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Must Art Be Beautiful?

Updated on January 21, 2010

Is beauty a necessary component of art? Or more to the point, can a work of art still rightfully be considered art even if it is disgusting or disturbing? One approach in attempting to answer this question is to determine what the purpose or function of art is. That is, what benefits do people derive from art; or what is it people seek in art? Once the function of art has been established, it will be easier to see if art can still fulfill these functions even when it is disgusting or disturbing; this way it can be shown whether art must be beautiful in order to be considered art. If disgusting or disturbing art fails to fulfill its various functions, it can be justifiably be argued that art must indeed be beautiful in order to be considered art. For this investigation into the role or function of art, I will rely on the analysis of both classical and contemporary philosophers.

Philosophers have debated the role of art in society for thousands of years, and the debate continues to this day. Opinions on the role of art have varied greatly. For example, in The Republic, Plato argued that art has no place in an ideal society, while Aristotle argued in Poetics that art, at the very least, has educational and moral qualities, and therefore is of great value to society. Still, more contemporary critics such as Clive Bell have asserted that art may be of such importance that it may “prove the world’s salvation” (p. 191). Other philosophers have sought to find what benefit people gain from art. For instance, Schopenhauer argued that the contemplation of art functions as the only relief from the everyday pain and suffering found in the world by allowing us a method of escape [emphasis added] (p. 162). And Bell characterizes art as an outlet of emotion for the artist; this emotion, which he calls an aesthetic emotion, is then elicited in the viewer of the work of art (p. 180). Hence, in Bell’s opinion art communicates emotions to people; art has the power to draw out strong, complex aesthetic emotions in those who contemplate art.

Clearly, art is thought to play an important role in society, as is demonstrated by the brief accounts given here. But the question still remains: must art be beautiful if it is to rightfully be considered art? Or even more to the point, can art be disgusting or disturbing and still rightfully be considered art? I would argue if disgusting or disturbing art is still able to fulfill its various functions even though it lacks beauty, we can consider beauty to be a non-essential aspect of art. Take for example, Aristotle’s proposition that art must be moral and educational; non-beautiful art can be both these things. When we say that art has an educational quality about it, we mean that it contains some knowledge. That is, a true work of art has the capability of teaching us something. Disturbing or disgusting art can contain a great deal of knowledge. Take for instance, Chris Ofili painting of the Holy Virgin Mary: it portrays the Holy Virgin Mary as a black woman, dabbed in elephant dung, surrounded by pornographic images, and dressed in very non-traditional attire. What, you may ask does this teach us? It may say many different things to many different people. The point to be made about it is that such a portrait will undoubtedly inspire much talk, which will inevitably lead those who view it to contemplate its meaning. This exploration into the possible meaning or significance of the portrait is likely to lead to some knowledge for some people. For example, those who investigate its significance might come to learn more about who the Virgin Mary was and what role she plays in the Christian religion; others might discover that elephant dung has a cultural significance to those who use it as a medium of expression in some African communities, and so on. Therefore, disturbing or disgusting art can be a vehicle for knowledge.

With respect to art and morality, take a play that is riddled with morally disgusting or disturbing characters. This still has the ability to present an overall positive moral message. The moral message that can be expressed in these types of presentations is one that states: this is how not to behave; or this is the type of personality traits which will not be of benefit to yourself or to society. These types of plays can show us the types of personal qualities that are undesirable and why they are so. Just because a play presents to its audience immoral characters or plots, does not mean that the play itself cannot have an overall positive moral message. By seeing how not to act, we learn what behaviour is acceptable. Therefore, disturbing or disgusting art can be moral.

With regard to Bell’s notion of art’s ability to draw from the viewer aesthetic emotion, there is no reason to think that these strong aesthetic emotions could not be derived from disturbing or disgusting art. Bell admits, “…objects that provoke aesthetic emotion vary with each individual,” (p. 181) which would seem to allow for the possibility that non-beautiful art could provoke aesthetic emotion. In other words, some people may be affected greatly by a beautiful work of art, while others may be equally moved by a work of art that might be said to contain no beauty. Therefore, Bell may not consider beauty to be an essential characteristic of art as long as the work was able to elicit aesthetic emotion in the viewer.

While many philosophers have debated the function of art, most would likely agree that not just anything could justifiably be considered art. Tolstoy, in fact, established specific criteria for essential characteristics of art, including (briefly): “…the work [of art] should be of importance to mankind (sic);” “…[the] content should be expressed so clearly that people may understand it;” and “…what incites the author to work at his (sic) production should be an inner need and not an external inducement” (p. 171).

If we explore this argument further, we see disgusting or disturbing art does hold up to Tolstoy’s three criteria. First, disturbing or disgusting art can be of great importance to humankind, it fulfills some natural human need, a type of curiosity. As Aristotle argued in Poetics, “we enjoy looking at the most exact portrayals of things we do not like to see in real life, the lowest animals, for instance, or corpses” (p. 32). Second, there is nothing inherent in the nature of disturbing or disgusting art that would prevent it from being any less clear than art that has beauty. That is, there is no reason to expect disturbing or disgusting art to be unclear. Third, an artist who is creating something disturbing or disgusting is likely to be as every bit sincere as an artist who creates a work with beauty, because disgusting or disturbing thoughts and images are perfectly normal and are simply a part of human nature; there is nothing disingenuous about disturbing or disgusting thoughts, feelings and emotions on the part of the artist.

While disturbing or disgusting art may seem to fit well with the criteria given by writers such as Tolstoy, and at the same time still be able to fulfill its other functions as laid out by some of history’s greatest thinkers, other very influential philosophers of art might disagree that art can be disgusting or disturbing and still be art. For some philosophers, beauty would absolutely be an essential quality in a work of art; even some of those philosophers discussed here would hold this view. But I believe that if disgusting or disturbing art is able to fulfill the main objectives of art (e.g. expression of aesthetic emotion, morality, knowledge, etc), and furthermore, able to meet reasonable requirements such as those set out by Tolstoy, then beauty is not an essential characteristic of art.

Bibliography

Bell, Clive, “The Aesthetic Hypotheses,” in Aesthetics: The Classic Readings, ed. David E. Cooper (Malden Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2003).

Schopenhauer, Arthur, “The World as Will and Representation,” in Aesthetics: The Classic Readings, ed. David E. Cooper (Malden Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2003).

Tolstoy, Leo, “On Art,” in Aesthetics: The Classic Readings, ed. David E. Cooper (Malden Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2003).

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