beauty

Reconsidering Beauty (First Aid Flowers) by Chris Hall

First Aid Flowers IV, 30 x 40, acrylic and collage on canvas, 2016

One year ago I wrote a blog post where I considered boycotting beauty in my art and wondered what would happen if all artists followed suit.  It wasn't the best of times and the post, while smart, was full of venom and the snarls of a wolf backed into a corner.  A few days later I followed up with a post where I concluded that in order for a boycott of beauty to work (to make people think about their complicity, either directly or through apathy, regarding hypocrisy and injustices) that they would have to be truly awful, nasty works of art.  The art would have to be brutish, cruel, cold, violent, and depraved.  They would have to be hateful, spiteful works.  They would have no redeeming value whatsoever . . ."  After some thought I decided that "I just don't think I have it in me to make that kind of art . . . I have too much heart in me."  My worst fault has always been the volatile mix of impatience with anger (though I have have gotten better over the years), and while impatience/anger has the positive of providing a motivation for accomplishing great things, the process can be destructive.  Fortunately this is not my preferred or even my natural state of mind.  I've always preferred grace and beauty and my natural state is much more sanguine (humor, cheer, idealism).  I wrote the boycott beauty posts one year ago, and when I look back and see how far I have come, I see now that these new paintings, this return to beauty, was inevitable.  2016 found me with a good work, the first in quite a long time (teaching at Kennesaw State University and publishing the occasional article for Burnaway), an upcoming exhibition in Poland, enjoying the mild comforts of spring amidst a flowering landscape,  and the company of good friends to whom I am very grateful (the richest of all these new developments). 

The new series is comprised of seven paintings, six of which are finished (the seventh will be completed in Poland).  They are flower paintings.  The last time I painted flowers to this degree was in 2001.  The circumstances were similar (new job, an exhibition, spring beauty, and a new relationship - all following a dark period).  It is as if the stars are aligned in the sky in the same configuration as before, as I have found myself in love with life again (imperfect as it may be, still).  These flowers, as before in 2001, are about healing, resurgence, and in the end, celebration.  

What does one do with flowers?  Of course we keep them around solely for the sake of beauty, but there is more to it than that.  Flowers (like all things beautiful) heal the spirit.  We give flowers to sick people in hospitals for this reason, and at funerals.  We keep flowers about us in our life to help ease life's troubles.  In the end beauty and grace are triumphant, conquering the ugliness in the world, which is why we also keep flowers around for celebratory scenes, such as holidays, weddings, parties, etc.

The healing power of flowers was what got me motivated to start this series.  After a rough night I woke to find a texted photograph of flowers on my phone, from a friend, with only one word attached to it:  happiness.  I knew what I had to do after that.  One month later I finished six new works . . .

I started each canvas by pasting a layer of collaged pain assessment charts that one would get in an emergency room.  I didn't like how the faces (read from left to right) transitioned from happiness to pain, so I reversed them.  These were to be healing flowers.  However after the first canvas was laid out I saw that the final face on the far right returned to pain.  It was at this time that I decided to embrace the new works as a kind of narrative, from one painting to the next.  This is also evident in how the red and yellow bands on the top of each canvas alternate and how the black band on the bottom parts of the canvases seem to meet if the six paintings are read as two triptychs.  Other elements that demonstrate that these are healing flowers are, of course, the repeated first aid symbol and the collaged ink drawings referencing pain and healing.  Finally, each canvas has a series of alchemy symbols as part of the composition.  Jung long ago made the connection between alchemical processes and healing.  Keeping this in mind I used only the symbols of alchemical processes, and not the symbols referencing any physical material, the suggested material being the human spirit.  The process of healing as described by these alchemy symbols furthers my concept of these paintings being a narrative.  Finally, we see that even in the sixth painting, the right side of the painting returns with the painful face (the emergency room pain assessment chart).  For the seventh and final painting I intend to make sure that the far right of the painting ends with happiness and that the cycle of recurring pain (the human condition) will end.  The concept of eternal recurrence symbolized in the form of the ouroboros (the snake swallowing its tail) will be shown as broken apart, grace and beauty triumphant.

