The Invisible Dragon sheds light on beauty

By Adam Fotos

Typically the contemporary art world distrusts beauty as something too subjective and too attached to how things look over what they mean. For the bulk of the twentieth century, art theory has suppressed dialogues relating to beauty, relegating it to a realm other than that of critical discourse.

In Dave Hickey’s book “The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty,” Hickey defines beauty as not a thing but as the “agency that caused visual pleasure in the beholder.” This definition identifies the reason the institution of art has avoided embracing beauty: the institution is not a necessary component of the equation. By Hickey’s definition beauty resides in the viewer, not in the object created and definitely not in the creator. So to assign value to beauty is to sidestep the institution.

We distrust beauty because we distrust its authenticity. We understand it as a vehicle of political, commercial, and oppressive agendas, but we can’t simply cast out beauty because it has been used poorly or irresponsibly. This is “Beauty,” a rigidly coded devise, not to be confused with the simple beauty of the everyday or the beauty of the playful which do not offer restriction but release.

Beauty seems to belong to the past, an age and innocence to which we no longer have access or to which we do not permit ourselves access. As adults asserting our “experience,” we encapsulate beauty as na‹ve because it does not fit well into our more mature language. I am not calling for a return to innocence, but rather calling for an integration of innocence into our experience to take us some place higher.

Beauty is not reducible in the realm of ideas because it persists regardless of those ideas, yet beauty is not completely silent. It still persists in the private whispers among intimates with secret longings for authentic experience of “real” beauty.

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Higgins relays Kant’s description of beauty as “Involving a direct feeling of life’s being furthered.”

Beauty relies not on what the theorist or the artist says about a painting, but instead derives all its value from the beholder of that painting. It is about evoking in the viewer something aside from passive observation. Beauty draws us into the painted realm, seduces us, ensnares us, and makes us surrender our analytical distance. When this analytical distance is a shield to separate us from the troubles of the outside world, beauty can leave us feeling uncomfortably exposed to raw emotion. Beauty dissolves the boundaries between object and viewer, drawing us into a heightened reality.

Jeremy Gilebert-Rolfe identifies the contemporary art world’s discomfort with beauty as “a discomfort that seems to me to derive from its irreducibility to other forms of discourse.” When particle physicists first discovered what is now referred to as a bottom quark, their initial impulse was to name the particle “beauty,” but this poetic flourish in the scientific world was denied. Perhaps the irreducibility of beauty challenged the scientific community’s desire to dissect our elementary particles even further.

I have taken this article from my proposal for the IPRH Fellowship 2006-07 on the theme of “Beauty.” Please contact me for citations.

Adam Fotos is a graduate student. He can be reachedat [email protected].