Franziska Nori

An Idea of Beauty

The following text is an excerpt from the catalogue “An Idea of Beauty”, edited by CCC Strozzina, Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi and published by Mandragora (www.mandragora.it).

Franziska Nori

An Idea of Beauty

From the time of ancient Greece to our own day, the question of what beauty really is has been one of the most controversial issues in Western philosophy. While in its classic connotation beauty was considered one of humanity’s fundamental values, along with the good, the true and the just, its value has been denied and methodically deconstructed in the modern age.

And yet, in my contacts with widely differing artists in recent years, I have been surprised to see how frequently they used the term “beauty”, at times expressed almost shyly, or with a sense of nostalgia, or even flaunted as if hurling a challenge, almost blasphemously. The attempt to throw light on this subject has given rise to an exhibition project that constitutes a knowingly partial and arbitrary reflection on a term so packed with history and wide-ranging cultural attributions as to arouse immediate reactions in all who have participated with me in this endeavor.

What is beauty today? Do we still need it? Does it still represent a value, an objective or a useful tool for both individuals and contemporary artistic production? A long tradition of philosophy and art history has repeatedly tried to define this term. In different epochs, the aesthetic canon has been explained in ever-varying manner, revealing its close ties to specific cultural contexts, in constant evolution. Reflection on aesthetics evokes aspects of the political, social and moral spheres of society at a determined historical period.

In contemporary art, beauty continues to be intellectually suspect, a sort of taboo to both curators and artists. Our world today is, in fact, heir to a long line of philosophical and artistic thought that has forcefully undermined the traditional concept of “beauty in a work of art” and almost totally discredited the “idea of beauty”, deemed a value unsuitable for expressing the feelings of modern man. The classic concept of beauty as harmony and equilibrium had already been criticized in nineteenth-century aesthetic philosophy, and was more definitively rejected in the 20th century with the dismissal of traditional aesthetic canons by the historical avant-garde movements. Moreover, art from the 1960s to the present has gone so far as to question the boundary line between art and reality, irreversibly undermining the idea of beauty as a property of art.

In parallel, the political history of the 20th century has severely threatened the concept of beauty as a shared social and ethical ideal. The propagandistic and ideological utilization of forms of beauty to express and consolidate the power of a social élite or a totalitarian regime has led to almost total distrust of this term. Beauty has assumed the connotation of a political tool employed to win approval, or at best a strategy of embellishment that, in the age of mass communication, finds its extreme limit in kitsch or in a seductive, purely exterior beauty, often designed to make products and services more marketable.

We live in an age dominated by exasperated aestheticizing, where the term beauty is so inflated and trivialized that it can even become synonymous of ephemeral taste. In view of all this, it is only natural to question the value and definition of this concept in contemporary society, to ask whether it can still represent a value for artistic production and, if so, what universally accepted definition of beauty could be made. Many artists seem to feel a sort of Sehnsucht for beauty, a kind of nostalgia, the yearning for a true aesthetic, transformational, experience felt as a moment of astonishing connection between the individual and the essence of things. Hence the concept fluctuates between two antipodes. On the one hand there is extreme skepticism over the revelation of beauty; and on the other, the endless quest for an ulterior meaning, for beauty felt as a link to the deepest existential sphere of man and his relationship with the world. But how can we describe this experience? And what constitutes and defines its quality and intensity?

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”

The film American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes in 1999, is a bitter satire on the way of life of the American middle class that has inspired innumerable sociological interpretations going well beyond the specific traits of American society. A middle-aged man and his family, typical members of the middle class, are the film’s protagonists. In the conformism of an affluent, apparently normal life, the characters are obliged to face their own sense of imprisonment, disappointment and isolation, from which they seek to evade. In the crucial scene, two adolescents try to confer meaning on existence, there where the adults, by now hopelessly lost, can offer no valid models. In a moment of timid sharing, the boy shows the girl a video he has shot, believing it to be “the most beautiful thing” he has ever done. In the video, a plastic bag floats over a street corner for a few minutes, performing a kind of belly dance. From this apparently trivial episode springs a change in perspective. A new awareness emerges in the eyes of the adolescents; close attention to the details of daily life reveals to them its unexpected beauty.

The images are accompanied by a brief inner monologue, a kind of ode to beauty and the fleeting moment expressed through a gaze that forgets itself, plunging whole-heartedly into that moment.

