On Beauty and Art. Guest post by HAROLD DAVIS

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

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?

Harold Davis -Salutation to the Sun

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.”

Harold Davis -Spirals


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.

Harold Davis -Passion


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.

Harold Davis - Pure Happiness

Pure Happiness

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.

Harold Davis -Son Doong Cave

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.

Harold Davis -Panorama of the Kumano Sanzen Roppyaku Po

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!

Harold Davis -Dawn on Lake Como

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?

Harold Davis -Wet Web

Wet Web

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.

Harold Davis -Sunflower Ambrotype

Sunflower Ambrotype

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.

Harold Davis - Cherry Branches

Cherry Branches

Harold Davis -Flowers for Kwangsik

Flowers for Kwangsik

Harold Davis -Wings of Man

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:

Behind the Lens with Harold Davis

“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

Wikipedia bio:

Harold Davis (photographer)


28 thoughts on “On Beauty and Art. Guest post by HAROLD DAVIS

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  1. Pingback: Petal Fractals
  2. Have come back to read this multiple times and have pulled something different out each time. As a student of Harold’s, I have enjoyed having brief discussions with him on the topic of art vs technical perfection in photography. It’s something I wrestle with. And so this line, at the end, is what I need to think about today:

    “…and to avoid pulling one’s punches because of the all-too-human desire to be loved.”

    Yep. Thanks to both Liz and Harold for this thought provoking piece.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. For me it was very touching to read your thoughtful comment and to hear how much you are gleaning from Harold’s post. I, too, have re-read it many times! Thank you for sharing about what you have gained.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A beautiful collection of handpicked beauty from around this beautiful place where we live. Couldn’t take my eyes off some of the photographs.
    Discovering the real beauty and presenting it so beautifully is as applaudable as creating beauty.
    Thank you bringing it together Liz and Harold.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Very thought-provoking and and a bit controversial in some aspects. I was particularly drawn to the discussion of whether one discovers beauty or creates it. For me personally, the ideals espoused by the author are a bit too ethereal and lofty for my taste. My sense of beauty and art are a bit more gritty and down to earth, tied to the kind of artistic exploration and discovery that the author, in my view, rather cavalierly and distainfully dismisses as having only “some truth.” The beauty of “beauty” and “art,” though, is that it can encompass a wide variety of expressions and forms that are as diverse as the group of humans that create and use them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Mike, thanks for reading and for thoughtfully and frankly sharing your perspective on this, and I enjoyed reading what you had to say. I want this series to cover a range of perspectives so please let me know if you’d like to put together a guest post as you’d be most welcome. Thanks, Liz

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Let me think about it, Liz. I haven’t thought through this topic enough to have a well-developed philosophy of art and beauty–I tend to be a bit instinctual and practical in my approach. I’ll get back to you if I feel like I am in a position to share my thoughts in a guest post.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Thanks very much Liz for asking me to do this, and for your effective and sensitive editorial efforts! Very best wishes, Harold

    Liked by 2 people

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