Saturday, 28 November 2009

Matthew Collings’ 'What is Beauty?'

Rachel’s review on the BBC programme


Watching What is Beauty? narrated by art critic Matthew Collings this week, this indescribable word has once again been brought to the forefront of my mind. Like my series of What is Art, he defined beauty through measures, of which he gave ten: nature, simplicity, unity, transformation, the surroundings, animation, surprise, pattern, selection, and spontaneity.


Cynically I think, surely with subject headers based so heavily around the formal properties of art theory, everything thus can be defined as beautiful, which was not his aim. What I have learnt more than anything else, and accepted the bitter sweetness of it for an art student, is that through argument, any theme, concept or interpretation of art can be justified. One can be wholly unprepared for a crit and yet if your brain is alert, and your tutor is open minded, as they are required to be to lecture in Fine Art, anything is concludable. The formal properties in this case should be much more distinct as their purpose is to be constant, recognisable markers. Yet in his brief delineation of unity as a form of beauty, Collings put forth the argument that mosaics are examples of unity because each stone is an individual decision from the artist, combined to make an overall cohesion. I think this a little vague.


As discussed, I can’t say I agreed with all he concluded, but he did make a few very interesting points. One that captured my imagination reminisces concepts within An Artists’ Setting, and was under the theme of The Surroundings. As I concurred, Collings emphasised the negative space of an area of display – not the work itself, but the frequently white walls that enhance the work in our contemporary approach to art. Through humbling and decluttering the surroundings in order to reduce distraction away from the work, which Collings suggested could be connected to contemporary art’s commercial need. This compares to the density of pattern in the highly luxurious National Gallery and Rijksmuseum wallpapers. I will not state one is better than the other, but comment that Fragonard’s well-displayed The Swing (1767), located in one of the Wallace Collection’s upper rooms, enhances the painting by highlighting the turquoise of the fading, distancing sky and shrubbery, in this exuberant wallpaper.


While this aspect of the history of curatorship may have changed, Collings interestingly related it to something unchanged in his retrospect of the history of beautiful art. This is the spiritual essence in art’s display. (I should note, that I believe this is true moreover in art generally.) Whereas churches used to house art that was designed and commissioned to be incorporated in, such as frescos and altarpieces; there is religiousness in the humble whiteness. The association in the plainness engages our mind with the emotional bareness involved in spirituality; in the in-built human response that is our desire for spirituality; and the simplicity and peace we are all so highly drawn to especially in contrast to our way of life. White is our colour for cleanliness, innocence, peace and purity, and for pure light. Inarguably he claimed that beauty was excusable in such a setting (a contemporary art gallery) because the beauty is in the sacred atmosphere created. And this is why modern art can, even if you admit it often is non-descript, ugly or visually arbitrary, be defined as beautiful. 

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