Beauty in art has been the source of countless philosophies, treatises, and debates for thousands of years. It is a discussion I typically try to avoid, as the definition of Beauty (with a capital ‘B’) is based almost entirely on individual taste and each rule seems to have twenty exceptions leading down a never-ending rabbit hole from which there is no return. But recently, I was reading Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson and was unexpectedly struck by his chapter entitled “Beauty.” It wasn’t that I felt Emerson had perfectly defined the elusive ideal in such a way that it removed all my trepidation regarding the term; instead, I was intrigued by how he used the way people relate to beauty in order to define what an artist is.
Regardless of whether a definition of Beauty can ever be agreed upon, I found myself drawn to Emerson’s description of an artist as a person who has a love for beauty “in such excess, that, not content with admiring, they seek to embody it in new forms.” This interpretation suggests that the desire to create is deeply rooted within the artist and cannot be contained. It made an image in my mind of artists who are so overcome with passion that paintings, sculptures, and drawings virtually spill out of them.
The energy in this portion of Emerson’s essay is palpable, and upon reflection is the same energy I’ve felt exuding from most of the artists I know. People who I consider true artists always seem driven to be constantly creating. Even before one work is finished they are already considering what they want to work on next. Regardless of the physical, monetary, or even emotional sacrifices they need to make in order to do their work as artists, they continue on, the rewards outweighing any losses they incur.
One famed artist in particular came to mind when I considered individuals who exemplified this excess that drove them to creation. Willem de Kooning was an artist who began painting as a young man and developed a mature style by his forties. He continued to be a prolific painter, draftsman, and sculptor for the remainder of his life; even after he began exhibiting signs of Alzheimer’s he continued to work in his studio creating pieces that still sell for significant amounts today. Some argue over whether de Kooning was actually conscious of what he was painting during that time due to the stylistic change in his work, but those close to him maintain that when he was painting in the studio the artist remained cognizant of the work he was doing. To think that the love for art was so deeply embedded in de Kooning that, when he was overcome with a mentally debilitating disease, his passion for art would remain, while his other faculties deteriorated, is awe-inspiring and somewhat humbling.
Returning to Emerson’s essay, he expands beyond the artist’s passion for Beauty, adding to the definition of an artist by claiming that art is “a nature, passed through the alembic of man.” He sets the artist up as an instrument through which our surroundings and ideals are refined and re-presented to an audience, charging the artist with the responsibility of teaching the general population on how to See. I write ‘See’ with a capital ‘S’ because I believe at the heart of his essay Emerson is calling his readers to look to Nature as the lens that will allow people to truly perceive and understand the world around them. I believe the distinction also reflects the mission of all artists to demonstrate to their audience how to look actively, not passively. And while Emerson always redirects the reader back to Nature as the ultimate teacher on how to ‘See,’ I believe that too often the general population disregards artists as careful observers of our world. Over the years artists have moved beyond being a conduit or refiner of beauty, to successfully presenting to the world everything from political, cultural, social, environmental, and personal ideas.
But I think that we can take the idea of artists teaching us to See, and the audience participating in the lesson, one step further, particularly as Christians: Artists who are Christians can look to the creation story as the example of the ultimate artist. Just as Emerson described the outpouring of love for beauty as the birth of the artist, I envision God’s overwhelming love as his impetus for creation. His love and desire were so great that for six days He made everything out of nothing and saw that is was good. It wasn’t until he made man in his image that he finally rested. Looking to this example, the role of artist takes on a weightier responsibility, especially as they are called to open our eyes to the creation already around us.
As viewers, I believe that Christians are also called to look at everything in the art world and try to understand, or See, what the artist is saying. That does not mean that every work of art is to be praised or even condoned, but it does mean that we should take the time to contemplate each piece and make the effort to comprehend what ideas the work is trying to convey. Too often people (from the Christian and secular community alike) are quick to dismiss works they don’t understand or that don’t fit into their personal definition of Beauty, keeping themselves from learning more about the world around them.
In the end my thoughts on beauty are not any clearer then they were before I read Emerson’s essay, but I do feel that I have a new view on both the role and definition of what an artist is. So perhaps I’m walking away with an improved ability of Seeing which will hopefully in the end help me perceive more clearly the world around me, regardless of whether it fits into any definition of beauty.
Allison Peller is an independent art curator living in New York City.
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