VIII – Modernity and Art

PART TWO: Ugliness dressed as Beauty

Now let’s get the issue of “beauty” and “ugliness” cleared up. Yes, I know it is said time and again that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. This is used to justify Relativism at its core. So, it is used by Moderns to avoid any criticism of modernity.

Beauty in art and music is the recognition of the mind of the balance of forms of a made thing. The proportion of the parts to the whole, the suitability of the form to the function of a thing. A carved spoon can be judged beautiful if it performs well the function of being a spoon. It holds just the right amount of matter, it balances in the hand, it is the right weight for a person to hold. It may even have decoration which enhances the shape of the spoon. It may even have other decoration which delights the mind in its delicacy of line with the shape and direction of the use of the spoon for eating. For instance, a spoon is ugly if it cannot hold its matter, is unbalanced, is too long for a normal human being to direct the food to the mouth; or has decoration which distracts the mind from the food – draws attention away from the food, like having scenes of excreta on the handle.

I do not think most people would have any difficulty with applying non-relativistic standards to the making of a spoon. A work of art is a thing made “well done”. We can apply this all works of mankind: the teacher teaching, the surgeon operating – is the job well done? When it is done well, we can exclaim: “You beauty.”

The problem really lies in using the term “beauty” when applied to complex forms and ideas, such as in Fine Art forms of the Visual arts, but as well, in the forms of Music and Literature. The idea of “Fine” art is an invention of Post-Renaissance intellectuals. But let us continue with the idea of a thing being made well, being in proportion to its end. Before the Renaissance, most paintings were made for mainly specific religious reasons. They had a function: to glorify God or to tell a religious story, or be an icon – a holy image in itself. One would judge a painting on how well it conveyed those ends. Colour, form, space: all brought together in proportion to the end. It were craftsmen who made them: your everyday plasterer, or wall decorator. Were they made well? Of course they were. They are beautiful as only a good craftsman at his work could make.

The intellectual ideas leading to the High Renaissance in the visual arts was Humanism. Fine Art was that object of art which raised the mind of the viewer to Universal Ideals. Forms became complex in order to convey a range of theological, philosophical, or historical beliefs. The aim was to raise the mind of the viewer to the highest form, the highest idea of Man.

So the use of the term “beauty” now entailed forms which in turn in-formed a refined viewer, a viewer who could identify with the belief of the Ideal Man as seen through the beliefs of Christendom and Platonic philosophy. The artist searched for nobility of the human form based on the arithmetical and geometric principles of the Ancient Greeks as well as the virtues of Christian chivalry, gentleness, and godliness transmitted through Europe by the belief in the Incarnation of God in Man.

Fine Art then could be judged to be beautiful not only to the standards being “well made” by the tradesman artist, but also being “well made” to the standards of Christian Idealism. There is no room here for “beauty being in the eye of the beholder”. The beholder needed to live within the culture of the refined Christian Humanist. One had to be informed, to be open to being raised by the work of art. This same aesthetic applied to the development of music and literature.

Now, if one does not believe in universals, in objective reality, in the nobility of Man, then there is no standard for anything in art other than being “well made”. Hold on here. How can we judge a Modern work as being well made, of being beautiful? All we can say is that it obeys the superficial rules of construction, form and shape, of logicality. Once we investigate the aim of the artist (if we can), we must judge that aim according to the rules of morality, the rules of universality. No Universality, no Fineness, no Goodness, then no Beauty.

Beauty is in the eye of an “informed” beholder. A beholder within a culture informed of goodness and grace, of nobility, of the ideal behind nature. Without that world, there can be no Fine Art.

And as Modernity and its philosophical assumptions are now ingrained in our Modern Culture, there is no thing informing the mind in nobility, in what it is to be “refined”, in the universal ideals of form and goodness, which would have encompassed and soothed the emotions of the artist and the beholder, which uplifts and refines the mind and emotions of Man .

So-called works of art become brutal, disjointed, deliberately challenging the very beliefs which underlie art and humanity itself. Works convey either the superficial combination of shape and colour, or smash one in the face with rebellion against nature. This assessment also applies to music.

Beauty and the Academy

The Impressionist rebellion against the Academy did have a point. By the end of the 19th Century, Modernism had killed the ideals of Christian Humanism as embodied in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. And neither had the Rationalistic Enlightenment Classicism, the symbol of the secular Modern revolution, anything left to give the New Man, except a solid architectural foundation for the public buildings of the late 19th century – all symbols of the New Man and Money.

And so Art became the expression of rebellion against the very excesses of Modernism, a means to draw attention to alienation of Man to the very society Modern Man created. The Academy of Fine Art standards became a dead project. The term “beauty” is no longer used to refer to works of so-called “fine art”. “Provocative”, “explorative”, “interesting”, “futuristic”, and “progressive”, became the terms for judging works of art.

Ugliness Enthroned

The world of Modernity is ugly. Graffiti artists point this out every day. Ugly cities, ugly noisy abominable traffic, concrete monstrosities vying with blocks of glass competing with soaring dominating walls inhumanly Babel-high – the pride of Man and Money. And the people sub-divided into little isolated pockets where the word “community” is used to make them feel as if there really is a community and there is none! And the culture engages Man by ugly inhuman fashions denying any sense of Man as a dignified person of real worth: the stubble beard, the piratical piercings, the savage tattooing, the androgynous clothing: all quite diabolical. Nothing of substance, or permanence, and certainly no fine art.

And so there is no “informed” eye of the beholder, and therefore there is no beauty. Thank the heavens, that Nature still exists. At least a tree or a blade of grass or a humble sparrow, exists in our cities to remind us of what real beauty is and what we must do to imitate such noble works which Nature has put before us.

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