Whitehot Magazine

Fractured and Dynamic Ideas about Beauty (and Politics) in Contemporary Art: The Critics

Robert Mapplethorpe, Ken Moody, 1985. Silver gelatin print, 19 x 16 inches © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

By SARA LYNN HENRY, November 2022


Fraught concerns about the question of beauty in contemporary art have been much debated from the 1990s to the present.  The very notion of beauty itself has been disputed, even shunned of late.   Such a challenge, it seems, has come about because of the postmodern deconstruction of traditional hierarchies--Beauty, Truth, and Spirit—which are now most often evaluated in terms of the political and power rather than as deep truths in their own right.  This has resulted in an “anti-aesthetic” position in tandem with the current dominance of an ethos of political art.

My discussion focuses primarily on the critics rather than on philosophers in order to explore the upfront conversations within the Art World.  This exploration considers traditional notions of beauty as the ground against which current assertions have reacted.  It then tracks resistances to beauty, fragmentary assertions about what beauty is, and a hearty rendering of the testy struggle between art and politics on this issue. The layout tends to be somewhat encyclopedic, so feel free to skip sections or go to whatever interests you.  My renderings frequently use the very words of the critics themselves in order to capture their categories and ideas accurately, though this makes for some staccato passages.  Please bear with me on this.  For your ease, I have bolded commentators’ names and key ideas.  

Important sources.  The contemporary notions herein are a representative sampling, from the anthology, Uncontrollable Beauty. Toward a New Aesthetics (Bill Beckley with David Schapiro, editors, NY: Allworth Press, 1998) and from several individual volumes and articles by the selfsame critics.   Page references will be from Uncontrollable Beauty (UB) unless otherwise noted as other sources. A few swipes at the philosophical base are probed with sources cited. 


The thrust of tradition from the classical era through 19th century has been the consideration of formal qualities and dynamics that are pleasing and harmonious--formal qualities of “perfect unity,” “due proportion part to part,” and “qualities of measure and proportion” (Plato, 4th c. BC).  Later philosophers cite, “multiplicity immolated into unity” (Plotinus 3rd c. CE), “uniformity with variety” (Hutcheson, 1725), and the concern with novelty and imagination (Gerard, 1756, 1774).  Throughout, however, there has been the recognition that there is something beyond a pleasing experience:  Plato recognized the beneficial; Plotinus discerned “our participation in ideal form and divinity” as “the spiritual force that animates all reality” (3rd c CE). In the Enlightenment Addison (1712) saw our response to greatness and novelty; Bacon (1605) to imagination; Burke (1757) to beauty as akin to love without desire.  Going yet deeper Kant (1790) considered that our experience of beauty depends upon “seeing natural objects as though they were somehow the artifacts of cosmic reason bent on being intelligible to us.”  For Schelling (1800, 1802-3) “art becomes the medium through which the absolute is most fully revealed.”  Hegel asserted that “art is superior to nature because it adds Spirit to more or less dead nature.” [All quotes are from Encyclopedia of Philosophy v1 entries on “Aesthetics, History of” (18-35) “Aesthetics, Problems of” (35-56), and “Beauty” (263-266), except for Hegel reference, which is from philosopher Robert Corrington (email, 11/23/20].  Beauty most often transported the viewer to another domain of significance. 


Current notions of beauty are mixed and collectively ambiguous.  Overall, when employed, there is an indeterminacy about what beauty means, with few common assumptions.  The term is used with varied, unsystematic definitions but always with the assumption that it is necessary for discussion, and maybe, and maybe not, for the art.  Ferreting out from the writings, one finds a few glowing formulations. As David Shapiro says in the preface to Uncontrollable Beauty (xxii) “.... beauty is gradually emerging without pretense to universalism, as a multifaceted and—as several of the contributors to this volume observe--uncanny quality that may be present--or not--in countless forms in any work of art.”  [“Uncanny” signaling the mysterious; beyond what is ordinarily expected, the strange; possibly supernatural implications.] 


The question of why there has there been resistance to notions of beauty in both contemporary criticism and in the dominant trends of art is telling.  James Hillman notes that beauty is currently dismissed as “the pretty, the simple, the pleasing, the mindless, the easy.” (UB, 261).  As Robert Morgan sees it, beauty has been assimilated into glamour and the spectacle, and is associated with the corruption of the market (UB 80-81). i.e., beauty sells (!) (Hickey, UB  17-18).  “Spectacle” here refers the use of mass media, events, entertainment, and PR by late capitalism to commodify the perceptions of and for the masses.  As Guy Debord demonstrates, social life has been replaced by its “representation” (Society of the Spectacle, 1967).  Kuspit considers that by manipulation of the crowd, “individual and vital impulses” are neutralized into a “de-individuating orderliness,” even though it seems we are liberated when  part of a crowd (End of Art, 176).   

