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Flower power … William Morris wallpaper on show in The Cult of Beauty at the V&A. Photograph: V&A Images

Exhibitions come and go. Art is popular, so each and every exhibition at a big London museum enjoys a generous dose of preview publicity, and most receive enthusiastic reviews. But very few exhibitions really matter. A truly significant exhibition is one that changes opinions, revises tastes, reveals new or forgotten visual joys. One such event is The Cult of Beauty, which still has a few weeks to run at the V&A.

If you haven’t already seen this eye-opening excavation of the Victorian mind and are visiting London soon, try to get to the V&A. It is the most important art exhibition in Britain so far this year. It is not just diverting, but subversive and game-changing.

Every generation has to rediscover the Victorians, it seems. We have had a love-hate relationship with them since – well, since the later Victorian age itself, when the aesthetes celebrated by this exhibition were setting themselves against what they saw as ugly contemporary values. Nevertheless, they were Victorians themselves, and in the early 20th century a new age rejected everything “Victorian” as ponderous and repressed. That dismissive image of Victorianism has never gone away, and yet again and again, at regular intervals, Victorian culture is seen in a new, attractive light.


Jonathan Jones


My Bed 1998, by Tracey Emin, one of the most celebrated and influential artists of her generation. (Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Observer)

Ten years ago researchers in America took two groups of three-year-olds and showed them a blob of paint on a canvas. Children who were told that the marks were the result of an accidental spillage showed little interest. The others, who had been told that the splodge of colour had been carefully created for them, started to refer to it as “a painting”.

Now that experiment – conducted by Paul Bloom, a Yale academic, and psychologist Susan Gelman – has gone on to form part of the foundation of an influential new book that questions the way in which we respond to art.

Bloom’s study, How Pleasure Works, which will be out this week, argues that there is no such thing as a pure aesthetic judgment. In developing his general theory about how humans decide what they like or dislike, he lines up evidence to show that what people believe about a work of art is crucial to the way they feel about it. He goes on to suggest that modern art collectors are partly motivated by the way they wish to be seen by the rest of the world.



(Photo: BBC)

In Britain, the state, in the form either of local or central government, will tell you whether you can or cannot build on land that you own. And if it permits you to build, it will stipulate not only the purposes for which you may use the building, but also how it should look, and what materials should be used to construct it. Americans are used to building regulations that enforce utilitarian standards: insulation, smoke alarms, electrical safety, the size and situation of bathrooms, and so on. But they are not used to being told what aesthetic principles to follow, or what the neighborhood requires of materials and architectural details. I suspect that many Americans would regard such stipulations as a radical violation of property rights, and further evidence of the state’s illegitimate expansion.

This American attitude has something healthy about it, but it tends to go with two quite erroneous assumptions about beauty and the aesthetic. The first assumption is that beauty is an entirely subjective matter, about which there can be no reasoned argument and concerning which it is futile to search for a consensus. The second assumption, congenial to those who adopt the first, is that beauty doesn’t matter, that it is a value without economic reality, which cannot be allowed to place any independent constraint on the workings of the market.

The first assumption, that beauty is subjective, owes much of its appeal to the fact that it is functional in a democratic culture. By making this assumption you avoid giving offense to the one whose taste differs from yours. He likes garden gnomes, illuminated Christmas displays, Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas,” and a thousand other things that send shudders down the educated spine. But that’s his taste, and he is entitled to it. Leave him to enjoy it and he will leave you to get on with listening to Beethoven quartets, collecting antiques, and designing your house in the style of Palladio. But sometimes the assumption becomes dysfunctional. Each year his illuminated Christmas display increases in size, gets more bright and obtrusive, and lasts longer. Eventually his house has an all-year round Christmas tree, with Santa protruding from the chimney and brightly shining reindeer on the lawn. To be honest, the sight is insufferable, and entirely spoils the view from your window. You retaliate by playing Wagner late at night, only to receive blasts of Bing Crosby in the early hours. Here is the democratic culture at work—on its way to mutual destruction.


Roger Scruton
The American

Peter Battistoni, Canwest News Service

So what’s wrong with kitsch, exactly? It’s garish, tasteless and sentimental, of course. Garden gnomes and conventions of Elvis impersonators may be its most outlandish examples, but you can find kitsch every day in every corner of the mass media. Manufacturers of movies, TV shows and best-selling novels build empires on the essence of kitsch — an imitation of human feeling wrapped in a thick layer of cuteness.