This brief scene, lasting barely three minutes, has been virally diffused on Internet, provoking a phenomenon of collective identification and perhaps expressing a widespread longing: the quest for what remains true when all the consolidated rules and structures have clearly failed. This nostalgia for something that could be called an interior happening has little in common with the greatness of the heroic feat or the spectacular display of presumed canons of beauty. If we look beyond the specificity of the film, we can see that this feeling of absorbed attention, intimacy and unity with oneself in the world comes close to being one of the possible definitions of beauty.

In her book On Beauty and Being Just, the American philosopher Elaine Scarry considers beauty an experience, a transformative moment when something temporarily detaches us from that subjectivity of which the perception of ourselves makes us feel, instead, protagonists. Scarry speaks of “radical decentering”, a brief moment in which, immersed in sensorial experience and transcendency, we forget ourselves, so that the vision or contemplation of reality becomes in itself an aesthetic experience. Experiencing something beautiful allows us to reconsider our subjectivity, projected outside of itself.

To speak of beauty, then, is to speak of the subject who undergoes an experience and expresses a judgment. And here we should pause to examine the term “perception”, debated especially in the psychological and philosophical spheres. Perception is by definition the mental process that effects a synthesis of sensorial data in the individual, changing them into forms imbued with meaning. In examining the question of aesthetic perception, its distinguishing aspects are on the one hand the individual’s ability to organize and combine different sensorial data into a single complex experience, and, on the other, the faculty of classifying, of assigning an object to a category by means of language. The emotional and sensorial sphere gives rise to a complex cognitive process, based on a system of pre-existing concepts, information and knowledge that can be verbalized and thus communicated to others. As concerns the artist’s work, this means that an observation, an intuition or a subjective thought, in order to be communicable, require a process of cognitive translation into forms and languages employing commonly accepted categories. Art is, or rather the arts are, capable of transmitting from one individual to others, seeking a form of expression, a language that can transform the subjectivity of an intuition into a representation.

Traditionally, beauty was deemed a characteristic of the object itself. Accordingly, artworks considered beautiful were clearly distinguished by certain objective qualities such as the precious materials employed or the masterly execution. From the modern age on, the focus has shifted to defining what art is, effectively “dethroning” the reflection on beauty. A phenomenological analysis of what lies at the basis of the aesthetic experience, the relationship between the subject who undergoes the experience and the object that is perceived, becomes crucial. Hence the dynamics of artistic research strives to extend and redefine the boundary line between what is art and what is not. Art demands a freedom of its own in its relationship with reality, proclaiming its independence. Consequently, the context in which art is perceived and defined as such, and secondly, the type of experience that can procure it, become the central issues.

From Duchamp on, an ordinary, everyday object can become art regardless of its material workmanship or aesthetic qualities if this object is perceived in the light of a new context that hinges on the search for meaning (or, in Duchamp’s case, on the paradoxical search for nonsense, for the absurd, the non-meaning). According to the American critic Arthur Danto, from Duchamp’s readymades on, and passing through Warhol’s Pop Art, the definition of a work of art, differing from an object of everyday use, lies in its so-called “aboutness”, the conceptual sphere, the idea that the object conveys by manifesting it. An object becomes art through its capacity for being interpreted and viewed by the subject as the bringer of new significance.

The crucial question, then, remains that of what aesthetic experience really is. The art critic, author and poet John Berger has thoroughly analyzed the act of seeing and the nature of the gaze applied to viewing art. In Ways of Seeing, he examines the difference between how a thing is seen and how the experience is verbalized, stressing the importance of a correlation between what we see and what we know, and declaring art to be an intellectual process in the search for a meaning. In Aesthetik des Erscheinens (The Aesthetics of Appearing), 2000, the German philosopher Martin Seel attempts to analyze aesthetic perception (aesthetische Wahrnehmung) by differentiating it from other modes of perceiving reality. He speaks primarily of a contemplative sphere and an imaginative one, but also of a co-responsive dimension, referring to the aesthetic value that certain objects assume in their daily utilization. This kind of experience is not based on a relationship with something endowed with an explicit, declared exterior beauty. It finds its basis in the gaze encompassing a form that may be common and ordinary but that, when experienced in one brief flash, persists and leaves a trace in the subject who experiences it. These fleeting moments, these instants of apparent truth, occur in the individual and remain in part as intimate, non-verbalizable experiences.

The neurosciences have tried to verify and demonstrate the existence of aesthetic experience by means of technological visualizing. Digital images manage to localize the brain center in which the aesthetic experience occurs. Although able to demonstrate the event, these methods are unable to define it precisely, or to make it a repeatable phenomenon that can be conveyed from one individual to another.

