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Invisible Beauty

What happened to the beauty debate?

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One evening I sat Beauty on my knee and I found her bitter, and I injured her.

-- Arthur Rimbaud

Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for The New Yorker, is scheduled to speak at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art Thursday, January 23rd. Schjeldahl is widely acknowledged for his contribution during the 1990s to a discourse fueled by the return of beauty to contemporary art,to which fellow critic Dave Hickey's Invisible Dragon (1993)provided the clarion call. Beauty, with its epicurean flirtation with connoisseurship, graven images, and visceral indulgences, was a welcome respite from the art world's long winter of oppositional hermeneutics and intellectual justifications for so much boring, nonretinal art. By the late '90s, the art world's love affair with beauty, or at least pretty surfaces, was in full bloom, the topic of academic conferences, shows and seminars, periodicals and books, including Uncontrollable Beauty, an anthology of essays by Schjeldahl, Hickey, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Donald Kuspit, etc. Mega-exhibits, including "Regarding Beauty" at the Hirshhorn Museum and 2001's "Beau Monde" at the Santa Fe Biennial, exemplified the ascendancy of beauty into the mainstream. But then the movement was seemingly cut short by 9/11.

The slated subject of Schjeldahl's talk at the Brooks is "What art is for now." Given the extraordinarily fragile world picture at present, one might very well expect a plodding exegesis regarding a significant shift in themeaning and/or purpose of art. However, anyone familiar with the poet-cum-art critic should know better. In stark contrast to critics who draw an ideological line in the sand by the very choice of their diction -- cloaked in jargon or sold as prepackaged reactionary postures -- Schjeldahl is much too liberated by the idiosyncratic voice, too skeptical of authorities, canons, and institutions, to possibly endorse any blanket ideals for art.

It is precisely the independent perspective and pragmatic mode of Schjeldahl's and Hickey's arguments that placed them in the vanguard of the beauty discourse almost a decade ago. "The beauty thing seems to me a red herring in terms of being directly about art, as it had more to do with the approved and prestigious ways of talking about art," Schjeldahl says. The new discourse of beauty introduced a critical lexis suited more to the subjective and passionate than that bequeathed by the purveyors of dry jargon. "Without a physiological, individual reaction to art, it's all entirely disembodied and abstract," says Schjeldahl. Yet, before the beauty-debate challenge, "the inclusion of individual or group emotional and hormonal uses of art had been factored out to the point where it became unclear who or what art could possibly be for, except the institutions and academies that were charged with being experts in it."

Ironically, according to Schjeldahl, "The energy of the beauty debate came from the resistance to it." The ensconced illuminati who had stakes in posts, neos, and -isms viewed the enthusiasm for aesthetic sovereignty as a withdrawal into a discredited bourgeois approach. In Schjeldahl's estimation, the contest was ridiculous, "a low-stress entertaining debate." Hickey's method was simply one of waging "periodic rebellions of populist common sense against expert auteur."

In fairness to the cynics, however, it wasn't just the fluffy admiration of beauty that was considered suspect but rather its concomitant idea that culture is "dominated by the power of the consumer side," to use Hickey's idiom. Even for many of us who welcomed the return of the sublime in art, there was something dubious in the true-blue emphasis on commerce. Since time immemorial, the ephemeral, multidimensional capacities of cultural production, especially its spiritual and emotional corporeality,have foundthe leaden weights and measures of the marketplace an insufficient arbiter of art's genuine efficacy. However, Schjeldahl still insists that "commerce is by far the healthier arena for art," although he espouses "multiplicity," a mixture of private and public funding for the arts at the local and state level that engenders a dynamic infrastructure: "Germany, since the war, has reverted culturally to somewhat of a Renaissance city-state model, where the individual regions and cities have a lot of initiative and are competitive with each other. You can see the generation after Beuys -- Polke, Richter, and Kiefer -- and the different scenes in Düsseldorf, Cologne, and Berlin as artists being able to chart various kinds of careers for themselves. Plainly, the strongest artists of the last 30 years have been German, and this is a possible explanation for that."

While the beauty debate will likely shape the art world for years, one doesn't witness the consumer side being celebrated too much these days. The scope of the world crisis and its repercussions on culture are as indisputable as the general anxiety that the other shoe may drop at any moment. When asked about the status of what was, up until September 2001, a cresting discourse about beauty, Schjeldahl replies that the issue referenced in the past tense "startled" him, because he "so enjoyed that particular change [and] had of late presumed that it was still current." He then despondently concedes that "it has faded somewhat."

Finally, with regard to "What art is for now," one may anticipate the spirit of Schjeldahl's talk by purely discerning his sly play on words.

Talk by Peter Schjeldahl at the Brooks Museum, Thursday, January 23rd, at 7 p.m. 20th Annual Juried Student Exhibit, Art Museum of the University of Memphis, opening January 31, 5-7:30 p.m. (jurored by Schjeldahl).

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