As a further factor of the resistance to beauty, Dave Hickey indicts the “liberal institutions,” the new professionalism of the art world, the non-profits, which care less about what art looks like and more about what it means--implying too much political correctness.  These institutions are distrustful of appearances and visual pleasure in order to advance “sincerity” and “plain honesty” as the most effective form for social-political concerns.  Argumentatively, Hickey considers that they do so in order to enhance the efficacy of their institutions (UB 18-19).  Some might question this assertion.

As Morgan laments, beauty is no longer included within the purview of major studio art teaching and critical theory, citing Cal Arts (California Institute of the Arts) and the Whitney Independent Study Program as examples.  Instead, such concerns have been replaced by an anti-aestheticism, postmodern deconstruction, and, at its most expansive, a redefinition of art as ALL of “visual culture,” resulting in a total democratization of value.  (Morgan, The End of the Art World, 1998, xviii-xix,).  Kuspit considers that within the sweep of  “visual culture,” there are no uniquely cultural objects, because “every belief, behavior, value, and object is equally valorized” ... “so that society and culture become interchangeable” (End of Art, 175).  Such has been abetted by the desire for an anti-aesthetic that is oppositional, negational, anti-traditional, resulting from deconstruction of the discourse of particular fields as they are tied to power dynamics. (The early signal being Hal Foster’s anthology, The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays in Postmodern Culture, 1983). 

In a related assertion, Peter Schjeldahl considers that the rejection of beauty “may be motivated by disappointment in beauty’s failure to redeem the world (UB, 59).”  Schjeldahl also adds, there have been “the baleful effects of modern technology, which can simulate, so readily and in such abundance, experiences that once were hard to come by,” as in movies, popular songs, and advertising (UB 57).  Abetting this has been the fact that some high art painting “has become a commodity par excellence—a venal symbol of the commercial degradation of art.” (Kuspit). The more sublime and autonomous the painting the more easily the wealthy buy it, reducing it to pure wall decoration.  To Kuspit, this high painting frequently becomes “elitist entertainment, a status symbol and investment property—everything except the sacred object it purports to be.” (Rebirth of Painting in the Late Twentieth Century, 2000, 2)   In opposition to this sublime art has been an art predominantly shaped by irony, negativity, and a vitiation of the life of creative art (what Kuspit calls “postart”).  To him, understandably, there has been an over-intellectualization that is part of a struggle to control what is inherently uncontrollable, the vitality of the unconscious and states of “psychic aliveness.”  (Rebirth of Painting 3- 5).  So what is left??


In our psychological, if not psychoanalytic era, discussions of beauty have been primarily concerned with its effect on us as individuals i.e., the subjective experience rather than objective qualities.  As to the formal qualities of beauty there are only fragmented references mentioned in the critical writings, and, at the other extreme, only a couple of writers have gone so far as to consider beauty’s significance in relation to the larger human condition (e.g., James Hillman and Donald Kuspit).  

Starting at the top, Dave Hickey acknowledges the components of pleasure and desire of beauty, but then elaborates on beauty’s subversive potential as an incendiary ingredient in political art.   He cites, as examples, Caravaggio and latterly Mapplethorpe, both who have successfully challenged given norms and beliefs, not by didactic statements but by subversive beauty that has superseded the “power of priestly and government to assign meaning to images.”  What resulted was an art that, instead, spoke directly to the audience, “enfranchising the audience and acknowledging its power.”  Hickey notes that Caravaggio undermined the idealism of church imaging of the Virgin, and Mapplethorpe superseded the censure of homoerotic content by the sheer beauty of his photo images (UB, 21-23).  Just so in 1990, the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center Museum and its director were charged with obscenity for exhibiting Mapplethorpe’s photos.  The suit lost (!) and Mapplethorpe won on the basis of First Amendment protection of “serious, literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”  Stated in a more direct way, artist Richard Misrach, well known for his photographs of the deserts of the American West, finds scenes that are beautiful yet disrupted by humans. He said of his photos of Trump’s wall, “I want to make them [the images] so beautiful that you have to slow down and look at them” and take in their violation of place (NPR, Nov. 2020).  

