'Protest artists fail to realise that beauty is the ultimate protest against ugliness&indeed the inability to imagine beauty is a sign of the creative inadequacy of post-aesthetic modern art.'
This issue was inspired by the surge of cross-disciplinary thinking and publishing on the subject of beauty. The strong view that emerges across all these writings is that contemporary art has been diminished by the absence of the heightened pleasure of beauty and by the limitations of late 20th Century cultural theory in engaging with the relationship of pleasure and meaning in art. Beauty may be conceived as an integration of emotive, visceral and cerebral dimensions in an uplifting experience. There is a sense of the need for beauty at this historical moment. It may be speculated that the bleaker the times the greater the need for the redemptive, life-affirming power of beauty. The time seems ripe to leave behind some of the baggage of 20th Century anti-aesthetic ways of looking at art. This will involve an increased awareness of what artists are doing as seen through the lens of new philosophies of the relationship between art, mind and beauty.
Over the past decade cultural relativism in its more doctrinaire form has succumbed to a concerted cross-disciplinary assault. A revival of interest in an innate dimension of beauty has taken place both in the sciences, where it is being investigated as part of the genetic inheritance of the human species, and in philosophy, where new thinking is attempting to reconcile scientific theories of mind with the legacy of Kant and Hegel. In the late 1990s Nobel Prize winning biologist Edward Wilson came up with the term consilience to mean convergence and interlocking of knowledge across disciplines to approach unity of knowledge. It is still too early to get a clear picture, but thinking about beauty in these fields may well be moving towards consilience.
In 2005 the scientific think-tank website Edge invited a range of luminaries to nominate something they believed but could not prove. Stanford University neuroscientist Sam Harris wrote that he believed but could not prove that the neural processes by which we judge truth or falsity may be those by which we judge beauty or ugliness. Meanwhile, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran and philosopher Denis Dutton have each proposed their lists of aesthetic universals. The former seeks to explain beauty from the point of view of the way our mind and emotions have an innate coordinated response to visual stimuli. The latter considers trans-historical aspects of great art and its relationship with its public. In her species-centred aesthetic, ethologist Ellen Dissanayake has proposed a trans-historical theory of beauty as fullness or import, rather than impact. She outlines some of her ideas in her interview in this issue of Artlink. Ian North has opened up possibilities for a trans-cultural aesthetic that is consilient with natural philosophies in his essay for Visual Animals: Crossovers, Evolution and New Aesthetics (Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia 2008).
I invited Sian Ede, author of Art and Science (I.B. Tauris 2005) and Visual Arts Director of the Gulbenkian Foundation UK, to write an essay considering the impact of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience on art. She chose to analyse the contested notions of truth and beauty in science and art with a sceptical eye. Philosopher Jennifer McMahon of Adelaide University is a key figure in the new aesthetic debate and author of the recently published Aesthetics and Material Beauty (Routledge 2008). In her essay she draws on Kant, theories of mind and evolutionary biology to develop a theory of the power of beauty as a life-affirming force which enhances connectivity and is an antidote to alienation.
So how useful is this new thinking as a tool for looking at what Australian artists are doing? There is still a chasm between aesthetic ideas developed by philosophers (most of whom have limited knowledge of contemporary art) and actual art as it is made today by artists. For this issue I decided to seek out common ground. A range of Australian art writers were commissioned to consider beauty in current art practice.
Ted Snell considers how the beauty of sunsets continues to exert an enduring appeal for artists and viewers. Peter Timms argues for an unromantic approach to landscape in the work of four Tasmanian artists who move beyond sentimental landscape clichés of natural beauty. Cath Bowdler writes eloquently of the beauty to be found in the work of three Aboriginal artists and stresses how that beauty gains its resonance from indigenous cultural specificity. In my essay I consider the interconnection between beauty, fragility and sense of place in recent Australian art and craft. Wendy Walker considers the ornamental impulse in the work of Christian Lock, Stieg Persson and Timothy Horn within an historical perspective of the vagaries of ornamentation and abstraction in 20th century art.
Four other artists whose work touches variously on beauty or on how the mind works - painter Karl Wiebke, ceramicist Robin Best, glass artist Cobi Cockburn and new media artist Tina Gonsalves are profiled. Finally, a special feature of this issue is Contemporary Beauty – a curated gallery of images of artworks by leading contemporary artists and craft practitioners. This gallery of images and quotations, drawn primarily from recent publications, is intended to open up new readings of contemporary art in the light of multi-disciplinary thinking on beauty. I hope this Artlink issue on Art Mind Beauty will refresh debate, and leave readers, not with a sense of a matter resolved, but of a new world of possibilities revealed.
1- Donald Kuspit, The End of Art, Cambridge University Press 2004 p31.
2- 'What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it', World Question Centre 2005, www.edge.org, cited in Elizabeth Farrelly, Blubberland, The Dangers of Happiness UNSW Press 2007 p76 – see review by Alan Saunders this issue.
3- Donald Kuspit, The End of Art, Cambridge University Press 2004 p31.
4- 'What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it', World Question Centre 2005, www.edge.org, cited in Elizabeth Farrelly, Blubberland, The Dangers of Happiness UNSW Press 2007 p76 – see review by Alan Saunders this issue.
5- V.S. Ramachandran and W.Hirstein, 'The Science of Art: a Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience' Journal of Consciousness Studies 6, No. 6-7, 1999 pp15-51; and Denis Dutton, 'Aesthetic Universals' in Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes (eds) The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics 2nd Edition 2005 pp286-9
6- See review by Kevin Murray this issue.
7- See review by Michael Newall this issue.