearly half a century, 
and it would have another half century before it would poop out with the 
arrival of pop art. From our vantage point today, it's clear that one of 
the most important accomplishments of modern art was to open us up to new 
ideas about what can be considered beautiful. Modern art threw aside 
idealized nudes and pastoral landscapes, replacing them with thrilling 
explorations of color and form, including radical distortions of nature 
and full abstraction. Isamu Noguchi, for example, an artist who rose to 
prominence in the 1930s and 1940s, at the height of modern art, summed up 
the modern spirit when he said, "Everything is sculpture. Any material, 
any idea without hindrance born into space, I consider sculpture."
      Modern art ought to have been good for beauty-indeed, it ought to 
have been beauty's salvation, having rescued it from the banality of 
French Academic art-and it was, for a while. Although Picasso considered 
art to be a lie that reveals truth (rather than a lie that reveals 
beauty), he could churn out forms from his imagination that all but the 
most rigid middle class families eventually would incorporate as part of 
what they considered beautiful. When Duchamp initially offered a urinal 
for consideration alongside other modern works of art in the 1917 Society 
of Independent Artists exhibition in New York, modern art's more radical 
enthusiasts barely hesitated an instant before embracing the idea that a 
"found," factory-produced object like a urinal could be as beautiful as 
any work by Picasso. "I threw the bottle rack and the urinal into their 
faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty," 
Duchamp said.
      Duchamp was the first artist to recognize that modern art could not 
eternally spin out new forms for aesthetic delectation and still maintain 
what we now call its "cutting edge." Inevitably, it would die out because 
artists and audience alike would grow tired and bored at an endless parade 
of expressionism, cubism and abstraction. Duchamp was right about the 
boredom part of modern art, even if there are some artists like my husband 
and myself who continue to love the particular beauty of its abstract 
forms. But even without the general cultural exhaustion with modern art , 
or Duchamp's ironic jabs, modern philosophy and science would have 
eventually undermined belief in beauty all on their own.
      Modern philosophy and science inadvertently dragged beauty from what 
had always been its lofty perch, and fixed it firmly to the ground, right 
in the middle of the material world. Turning beauty into no more than the 
material here and now is what eventually made it problematic for artists 
to believe beauty is worthy of pursuit and not some perverse inclination 
on the part of a particular group of self-indulgent artists. The 
exasperated stance toward contemporary artists that so many non-art people 
take-asking why artists can't just make something beautiful-is patently 
unfair. It pressures artists to come up with what no one else can, to come 
up with what the rest of society no longer deeply believes in-beauty. 
Contemporary science and philosophy, considered together, explain the 
current antibeauty slant in contemporary art better than any of the 
particulars that have to do with either modern art or Duchamp's ironic 
stance toward it.
      Beauty, it turns out, was ditched for good reason. Before science 
progresses much further, it might be a good idea for it to weed out the 
human gene that longs for transcendent beauty. Otherwise, we'll all be a 
miserable lot, desiring from both art and life something neither can 

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