A Tale of Two Aesthetics

On Monday I visited an exhibition at Parkview Museum with my fiancee. Titled Challenging Beauty, it is features Italian contemporary art pieces taken from the private collection of the late George Wong, founder of the Museum. True to its name, the exhibition challenged beauty by presenting its exact opposite.

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The fancy verbiage is merely obfuscation. The pieces on display are muddled, confusing and insipid. They say nothing about the world, nor do they demonstrate a mastery of craftsmanship.

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Even the items for sale at the souvenir shop are decidedly un-beautiful.

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There is no beauty in this exhibition, and without beauty there is no art.

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Contrast to the pieces on sale at Ode to Art, an art gallery at Raffles City.

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instead of drab colours and random splashes, there is vibrancy and precision. There is no room for the ugly or the banal; here there is space for wonder and awe.

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The skillful application of material, technique, colours, composition and medium brings out the artist’s inner vision for all the world to see.

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The difference between the two is stunning. The first collection confronts traditional notions of beauty, and produces only ugliness and darkness cloaked in postmodern prolixity. The second embraces aesthetics and beauty, and presents brilliant works that elevate and inspire the spirit.

In my Junior College days, I encountered many theories of art and aesthetics. One such theory argued that art was simply what a curator decided was worthy to be placed on display. This certainly explains how a pair of spectacles and a pineapple were mistaken for art.

If ‘art’ were merely an object placed on display, then art ceases to hold any meaning. Galleries and exhibitions would no longer represent any ideals or aesthetics of higher truths, only the whims and fancy of whoever happens to be displaying the object at that point in space and time. Such an approach to art allows–and demands–the rapid proliferation of the hideous, the perverse, the banal and the obscene. Instead of elevating the soul, such art pollutes it.

Case in point, compare this:

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to this:

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The second image is a celebration of the beauty of the female face. The first is a rag with quasi-random scribblings.

For an object to be elevated as art, it must by necessity be something more than mere matter, or it would hold no meaning. It must point to an abstract ideal that transcends everyday life; indeed, a piece of art should very well be the physical embodiment of such ideals.

There are plenty of things in this world that sully and degrade the soul through mere exposure, such as pornography, splatterpunk, torture and sheer nihilism. Embracing the principles behind such things–wanton lust and violence and sadism and selfishness–reduces man to his base animal instinct. Art must do the opposite, by engaging the better side of human nature and pointing the audience towards a higher and finer way of life.

Art should represent the transcendentals: truth, beauty and goodness. Art should say something true about existence; it should point towards the most perfect and idealised creation; it should uphold and affirm existence and creation and civilisation.

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Without truth there is nothing upon which to build. Without beauty there is nothing to inspire. Without goodness there is no possibility for continued living.

Lies may win wars and secure short-term gain, but anything built on a foundation of illusion cannot last. Ugliness produces only mockery and scorn and contempt, but beauty launched a thousand ships and commanded the chivalrous. The evil prey on all that is right and good, and in so doing undermines and destroys the pillars of the society they need to survive.

Art is not merely something propped up in a display case. It is not something that mocks and tears down values and leaves a hollow husk in its place. True art is transcendental. It upholds truth, beauty and goodness, and in doing so it inspires us to be the best we can be.

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In my own field, I also pursue truth, beauty and goodness. You can find the results in my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.

A Tale of Two Aesthetics
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