Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Why Not Beauty?

Why is that contemporary artists have such disregard, even scorn, for the beauty of the ordinary world, or of anything? In my last post I wrote about a horrible show at the Blaffer Gallery that revels in ugliness. A recent review of a Vermeer painting, by Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker, is about what art can do when it acknowledges and adores the beauty of the world, of visual experience.

I remember when I was in art school, I asked, "Why can't we make a photograph about visual experience?" The teacher told me that that would be too boring and not "critical" enough. But visual experience is not boring at all. It's a big part of what makes life worth living. This is what Schjeldahl says about Vermeer's "Young Woman with a Water Pitcher": "Beholding it, I feel that my usual ways of looking are torpid to the point of dishonoring the world." Exactly! Visual art is supposed to make us more alive to the glory of visual experience. Eyeball kicks. Even Neil Cassady, orphan of the Denver streets, knew that.

The Met has another Vermeer painting on view right now: "The Milkmaid." Schjeldahl doesn't love it as much as he loves "Young Woman with a Water Pitcher," but still, Schjeldahl says, "it exercises more dazzling virtuosity than I quite know what to do with." Part of the virtuosity is in the color, but it's also in the almost photographic, yet mystically transformed, realism of the painting. Look at that bread, and that copper thing hanging on the wall. What about the wicker basket! No wonder Vermeer only produced two or three paintings a year: the detail in this is as painstaking as one can imagine.

Amazingly, Vermeer painted this when he was twenty-five. Schjeldahl says that the sublimity of this painting resulted from Vermeer's absolute loyalty to "a perceptual realism as thorough-going as the medium allowed." Schjeldahl quotes another critic, who wrote, "Something well worn in Dutch art (like an old shoe) has become something never seen before (like a glass slipper)." Schjeldhahl adds: "That's beauty in action."

The message is that the world is incredibly beautiful, often for only a moment in a certain light. But you have to be alert to those moments. And that's what the subject of art should be: these transformative, illuminated moments. I don't believe that we aren't capable of this, in the 21st century. Of course we are. But we don't seem to believe in the value of it, if our art is any indication.

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