In this blog post, I will argue that art is not beautiful.
First, we should define what a work of art is. Aristotle said that art is imitation. Some might object that abstract art does not imitate anything, but most abstract art is not beautiful anyway. Some might argue that abstract art is beautiful in an interpretation, but in this case, the art can only be considered beautiful if it is seen as representing this interpretation. There are also some forms of art and architecture which appear beautiful, even they do not seem to represent anything. For example, the Rose Window at Notre Dame does not seem to represent anything, but it is still beautiful. However, in this case, the art follows a mathematical pattern. The artwork shows this mathematical pattern to the viewer; thus, it may be said to represent the mathematical pattern. In this case, then, the viewer sees the beauty in the mathematical pattern.
In classical music, it is not obvious what is being represented, but I would argue that a mathematical pattern is also represented in this case, because beautiful sounds in classical music have beautiful mathematical ratios. More generally, we can say that art always represents something else.
Whenever a work of art represents something, we see the object it represents within the artwork. For example, in the painting of a landscape, we see the landscape in the painting. Now suppose the painting of the landscape is beautiful. Since the painting represents the landscape, the painting can be beautiful only if the original landscape was already beautiful. If we were to see the real landscape, we would see what the art represents, and hence would see the beauty which we would see in the art. Because of this, the beauty we see in the painting does not really belong to the painting itself; it belongs to what the painting represents. Thus, the painting itself is not beautiful; it merely communicates the beauty of what it represents. More generally, we can say that any work of art is not beautiful on its own; rather, all of its beauty really belongs to what it represents.
There are several objections to this. First, one may object that some art does not represent a real thing, but is still beautiful. For instance, many artists have made paintings of gods or goddesses which are beautiful, even though they do not represent anyone real. To this, I respond that these are still images of humans, and thus may be thought of as representations of ideal humans. This is how the Greeks made art; they started with an idealized man and then added in details until the artwork looks like the person it represents. Second, one may object that some art is beautiful while not representing things as they are. For example, Brunelleschi’s Birth of Venus painting is one of the most beautiful depictions of feminine beauty, even though Venus’s neck does not look like a real neck. However, it looks to me like this may be an instance where the artist puts two moments into one, as in the Laocoon statue. Third, one may object that some art is beautiful even though it portrays ugly, horrible things. For instance, art that depicts suffering can still be beautiful. In these cases, however, I respond that the artwork still communicates beauty that was already present in the ugly event itself, but that would have gone unnoticed if we had seen the event in real life since we would be focused on the evil happening. For example, in the Laocoon statue, we see a portrayal of the beauty of the human body that is responding to a horrible situation it finds itself in. Thus, these objections do not refute my thesis: the work of art itself is not beautiful; it only borrows its beauty from the object it represents.
Plato was aware of this fact, which could be one of the reasons he dislikes art so much. Plato says, “The producer of the product here removes from nature you call the imitator? By all means, he said.” (Republic X.597e) However, although this shows that we would prefer the real object over the artwork, I think the artwork still serves a purpose: it communicates the beauty we see in the original object. Thus, we are able to see beauty in objects which are not immediately present, and perhaps even see beauty that is normally invisible to us, although still present in the real object.