Beauty in art

October 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

Growing up, living in Chicago land, I would visit the Art Institute about twice a year. I usually went with school groups or my parents and “beautiful” was the most common word, which I used, to describe impressionist paintings.  I grew up thinking the works of Monet, Cassatt, and Degas were what beautiful art was. Colorful landscapes and poised ballerinas painted with short brush strokes and slightly distorted proportions. When I would walk around the museum I would look at everything but for some reason the impressionist paintings would stick with me the most—perhaps because the Art Institute holds one of the largest impressionist and post impressionist collections in the world, so I saw an overwhelmingly larger amount than any other era.  Now when I walk through the Art Institute, which happens a great deal more than it used to, I can’t even bare looking at impressionist paintings. It is almost safe to say that I hate them.

This change occurred slowly, maybe because my interests have changed or perhaps it’s because I’ve learned a lot more about art while being in art school or maybe because I looked at impressionist paintings too much in the past. Now the art, which I considered repulsive and previously couldn’t identify with, is what strikes my fancy.  I love postmodern, contemporary art—beautiful is almost an understatement. I find the grotesque work of Kiki Smith and minimalistic works of Richard Serra, Ellsworth Kelly, and Donald Judd to be much more interesting and thought provoking—which is beautiful to me.  Growing up, I thought art had to be visually beautiful or else it wasn’t art. Now I feel like I am drawn to the non-representational—to what I used to find confusing. I used to not be able to look at minimalistic art for more than a second because I thought I understood it immediately. I thought that what you see is what you get— it is a cube and nothing more. After taking a few modern and contemporary art history classes and knowing why someone would want to make something so plain, I think beyond the physical-ness of the piece and more about the history and the artist behind it. If I have to look at a piece of art for longer than a minute, then it is beautiful. If it can’t keep my attention for a short time then how can it be beautiful?

In Elaine Scarry’s book On Beauty and Being Just, she talks about how much she dislikes palm trees. Scarry explains why she thinks she hates them so much.  “It was a tree whose most common ground is a hemisphere not my own or a coast not my own, the error may seem to be… about mistakes arising from cultural difference.” I think the reason that I used to dislike contemporary art was because it was out of my comfort zone—I hadn’t had as much exposure as I did to impressionism, just like Scarry hadn’t been exposed to palm trees as much as sycamores. Contemporary art for me was as palm trees were to Scarry. As I was exposed to contemporary art more often, it started to grow on me.

I think the reason I began to despise impressionism was the similarities in subject matter. Landscapes especially. I now find landscape paintings to be the most boring of all art. It feels like seeing a landscape does not give insight to anything. I think if a work is boring then it is not beautiful—beautiful things capture attention. That may seem harsh, but after seeing things too often I think it is common for people to have an aversion. The redundancy of ballerinas also bothers me. I feel like I have seen so many of them on the walls of the Art Institute that I guess I’m just sick of looking at them. I can understand why some people think of the ballerinas as beautiful; they are poised, graceful, and show movement. But to me, since the style is so painterly almost all detail is lost and the colors are so excessively saturated and vibrant that I would probably prefer a photograph of a ballerina instead.  I think the fact that there is not much detail is what diverts my attention—every facial feature is just a few thick slabs of paint. Whenever you look at an impressionist painting close up all you see are brush strokes and each one is almost the same.  I do not deny that it takes talent to paint that way, but it still cannot keep my interest. I like to look at art to think of something that I would not have thought about if I hadn’t seen it. When I looked at impressionist paintings, I would think they were beautiful because of the technical skill it took. Now when I look at art I think about the meaning the artist is implying and the subject matter of impressionism is usually about society in the late 19th and ealy 20th century, which I’m not interested in.

The reason I began liking contemporary art may have been because I became sick of impressionism and needed something completely opposite. Kiki Smith’s work is about the dismembered body and corpses.  Although Smith has works of humans that seem to be alive, they have a feeling that they are really just a corpse because of the unnatural qualities. Like in a sculpture she did in 1995 where a woman is hanging on a wall and her torso is bent so her head is against her knees and her hair morbidly hangs past her feet. In the same exhibition she displays Ice Man, a limp human body hanging on the wall but his arm is extended up across his chest. I suppose this type of art is not considered “beautiful” in a traditional way. Bizarre is probably a better word—but the bizarre can be beautiful. Her work is supernatural and nothing you would ordinarily see, whereas impressionist paintings are of everyday life. I like minimalism because of the idea behind it—minimizing a painting to its simplest quality, a color.

I like the vastness of some minimal art, like Richard Serras sculptures. I like that you can be completely encompassed in one because of how big it is; it is less about how it looks and more about the experience of it. I feel like I can relate to contemporary art better because a lot of it is sculpture and installation. I feel more connected with three dimensional art possibly because I am also a three dimensional being and it feels like I am having an encounter with the object, rather than just looking as an outsider at a painting. A sculpture is a real, tangible thing, and a painting is an illusion. The experience of three-dimensional piece of art is beautiful to me because you cannot get it from a painting. I find that I spend more time looking at clean minimal art just for an imperfection: a bump in a line, a visible brush stroke, a tiny mark of any sort. And if I find one then I wonder if it is on purpose— it has to be on purpose—but why would the artist want that? The series of events that take place in the brain while looking at art is what is beautiful.

-Lindsay Lewis

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