I cannot predict the future and I do not know how this all will end, but despite my sometimes dark nature, my natural tendency is toward light.  I am an idealist.  These works have been helpful to me and I hope they may be helpful to others as well, and I suspect they will be.  Even if they do not grasp the levels of meaning within the works, there are always the flowers, and by themselves they have enough magic within them to carry the day and do what they do best:  happiness.

Artwork Expiration Date by Chris Hall

“Beautiful works survive sans virtue.  Virtuous works sans beauty do not.”  Dave Hickey - The Invisible Dragon.

Contemporary art practice has come to accept art created with an expiration date – art not meant to last forever – especially when it addresses philosophical inquiries such as the nature of mutability and time.  Though I've come to respect those who make art which purposefully investigates ideas of temporality, I'm not quite prepared for that in my own practice.  I'd rather my art live forever, if possible.  I do not have kids.  My artworks are my children, my legacy.  But what about the art that is more timely than timeless?  What about the art that addresses more contemporary concerns?  I agree with Hickey in that when an artwork that has outlived its political usefulness, when an artwork's message is no longer relevant, if the art isn't beautiful, if it doesn't make use of aesthetics – that artwork will have a shelf-life; it will slowly fade from memory.  Beauty keeps a work alive once it's political impact is blunted.

If I am going to sacrifice aesthetics in my art in the name of serving some political agenda or some other “virtuous” cause, I've got to be damn sure that the cause is worth the sacrifice.  I have yet to find that cause.  And besides, it has yet to be proven by anyone that a “virtuous” art is made more effective by jettisoning aesthetics.  I fact, I firmly believe the opposite – that art is more effective, its message better communicated, when it uses aesthetics.  I see no clear reason to abandon beauty.  Artists who criticize the use of aesthetics and beauty in art may even be doing so in order to cover for their own lack of talent.  It is the barbarian's argument – the whole “I can not read, therefore all books should be burned” argument.

In the end, though, my pondering on the merits and flaws of whether a “virtuous” art is made more effective with or without the use of beauty is inconsequential, considering that so much of contemporary art, especially the art without beauty, is often sarcastic, nihilist, and generally without “virtue.”  Perhaps it is fitting that such art is temporary and fated to be forgotten.  

Politics are timely, but temporary.  Beauty is timeless and eternal.

On Beauty, Aesthetics, and the Lack of it in Conceptual Art. by Chris Hall

Marcel Duchamp (the father of conceptual art),  Fountaine , 1917

Marcel Duchamp (the father of conceptual art), Fountaine, 1917

“For more than four centuries, the idea of “making it beautiful” has been the keystone of our cultural vernacular - the lover's machine gun and the prisoner's joy – the last redoubt of the disenfranchised and the single direct route, without a detour through church and state, from the image to the individual.  Now that lost generosity, like Banquo's ghost, is doomed to haunt our discourse about contemporary art – no longer required to recommend images to our attention or to insinuate them into vernacular memory, no longer welcome even to try.”  Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon.

For many years, while in my youth, I denied the importance of beauty when making a work of art, slightly favoring content over form.  It was a mistake on my part, as I tended to conflate notions of conventional beauty (think 19th century academic art) with generalized aesthetics.  But I've since learned that beauty, even conventional beauty, can be a useful tool (like humor) to smuggle in controversial/problematic ideas to an audience who may not be willing to receive a "message" willingly.  Aesthetics puts the sugar in the cough syrup, essentially.  More than just a tool for art for art's sake beauty (which indeed, does serve a purpose – healing the wounded psyche, so often marred by modern life, is a noble use for beauty and for art), aesthetics is a useful communication tool; it is useful in that it can attract and advertise ideas (as opposed to products).  Aesthetics can attract a viewer toward an artwork, and if properly deployed, its nuances can help convey a message, a feeling, an idea – communicate.  If art could be said to have a prime directive, then it might be the need to effectively communicate to others.