More inner-directed notations about beauty are found in Morgan and Schjeldahl.  Morgan considers beauty as heightened intuition and imagination, allowing the viewer a sense of being connected to the world in mind and body. Schjeldahl yet more expansively states that beauty can “stop the flow.” It can present the unexpected, even strange, the innovative. “It may be a mental solvent that dissolves something else [value, story, allegory, moral] into radiance.” (UB 53) “The merely attractive (pretty, glamourous) and merely pleasing (lovely, delectable) are not beauty, because they lack the element of belief and the feeling of awe that announces it.”  “The beautiful halts the flow, which recommences in a changed direction.”  It can reconcile one to life.  It entails a sense of the sacred.  “There is something crazy about a culture in which the value of beauty becomes controversial.”  (UB 53-55)

Julie Mehretu, Congress, 2003. Ink and acrylic on canvas. 72 x 96 in. The Broad, Los Angeles.  

So we have arrived from the physical and psychological to the metaphysical. James Hillman (post-Jungian psychologist) observes that beauty arrests the mind and the mind’s ceaseless associations to bear sensate witness to what is fundamentally beyond comprehension.  He asks us to abandon irony, to have the courage to move towards instead of away and to not be afraid, “to risk gorgeous or exquisite intensity, that is, to risk excess.”  He finds that the “defenses against beauty are often defenses against the fear of its power,” such defenses as “wit and parody, [which] appeal to the mind before the senses, sentimental literalism, sweetness, slickness without complexity, surface without depth.”  Ultimately, we must remember “the non-human and the immortal powers” (UB 272-3).   

Donald Kuspit (philosophy/art history PhD, and psychoanalytic theory) has a more particularized and frequently tragic view of the role of beauty.  He sees that, in its complexity, it can help reconcile us to our fragile human condition.  “Beauty is not pure; it embodies a dialectic with ugliness” which is an intimation of “the emotionally ugly” and “the inevitability of destruction and death”. (citing Hanna Segal in his The End of Art, 185).  These depths can never be fathomed, but art and moments of beauty enable the self to explore their effect on the sense of life.  This “is why the aesthetic pleasure beauty gives always has a mournful, poignant undertone.” (End 187). 

In another context Kuspit cites one of the characteristics that allow these experiences. For him true modern painting, as opposed to “post painting”, (i.e., postmodernism, mired in irony and negativity) presents a lived sensuousness that reminds us of the self at its core.  We are indeed a steady stream of “given and changing perceptions,” primarily unconscious, made aware to us only when we are having perceptual problems.  It is this ineffable, “lived consciousness” that is present in great modern painting (e.g. Cézanne, Kandinsky).  These sensations in art (and especially pure abstraction) are ultimately neither specific emotive feelings, nor “cryptic communication from the spiritual beyond”, but they are instead “mystical states of psychic aliveness and true selfhood as though they are gifts of grace from an existence superior to one’s own.”  They are “inescapable feelings about the life and death of the self,” an affirmation of being rather than a cosmic transcendence.  (“The Consolation of Abstract Art,” White Hot Magazine, Aug. 2020 (online); Rebirth of Painting in the Late Twentieth Century, 3-5)

Joseph Raffael, Water Painting II. Oil on canvas. 78 x 114 in. Collection Bank of America. 


All of the critics ponder the question of beauty in relation to political art.  Is beauty necessary, or is it a distraction?  This has become a preoccupation of the artworld as it has become enmeshed within the postmodern critique of the visual arts. At the same time the broader culture and politics (1990s into 2000s) have become increasingly riven by concerns of class, gender, race, environment, immigration, globalization.  Inequality has ratcheted up, and the artists have responded.  The question has emerged as to whether art should become more intentionally activist and engaged.  Should it overcome an art/life distancing, based on a the “isolated individualism” of the studio. (Gablik UB 192).  Are beauty and transcendence a distraction to political effectiveness?  Critic Suzi Gablik rawly proclaims that art should be activist, a form of agitprop [“agitation propaganda,” term originally from Soviet Russia], in order to enter into a dialogue with life and effect change. She advocates direct life-action projects in the face of “the perilous state of the world.” (Conversations before the End of Time, 1995, 192, 277). One of her examples is artist Dominique Mazeaud’s Great Cleansing of the Rio Grande (1987-1994) for which Mazeaud monthly walked the banks of a tributary of the Rio Grande, collecting discarded objects and refuse [a sign of our trashing of nature] while doing deep-listening for her journal “Riveries.”   

