The death of a concept

This text first appeared in The Critic.

Ask the contestants of Family Fortunes about the purpose of art and the concept of beauty is sure to top the list. A kindergartner, likewise, would display an instinctive understanding of the word. But in exhibition writing and art criticism today, it is as though beauty never existed. Tate wouldn’t dare describe a painting as beautiful and any artist trying to market their work in such terms would be cast out as an amateur. To speak about beauty today is to be reactionary without the redemption once offered by thinkers like Roger Scruton. In contemporary art discourse, the concept of beauty is essentialist and deterministic and thus of no use.

In our time of general abolition, there may be convincing arguments for the museum’s war on old ideas. But, as the critic Dave Hickey noted already in the 1990s, beauty has been out of favour in the art school for so long that hardly anyone remembers why. Yet, even now, the assault on the beautiful continues. In The Cult of Beauty at London’s Wellcome Collection, beauty has a problem: we have been “obsessed” with it for over three centuries. From Nefertiti to TikTok, the exhibition questions “the influence of morality, status, health, age, race, and gender” on the notion of beauty before dismantling it to make way for a “more inclusive” version. 

The art world’s question, therefore, is not what beauty has done to art to deserve this banishment, but rather what we have done to beauty. In this treatment, plenty. The exhibition’s key finding is that beauty is man-made and therefore not real, except when it serves social justice and thus becomes a scientific fact. In this account of the beautiful, women who for centuries rosed their cheeks with poisonous pigments were either evil or stupid. But in today’s world where all bodies are valid, a chosen minority again holds the key to beauty’s essence. The rules are the same, it’s just a different minority than that idolised by the Greeks. 

In over a hundred artworks spanning civilisations and with the precision of a 19th-century taxonomist, the Wellcome’s show debunks historical understandings of human beauty and attraction whenever those suggest that any natural or objective phenomena like harmony or order may be at play. But these assaults falter. In the section dedicated to physiognomy, the practice of reading character in facial features, the exhibition text credits a 16th-century manuscript with foresight into evolutionary psychology before rebuking the evolved mind’s inaccuracies and biases. This is entirely unsurprising in an institution which deploys art to denounce the historical moral failings of the scientific method that paid its endowment.

This confusion is most pronounced when the exhibition turns its attention to gender. Legitimately, the project probes the association of beauty with standards of the female body and draws on materials such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s 17th-century sculpture Sleeping Hermaphroditus to question the beauty binary. But the criticality the exhibition has for the sometimes ridiculous regimes of Victorian aesthetics or the 20th century’s mass market beauty is entirely lacking when it comes to The Museum of Transology, a project which showcases human breast tissue extracted during a ‘top surgery’ procedure. Here, the Wellcome warmly endorses medical intervention and contemporary pharma. In the next section, however, it takes the opposite view on fat bodies which it insists are beautiful as they are and that to disagree would be bigoted.

The Bully Pulpit, Haley Morris-Cafiero, 2019, Courtesy of the artist and TJ Boulting

It would be easy to dismiss this project as part of our culture’s drive to eradicate any notion of categorical imperative while idolising science when it is convenient. That undertaking would, theoretically, inspire the making of a new, beautiful world that is free of the past’s ugly mistakes. We could at once be free of history’s path dependency and find comfort in its time-proven certainties. But the lamentable ideological mess the Wellcome’s exhibition gets into highlights that we are so keen to make new ideas that we forget where our concepts come from and that even our most revolutionary notions were conceived long ago by people who were just like us.

It has not been enough to confront this confusion with renewed calls for a return to the transcendent Platonic understanding of beauty as would be the wish of the many social media commentators who share photographs of antiquities in lament of today’s cultural decline. Neither has it been effective, in the manner of the philosopher of art Arthur Danto two decades ago, to denounce the disassociation of beauty with the natural order in contemporary art as outright “abuse”.

The failure to integrate the natural with the man-made is understandable given that some of art history’s claims over beauty have a circular logic. The 18th-century philosopher Alexander Baumgarten believed that the rules of beauty would be found through empirical research. We now know that certain species, such as birds of paradise, practice what we like to believe is aesthetics for evolutionary advantage in their mating rituals. But we are also no closer to proving the natural basis of the golden ratio than we are to giving up belief in its inherent beauty. 

This twisted science continues. The Beauty Project, a research programme at the Centre for Cultural Value which lobbies the government on arts funding, for example, attempts to articulate the worth of beauty according to the audience’s account of their cultural consumption. In this logic, the beautiful would be captured in an evaluation form. There’s more than a hint of bureaucratic dystopia in this attempt to link the benefits of oil paint with public spending. But this project should be lauded for putting the question of beauty back on the art world’s agenda. It’s only a pity that its narrative is so ugly.

Humanae, Work in progress by Angélica Dass, 2023 © Angélica Dass

In the contrasting view, evidence that beauty is at least partly social dates to the goddess of beauty Aphrodite. In what seems like a masterstroke of social engineering, the Greek god Zeus married Aphrodite off to Hephaestus in great haste to avoid fights for her affection prompted by her irrepressible beauty breaking out between other Olympians. Aphrodite made a great contribution to human affairs, too, when she vainly bribed the warrior Paris promising him the love of Helen of Troy, the world’s most beautiful human female, thus starting history’s most famous war. Countless cults of Aphrodite and Venus, each with a different image of her godly but all too human perfection, spanned antiquity and their variety reflected the breadth of human interests.

Art lost interest in both the empiricism and stories of beauty and thus gave up its authority over the beautiful. But as it did, it made new claims over the good and the truthful, virtues which were once the domains of disciplines like theology or science. In the art school, one is now more likely to talk about politics and the epistemic validity of artistic research than to hear lectures on the value of sunsets. 

This makes the Wellcome’s attempt to lay claim to beauty strangely countercultural. Why, when contemporary art isn’t shy to tell audiences how to vote or lecture them about climate science, would this social justice warrior institution care about the beautiful? Indeed, what good is beauty when the suffering of innocent children makes the news daily? The Velázquez Rokeby Venus may have been surprised when the suffragette Mary Richardson slashed her canvas in 1914. But when Just Stop Oil repeated this assault in November, she must have seen it coming. As life of truth, beauty, and goodness appears beyond our reach, we may need to write a theory of ugliness before beauty can find its social function again.

The Cult of Beauty is on at the Wellcome Collection until 28 April 2024.

Main image: Shirin Fathi, The Disobedient Nose: Fig. 1. The reconstruction of a nose, 2022