Joseph Kosuth,  One and Three Chairs , 1965.

Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965.

Again, I am not limiting myself to just notions of conventional beauty (what I may find beautiful, others may not, and visa versa) , but to aesthetics as a whole.  Beauty is guided (though not governed) by aesthetics – the kinds of things you learn about in foundations classes (color, contrast, repetition, etc).  Aesthetics, when learned and used, can be an effective tool in communication.  Increasingly, however, art (most especially contemporary conceptual art) is divorcing itself all together from aesthetics.  Without aesthetics, however, there is nothing to draw a viewer in, and nothing to help clarify meaning and message.

Maurizio Bolognini,  Programmed Machines,  1992-97 (hundreds of computers are programmed to generate random images which nobody would see).

Maurizio Bolognini, Programmed Machines, 1992-97 (hundreds of computers are programmed to generate random images which nobody would see).

Perhaps we can partly forgive a conceptual work if the message or proposed idea is worth examining and to our benefit, but post-modern skepticism and pessimism often denies us this, giving us instead a smug, nihilist perspective, self-congratulatory stuff, and stuff too reliant on being cool and clever.  On a good day we might get art with a simple, pat, feel good message, but that kind of art will only get you so far.  Rarely do I see any contemporary conceptual art that actually challenges or inspires.   Instead we get theses and investigations.  All of this, of course, assumes that the conceptual art effectively communicates its message, and too often, it does not.  Too often these works rely on a supporting artist's or critic's text in order to explain the intent (and without the use of aesthetics to draw a person in, the viewer's curiosity to even want to investigate those texts is voided).  But let us suppose that viewer's curiosity is piqued, and they choose to seek out and read the supporting text – what might they expect to get in return?   They can expect to be rebuffed by a wall of vague, cryptic, elitist International Art English jargon.  The ability to effectively communicate in art is important if one hopes to have any kind positive effect on the world.  More often than not, though, contemporary conceptual art fails to meet even this very basic requirement.   Supporters of contemporary conceptual art practices tend to be academic elitist cognoscenti,  left brain types who distrust poetry, more statisticians than artists, they are those who can dispense with beauty, who choose to speak the puffed up jargon filled International Art English gibberish as a means to impress their peers rather than to clarify their argument, and they are not willing to condescend themselves to speak in a language everyone can understand, perhaps for fear that their argument might be exposed as a fraud.  Their world view is head heavy and lacks a visceral life body, and for all their pluralist rhetoric, they think nothing of openly mocking art that doesn't fit into their world view (no-no buzzwords include:  universal, heroic, individualism, catharsis, beauty, originality, self-discovery . . . incidentally, all things championed by Modernism).  It is an exclusive rather than an inclusive practice.

Lam Hoi Sin, installation from  The Crap Show , 2012.  I can support this one.  The communication is clear, if ironic and at least the artist is being honest with himself.

Lam Hoi Sin, installation from The Crap Show, 2012.  I can support this one.  The communication is clear, if ironic and at least the artist is being honest with himself.

I realize I am being very judgmental here and making sweeping generalizations, so I would like to point out that unlike my many other conceptual art detractors (notably my Stuckist brothers and sisters), I am not completely anti-conceptual art (many Stuckists will go so far as to even condemn abstract painting).  I am, however, against the failure of art to properly communicate  – and the nihilist, skeptical, pessimistic (or pat) messages often contained within them.  Beauty and aesthetics are equally as important as content and message; ideally, good art must have a balance of head, heart, and body.  I do believe that it is possible for conceptual art (with the aid of aesthetics) to communicate more effectively to an audience beyond elitists in the know, and to do so with challenging and inspiring content.  Sadly, in my experience at least, those instances are few, and far in-between.