Still, if nearly everyone likes it, how bad can it be? “Kitsch is the daily art of our time, as the vase or the hymn was for earlier generations,” said Harold Rosenberg, the great art critic. Milan Kundera argued, “No matter how much we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.” And they were writing before the appearance of “reality” television, which repackages kitschy old conventions of popular drama as public competition, bringing to “real” people the humiliation and cruelty traditionally endured by imaginary losers in mass-culture fiction.

Kitsch has its defenders, often articulate ones. Typically, they find it endearing because full-bore kitsch can be enjoyed in two ways at the same moment, for itself and as a parody of itself. A one-size-fits-all style, it’s designed to satisfy audiences at any level of sophistication.

On the back jacket of Roger Scruton’s new book, Beauty (Oxford), you can find a tiny drawing of a garden gnome. On the front there’s a woman’s face by Sandro Botticelli. The two illustrations point us toward the sharp line that runs through the book: Thoughtful Renaissance beauty is good, brainless gnomes with pointed hats bad.

A book about beauty naturally must deal with its opposite, kitsch. This is not “just a matter of taste,” which much of the world dismisses as ethically neutral. It’s a moral issue, as Scruton goes some distance toward proving.

A British philosopher and an outspoken conservative, he holds the now marginalized view that philosophers should do what most of them long ago stopped even considering: They should try to help the rest of us think about issues that matter.

Aside from his work on philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Baruch Spinoza, he’s written two books on the aesthetics of architecture, one on the aesthetics of music, an analysis of sexual desire, a study of animal rights and now a vigorous, combative account of beauty’s meaning.

We miss the point if we think that beauty in art or literature or music has finished its job when it provides pleasure. Scruton argues, reasonably, that beauty also makes ethical demands on us. Its existence challenges us to “renounce our narcissism and look with reverence on the world.”

Kitsch encourages us to dwell on our own satisfactions and anxieties; it tells us to be pleased with what we have always felt and known. It reaches us at the level where we are easiest to please, a level requiring a minimum of mental effort.

Beauty, on the other hand, demands we consider its meaning. It implies a larger world than the one we deal with every day. Even for those with no religious belief, it suggests the possibility of transcendence. Faith has declined in much of the West, but “art bears enduring witness to the spiritual hunger and immortal longings of our species.” As one reviewer has already pointed out, Scruton’s “perspective is religious without belief.”

At the other end of the scale, kitsch (“that peculiar disease that we can instantly recognise but never precisely define, and whose Austro-German name links it to the mass movements and crowd sentiments of the 20th century”) degrades beauty through the Disneyfication of art. Kitsch trivializes human conflict and demotes feeling into bathos. It’s a mould that forms, as Scruton says, over a living culture.

The moral effect of kitsch may be obscured by sentiment but it’s there. Kitsch, Scruton correctly points out, is a heartless world. It directs emotion away from its proper target towards sugary stereotypes, permitting us to pay passing tribute to love and sorrow without truly feeling them. “It is no accident that the arrival of kitsch on the stage of history coincided with the hitherto unimaginable horrors of trench warfare, of the Holocaust and the Gulag — all of them fulfilling the prophecy that kitsch proclaims, which is the transformation of the human being into a doll, which in one moment we cover with kisses, and in the next tear to shreds.” Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is kitsch’s most exultant moment, its massed Nazis both adored and turned into statues.

As for beauty, the opposite of kitsch, recent decades have not treated it kindly. That’s particularly true in the visual arts. Perhaps a large public still believes in the idea of beauty, but that same public mostly ignores (and is ignored by) the highly professionalized world of art critics, professors, curators — and selfconsciously serious artists. “Beautiful” ceased to be an adjective of praise in the art world decades ago. It’s become the virtue that dares not speak its name. There are now more people writing about art than ever before; what they are not writing about is beauty.

Daily life, in Scruton’s view, has dignity and worth only if embedded in something grand and beautiful. He’s particularly good on homey details, from the design of a door to laying a table. Scruton can acknowledge the beauty of wilderness, but seems more enthusiastic about a garden, wilderness disciplined by human hands, “an extension of the human world, mediating between the built environment and the world of nature.”

