I came to painting as a gardener and poet first, and so I think about paintings much as I think about gardens and "living" spaces. When you design a garden, beauty has a function, and so its inclusion (however each person defines it) is a natural element of how we judge a garden's success. Flowers are beautiful, beauty attracts pollinators, and flowers produce food and fruit. So we plant flowers, even if we're not growing fruit! This sort of mindfulness about beauty applies to all sorts of ways we build gardens (and paintings!). Our bodies like the physical feeling of dappled shade, and so dappled shadows on a path are beautiful. Therefore we build gardens (and create paintings) that feature that experience. Our mouths like fresh fruit, and so the color of a healthy apple is beautiful to see. So we grow them and paint with their colors. Because our monkey minds enjoy the experience of depth, gardens designed with hidden spaces intrigue us and are inviting. So we build paths and paintings that express that kind of depth. Human minds like to discover patterns in the seemingly random elements of nature, and so it is that both artistic composition and the successful placement of boulders rely on the arrangement of objects with thoughtful disorder. Beauty is defined by the desires of our bodies and minds (dappled light, fresh fruit, depth and exploration) and is an expression of nature's will to live (flowers). Being party to that, mimicking and speaking that truth, is a powerful feeling.
And so I was, I admit, annoyed when I recently read a review of a book called "What Art Is" by Arthur Danto. Its in the Sept 2013 issue of a magazine called ArtNews. I'm sure Mr. Danto is very smart, but I got to this section where they describe modern artists, post Warhol, and... well... I'm old fashioned, perhaps, so I disagreed-
"We have long since entered a phase of art history in which beauty is of less importance to artists than the meaning they might convey through a work of art" says the reviewer, paraphrasing Mr Danto. "My theory," Mr. Danto says, "in brief, is that works of art are embodied meanings. Because of works like Warhol's Brillow Box, I could not claim that aesthetics is part of the definition of art."
Stuff like this annoys the hell out of me. It's what drove me from studying literature academically. That attitude leaches the joy of exploring beauty. My presumption is that its not written by someone who is making art, because if they did, they'd know that most artists (or atleast the ones I know) make art because pondering, understanding, and expressing beauty gives them pleasure.
Painting is threading something beautiful through the eye of a needle, like sending light through a prism- it comes from the outside, passes through the artist, and then goes back out altered. We are communicating to each other through the language of beauty. As students of art, we are learning to read the language of beauty. We are learning to paint in the language of beauty.
Understanding that language, that code- what makes something beautiful to you- and trying to express it, is a Herculean enough task. When artists discard beauty as a measure of success- not the only measurement, but one of them- it baffles me. A painting you find beautiful stands on its own and doesn't need additional meaning. It echoes the desires of our senses and our minds, and validates our experience of being human. That sounds very fuzzy and big, but it's actually very straightforward. Beauty makes you feel alive. It echoes your experience of living. Like a bee nuzzling up to a flower, beauty is enough.
Why Flowers Matter
From the flower
And from fruit
comes seed, and from the seed
comes the tree.
And so it is
that all life