Skip to content

Why Beauty Matters, A.K.A. Why Modern Art Is of The Devil.???

January 29, 2012
Temptation of Christ, by J. Kirk Richards

Detail from The Temptation of Christ, by J. Kirk Richards

I went to a private religious university. I’m not going to name any names, but it’s initials are BYU. Some believe that because it’s a religious university, artists studying there should learn from their professors how to be the next Carl Bloch, or at least learn the traditions of classical aesthetic and technique. The reality is, the BYU fine art program is geared towards preparing students to go on to graduate programs at Yale and Pratt and other highly-ranked institutions–institutions that hold little regard for traditional art. The primary goals of these universities seem to be innovation or shock, not painting Jesus. For them, art is a visual aide for philosophy–something to prime a secular discussion. A successful artist colleague noted that the art coming out of these institutions is not even anti-art. That has been done–as passe’ as traditional art. The deconstruction has again been deconstructed. What’s left seems to be a no-man’s-land-hodge-podge of aesthetic confusion.

But is it wrong?

Should a religious institution have such a focus–feeding students into post-postmodern elitism? Or should its faculty go back to the classical ideals of Bouguereau and the French Academy?

In a world of drug trafficking, sex trade, and a million other serious problems, is it even worth discussing the morality behind various art movements? I can tell you as an art student interested in painting Jesus, it was not fun for me to be at the center of this discussion–or rather, at times, this contentious argument.

I had teachers tell me, “It doesn’t matter what you paint, as long as you do your home teaching and take care of your family.” And to an extent I agree with that.

I also had a teacher say, “You can’t make art that changes someone’s life. Art doesn’t affect people that way. Don’t try to make a difference in the lives of others with your art.” I don’t agree with this at all–particularly after having had so many experiences over the last twelve years of my professional career.

If you are hoping for me to come to some conclusion with this post, you may be disappointed. The truth is, I love traditional art. I love modern art. I like a lot of post-modern art. I think universities have become myopic on one side of the spectrum, and traditional art ateliers have become myopic on the opposite side of the spectrum. It seems art teachers, who ought to exemplify open-mindedness, often miss the mark at the expense of their students’ careers, hopes, and dreams. (As an aside, I write this last sentence with some trepidation, not wanting my own professors to think I’m pointing the finger at them. I will always be grateful for the education I received from my BYU professors, and I believe their hearts were and are in the right place.)

Here’s a super-simplistic sentence, and I feel like an idiot even writing it, but I’m going to anyway: Can’t we all just get along?

Okay. Watch this and make up your own mind. It’s a video posted to an artist friend’s facebook page. The text that follows is a reposting of the comment thread on my friend’s facebook wall. The names have been eliminated to protect the innocent–all except mine, because you already know I’m guilty.

Friend 1: “All art is absolutely useless. Put usefulness first and you lose it. Put beauty first and what you do will be useful forever.” Awesome.

Friend 2: Where, but in art do you have the opportunity to challenge beauty?

Friend 3: Ten minutes into the film and I have mixed feelings…must continue watching…

Friend 3: Okay, 20 minute in. The comments on the fine arts I think are well thought out, but Duchamp also did some beautiful work which isn’t being shown, but I still get his point. He currently is losing me on the comments on architecture as I think he is over simplifying. Comments about modern abandon buildings being in that state because they are ugly is too boiled down. Environments change with time. My mom had an apartment in Chicago in the ’80 that was a dangerous area even during the day. Now in 2012 it’s a garden spot and the yuppies have bought up the area. Am still watching….

Friend 3: I love his discussion on Rembrant finding/showing the beauty in his paintings. Not simply a youth based/sexual content…

Friend 3: ‎40 minutes in… love the thought of how beauty connects us with the experience of being… it makes more sense when he says is and it feels very true. Iwill be watching the rest tomorrow but I thank you for posting this and hope this is something you will be using in your art history classes, it’s very interesting (and yes, I will bore everyone with more comments tomorrow!). 🙂

Friend 2: I agree with you on most of those points. This whole thesis has an equal amount of contradictions as it does condemnations. But it definitely gets you to think!