Sometimes Scruton tries too hard to reassure us. “Beauty demands to be noticed,” he says. “It speaks to us directly like the voice of an intimate friend.” (If we are listening, he forgets to add.) In any case, he grows optimistic when writing of the possibility of a “community of taste,” which he’s trying to revive. Following Kant, his master in this sphere, he sees beauty as something communally valued. In an ideal world, no one would need to argue for beauty. A consensus would support it.

Scruton takes pleasure in his status as an outsider among philosophers. He’s a conservative populist, always eager to write coherently for a large public, always hopeful that he can bring the people to his side, even when he makes what many will consider outrageously stern demands on them.

Robert Fulfor
National Post

Biagio di Antonio and Jacopo del Sellaio’s Morelli Chest and Spalliera, with scenes from Roman history, 1472. Photograph: Richard Valencia/The Courtauld Gallery

The room glows with gold and art. Colossal chests with feet carved into talons squat luxuriously. The paintings embedded in them – scenes of tournaments, battles, episodes from ancient history – seem frankly secondary to the sheer display of wealth. Rich people certainly knew how to live in Italy five hundred years ago.

Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence at London’s Courtauld Gallery is an exhibition of “wedding chests”, huge items of furniture that were an essential part of the equipage of a newly married couple of good family in 15th and 16th-century Florence. These ornate, finely carved items were decorated with paintings and also had painted backboards above them: if you look at Renaissance paintings in the National Gallery, including Piero di Cosimo’s Battle of the Centaurs and Sandro Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, you may wonder why they so often have a wide horizontal shape. This is probably because they were originally associated with this kind of bedroom furniture. The Courtauld owns the only two examples of these chests that still possess their original backboards – so this is a chance for them to contextualise their treasures.

It is also a lie.

Perhaps lie is too strong a word. But this exhibition – which is at a gallery closely associated with Britain’s leading academic department of art history – expresses a view of the Renaissance that I believe is fatally skewed. This is the idea that the Renaissance was above all a great burst of consumerism, a wave of buying, in which wealthy merchants splashed out on objects of all kinds. It’s an idea that grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, popularised by Lisa Jardine’s book Worldly Goods, theorised in Richard Goldthwaite’s work Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy 1300-1600, and recycled since then in many exhibitions and learned articles. I wonder if this idea of the Renaissance as one huge spending spree will survive the current economic crisis.

People look for mirrors of themselves in history. In the 19th century, the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt saw the Renaissance as the birth of the modern middle-class world he inhabited. In the 1980s, when greed was good, people started to fixate on the gilded consumers of the past – and not just in the Renaissance. Consumer revolutions have also been discovered in the 18th century and even in the Bronze Age. I suspect these commodity-conscious theories will start to look less interesting now the wheels have fallen off the free market.

There’s something narrow and dry about reducing the Renaissance or any other cultural epoch to “material culture”. Sure, people spent lots of money on art in the Renaissance and paintings were luxury items, but aren’t there more interesting things to say about, for example, Titian’s Diana and Actaeon?

I’m not pleading for a spiritual idea of art over a material one. Art is a part of everyday life, but it touches on many regions of that life, from beliefs in magic and the supernatural to politics, war and sex. The greatness of Renaissance art lies in its ambition and poetry, which has more to do with ideas than objects. In another current exhibition, a reconstruction of Paolo Veronese’s Petrobelli Altarpiece at Dulwich Picture Gallery (until 3 May), you can see an immensely extravagant religious painting commissioned by private donors. But you miss the point if you dwell on how much the Petrobelli family paid for it. You reduce the sublime to the slightly dull. The materialist view of the Renaissance has helped make the greatest period in cultural history a bit less exciting.

Jonathan Jones


Though little of the power of Daniel Libeskind’s original vision for the World Trade Center site has survived, he has skillfully leveraged his moment in the global media spotlight.

His Studio Libeskind is remaking skylines worldwide — from Korea to Las Vegas to Milan — using many ideas deemed too radical or too expensive for Ground Zero.

Architectural genius or canny marketer? Libeskind showed some of both in a recent interview in his Lower Manhattan office.
His passion electrified New Yorkers and television viewers worldwide when he presented an ambitious master plan for Ground Zero in December 2002.