Art, more than any other cultural expression, is able to arrest us, to subtract us from the daily routine, opening our eyes for a moment to a broader meaning of existence. Already in the early modern age Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud sought new forms of expression and language to convey the inner schism experienced by mankind at that time. The contemplation and representation of ideal states that in the Romantic Age still sprang from contact between the individual and nature, between man and the sublime had been lost. Modern man was forced to come to terms with an existence that was increasingly alienated and estranging.

In contrast to the past, contemporary artists seem bent on invading the commonplace and the ordinary, calling into question the elements that make up the social fabric, interrogating different spheres of reality in the attempt to introduce new parameters and provoke changes in habits and conventions. The beautiful (as a category of beauty) no longer aspires to be a purely aesthetic phenomenon but extends to the sphere of experience acquired, where purposeful action plays a central role, transformed into an ethical attitude and a new political awareness. This paradigmatic change is reflected not only in the subjects chosen by contemporary artists but also in their formal and aesthetic preferences, exploring new directions and fields of experimentation, freed from the chains of genre dictated by tradition and from the concept of an artwork as a finished product.

The term “beauty” implies two main positions: on the one hand, beauty with a small “b”, viewed as a culturally conditioned value, and on the other the Beauty with a capital B proclaiming itself to be a universal value. In the first instance, we might quote the famous phrase of Margaret Wolfe Hungerford “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, and in the second the words of the Romantic poet John Keats “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”. The first quotation emphasizes the subjectivity and historical nature of beauty, which changes depending on subjective perception and the historical-cultural context. Hence “beauty is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty,” according to David Hume (1757). The quotation from the English poet, instead, introduces the theme of beauty as an absolute value. Here the nature of beauty, spontaneous and necessary, allows itself to be recognized.

Based on this contraposition, it should be emphasized that speaking of beauty implies, in any case, the subject who perceives and experiences it. In the words of Sergio Givone: “The aesthetic experience emanates from the subject and invests the thing illuminating it, but goes back to the subject,” since beauty is not a property, an extrinsic characteristic of a thing (the perfect harmony and proportions of classical art, if replicated today, would seem outdated or even kitsch) but a quality that we ourselves assign. A tantalizing question thus arises. Is each individual the prisoner of himself, of his own particular perceptions, his own particular taste?

An Idea of Beauty

The artworks and the query posed by the exhibition An Idea of Beauty aim expressly to refute this egoism of beauty, this immuring of the subject in itself. A crucial fact of the aesthetic experience is that it finds its basis in the search for reciprocation and syntony, a participatory effect. The solitary individual establishes a new rapport with the outer world, changes his outlook on the world, and consequently, on himself and others. This exhibition does not claim to treat the subject of beauty exhaustively, but to furnish an occasion for reflection through the vision and the works of eight artists, differing in their modes of expression, approaches and thematics. It is in fact “an idea”, not “the idea” of beauty.

In keeping with the specific characteristics of the Strozzina, eight different positions, eight “individual mythologies” are highlighted and compared. The choice of artworks relates the exhibition to what is called in German Haltung, an expression that implies different attitudes, ways of seeing, understanding and living life. Visitors are called upon to compare different existential proposals in an endeavor requiring notable intellectual, but also physical and sensorial, effort.

The first two rooms display the work of Wilhelm Sasnal, whose aesthetic tendencies and particular vision of reality are expressed through painting and films. The choice of works, decided upon with the artist himself, focuses on his most recent production. Sasnal, called a “reporter of his times” by international criticism for his portrayal of the transformations and contradictions of contemporary Poland changing from a socialist to a capitalist state, turns to a more intimate gaze in these paintings. In seeking the value of the pictorial image, the artist focuses on brief flashes, private details captured during his travels or at moments of daily life. The images are often caught with his cell phone and only later transposed into painting. The paintings exhibited here include many that the artist has decided not to sell but to keep for himself.

These works, however, shun sentimentality of any kind. Rather than unveiling domestic intimacy, they aim to show what is neglected, what is not usually represented in art, in an immediate style that expresses the transiency of the moment caught by the artist. In accordance with the relationship between abstraction and realism characteristic of Sasnal’s entire oeuvre, his works seek for, as he himself declares, “a distance” from the subjects they portray. They appear as the result of a remarkable visual intelligence that leads him to analyze images, totally deconstructing any possibilities of representation for the purpose of conferring ulterior meaning on the image itself.

