What appears below is not what I had planned for today’s posting. The press release came through email as I was pouring my second cup of Barry’s Irish tea. Broadcast by the San Francisco MOMA. it is worth a look for a specific purpose. Beauty has become a seductive catchword among Christian artists. But. like any seduction, it obscures as much as it displays. Beauty is truth? Not necessarily; not here on the ground where Platonic categories smother in the earthbound air. In our quotidian world, beauty can serve false promises, an enticement to ends with no good in them. Certainly not as Christian devotees of beauty define the good.

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Zanele Muholi. Caitlin and I, Boston (2009). Collection of Christopher Meany. Promised gift to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Born in South Africa, the photographer uses her work as a tool to promote acceptance of lesbianism. Wikipedia, the go-to site for the digital generation, explains with characteristic eloquence: “Her work is mostly about bringing visibility of queers in the black community.”

And she does it well. Viewed strictly from the standpoint of technique and composition, Caitlin and I, Boston, is a fine photograph. The figure of Caitlin is beautiful; she reclines with the same languid grace of Antonio Canova’s marble Naiad.

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In concert with each other, the two figures convey less overt sexuality than Canova’s celebrated Cupid and Psyche. It is the insinuation of lesbianism into the composition that sets it apart from neoclassical prototypes. The controlled, lissome ease of the pair accomplishes its intention: to erase any suggestion of the grotesque from lesbian sexuality. Beauty is used here for social ends. For as long as there is contention over what those ends should be, beauty—like art itself—can serve any doctrine or ideology. It can sell any product or, as we like to say, lifestyle.

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Hugh Hamilton. Canova in his studio with Henry Tresham viewing a plaster model for Canova’s “Cupid and Psyche” (1788-89)

Sidney Finkelstein, American Marxist and lover of the beautiful, understood the social function of art as something which brings to the fore of social consciousness “a changed view of reality that has already been prepared for by the collective operations of society.”

The nature of beauty is a problem for philosophers, not artists. Marx’s own comment has some bearing here:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.

We cannot assume that devotion to beauty will change it in a way consistent with Judeo-Christian expectations.

Articles by Maureen Mullarkey

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