Friend 4: After watching this I can agree with a lot of what he says about the removal of beauty from a lot of modern art. While it seems to me the bulk of the artwork he is against is very crass he seems to be be against advancement too. Most of the examples he uses for beauty are only based on realist subjects. He seems to gloss over the surreal and abstract, which I think can achieve just as much beauty as a portrait or scenery painting. As for love/lust argument I believe over time beauty somehow became distorted into vanity. Because of this modern life is overly sexual in general, and more sex equated to more beauty. The idea of art being, useless therefore necessary is cool and makes sense. I think the problem with people now, especially with young people, is a lot of the things in are lives are not only useless, but fast paced and addicting. To get to these moments of beauty requires us to slow down and shut these other things off to experience them. These beautiful moments are not as overbearing as every day life, so the tendency to let them quickly pass is high. In the end I think it is easier for most people to stick to there daily routines then search for the beautiful moments in between. This is part of the addictive nature of people. Wake up, go to work, talk about the game from Sunday, eat your lunch, more work, go home, watch t.v., sleep, repeat. There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself, but the little moments in between become a blur. Even though it’s these moments which make the world beautiful. And art and many, not all, aspects should be able to take these beautiful moments and condense and extend them. Giving us a visual reminder of who we are as humans. (Sorry about the rant. I hope this makes sense.)

Friend 5:Why/where does beauty need to be challenged? Please explain more. I do feel that the sweeping comment about modern architecture was too general. However I do feel there is truth here to his point that much of modern architecture does fit his description of what is lacking in considering even the idea of beauty.

Me: I think many contemporary academics (in the atelier sense of the term) dismiss Modernism too quickly. Many Modernists attained what I would consider to be beauty at its best: Modigliani, Rothko, and sometimes Picasso, just to name a few. And yet I have artists friends who won’t step foot into a museum of modern art. I don’t get it. It’s that kind of attitude that makes me want to put a urinal in an art show too.

Me: That said, I am similarly frustrated that craft, design, and aesthetic harmony are generally dismissed as passe’ in university art programs. You’d think artists would be some of the most open-minded people on the planet, and yet it seems to in reality be the opposite.

Me: I don’t like making art the venue for a holy war, which Roger Scruton wants to do. It not only creates a rift between artists of faith and agnostic artists, but also alienates faithful people who make secular art. And it can be argued by people of faith that all things are spiritual, so a non-objective painting can be just as spiritual as a scriptural narrative.

Friend 6: I have a theory. I believe we exist in a disposable society. The majority of what we do is meant for the short here and now. We as a whole have lost values and have thrown out the idea that there are things that are sacred in this world. I believe that because nothing is sacred to the majority that there can’t be beauty. Love is just something that is used up and then we move on to the next. Sex is something to satisfy our brief carnal needs and there is no emotional connection. There is no dedication, no craftsmanship, no risk. The bland majority is meant to be used up briefly and then tossed aside so that we can move on to the next thrill. There are the occasional exceptions but for some reason complacency is the accepted idea.

Me: I love what you just said about risk. I think representational art, and particularly attempts at beautiful representation art, are very risky. So many things can go wrong in representational work. That’s one reason it is less understood and less mastered in today’s world than in the past. People don’t want to take the risk.

Me:One last thing. It’s true that modern art movements waged war against God and religion. So should artists of faith wage war back? I think turning the other cheek comes into play here. Make the best art you can, learn what you can from traditionalists, modernists, and post modernists, taking the best from their aesthetics and from their moral motives. I would say Georges Ruoualt had purer motives than Bouguereau. So we take good where we can find it, and attribute it to God, whether or not that artist would give God any credit.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. January 29, 2012 10:22 pm

    “You can’t make art that changes someone’s life. Art doesn’t affect people that way.”

