The human relationship towards art didn’t stop evolving and changing throughout history. Initially, set deeply in the subconscious, part of the folklore and superstitions of the primitive people, it is inevitable that along with man, the notion of art was changing a lot. It never originate apart from what we were and what we are, on the contrary, precisely because of that art spread as a part of human need, first to tame the inexplicable and overcome the fear, later to successfully copy and imitate things from nature and, finally, to explain one’s own face and the face of others in the silent conversation with art, to rebuild and understand oneself with its help, and because of all that, art appears as the integral part of human aspirations; and because our relationship to it is multiple, where rationality explains only a tiny part of that complex relationship, while the subconscious offers the keys for solving symbolic problems and relationships towards the intricate world of art and man, it becomes more challenging, because its explanation, and therefore the human explanation, does not appear as a finite mathematical possibility, but an infinite perspective of possible solutions.
Viktor Pelevin in the book iPhuck 10 writes: „When the savage painted a bison on the wall of the cave, the beast was recognized by hunters and the meat was shared with the artist. When Rembrandt or Titian showed their pictures to potential buyers, there were no curators nearby. Every monarch or rich merchant was a historian of art himself. The value of the object was determined by the immediate impression it left on the buyer with the desire to pay. The buyer of the portrait saw a man who was very similar to himself. Or women with the same pink fold of cellulite as his wife. It was a miracle, it cause astonishment where comments were unnecessary, and the voice about that miracle was spreading. The art was immediately and effortlessly represented not only its object but itself as an intermediary. Contemporary art, generally speaking, begins where naturalness and obviousness end and the need for us and our approval appears.” In addition to the fact that human’s attitude, over time, towards art has changed, from the relationship between the recipient, ie the observer, and the object, something that has been defined and explained differently has emerged. We can call it a need, a consolation, a desire, but for the purposes of this text, we will define that term as beautiful.
It is indisputable that the notion of the beautiful has been experienced differently throughout history. According to different theories, we can define the concept of the beautiful in many different ways: beautiful as good, symmetrical, and harmonious. The difficult question is: can we completely define the term? Despite the fact that the term is exhausted by different definitions, the possibilities of interpretation seem to be endless. That is what we are trying to answer; not to answer the difference between the subjectively and the objectively beautiful, nor how one work, beyond personal taste, becomes valid regardless of our affinities. We are trying to define the relationship between the observer and the object, regardless of how it was, and what, as a consequence of that observation, happens in the recipient. What is the beauty that one is observing?; why do we stop in front of the picture, sculpture, or another piece of art?; whether and to what extent the attitude towards the work of art depends on our education?; what are the dimensions of the beautiful?
In ancient times, our ancestors drew bisons on the walls of the caves out of fear, because they believed that, in that way, they could catch them easily. Their relationship was quite utilitarian. In the time of Titian and Rembrandt, we could say that beautiful, among other things, was something that corresponded to the act of recognizing everyday life; a merchant or monarch from Titian’s time would probably reject Picasso’s portraits because they would not correspond to what he saw every single day. Contemporary art brought the need for a curator who would explain, falsely or not, the multidimensionality of art, to a man who is not informed enough. Beautiful that a person sees and that makes him stop in front of something is purely a subjective feeling. Education, if there is one, can help to recognize and discover symbols that are not instantly visible, or to abstract certain parts of a work of art and connect them with some earlier ones, in that way creating bridges between different arts or epochs. However, it seems that education does not play a big role in the act of stopping in front of some piece of art, of man’s determination for something. Let’s imagine that an educated student will stand in front of David, but also a completely uneducated Florentine milkmaid will do the same. She has no theoretical foreknowledge of the beautiful and if you ask her what she admires, she might not give a definite answer to it. Even a student, with the help of all the theories together, may not be able to define his relationship with what he sees and give the final response. And even if he succeeded, he would not give the final one, but only one of the answers to the question of what is beautiful.
The reason for our commitment to a work of art can come from recognition, as when in a paragraph of a book we recognize something that is happening to us or has happened; it can come from the position of a certain part of the body that evokes memories; or, finally, from something we cannot define quite clearly. In that respect, even our notions of beauty are different and are the reason why we will like something or not. Someone can be fascinated by the harmony of Laocoon with his sons, but also can stay long in front of Modigliani’s Christina. This already tells us that beauty is not only harmonious but for someone in general can also be completely disproportionate or inappropriate to anything we see in everyday life. We can be fascinated by a piece of art that shows us an ugly event, such as the suffering of Jesus. In The Brothers Karamazov, discussing beauty, Dostoevsky writes: „The devil himself knows what that means. What is disgusting and shameful to the mind is often sweet and dear to the heart.”
What is beautiful or what seems to us as beautiful, has several dimensions, in addition to the aesthetic. The aesthetic dimension may or may not provoke human commitment. „Beauty is a terrible, creepy thing! It is terrible because no one has figured it out yet, nor will it ever be able to …” writes Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, and it is precisely this impossibility to completely define the work of art, and thus of the observer, that perhaps defines it more than theories. The fact that we can’t fully explain why something made us admire a sculpture or that we can’t completely explain to friends why we are surrounded by what is beautiful in our personal space, adds a completely incomprehensible dimension to the work of art, and the relationship between the observer and the object has a meaning that transcends them both. And precisely through the unknown, through the part of meaning that always eludes the observer, the spirit and theories, man rebuilds and understands himself.
The elusiveness of the notion of beauty and the impossibility of completely defining and explaining it can prove to be good in terms of human history. If we could give a definition to the term beautiful, it would cease to be the subject of debate and would become a dogma. Someone could come, with a textbook in hand, and tell you that, according to the established definition of beauty, your vision is not good. Of course, today we can see slight traces of such a consensus: whether there is no definition according to which something must seem beautiful to you or not, there is a kind of agreement as to which works are considered “high” art and which are not. These agreements are constantly changing throughout history. That is why Picasso’s portraits were initially ridiculed and later entered into anthologies. Such agreements, more than anything else, speak of beauty as a consensus, and that is just one of the many ways to make a fictional definition of beautiful. Although it is not Orwellian and fascist in terms of expelling and stigmatizing anyone who disagrees with it, some narratives of modern culture, under the auspices of political correctness and freedom, are just that – fascist and Orwellian, but we have not completely lost our way.
Beautiful is one of the terms where you choose the theory that suits you best and defend it. It is a beauty and a curse of the debate without a final solution. However, even the theories you choose, and there are hundreds of them, from those that speak of subjectively and objectively beautiful, through theories of where beauty is a condition of the ugly or vice versa, to beautiful and ugly as modalities that man brings into the world and make an agreement about them, none of these theories can completely define your commitment to a work of art. At the point of such a determination, the traces of any theorizing are erased, while your decision to decide on something becomes an intimate act.
That intimate act belongs to you, the object you are observing, but also to something supersensible and superhuman. This is how we observe, but it is also the way in which art is made.
Author: Miloš Lazarević
Photo: Duša Bibus