The utility of beauty as a legitimate recourse resides in its ability to locate us as physical creatures in a live, ethical relationship with other human beings in the physical world. Natural and man-made objects reside at the heart of this discourse. The intentions and values that inform these objects bear no relation to any meanings they might acquire. These physical things provide us with a correlative, an interstice or pause, if you will, upon which the past and future may pivot. The past may create an object and that object create the future if we read the physical world as ancient oracles read the entrails of goats and the flight of eagles—if we are sensitive to the past, alive to present, and alert to the possibilities of the future.
The condition of existence I am describing is nothing more or less than ethical, cosmopolitan paganism—the gorgeous inheritance bestowed upon us by the pre-Christian societies of the Mediterranean whose idolatrous proclivities have never been obliterated or even subordinated in the Christian West. Nor are they likely to be. The vernacular of beauty is a part of that pagan inheritance. The whole rhetoric of commerce and practical science is a part of it too, as are the foundational premises of this republic, whose framers embraced Cicero's insistence that the virtue of any politics is confirmed in the body of the citizen—in the corporeal safety and happiness of that single and collective body.
Talking about beauty involves us in a physical world bereft of transcendental attributes. It's human attributes are as numerous and protean as the gods of Rome (and amazingly similar in their utility). They fall to hand as we need them—novelty, familiarity, antiquity, autonomy, rarity, sanctity, levity, solemnity, eccentricity, complicity, and utility. Their value in the moment determines the temple at which we offer up our sacrifice. There is never any doubt of our desire, if we feel ourselves free enough to buy into the embodied panoply of likeness and resemblance before our eyes—not to own it, but to join it in a pagan embrace that closes the space between ourselves and everything beyond ourselves. It s hard to hold the world, of course, as we hold values dear, as we hold certain truths to be self-evident, but beauty, value, and truth arise out of the intimacy of that embrace.
The Invisible Dragon, Essays on Beauty by David Hickey, 2002
Felix Edouart Vallotton, 1907
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the show which goes on through June 3, 2012, The Steins Collect, there hangs next to Pablo Picasso's frequently reproduced 1905-6 portrait this painting by Felix Vallotton which was also owned by Gertrude Stein.
Further, we might seek out the "most efficient beautiful image" that valorizes the most egregious content to the wealthiest and most influential beholders exclusively. In this category, I think we must acknowledge Picasso's Les demoiselles d 'Avignon—either as a magnificent "formal breakthrough" (whatever that is) or, more realistically, as a manifestation of Picasso's dazzling insight into the shifting values of his target market. So consider this scenario: Pablo comes to Paris, for all intents and purposes a bumpkin, with a provincial and profoundly nineteenth-century concept of the cultural elite and its proclivities—imagining that the rich and silly still prefer to celebrate their privilege and indolence by "aestheticizing" their surroundings into a fine-tuned, fibrillating atmosphere. He proceeds to paint his Blue and Rose period pictures under this misapprehension (pastel clowns, indeed!)—then Leo and Gertrude introduce him to a faster crowd.
He meets some rich and careless Americans and gradually, being no dummy, perceives among the cultural elite with whom he is hanging out, and perilously hanging on, a phase-shift in their parameters of self-definition. These folks are no longer building gazebos and placing symboliste Madonnas in fern-choked grottos. They are running with the bulls—something Pablo can understand. They are measuring their power and security by their ability to tolerate high-velocity temporal change, high levels of symbolic distortion, and maximum psychic discontinuity. They are Americans, in other words, post-Jamesian Americans in search of no symbolic repose, unbeguiled by haystacks, glowing peasants, or Ladies of Shallot. So Pablo Picasso—neither the first nor the last artist whom rapacious careerism will endow with acute cultural sensitivity—goes for the throat, encapsulates an age with a painting of French whores, and, through no fault of his own, creates the cornerstone of the first great therapeutic institution.
I have no wish to diminish Picasso's achievement by this insouciant characterization of it, but I do want to emphasize the fact that, during the period in which Les demoiselles was painted, pictures were made primarily for people, not against them—and to suggest further that if we examine the multiplication of styles from roughly 1850 to 1920, we will find, for each one of them, a coterie of beholders, an audience already in place. Thus, a veritable bouquet of styles, of "beauties," was invented, and none of them died, nor have they since. An audience persists for each of them, and if I seem to have splintered the idea of beauty out of existence by projecting it into this proliferation, well, that is more or less my point.
The Invisible Dragon, Essays on Beauty David Hickey 1993, 2000