Images and Text © Harold Davis. All Rights Reserved.
What is beauty? What is the place of beauty in art? Surprisingly, these are contentious and difficult questions that involve some very slippery concepts. In the past couple of centuries, since the end of representational art as the ultimate goal of the artist, the role of beauty in art has become increasingly vexatious.
This is particularly troublesome in the context of photography, which necessarily has some representational components, and the rise of the hegemony of conceptual art. Conceptual art backs away from the epistemology of beauty with a preference to shock, which works as long as it does shock, but not much farther.
Ancient Music of the Stars
Furthermore, the confluence of digital imaging with photography has moved photography away from its literal and representational roots, but this vertiginous movement is still vestigial, and popular imagination has not quite internalized just how unreal and potentially fantastic all art is. If everything is “fake,” and absolutely nothing can be verified as real, then what signposts are there along the way to mark the real?
Salutation to the Sun
Picasso put it this way: “Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon. When we love a woman we don’t start measuring her limbs.” Which needs to be understood along with another pithy Picasso epigram, “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”
In other words, if one can completely name and grasp beauty, then it is probably not the ineffable beauty of exalted art, but rather the degraded beauty of the cliché art and artist. The truth that can be named is not the full truth. Beauty is more than skin deep, and true beauty demands at least some element of mystery.
Matilija Poppies and Mallows
The artifice in art is the scaffolding that holds the beauty together, but should never show except perhaps in an occasional glimpse that is a little shocking. The context of beauty in art can be the mundane and normal. But somewhere, somehow the fabric of “reality” is broken. The spiritual, the bold, the unknown, indeed the beautiful pushes through. There is wonder indeed in the beauty of the world if only one is open to it.
Looking back historically, art has had many purposes. The time for the factual and representational has probably come and gone. Narrative, metaphoric, and cautionary tales still have their place. The didactic and political holds sway in the short term.
Even when this is natural, it can be bombastic. Think of the monumental landscapes of Ansel Adams, Albert Bierstadt, and others. These works of art have often spoken to me, and can be beautiful in their way, but they are fundamentally rhetorical. They portray an idealized world.
But that’s okay. Nothing actually is what it is, and everything is a construct.
So from a longer perspective it is the spiritual that fills us with meaning, and gives art its place. This can be as simple as a child’s gaze looking up in adoration and happiness at her mother, or as complex as a completely fairytale landscape in a world that never has been.
Son Doong Cave
A rounded and less bombastically rhetorical world implies beauty, and beauty’s opposite because you can’t have the power that gives one chills up the back of one’s neck without also the possibility of grief. The sadness of this world is also part and parcel of its beauty.
Panorama of the Kumano Sanzen Roppyaku Po
Which leads straight to the question of what beauty is and is not. Here we run into a number of problems of epistemology, context, and cultural relativism. Something that is beautiful to one person can be ugly to someone else. One culture’s idealization of beauty can be grotesque to another’s (think of foot binding).
But it is clearly insufficient to leave everything as relative. We need to each consider what we truly care about, and come up with fully human ideations of beauty, of caring for each other, and caring for this world that takes care of us!
Dawn on Lake Como
For me, sunset on a mountain pass in the fog, the glint in a spider web covered with rain drops, and a gesture or glance can be the most beautiful things in the world.
But is this beauty art? Is it my job as an artist to render this beauty that is in some philosophic sense already “there” as a passive interpreter?
In this sense, as an artist as an explorer I can become a discoverer, one whose highest purpose is to render the interior meaning of a block of Carrara marble (as Michelangelo did) or to show the wonders of nature that are already extant. But I also believe there may be more to it. Exploration and discovery are valuable and to be desired, but they don’t speak to the ultimate purpose of art.
While there’s some truth to the methodology and purpose of artistic exploration and discovery, I would rather think of myself as an inventor more than a discoverer of beauty. My hope is to use the echoes of beauty to reinforce the spiritual, and to create a sense of order that is not too orderly in all the romantic and ecstatic chaos of the universe.
This is the best role of the artist whatever toolset is used: to construct from the smallest and most eternal blocks and bits and pieces, and build up something bold and (dare we say it) beautiful from the nothing that always sits ready to engulf us.
If we can take and make beauty in this way with our art, then we’ve added to the sum of good that is in the universe, created beauty, and elevated the sense of the spiritual. This is the highest calling of the artist, and there is not much one can add to it except to do so without fear or favoritism, and to avoid pulling one’s punches because of the all-too-human desire to be loved.
Flowers for Kwangsik
Wings of Man
Images and Text © Harold Davis. All Rights Reserved.
Harold’s website is Digital Field Guide.
The following links provide further biographical information:
“The behind the lens piece has a bit more of the (fairly complex) story of how I’ve become the person and artist I am today.” – Harold Davis