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Art suffers when beauty's shunned

A walk through a contemporary art gallery can lead to a strange conclusion: Some art just isn't very pretty. It's funny. In the contemporary art world, I'm almost tempted to say that if something is visually beautiful, then it's kitsch or that th...

A walk through a contemporary art gallery can lead to a strange conclusion: Some art just isn't very pretty.

It's funny. In the contemporary art world, I'm almost tempted to say that if something is visually beautiful, then it's kitsch or that the ugly and harsh is "avant garde."

I chatted with an old friend of mine, Dale Hoover, about visual beauty and art the other day. He's a professor of humanities at Edison State College in Ft. Myers, Fla.

"There's less interest in pure decoration it seems than there is in a beautiful concept or an issue that an artist wants to present," he says, comparing art of the 20th century to that of previous generations.

Exemplifying the shift away from the visually appealing was the Dadaism of the 1910s and 1920s. In a recent Forum article that discussed Dadaism, Concordia College art department chair Peter Schultz called Dada "anti-art art" and said its practitioners were "questioning the very idea that the beautiful is possible."

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But is something lost in all this? I want to suggest that it is, that visual beauty is an integral part of the visual arts and that the art world has lost its way a bit on this front.

Of course, some might argue that what is ugly to me is beautiful to them. But is beauty purely opinion, purely subjective? Is beauty utterly in the eye of the beholder? Or could it be that there are some things that are objectively beautiful?

I want to suggest that that is the case. I believe, for example, that Beethoven's 5th simply is, in a very real sense, more beautiful than the Happy Birthday melody. Its power and grace tap into something that is more beautiful by a standard that rises above opinion.

If this notion seems strange, consider the way we think about morality, which, like beauty, is an abstract, somewhat nebulous concept. With regard to morals, people will disagree about what is valid and what is not, much as we do with art.

Yet, I would make the argument that certain actions are objectively right or wrong. The Holocaust, for example, was wrong. Child abuse is wrong. Caring for my children is right. And these truths aren't simply my opinion.

So if in morals there are objective realities, might there also be in aesthetics? And if we cannot say that one thing is more beautiful than another, can we say anything is truly beautiful at all? But surely Michelangelo's "Piet?" or Rembrandt's "The Return of the Prodigal Son" are beautiful?

I should add that I am not suggesting that all art should be light and whimsical. Francisco Goya's "The Third of May" and "Saturn Devouring His Children," for example, take on graphic, violent topics. But the compositional, visual forms do not suffer.

Further, I would not paint the issue so broadly as to say that no valid art can be ugly or that traditional compositional structure must always be adhered to. But it seems that the pendulum has swung to the point that the ugly is sometimes embraced for its own sake while the value of beauty is missed. And, in that, art has suffered.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734

and smerc@forumcomm.com

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