“I found I could say things with colors and shapes that I couldn't say any other way
– things I had no words for.”
Georgia O’ Keeffe[i]
This is the final excerpt from my written thesis document,
"Synesthesia & Siphonophorae: a reflection on the liminal between abstraction and translation"
I was hesitant to call Siphonophorae beautiful.
My mantra of control/escape/beauty, integral as it was to my process, was something I kept to myself and my dad's old sneaker boxes only.
I hid behind vague artistic phraseology, swapping beautiful for neutered terms like “successful” or “aesthetically pleasant”. I gentled around beauty like a venomous snake, too close and it would strike.
I was wary of the polarization of beauty, of the questions I would have to field, and of the negative associations of making “art for art’s sake”.
I was fearful of dismissal, sneers, being seen as pitifully adolescent, or worse, idiotic.
Beauty, in essence, seemed enormously taboo.
Laurenn McCubbin, my committee chair, and the Chair of Illustration at CCAD, disagreed. Vehemently. She urged me in her distinguishably candid, passionate way (forgive me Laurenn for paraphrasing here) to f*cking screw anyone who told me I could not make beautiful art. I blinked and was immensely relieved. Laurenn urged me to read Dave Hickey’s The Invisible Dragon, stressing “like read it immediately, like yesterday”.
Hickey’s rumination on the vernacular of beauty in art illuminated the anxiety I associated with the term in my practice. Hickey finds conversations around beauty in contemporary art to always circle back to the market and the cognitive dissonance artists experience when thinking about what sells versus what has meaning.
Capitalism, the death of beauty.
Here we can examine beauty’s inherent dual contradiction: beauty is an intimately personal, subjective experience (the chosen) YET it is always, fundamentally, inevitably, tragically socially prescribed (the given). We could subscribe to the belief that one’s conception of what is beautiful is always muddled by societal standards and conditioning. As Dave Beech explores in his essay Art and the Politics of Beauty, the tension between the chosen and the given (nature versus nurture on the macro scale) is drawn out through the positioning of the individual, lived experience against the influence of societal constructs. In sociological terms, this is characterized as the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, which means that one must always question the statements one makes about their belief systems, motives, or intention in order to parse out societal conditioning. Society’s phantom fingers pulling our strings across space and time, the siphonophore’s new amorphous creature subsumed by the whole.
Beauty was just another means of the bourgeoisie to assert control. Thus, the true polemic about beauty is embedded in the intersection of subjective experience and social circumstance. Therefore, it stands to reason that movements that originated as a reaction against the hegemonic state, against the banister of society, such as avant-garde, modernism, postmodernism, and the like would reject beauty in all its politicized disgrace. Avant-garde subverted the historic beautiful norm. Dadaists and Surrealists eschewed the tastes of the elite and therefore banned the beautiful. High art’s supremacy of culture was the source of many a postmodern parody.
As Beech articulates:
“…Pop [Art] was vulgar, Minimalism was literal, Conceptualism was opposed to the visual and
postmodernism was either more interested in the sublime or regarded beauty as one of art’s
institutionalized discourses. Beauty was utterly contentious.” [ii]
If beauty is akin to the obscene, it is something “we know when we see it”, how could we truly reckon with those discordant implications? What a cop-out, a loophole of a definition...one that truly calls to mind the subjectivity of beauty. How would that be possible, if beauty is drilled into us by the state? If something is so ingrained in societal norms, why would it lack a definite definition, one with no room for dissent?
Then the incongruity: the hermeneutics of suspicion creeps in, whispering in your ear, is this you?
Who are you, really?
That is precisely why the argument of individual versus society is pointless: choose either side and get stranded by the chasm in the middle. The individual, subjective as they may be, is not existing in a vacuum. Yet they still possess free will, the chosen way they act or think or grow and change. Because of our inherent subjectivity, it’s impossible to have a universal beauty, especially as we continue the long progression of dismantling hegemonic oppression.
Choosing to see beauty in its myriad of manifestations: af Klint’s primordial ciphers, and O’Keeffe’s sumptuous flowers, and Kandinsky’s music, and Moyer’s weeping clouds. Beauty: unshackled from cultural authority or societal sanction, a pleasure we can choose to enjoy or dismiss.
Beech coins this as the “aesthetics of suspicion”, which may seem counter-intuitive for the “I know it when I see it” mentality beauty evokes. Beech explains, however, that there is precedence in Judith Butler’s theory of performative gender. Gender is a fluid variable rather than a fixed constant. Gender norms may seem “natural” purely because of their hegemonic, societal sanction. Butler encourages subverting gender norms through alternative performance, refusing the historic fallacies of tradition and collapsing the gender binary. Beech believes that the collapse of binaries between beauty and its “antonyms” such as chaos, the ordinary, and ugliness serves as a quintessential Butlerian reclamation.[iii]
In the aesthetics of suspicion, contemporary beauty is a boundary creature, existing in the liminal, a constant state becoming. A constant state of and yet and yet and yet and yet. Aesthetics, performed as gender is, causes beauty to exist somewhere in that intersection of individual and society; the subjective is never quite subsumed nor is it ever fully free of societal conditioning.
As Beech characterizes in “The Politics of Beauty”:
“…beauty is no longer reducible to the individual, the subjective and the authentic, nor to the social…
political [or] imposed. Individuals can play out social inscriptions while retaining a pleasurable and
critical relation to them. Beauty- like masculine, feminine, or queer positions- is not something given but
something that we do and something that we change.” [iv]
In other words, beauty is not simply the given.
It is the chosen.
[i] Brindley, Liz. “VISUAL VOCABULARY.” The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, 2015, www.okeeffemuseum.org/visual-vocabulary/ Hickey, Dave. The Invisible Dragon: on the Vernacular of Beauty. University of Chicago Press, 2009. [ii] Beech, Dave. “Art and the Politics of Beauty.” Beauty: Documents of Contemporary Art. Dave Beech, et al. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009, pg. 16-17. [iii] Beech, Dave, pg. 17-18. [iv] Beech, Dave, pg. 18