Arthur Danto asserted in a different context, however, that beauty can be a significant ingredient of “moral art,” [i.e. political] but only if it plays a role in terms of the intrinsic content of the art (UB 28).  As examples, Danto discusses Motherwell’s series, Elegy to the Spanish Republic and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, both of which through their beauty offer “consolation” and “transcend the battlefield with a perspective of eternity” (UB 34-35).  Maya Lin’s memorial also offers an impetus to healing.  One might quibble with Danto’s considering beauty as simply “consolation,” which he ties to his ascription of ‘pleasure’ as a necessary component of beauty.  Instead, one could note that an elegy honors the “beauty” and significance of a cause and of individual sacrifice. 

Maya Lin, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 1982. Washington, D.C. Two reflective black granite walls that meet “V” shaped at a 125-degree angle, inscribed with over 58,000 names of the dead and MIA of the Vietnam War. 247’ long. Cut into the land with the walls angling from 10’ high in the middle, into the earth at the far ends.

In any case, Danto goes on to consider that, by contrast, beauty is a distraction when it is inappropriate to the political content.  He cites for example Picasso’s Blue Period enhancement of female attractiveness and the sentimentalization of his images of poverty, which distract from the political message.  One could add the example of George W. Bush’s current painted portraits of (legal) immigrants, which beam forth their simple gleaming faces at the expense of more complex content (Art in America, March/April 2021, 20-23). Danto ultimately considers that beauty may be incompatible for art in an “Age of Indignation” and may be in for a long time of exile. (UB 37).  He interestingly laments that there is only so much art or artists can do in an “Age of Moral Outrage.”  He says in a dialogue with Gablik that “I can’t think of any cases—though there may be some in the past—where art solved any real problems.” (Gablik, Conversations 285).  Although to counter Danto one can cite examples, such as the murals of Diego Rivera or the paintings of J. J. David as having been potent and effective political instruments.  

Schjeldahl does consider that “when politics is made the focus of art, beauty does not wait to be ousted from the process.  Beauty [can] deferentially withdraw, knowing its place.  Beauty is not superfluous, not a luxury, but it is a necessity that waits upon the satisfaction of other necessities. It is a crowning satisfaction.” (UB 59) 

Contrary to allowing beauty off the hook in a political context, Dave Hickey and artist Richard Misrach, as discussed above, believe that beauty is a necessary component of a political art in order to communicate challenging content to a broader public.   James Hillman argues that raw life actions, such as Mazeaud’s cleaning of the Rio Grande are inadequate.  Such engaged modalities need to incorporate beauty and metaphor in order to have the power of art for political purposes.  (Gablik, Conversations 195) 

The participants in the panel on “EcoFeminism” (Thomas Erben Gallery, July 22, 2020) asked about whether art can just show us problems or whether can it make a difference.  Beyond just showing, Eleanor Heartney considers that Eco Art offers a new contemporary consciousness of the interconnectedness of life.   Heartney notes that the art can have an impact, can have agency, but it needs to engage with other interested partners in order to carry further. The panel, as others concerned with engaged art, proposed that art need to be brought out of the gallery space and put into non-art spaces in order to reach a different audience.  Betsy Damon’s Living Water Garden in Chengdu, China, discussed by the panel, is a vivid example.  This eco-park, came into being through the support of The Chengdu Fu and Nan Rivers Comprehensive Revitalization Project.  Damon’s vision was accomplished as a result of the effective collaboration of landscape architect Margie Ruddick and a team of landscape designers and hydraulic engineers.  The riverside park is the living experience of a water purification system for both visitors and wildlife.  Water from the river flows through series of sculpted forms, cascading like a mountain stream, to a settling pond, aerated by a large fountain, then flows into a series of wetlands, emerging at a fountain splash area for children before returning to the river.  The park also has an amphitheater and an education center.  Art as action becomes a community and a nature experience.

But now we come to those who take exception to so much activist art as the dominant trend of this turn of our century.  Robert Morgan decries the “politicized rhetoric encased in hardened academic language,” the relentless “concern to deconstruct to reveal the power structure.”  He considered that, at the time he wrote (1998), this aggressive energy had taken a central hold on art critical valuations and art education to the detriment of art.  It was opposing art that is inner directed, based on imagination and intuition (End of the Art World, 203-205).  In the broad sense when the political has a clamp on the artworld one might agree, but one can also ask whether political and the inner directed are necessarily mutually exclusive.   

