Beauty used to be part of art. Have we lost beauty? In 1898, Leo Tolstoy completed his book-length essay What Is Art? He was a clear proponent of beauty, and much of the book discusses theories of it. While his theories contained many oddities, Tolstoy understood the complexities of art. He wrote:
So that art, which consumes enormous amounts of human labour and of human lives, and breaks down love among people, not only is not anything clearly and firmly defined, but is understood in such contradictory ways by its lovers, that it is difficult to say what generally is understood as art, and particularly as good, useful art…Perhaps we will never agree what "good, useful art" is, although many, this writer included, would like to assert their own definition. Reading an article about the 2015 Venice Biennale by the art critic Roberta Smith confirmed that I wasn't imagining a change: there is a recognized agenda today. She writes:
…"All the World's Futures" brings out into the open a central preoccupation of the moment, namely the limiting belief that art is not doing its job unless it has loud and clear social concerns, a position whose popularity has made 'social practice' the latest new thing to be taught in art schools.I agree that this belief is "limiting." Who has the right to prescribe and/or proscribe what art should do? To push against prescription/proscription, Duchamp, in 1917, as a social protest, gave us the now-classic urinal in the art gallery: disrupting how we saw art and challenging the bourgeoisie. His social act was to push against "limiting" perceptions.
In her opening paragraph, Smith writes that the current Biennale's message is "The world is a mass of intractable ills on which art must shed light." Are we really in the dark? Read the paper or turn on the news: we can't pretend that all is well when we have wars and droughts, earthquakes and floods, murders, and so many more things to depress and outrage us. Are we not allowed a measure of escape, uplift, or inspiration to do good or better? This is not say the art should be devoid of message, but a balance would be nice. It has always seemed to me that the message may be good, but if the work is poorly made, no one will want to look at it. The converse is also true: it may be beautiful, yet empty. I believe in social message, but I think it can also be subtle, not just "loud and clear."
How is art being taught in universities today and to what end? Grad students can speak very well, they can explain and edify, succinctly describe their experiences. The students are clearly engaged with their work, a good thing. But where is the experience for the viewer? The finished piece cannot be bought by an individual; it is often baffling, frequently large, and, I dare say, occasionally ugly. It can only be understood with wall text or mounds of essays. The visual work does not speak on its own. It is sometimes hard to feel, emotionally. Or it is emotional without apparent craft. How can we engage all kinds of viewers, not just those schooled in the theory? If this is now what art is, who is going to want to pay to go to grad school to make it?
The current idea of "social justice" is being encouraged. It's a good idea. "Social practice" in the art world can be used to address fairness and equality, access to art by those outside of the educational system, inclusion of communities. But when those same universities teaching social practice theories are still hiring adjunct professors on a semester-to-semester contract with no benefits and no job security, it makes one pause.
I hope that art programs will move forward eventually to promote virtuosic techniques and handskills, keep the attitude that art can change our ways of seeing, shed light where it is rarely seen, connect with the viewers, and continue to encourage thoughtful, inspiring, and even beautiful works that inspire others to see and make. But, as seen in the recent MFA shows and alluded to in the current Venice Biennale, the "new thing" right now is not quite that.