Seeing the Beauty in Contemporary Art

Jacqueline Millner

In contemporary art it is a crime to speak of beauty, to refer to it, and to imply that it exists, for beauty is all emptied out, hollow, shallow, only surface deep, like a good wine to be swallowed and pissed away…

Michael Petry, A Thing of Beauty Is… (1997)

In his book The Love of Beauty (1989), philosopher Guy Sircello makes the at once self-evident and outlandish observation that “beauty is the best and most delightful part of our world and in loving the best and the beautiful we are the happiest and best of creatures”. Self-evident, in that for most of us an examination of our lived experience would likely accord with this observation: we would recognise the feelings of well-being and joy that overcome us when we gaze upon a beautiful scene or a beautiful work of art or the beautiful face of a loved one. Yet also outlandish, because beauty has largely left our public cultural landscape; it remains mostly in the degraded guise of mass media sentimentality and celebrity. 

Pat Brassington
Lip 1997
Inkjet print, 116 x 93 cm
Artbank collection, purchased 1998

As Petry suggests, the felt experience of beauty and beauty in art brings on embarrassment in the public sphere. Sircello argues that since the late eighteenth century, the love of beauty has lost prestige—his statement about beauty now sounds naïve, silly, and out of style. He explains this development by suggesting that with modernity, the desire to love the world was subsumed by the desire to control or remake it. (4) In his eyes, with the instrumentalism of modernism began the disparagement of beauty other than as that manufactured as another means of controlling the world. Beauty itself came to be seen as instrumental, suspect, corrupt, and inaccessible, our disdain for it fuelled by fear of its power as much as by a general distrust of pleasure.


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