Robert Corrington in his “Ecstatic Naturalism” considers that “great art can have two simultaneous functions that seem incompatible but are not. On the one hand it can bring peace and joy to its assimilator, while on the other it can reject and critique the status quo, that is be a great refusal.” (Nature's Sublime 152) In doing so It can “threaten the standing order of the community” (NS 152).  He agrees with Marcuse that “art discovers and liberates the domain of sensuous Form, the pleasure of sensibility, as against the false, the formless and the ugly in perspective which is repressive of the truth and power...” (NS 154).   

James Hillman has also been concerned about too much negativity without beauty.  How can we deny what reconciles us to life?  He notes that current depth psychology excludes beauty from the conversation, focusing on violence, sexuality, childhood, feelings, etc., instead of recognizing the repression of beauty itself as also operative in our personal and cultural neuroses (UB 262-3).  Concerning both art and life he wishes us to move beyond taking things apart, beyond deconstruction.  We need to have, as he noted, “the courage to be afraid of beauty” “to risk exquisite intensity.” Beauty for him has to do with the naked power of the imagination and the acknowledgement of nature and the originating powers.   

Donald Kuspit is the most nuanced of all these thinkers through his concern to understand the deeper human condition and to have art do so.  He considers that there is something that true art can do that “social science” and “speculative philosophy” cannot do, also that postmodern protest art cannot do (End of Art, 186).   He considers that all of these arenas in the ultimate sense, go wrong by trying to understand the ugliness of life--bad social conditions, death and destruction--by objectifying them and by revealing the conditions under which they exist.  These approaches then presuppose that if we could just change those conditions then ugliness will be banished.  Kuspit wishes art to go deeper.  In order to attain significant status, current art needs to understand that social conditions are a consequence, not the cause of human difficulties.  Rather, the darkness, the tragic problems of life, will always be present in one way or another.  “Destruction and death can never be adequately objectified because they are the one permanent raw spot in subjectivity “(End of Art 188).  They are inherent in our human condition.  True art therefore has a calling to go beyond social action.  It should encompass a dialectic of ugliness with beauty, allowing aesthetic transcendence--not to banish the sense of darkness, nor to lose critical consciousness of the world, but to mediate the inevitability of the power of the tragic.  This allows the self to plumb the depths.  Though never capable of fully fathoming the depths, the self can explore their effect on the sense of life, giving us more of a hold on our own subjectivity, despite our insecurity (End of Art 191).  He cites modern and current new masters as broaching this experience (e.g , Redon, Max Beckmann, Baselitz, Joseph Raphael, Annette Messager).  As he says “the purpose of art is to dialectically transcend ugliness by revealing its immanence through beauty,” i.e. “a tragic beauty” (End of Art 191).   Kuspit is currently exploring further the sense of beauty implicit in the work of some specific abstract artists, such as, Kandinsky, Mondrian, and the contemporary Frank Gerritz (Whitehot Magazine, May 2022). These artists can break through these categories for an implied, phenomenologically significant experience of transcendence. 

Vassily Kandinsky, Circles in a Circle, 1923. Oil on canvas. 38.9 x 37.6”. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.


Now, there is the question of whether the art and criticism of the recent 2010-20s have opened up something beyond the deconstructive political postmodernism.  Is there a “post postmodern” (Kuspit) or a “constructive postmodernism” (Patricia B. Sanders, “Eco-Art: Strength in Diversity,” Art Journal v. 51:2, Summer 1992)?  Is there perhaps, among other things, a new art of the mind, a rendering of imaginative multiworlds (digitally prompted), a subjective surrealism, a new fantastical nature?  If so, what might be the place of beauty—or not—within such emerging directions?   Such would be another exploration.  WM

Sara Lynn Henry

Sara Lynn Henry is an independent curator, art writer, and Emerita Professor of Art History and N.E.H. Distinguished Teaching Professor of Humanities, Emerita, Drew University.  She was Director of Drew’s Semester on Contemporary Art for 25 years, with studio visits to major artists and annual meetings with art critics and art professionals. Her curatorial work has focused primarily on art concerned with the forces of nature and matters of consciousness. She also has an interest in cross-cultural dialogues, especially Asian and the West.  As a scholar she has published widely on Paul Klee. 

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