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The Return of Beauty

National Post, 22 December 2001

Book Review
Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in 20th-Century Art, by Wendy Steiner
The Free Press, 304 pages

Venus in Exile : The Rejection of Beauty in Twentieth-century ArtIn 1948, the American artist Barnett Newman summed up modernism in a single phrase. “The impulse of modern art,” he wrote, “is the desire to destroy beauty.” Artists have only recently begun to crawl out from under the wreckage of that philosophy, which inspired a century’s worth of paintings and poems, symphonies and skyscrapers. Say what you will about the power and grandeur of twentieth-century art, very little of it can be called “beautiful.”

So the time is right for Wendy Steiner’s recent Venus in Exile, a book that seeks to reestablish beauty’s rightful — central — position. An English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Steiner has written both a history and a moral tract. “In modernism,” she writes, “the perennial rewards of aesthetic experience — pleasure, insight, empathy — were largely withheld, and its generous aim, beauty, was abandoned.” Her book tries to show how beauty and its most potent symbol, the female body, came to be approached with disgust and suspicion by modern artists.

Steiner writes vigorous intellectual history, guiding the reader expertly between the worlds of the 18th-century Immanuel Kant and the just-last-week Naomi Wolf. Modernism, she writes, derived much of its inspiration from Kant’s notion of the “sublime.” When we experience the Kantian sublime, we stand outside “flesh-and-blood existence, freed of individual interest, become ideal, pure, almost godlike in our consciousness.” In contrast, mere “beauty” was considered charming, pleasurable, or ornamental — in other words, feminine.

Modernists who rejected beauty, writes Steiner, were attacking women by association. This is undoubtedly true — the sexism of modernist artists is legendary — but Steiner often gets carried away by her own rhetoric. At one point she declares that artists have attempted “to kill [woman] off by transmuting her into form.” Elsewhere she sneers at Edgar Allen Poe’s famous declaration, in an essay that deeply influenced twentieth-century aesthetics, that the death of a beautiful woman is “the most poetical topic in the world.” Poe, she writes, was “much more engrossed in the logic of his Formalist decision-making than in the woman he has sacrificed to it.”

But fundamentally, Steiner’s moral argument about modernism is sound, if too narrowly focussed. Modernist visual art often appears to be contemptuous of women; modernism in general seems more broadly contemptuous of humanity as a whole. Less than a week after the attacks on the World Trade Center, for instance, the German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen publicly compared the terrorists to performers who “practice madly for 10 years, completely, fanatically, for a concert and then die. That is the greatest work of art for the whole cosmos. . . . In comparison with that, we’re nothing as composers.”

Rarely has the modernist ethos been so repulsively expressed. But it should come as no surprise that so many of the twentieth century’s greatest artists, musicians and poets have been such appalling human beings; think, after all, of the most coveted experience of the modern artist — the succès de scandale. Nothing adds greater lustre to a work of art than widespread public repugnance, whether in the form of a public riot (as in Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”) or even better, criminal charges (as in the two Ontario art students recently charged with mischief for allegedly torturing a cat to death). Unpopularity is often held up as proof of artistic virtue, and often confused with it. “The procedure has turned the reception history of modern art into a repetitive farce,” reflects Steiner, “each episode of which typically begins with outrage concerning some shocking subject matter packaged in unprecedented formal means, and ends with an act of aesthetic mystification: the taming, denaturing, and stilling of threat by the calming discovery of form.” Is there a way out of this mess?

There are hopeful signs that artists are more willing to communicate to a broader audience through the once-scorned language of beauty — even feminine beauty. Steiner hopes to encourage this trend, which she calls “the reimagination of the female subject as an equal partner in aesthetic pleasure.” She singles out for praise the paintings of Marlene Dumas, the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald, and the choreography of Mark Morris. Beauty should not invoke stories of “dominance, victimization, and false consciousness,” she writes, but rather “gratifying self-expansion.”

But in practice, things get a little more complicated. It would be interesting to know what Steiner thought of last year’s controversial exhibition by New York’s Guggenheim Museum, which showcased the work of fashion designer Giorgio Armani. (Beauty, after all, remains the official muse of the fashion world.) Is art or commerce being served by such a show?

And what about pornography, which Steiner acknowledges possesses the artistically “necessary” qualities of “desire, allure, charm, sexuality”? When Survivor II contestant Jeri Manthey agreed to pose nude for the September issue of Playboy, she assured a Toronto Star reporter that she had created a “lasting work of art.” Is she right? One needn’t take her claim seriously to recognize that we are just beginning to come to terms with the “trouble with beauty.” Wendy Steiner’s powerful new book should give hope – that in the future, beauty again may fill the eyes of art’s beholders.