The choice of Kacper as the guiding image of the exhibition illustrates this approach. The evocative, poetic vision of a slender figure bathed in light derives from the snapshot of a moment of life shared by the painter and his son. But concealment of the face keeps the subject from being recognized, canceling the identity of the person and the artist/son relationship so that it becomes an all-encompassing image, like an archetype of the collective memory. The subject is not merely the representation of a particular figure, but a conceptual re-elaboration of it referring to another non-representable reality.

In similar manner, Chiara Camoni’s presentation appears not so much a selection of works but a way of looking at things, a mode of establishing contact with the external world and with others. In her works the artist attempts neither to restitute reality in itself nor to produce objects, but to find a sedimentation of traces of an experience in a precise temporal context. Thanks to a marked talent for conceptual elaboration, these traces are extrapolated from the merely autobiographical to become the expression of an artistic practice. While Camoni’s appropriation is based on her vast knowledge of art history, its fundamental element is the empathy that allows her to relate to the world. Her analytic gaze encompasses details to be assigned new conceptual connotations and new meanings. The ephemeral and the transitory emerge as major themes in her works, in which she listens to nature and to other human beings, creating memento mori in a contemporary language.

The photographs of Jean-Luc Mylayne were chosen in close collaboration with the artist himself, who has established their exact positioning as expression of a precise design linked to the theme of the exhibition. All of his photographs are distinguished by assiduous conceptual and philosophical research, appearing in the minutely detailed construction of his images, in an ongoing dialogue between that which appears and the essence of the world. Although these photographs almost never show a human being, they have as subject man and his ability to see and interpret reality.

Mylayne’s works, expressing a way of being in the world that becomes an existential attitude, are the product of months of demanding, painstaking work. The final results are images whose unassuming subjects demand the observer’s full attention in order to grasp the artist’s complex system of references and symbols, also to classical iconography. Their elaboration, however, lies in a strongly experiential attitude, based on a direct rapport with nature, sought by the artist as an encounter between equals. Beauty lies not only in the harmonious poetry of his images but also in Mylayne’s manner of being, in his whole-hearted devotion to minute, delicate, construction aimed at capturing those instants of encounter with the other, represented by birds. The essence of beauty becomes a life practice, in an existential sphere that is the fruit of a reflection on how to exist in the world, considering one’s own finiteness.

Like Mylayne, the German artist Alicja Kwade creates bare, minimal aesthetic experiences calling for notable intellectual elaboration on the part of the observer. Her spacial installations put to test our ability to distinguish reality from appearance, evoking reflection on the value and validity of our perception. Alicja Kwade creates spaces of almost surreal visual aesthetics, where commonplace objects are altered in shape, thus losing their functions and assuming new significance. Her sculptural work casts doubt on the tangible world, re-interpreting the scientific laws of physics in an experiential key. The installation Teleportation, presented in Florence, offers the experience of something ephemeral and intangible, a play of reflections and penetration by rays of light from lamps placed between glass panels. Rejecting the typical physicalness of sculpture, the work hinges on a system of gazes and references that draws inspiration from string theory to transpose a complex scientific theorem into a philosophical and aesthetic dimension. As if to paraphrase Plato’s myth of the cavern, it centers on the paradigm of relations between reality and appearance, and tests our ability to perceive the world and the beauty that lies hidden in it.

The subject of Isabel Rocamora’s video Body of War is the violence of military combat, reproduced in an aesthetic process that leads to a reflection on the sublime, and on the decentering of the ego before a greater reality that goes beyond our everyday life. The artist effects a deconstruction of combat in a precise construction of rhythmic and temporal sequences, creating a “choreography” with a highly calibrated and controlled visual and sound dimension.

Rocamora seems to apply the transformational principles of the Greek theater: mimesis and catharsis. The reality that catches her eye is first framed in a kind of still shot, then deconstructed, purified and reduced to its basic principles, whose final synthesis transforms the original object into another reality, abstract, aesthetic and profoundly opposed to any documentary scope.

Vanessa Beecroft aims her lens at the body and at its presentation/representation in relation to the ideal of classical statuary and the principles of formal perfection and control typical of Renaissance art. The ample selection of her work shown here begins with a performance by this Italian artist, VB66, first presented at the Naples fish market in 2010. This particular performance is declined through varying formats and techniques. Video, photography and sculpture highlight, in the different temporal spheres of these media, the paradox between life and death expressed in the performance of the models/sculptures.

