Successful art is art that is beautiful

Published 12:38 pm Saturday, October 27, 2012

by Leigh Anne Chambers

In the last article I broached the topic of art criticism.

What was the artist trying to accomplish? Was he or she successful? And was it worth doing?

This time I want to continue with “what was the artist trying to accomplish.”

Most people would agree that successful art is art that is beautiful. Artists continually strive to make work that is beautiful. We refer to the branch of philosophy that talks about beauty and art as aesthetics.

In the art world we discuss whether something is aesthetically pleasing. This dates back to the 18th century when beauty and art were linked because they were both thought to produce pleasure. But in art, even beauty is a subject that can be complicated.

Philosophers, when talking about the nature of pleasure through beauty, discussed disinterested contemplation. Meaning that the pleasure was derived by the beauty alone with no expectations regarding the subject matter. For example, looking at an apple that is shiny and red and appreciating those qualities and separating that from the idea of actually biting into the apple.

Or in the photography of Edward Weston, in particular the Cabbage Leaf, we recognize the beauty inherent in the lines that intimate the undulating of rolling meadows.

The beauty has nothing to do with the fact that we might use it in our coleslaw later. But I digress and beauty does not have to be tied to pleasure either.

Beauty can also be seen in paintings that are of sadness or horror rather than pleasure.

The beauty in the many Pieta paintings of Mary holding Jesus after he is taken off the cross is very evident even though pleasure is certainly not ascertained. The beauty is unmistakable and artists set out to memorialize this event in the most glorious of ways.

It is also possible that we again detach from the sadness and revel in the formal qualities of the painting, like in disinterested contemplation. Formal qualities would be those qualities that give the painting form for example, color, line quality and shapes.

We can also cast away ideas of beauty entirely and still be left with powerful works of art. The point is that the act of looking is important in itself. If you look at some of Goya’s works you will get that impression.

For example “Saturn Devouring One of His Children” is a very well known work of art. This piece is undeniably powerful, and once you have seen it, you are not likely to forget it. But I doubt it would come to mind when you are conjuring up images of things that are beautiful.

So I again bring Pablo Picasso into play.

One of the periods of art that Picasso is known for creating is Cubism. Many people are thrown by these awkward blocky depictions of women and distorted still life scenes and wonder why?

So it might surprise a lot of people to know that at 15 Pablo Picasso could paint realism impeccably well.

It is at this point the artist makes a determination.

He decides that he can successfully render what is going on in the outside world and he can paint beautiful paintings, but is that enough?

Sometimes the answer is “yes” and sometimes, “no.” Beauty in art is definitely one way to go.

To add to the dialogue the artist sometimes pushes work beyond the technical precision. You will find this also in the other art forms like music and poetry.

In all disciplines it takes some courage because you are giving up the validation you received for making beautiful work.

So to talk about all of this we need to define a few terms. Narrative — A narrative is another name for a story. And that artists dig deeper into questions surrounding what they are searching for. As we found out in the Surrealist movement that much of that discovery is done on a subconscious level.

Much of the discovery that comes with making good art is wrapped up in making art about life. But not what things look like but their essence or what life feels like.

In case you stop in to the gallery in Courtland this month, in case you are reading this column for the first time, I am attempting to break down some of the mystery surrounding enjoying and understanding art.

LEIGH ANNE CHAMBERS is the executive director of Rawls Museum Arts in Courtland and can be reached at