“Kama”, a painting that was just recently sold

Crispin Sartwell’s small book, Six Names of Beauty, is a personal meditation on a theme that continues to compel and evade comprehension. In that sense it is a literary journey that is refreshingly nonlinear, more rhizomatic than arboreal. Although Sartwell is a devotee of Arthur Danto, his approach to this complex (and highly charged) topic is not standard art criticism. Instead he contemplates beauty by riffing on words for beauty taken from six different languages and cultures—English, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Greek, Japanese and Navajo. The six chapters are each free form and personal, finding linkages in unexpected ways.

Here are a few passages that spoke to me:

***
Often it is said that painstaking realism in art has been rendered unnecessary or uninteresting by the camera. But the opposite is the case. In circumstances where the world can be repeated mechanically, the handcraft of realism becomes all the more poignant and perverse, all the more deeply expressive of love for the world. To find again the world of things, to live and work in collaboration with that world, forms a traditional and a remaining task of painting.

***
Beauty came in the twentieth century to seem like a flimsy and obsolete or even trivial value, a kind of frippery, perhaps nothing more than a particularly poignant or elaborate prettiness. In a world dedicated to industrial production and its critique, in a world beset by war, genocide, and nuclear holocaust, beauty as an occasion for pleasure seemed frivolous and politically suspect.

***
Picasso and Pollock would have rejected the idea that they painted in order to give people pleasure; they painted to change the world. They tried not to please but to overwhelm…Pleasure, in other words, and beauty with it, have become banal.

***
The great figures of Modernism are virtuosi of their media, and though a gesture may be apparently random it is always recovered into an overweening intentionality. Their art makes a beauty that draws on a lust for power, and our experience of the beauty they created reveals our dark desire to be overwhelmed, as well as a reflection of our own sense of powerlessness or desire to resists and impose power.

***
Most of the world’s art has been made for purposes that could widely be described as spiritual; that is as true of Western as of non-Western art…The most profound religious art crystallizes and treats the deepest, most focused, most total yearning.

***
Beauty calls to desire in every possible configuration: the desire to possess to love, to enjoy, to gaze, to use, to lapse into silence or unconsciousness, to let go. But desire characteristically is as much committed to its own intensification as it is to its object: in that sense, desire is a craft. To desire is to feel intensely the life within yourself. Everything that lives reaches or hopes. Our longing expresses our irremediable loss, but also our impossibly beautiful aspiration.

Advertisements