In postulating beauty, philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto reflects on Robert Motherwell’s Elegies to the Spanish Republic where black and white shapes and somber colors point towards a reality that sets a beautiful mood. To Danto, this is only done successfully in the work’s philosophical perspective, where beauty catalyzes raw emotion into tranquil sadness. In short, the combination of beauty and pain transforms into a muted pleasure.
Herein lies the question: Is it appropriate to use beauty in art with reference to sociopolitical conflict and devastation? Does beauty, in this case, distance the content all too sharply?
To Danto, what differentiates Elegies from such inappropriateness is an internal and philosophical connectivity to the reference and mood. He compares the same use of internal beauty in other artworks such as an unusual 19th c. Tibetan tangka depicting a historic death of Buddha, where (unlike most of these tangkas, which show terrifying depictions) the beauty of the time and place sits in striking contrast to the monks who surround in grievance. Here beauty alone transfers to the work itself. In each of these very different paintings, internal beauty becomes the connective tissue in the content and as Danto puts it, “cadences of sung or declaimed elegies”. There are many works of art that do not have a carefully chosen subject and are inappropriate in their use of beauty. When beauty is responsibly used it is embodied and intended in the work itself, and fulfilled in its interpretation, rather than used purely for aesthetic purposes.
See also our previous post featuring Diana Matar’s exhibition, Still Far Away, a photography exhibit that similarly explores the controversies of beauty depicted in a sociopolitical context.