    That just astounded me. Of course it affects people that way. It doesn’t affect all people, but there’s no question that truly great art can change the audience. I would contend you don’t even need to “like” the art to have it change you. My problem with repeating traditional art is when the pieces are no longer challenging, emotionally evocative, or resonate–when they simply become a commodity, something that reinforces a world view or keeps the audience feeling safe.

    But then again, isn’t this all subjective?

  2. January 30, 2012 5:15 am

    I think one of the points where Scruton is dead wrong is where he creates a false dichotomy between usefulness and beauty, or between usefulness and any other virtue of the first intent. Aristotle’s Metaphysics posited virtues which were valuable for their own sake. Scruton reveals his preference for classical philosophy here, but I think it fails to get at original causes. I believe that we value these virtues for very good reasons–that they are very useful. For example, why is love useful (another virtue Scruton says is not useful)? On many levels, one being that sexual reproduction is so much more effective evolutionarily than asexual reproduction. Also because the family is a stronger building block on which to build society than a mere group of individuals. There are undoubtedly thousands of other good uses for this virtue. I think think Scruton is falling into classicist grooves here without digging deeper.

  3. January 30, 2012 9:43 am

    I have to agree with Carina that the “Art doesn’t affect people that way. Don’t try to make a difference in the lives of others with your art,” comment is what I disagree with the most. Every kind of expression is indeed valid in my eyes. Recently my little daughter suffered a massive seizure. As my family and I awaited the results of testing and other medical efforts on her behalf, I looked at the wall to a simple painting of a local pier and lighthouse. Something about that watercolor painting—run-of-the-mill-local-expressiveness perhaps—comforted me. It felt nice to see the calm of the water, the recognizable pier, the clouds, the artist’s painting skill. Although in so many hospitals and other institutions we barely glance at so much art that seems to do nothing more than take up space on the wall, even those pieces can comfort and resonate with a person’s soul.

    And it is so much the more impacting to me when the Spirit works through art on my behalf, which I know it does—to uplift and inspire me about truth and life, helping me to see such things with a new eye.

    • September 3, 2012 5:20 am

      I have had times where one child or another has been in the hospital. Maybe those who are there only for a day or two don’t notice the artwork, but for those who are there for longer peiods of time, it becomes a focal point, allowing our brains and hearts to rest from the worry and challenges of the day.

      At that Children’s Hospital the art is almost always chosen by the pastoral care team, which includes an artist, who is also the head of the Art Therapy program. There is a huge variety of styles, subjects and composition, in the hopes that there are a few artists pieces that will speak to the soul of anyone who is in the hospital.

      We were there long enough that I learned the the pastoral team also has a program where patients who are unable to leave their rooms can browse a catalog of the art in the hospital, and have it grace their room for a day. So, long term patients can have a dady with a piece of art that speaks to them, even if they can’t wander the halls to enjoy the entire range of artistic expression, found within the hospital.

      One particular painting was not very complicated, but had a deep impact on me, as the shades of purple and blue “danced” slowly through the painting. When I asked the head of the Art Therapy program who the artist was, he told me he bought it at a high school art show the artist was a sophmore in high school when it was painted), and it is one of the paintings he is often asked about. He kept track of the artist for several years after he purchased it, and was disappointed that she did not continue creating artwork once she went to college for an Engineering degree. I wish she hadn’t stopping painting, I would love to at least have a print of the painting in the hospital, but none exist.


  4. Paige permalink
    January 30, 2012 11:59 am

    Thanks for that post. It makes me like you as an artist even more. Keep doing what you’re doin. I think it is great.

