This 1996 essay, which began life as a panel contribution on the subject of beauty and was augmented for publication in the journal m/e/a/n/i/n/g, is extracted from David Humphrey’s book of criticism, Blind Handshake, from Periscope Publishing Ltc, 2010.
One of the inglorious reasons I became an artist was to avoid writing, which, thanks to my parents and public school, I associated with odious authoritarian demands. I found the language of painting, in spite of all its accumulated historical and institutional status, happily able to speak outside those constraints. Of course language and writing shade even mute acts of looking. The longer and more developed my involvement with painting became, the more reading and writing freed themselves from a stupid superego. Writing about art could be an extension of making it. But there persists in me a lingering desire to make paintings that resist description, that play with what has trouble being named.
I was recently asked to speak on a panel about beauty in contemporary art and found myself in the analogous position of speaking about something that I would prefer resisted description. Describing beauty is like the humorlessness of explaining a joke. It kills the intensity and surprise intrinsic to the experience. I found, however, that descriptions can have more importance than I originally thought. The rhetorical demands of defining beauty often lead to ingenious contradictions or sly paradoxes. It’s amazing how adaptable the word is to whatever adjective you put before it: radiant, narcotic, poisonous, tasteless, scandalous; shameless, fortuitous, necessary, forgetful, or stupid beauty. I think artists have the power to make those proliferating adjectives convincing based on what Henry James called the viewer’s “conscious and cultivated credulity.” A description can have the power to prospectively modify experience. To describe or name a previously unacknowledged beauty can amplify its possibility in the future for others; it can dilate the horizon of beauty and hopefully of the imaginable. To assume that experience is shaped by the evolution of our ingenious and unlikely metaphors is also helpful to artists; it can enhance our motivation and cultivate enabling operational fictions, like freedom and power. We are provided another reason to thicken the dark privacy of feeling into art.
Loving claims are frequently made for beauty’s irreducibility, its untranslatability, its radical incoherence. André Breton rhapsodized that “convulsive beauty will be veiled erotic, fixed explosive, magical circumstantial or will not be.” Henry James defined the beautiful less ardently as “the close, the curious, the deep.” I think that to consider beauty as the history of its descriptions is to infuse it with a dynamic plastic life; it is to understand beauty as something that is reinvented over and over, that needs to be invented within each person and group. Beauty’s problem is usually the uses to which it is put. Conservatives use beauty as a club to beat contemporary art with. Its so-called indescribability and position at a hierarchical zenith makes beauty an unassailable standard to which nothing ever measures up. This indescribability, however, is underwritten by a rich tangle of ambiguities and paradoxes. For critics more to the left, beauty is a word deemed wet with the salesman’s saliva. They see it used to flatter complacency and reinforce the existing order of things. Beauty is here described as distracting people from their alienated and exploited condition and encouraging a withdrawal from engagement. This account ignores the disturbing potential of beauty. Even familiar forms of beauty can remind us of the fallen existence we have come to accept. When beauty stops us in our tracks, the aftershock triggers reevaluations of everything we have labored to attain. Finding beauty where one didn’t expect it, as if it had been waiting to be discovered, is another common description. Beauty’s sense of otherness demands, for some, that it be understood as universal or transcendent; something more than subjective. Periodic attempts are made to isolate a deep structural component of beauty; articulated by representations of golden sections, Fibonacci series, and other images of proportion, harmony and measure; a boiled-down beauty.
Even in the most unexpected encounters with the beautiful, however, there coexists some component of déjà vu or strange familiarity. To call that experience universal or transcendent performs a ritual act of devotion. It protects the preciousness of one’s beauty experience in a shell of coherence. I think there are strong arguments for beauty’s historical and cultural breadth based in our neural and biologically evolved relation to the world, but arguments for artistic practices built on that foundation often flatten the peculiar and specific details that give artworks their life. The universalizing description also overlooks the work’s character as a rhetorical object, subject to unanticipated uses within the culture. It draws people toward clichés and reductive stereotypes that are then rationalized as truths and archetypes.
If I have any use for the idea of beauty, it would be in its troubling aspect. I was describing to a friend my mother’s occasional fits of oceanic rage during my childhood, and she told me I should approach beauty from that angle. Like mothers, I suppose, beauty can be both a promise and a threat. All roads eventually lead back to family matters. Perhaps this path to beauty begins to slant toward the sublime; to that earliest state of relatively blurred boundaries between one’s barely constituted self and the tenuously attentive environment. Attendant experiences of misrecognition, identification, alienation, and aggressivity during early ego development become components of the beauty experience. The dissolving of identity, the discovery of unconscious material in the real, a thralldom of the senses underwritten by anxiety, are a few of my favorite things. If there is a useful rehabilitation of beauty in contemporary art, I think it would be to understand it as an activity, a making and unmaking according to associative or inventive processes. Beauty would reflect the marvelous plasticity and adaptability of the brain.
I’m tempted to go against the artist in me that argues against words and throw a definition into the black hole of beauty definitions; that beauty is psychedelic, a derangement of recognition, a flash of insight or pulse of laughter out of a tangle of sensation; analogic or magical thinking embedded in the ranging iconography of desire. But any definition of beauty risks killing the thing it loves.