Timid bureaucrats have shriveled the memorial’s emotional power in favor of a vast, bland, tree-dotted plaza that’s crept over most of the site. All of the buildings now planned for the complex are designed by other architects, yet Libeskind continues to advise the project. He staunchly defends what the design has become. He still wears his distinctive black-framed eyeglasses and architect’s basic black sweater and slacks.

“The plan had to evolve,” he said. “Who would be mad enough to think a project done in three months in a city as complex as New York would not change?”

I feared in 2002 that Libeskind’s plan would lead to a memorial that was too grandiose. Yet I admired the dynamic way he meshed the isolated 16-acre site back into the city: The crystalline shapes that tumbled over each other locked themselves into the jumble of surrounding streets. He extended the city’s energy rather than fending it off, as the World Trade Center’s bleak plaza did.

That dialogue with the surroundings has largely been lost. Libeskind’s engaging, sculpted shapes have been stripped down to characterless boxes.

He doesn’t see it that way, explaining that the symbolic elements remain key.

“It’s still a spiral of buildings that descend from the Freedom Tower with its symbolic height of 1,776 feet,” he explained. “It puts the memorial at the center of the composition.”

In a memorable image, he juxtaposed the spire of the Freedom Tower with the torch of the Statue of Liberty (a view available only from across the Hudson River in New Jersey). Yet does that make up for a straitjacketed streetscape?

“It is right that the composition of buildings emerge at the scale of the skyline,” he said. “Symbols are real.”

Symbols lose their meaning if what people encounter is a plaza to nowhere and extremely large and mediocre towers. I was distressed that he would endorse today’s bowdlerized plan precisely because his original design had insightfully shaped the real ebb and flow of the city.

“I did not win every battle,” he said. When the site is completed, “I think people will see something very interesting and important.”

In his early projects, especially the moving Jewish Museum in Berlin, his sharp-edged, menacing imagery was intrinsically tied to the building’s difficult subject matter. It was a risky venture because emotionally charged architecture usually fails. In the Jewish Museum, it succeeds unforgettably.

Now the same visual gestures are applied to shopping centers and college buildings. If they don’t usefully transform what goes on inside, aren’t they just jazzy visual gestures?

“It’s my language,” he responded. “It’s people identifying with my language and seeing it as meaningful…”

Libeskind was once that rare architect who wasn’t afraid to reach for peoples’ emotions and let architecture exude passion. As his output has become more prodigious, what was once risk- taking too often looks merely attention-getting. I hope he’ll still dig deeply as he savors his well-earned success.

James S. Russell

A section of Andy Warhol’s Self Portrait No. 9

Throughout his career, Warhol explored three registers of the image that still have this phantasmic power over us and, sacrilegiously perhaps, sought to link their commonality. They are religious images, pornographic images and advertising images. In each, the image attempts to make us believe, to see or desire something that is not there, and ultimately to make us act in some way.

Looking at Warhol’s oeuvre, it is remarkable how often the power of the image to produce the effect of reality, or the possibility of the image to be real, is played on. Throughout all of his silkscreens, photographs, films and even the paintings he made by urinating on sensitised canvas, he aimed at an image that miraculously brought itself about without human, or at least artistic, intervention. Theologians call this special type of image acheiropoietos – literally, not made by hand – and the great example of it was the religious relic Veronica’s veil, on which the image of Christ’s face was miraculously imprinted after it was used to wipe away his sweat while he was carrying the cross towards Calvary.

In his films, too, Warhol sought to capture actions that could not be faked, that actually took place: eating, crying, sleeping, shooting up drugs, all the way to the notorious film Blow Job, in which we stare up-close at the face of a man while he is being fellated, and whose tics and grimaces are meant to be as authentic as the orgasm that pornography shows as proof of its reality.
For a long time Warhol was seen as the ultimate postmodern artist, systematically undermining the conditions for art: talent, inspiration, taste, originality, the artist’s signature, the difference between artistic and other kinds of objects.

In fact, we can see him leading us not towards the end of art but back towards its beginning: that moment when art was not yet aestheticised, historicised, put into a museum. It was when art as we know it did not yet exist and the artist was pledged to religious rather than aesthetic values.

Rex Butler
The Australian