  5. Samuel permalink
    January 31, 2012 10:00 am

    I can’t keep myself from participating in a conversation like this. I love the banter that can exist in these ideas. From my academic experience, I think many would be surprised how pluralistic the professors I interact with are. At least I was pleasantly surprised myself. Rejecting representation because “it’s all been done” is outdated modernist thinking–way outdated. I think it’s clear to many that the big promises of that sort of monolithic supremism went unfulfilled in the end. Which isn’t to say modernism didn’t serve an important purpose and create a lot of stunning works of art–on the contrary. I’m just saying that by the 60s artists began pushing beyond the stylistic imperatives of modernism and I think it was for the better. University programs that denigrate representation on principle from my point of view seem to do so because the majority of their faculty were educated during modernist years and those ideas continue to perpetuate (which raises questions about the faculty’s exposure and interaction with the contemporary art world too I guess). But I think the broader art world is beyond those ideas. What I do see frequently among more thoughtful professors is tough criticism of bad representational work (which can be misunderstood as an all out dismissal of representation). When I say bad I mean both in terms of skill and concept. Of course I’m deeply sympathetic to representation. One of the pitfalls of representation is becoming neophytic. There’s a very subtle and nuanced difference between building on and dialoguing with the past on one hand and a purist, recreation of the past on the other. But the resulting work can be dramatic. In the end, I see the criteria for criticism about representation and other art forms that are used by keener academic professors more or less the same, but maybe representation’s pitfalls are more obvious because we have an enormous history of when it works and when it doesn’t. I agree that myopic views whether from the representational side or the academic side are useless, but I guess I’m also saying they’re often ill-informed or uniformed, making absurdly broad and often shallow assumptions from a handful of examples.

    I’m droning on a bit, but in terms of post postmodernism and your comment about how deconstruction has been deconstructed, have you ever read Arthur Danto’s “The End of Art”? It’s a great one. I don’t agree with every point he makes, but the overall ideas are really interesting. Our current state of pluralism can be very disorienting, especially in terms of defining some sort of constant standard for good art. Maybe that’s beneficial? Anything that expands our minds is going to be at first confusing. I find that quickly labeling what we don’t understand as elitist is lacking a real sense of personal investment and exploration. I believe great art always creates a sort of revelation in the mind of the viewer. Why would we expect then to not be stretched somewhat as we interact with it? To me this is the equivalent of skimming for a minute or two through a book on medicine then concluding, “I don’t get it…must be elitist.” Of course elitism exists, but on the other hand great art moves its audience beyond it’s current state, and I think that requires a certain amount of investment by the viewer. Sure elitism is a problem, but I’m willing to accept that possibility at the expense of an art world that challenges the idea that art should be like entertainment television–soundbites, spoon fed, low level of critical thinking, always a fairly clear conclusion, etc. I don’t mean to over simplify the issue or in any way imply a binary opposition between representation and really dissonant art forms. I’m speaking more in terms of elitism as a concept I guess. Great art, representational, beautiful, or otherwise, illuminates, expands, challenges, invites.

  6. DBsr permalink
    February 10, 2015 10:18 pm

    ….As you have heard, “Beauty is IN the EYE of the BEHOLDER”

  7. Eva permalink
    May 22, 2015 10:33 pm

    I thought a lot about this question following the recent general conference talk entitled “which way do you face?” This was true largely because my own art does more of “representing the people to the prophet” than of “representing the prophet to the people.” The rest of the talk was about avoiding worldliness, but this first concept stuck with me. Here is what I have come to: God knows us–our hearts, our fears, our sins, our triumphs, our hopes, our faith. But we pray anyway. We show unto Him our weakness. We pour out our whole souls in mighty prayer, if we are doing it right. So which is more righteous, a sermon or a prayer? I believe both are righteous, and that art can be either. if we are representing the people, then, I think the key question becomes, are we representing the people–ourselves– to God, or to mammon? I belive that paintings that are prayers–even prayers of a tortured or struggling soul–can be as beautiful , lovely, of good report or praiseworthy as paintings that are sermons.


  1. Why Beauty Matters, Part 2, A.K.A Stop Making That Elitist Artwork! « Kirk's Fine Art Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s