Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Value of Ugly Art

            I like ugly paintings, depressing books, and angry music. I believe that those things have both emotional and intellectual value, and sometimes I would go so far as to claim that they are beautiful. If that seems contradictory, it is, but I’ll take this time to explain. What is beautiful? Does art have to be beautiful? What is the highest form of art? What is art? These are all questions that fall under the category of Aesthetics, the philosophy of beauty, art, and taste. Any issue of Aesthetics is a touchy topic because of how distinctly different individual perspectives are, so I am going to abstain from making any presumptuous claims about whether anything is or is not a valid form of artistic expression. Instead, I want to focus in on the issue of what makes something have artistic value and what the highest form of art is.
            Let’s start with the more general question, “What makes something art?” To clarify, I am not talking about various mediums such as books, music, painting, sculpture, performance, etc. Rather, I am going to try and explain what “art” is in the most general sense. Many philosophers, artists, and critics have presented ideas on this topic. Some claim that sublime beauty is what makes something art. Other say that the act of creation at the hands of the artist makes it art. Still more claim that art is simply any creative expression of emotion or abstract thought. I want to contend that the work itself is not inherently artistic, but it derives its artistic value from the emotional and intellectual (I would say that the two are inseparable, but that is a topic for another day) response it evokes in both the artist and the audience. In this sense, there isn’t any universal work of art, because no piece of art can hope to provoke a response in everyone that sees, hears, or reads it. This also means that a work of art can be a very different experience for different peoples because of the already held beliefs, knowledge, and experiences of the viewer. A work could be beautiful, but if I feel no connection to the work, if it doesn’t make me think, then for me at least it has no value. On the flip side, a work could be ugly, brutal, shocking, or even revolting, but if I experience a deeper emotional reaction then it has artistic value. For example, the modern paintings of artists such as Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud are often considered ugly, but they are two of my favorite painters. I fully acknowledge that their works are not pretty to look at, in fact they make me uncomfortable, but that very discomfort forces me to ask harder questions, and that is why I would consider them high art while others view their works as nothing more than a deliberate shock.
            With that much room for different perspectives about what does and does not serve as art, how can I possibly decide what the highest form of art is? Easy, I’ll make my answer as abstract as possible. I claim that the highest type of art is that which makes the viewer uncomfortable. Art that makes one uncomfortable challenges what the viewer believes about the world, existence, and, most importantly, about themselves. The author Franz Kafka phrased it this way, “A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.” While he was talking specifically of books, I feel the statement applies to art as a whole. Art should force us to confront who we are at the deepest level, both the good and bad. Art is by nature a humanistic experience. Without an artist, art cannot come into being, and without an audience, art means nothing. Art doesn't transcend humanity, it comes down to our level and wrestles us to the ground kicking and screaming. Hell, if I want to be narcissistic (or optimistic depending on your perspective), I can hope that this essay meets my own definition of art. I hope I’ve made you uncomfortable.

Francis Bacon painting
Painting (1946), by Francis Bacon

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