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Prior to entering the exhibition Regarding Beauty: A View of the Late Twentieth Century, visitors to the Hirshhorn Museum come upon a wall covered with quotations that alternately define, question, repudiate and buttress the subject at hand. These epigrams, which also pepper the text of the catalogue, are fun to read and encompass a variety of figures: from Immanuel Kant, Charles Baudelaire, and Arthur Rimbaud to Sophia Loren, Barnett Newman, and Camille Paglia.
Yet, taken together, what do these often contradictory comments suggest? That beauty is a multifaceted ideal for which artists should strive? Or that it is a tool of oppression whose time has come? Certainly, the only thing the recent vogue for beauty has done is rendered the term meaningless by linking it with the “transgressive.” The best comment on this curiously brittle phenomenon comes from Peter Schjeldahl. “There is something crazy,” The New Yorker art critic rightly declares, “about a culture in which the value of beauty becomes controversial.” Has beauty really been, as an introductory wall would have us believe, “dismissed as a measure of quality in art”?
Beauty has preoccupied and vexed philosophers, writers, artists, and just about everyone else through the ages, and it is an entity subject to evolution and redefinition. Writing in 1846, Baudelaire stated that “since every age and every people have had their own form of beauty, we inevitably have ours.” Regarding Beauty purports to “raise rather than answer questions about the nature of beauty.”
Yet anyone familiar with the machinations of the art world will realize that these particular “questions” have long been answered, and that those answers are propped up by theory and nihilism—the dynamic duo of contemporary art. It’s no coincidence that the curators have chosen to concentrate on the last forty years, a time frame distinguished by the triumph of the Duchampian aesthetic. Regarding Beauty is less a reflection of our culture’s “own form of beauty” than a predictable manifestation of one of its more insular subsets—the art establishment.
“All negative art,” the painter Agnes Martin stated, “protests the lack of beauty in our lives.” There is plenty of “negative art” in Regarding Beauty, but those who practice it don’t protest a lack of beauty; they revel in it. Artists like Kiki Smith or Charles Ray can’t imagine, let alone give shape to, beauty; they can only reject it. In other words, Ms. Smith and Mr. Ray don’t know about art but they do know what they don’t like. So what are we left with? Michelangelo Pistoletto’s thrift-shop ruminations on the classical world, Sherman’s theatrical denigrations of the old masters, Matthew Barney’s stylized and unctuous myth-making, Andy Warhol pissing on a copper canvas, and Pablo Picasso, whose inclusion presumably lends blue-chip credibility to this motley collection of objects.
Picasso’s hasty Reclining Woman Playing with a Cat (1964) comes as a relief in this context because, at the very least, it gives the eye something to traverse. With few exceptions, the same can’t be said for the rest of the art included in Regarding Beauty, a species of show that I have come to regard as a “reading exhibition”—one that can’t be fathomed without recourse to the explanatory wall labels. And, sure enough, on the day I visited the Hirshhorn, gallery-goers spent more time reading than looking. Of course, with art like this looking isn’t the point; there is, in effect, nothing to see.
I attended Regarding Beauty on the morning after Thanksgiving—a day, I was warned, when the Washington museums would be bustling with visitors. This proved to be the case and the Hirshhorn was replete with tourists, families with children, curiosity seekers, and, I would imagine, the lone subscriber to Artforum.
Walking through the the show, I began to wonder what the casual museum-goer—one genuinely interested in art but not versed in art-world fashion—makes of an exhibition such as this. One places one’s faith in common sense and the ability of most people to see through the folderol that typifies the “major” art of our time.
Yet while Regarding Beauty was crowded, the inner hall of the museum—a gallery populated with sculptural masterpieces by Daumier, Degas, Rodin, Rosso, Maillol, Matisse, Lehmbruck, Baizerman, and others—was all but deserted. Hype and hip may bring people into museums, but can it be said that these qualities provide the proper frame of reference to insure that visitors return for less sensational fare? This is one of the troubling questions facing our cultural institutions, one whose repercussions will be felt long after the woozy theorizing of Regarding Beauty has met its demise.
© 2000 Mario Naves
A version of this article was originally published in the January 2000 issue of The New Criterion.