Fragments of statues, plaster casts of arms, busts and legs appear scattered around the bodies of young women, whose individuality is lost in the uniform black that envelops them. It is in the fragment, in the detail, that the observer’s gaze becomes obsessive, as he feels himself simultaneously included and excluded.

The images in The Japan Series by Andreas Gefeller attest to the German photographer’s work in a world far removed from his original cultural context. His interest focuses on the culturally inflected relationship between nature and civilization, between spontaneous growth and rational human construction. Ample views of trees espaliered against a wall and close-ups of junctions or connections of electric cables and telephone wires, captured both by day and by night, are the subjects of this series. In these different forms of action and human intercession in nature and the landscape, Gefeller establishes visual analogies between methods of cultivating and of installing cable systems.

Gefeller’s work combines different levels of “construction” to obtain images that, while retaining a strongly hyperrealistic imprint, appear as abstract compositions, designs created by manipulating what the camera has recorded. Observation of reality and aesthetic construction join hands in photographs that transform our perception of the world, becoming the expression of an idea of beauty as vision, as ulterior “design”, as intellectual acknowledgement of a higher level of meaning in the world we live in.

Concluding the exhibition is Anri Sala’s work, Give Me the Colors, inaugurating a critical reflection on the impact art can have when it is directly linked to social and political reality. Sala documents the transformation of the city of Tirana by its artist/mayor Edi Rama, leading us to reflect on the power and value of beauty in the social life of a place. The new colors and new projects brought by Rama to the Albanian capital spring from awareness of the importance of the aesthetic sphere (in its philological sense of study of sensation) for a revolution in society.

The case of Tirana becomes the reference point for a social art that is not limited to “beautification”, but manages to trigger a process of change in social and communicational practice, giving rise to conferences and citizens’ meetings in a renewed concept of res publica shared by the citizens themselves. In his political activity, Edi Rama proposes the theme of the city’s beauty as subject for discussion and debate, in a dialogue between State institutions and private citizens that becomes a sign of democracy counterposed to Albania’s political past. Sala’s video does not hail any utopia or radical solution to be imitated, but rather, through a hand-held camera and live sound, stresses the importance of the “practice of beauty” and its implementation in everyday life.

Note that the exhibition An Idea of Beauty is not a manifesto of intentions, but focuses instead on eight artistic practices and attitudes offered as models and examples that inspire a different relationship with reality. Art gives us a chance to reflect on our way of seeing, understanding and experiencing reality and, in a certain sense, leads us to look at ourselves from without and to explore who we really are. It sends us on a quest for significance, by digging deep, retrieving fragments of memory, knowledge and experience that express the sense of things.

Experiencing beauty becomes a way of reciprocating with the world, establishing a new connection between the self and reality; sharpening the senses, listening for half tones, shades, moments that we are usually unable or unwilling to notice. In the work of an artist, this means seeking a new way of looking at reality and finding a language, a form or a design able to express his perceptions. This translates into the practice of approaching reality, but also of constructing something new that goes beyond it: grasping reality and constructing a new reality, breaking down and recomposing, framing and constructing with the aim of proposing an existential reflection that is equivalent to a search for significance.

Franziska Nori (1968, Rome) is Director of the Centre for Contemporary Culture Strozzina (Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Florence), where she has been responsible for the artistic programme since March 2007. Among others, she has curated the exhibitions Emotional Systems (2007), Art, Price and Value (2008), Gerhard Richter and the Disappearance of Image in Contemporary Art (2010), As Soon As Possible, Acceleration in Contemporary Society (2010), Portraits and Power (2010), Virtual Identities and Declining Democracy (2011), Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art (2012) as well as a series of site specific installations presented in the Courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi by artists such as Michelangelo Pistoletto, Yves Netzhammer and Loris Cecchini. She graduated from the Johan Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, specializing in cultural anthropology, romantic studies and art history. From 2000 to 2003 she was head of the department for digital art and culture at the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Frankfurt, which conceived the first museum collection for digital artifacts (digitalcraft.org) along with exhibitions devoted to phenomena in digital culture, including I Love You, about the world of hackers and computer viruses, and adonnaM.mp3, an analysis of file- and network-sharing on the internet. From 2005 to 2007 she was a member of the Scientific Committee of the New Media International School at the University of Lübeck. In 1998 she was appointed by the European Commission to draw up an appraisal of future strategies for European museums’ work with digital cultural heritage. Since 1994 she has worked as an independent curator for modern and contemporary art for international institutions including the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Vienna, the Museo Nacional Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Fundación la Caixa in Palma de Mallorca and the Fondazione Lucio Fontana.



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