By Tony Grey

As the centenary of the Armistice approaches, with slumping shoulders I think of the uncountable deaths and woundings that so profoundly dislodged humanity in that apocalyptic war and changed forever the way the world worked. I find it impossible to press my imagination to where I can fully appreciate the heartbreaking enormity of it all, but I feel obliged to try.  In the grip of my attempt, I’m drawn to a collateral effect of the tragedy, mercifully not one as horrific as its mortality, but one that has discoloured our culture ever since. It’s a blight that deeply bothers me.

Remarkably, in our age of enlivening technological progress and comfortable affluence there seems to be an absence or, at best, a significantly reduced presence of Beauty. I do not mean the Beauty of nature, which is universally admired, or the inner Beauty of an evolved soul, but Beauty in the visual arts. While I’m not a practitioner, I passionately love Beauty in that human endeavour, and am profoundly disturbed by what I see. The absence of Beauty is not ugliness, but worse; it’s a joyless error.

Until the First World War, Beauty reigned in peace; it had no enemy in art. While, at times, art had illustrated and depicted the darker side of humanity, it did so without abandoning the presence of Beauty. Even when the crucifixion of Jesus and the Black Death had to be faced, artists enlisted Beauty to deal with them through its power to induce uplifting feelings, a state from where transcendence to a higher truth could be experienced.

There was no denial here, but rather an aesthetic treatment of the subject. To put the point in another way, the intention was to continue in Beauty’s service though the objects painted sometimes were not beautiful in themselves. An example of that on a lower plane is the work of Giorgio Morandi, who lived around the time of the War. He painted still life using common, everyday objects, which, under his brush, rejoiced under the aegis of Beauty.

John Keats spoke up for Beauty’s sublime value in his praise of that Grecian urn –

“ Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

But all that changed when disruptive military technology rocked the established order with suffering and deaths on a scale that shrank previous wars to skirmishes. Not only did four monarchies tumble down like Ozymandias in the sand but aesthetic norms shuddered in sympathy.

For the first time since Homo sapiens emerged, Beauty was not given a cue to enter the stage. Indeed, so impossible was the existential shock to accommodate that it was banned from the cast. Its positive tendencies were perceived to be a trivialization of reality, because reality was so horribly ugly.  Any intervention by it was an affront that could arouse nothing but anger and cynicism, its calmer form.

And so, assassins confronted it in the shadows of a Zurich nightclub and doused it with microbes.  The chief assassin was Hugo Ball, the German pacifist who founded the Dada movement there in 1916 far from the front. He and other expats had taken over a Zurich bar and renamed it Cabaret Voltaire in honour of the satirical disrupter.

From their lair, they asserted that the monstrosities of the times must be faced in the only way possible– a flight to absurdity in an angry art dystopia that eschewed all norms they believed had led to the colossal stupidity, including Beauty. The Dadas were as angry as that Serbian student who had assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, setting off the whole catastrophe. They would do to Beauty what he had done to the putative oppressor of his people.

One of the Dadas, Hans Arp, blamed the “confusion of our epoch” on the “overestimation of reason.” The Enlightenment’s nostrums had led the world into ruination. If reason had given support to this outrageous way to settle differences and seduced public emotion into such lethal jingoism, what was left to guide humanity but the absence of reason?  And Beauty’s symmetry was the apotheosis of reason. His alternative world was based on chance, not the chance that’s linked to probability, for that would be too rational, but the sort of chance that’s irregularly irregular. In it there was no role for anything like the charm of an equilateral triangle. I can’t help but notice that attacks on the Enlightenment and its rational precepts are still occurring today, and not only in art.

The icon of Beauty had to be smashed because the values painted on it were endemic to the system that had caused the War. Tszara, a leading exponent, compared Dada to a “virgin microbe” which hopefully would infect European culture and “introduce the idiot everywhere.” Common sense and logic needed to be opposed by a new interpretation of art as anti – art.  A placard set up at a Dada International Fair proclaimed “ART IS DEAD.”

The movement was not confined to Zurich by any means. It soon metastasized throughout the world to Paris, London, Moscow, New York, even Tokyo, and spread its microbes everywhere.

In the Dada interpretation, there would be no role for Beauty. Indeed its very existence was seen to lead to an unhelpful distraction; the dark direness of life’s reality was the only thing that mattered. That, I suggest, is still the predominant view underlying the arts and literature today, including art film, photography, and theatre. They are informed by the pessimistic view of the human project developed by postmodernism, in full swing by 1930 and alive today.

Nothing could transcend reality in its bleak mode, certainly not Beauty, whose tradition of absolute value was associated with the redemptive power of religion, now attacked as never before. The mortal catastrophe of the trenches, where Germans wore belts with “Gott mit uns” on their buckles and Allied troops prayed to the same God, led many to conclude that religion was merely a cultural artifact leading to dangerous illusions. That it was often perceived to be disingenuously employed by those in power to anaesthetize the masses into passive acceptance of the status quo added to the case. Nietzsche, in vogue at the time, claimed, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” While predating the War, his morally critical philosophy was ideally suited to the pessimism of the age and, furthermore, to the thought patterns that led to its tragic sequel. He claimed, “In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”

Although an anarchist movement, Dada (whose name, which has no meaning, signals the absence of all meaning) reached beyond politics and sought to overturn all established ways of thinking about values, including the structure of art. The Dadas drew upon Nietzsche’s claim that no absolute values exist, only ones relative to perceived social requirements, which are changeable. He asserted, “To demand that our human interpretations and values should be universal and perhaps constitutive values is one of the hereditary madnesses of human pride.” And one of these values deemed universal was Beauty. So Beauty had to be assassinated. The iconoclastic philosopher sneered “Nothing is beautiful, only man: in this piece of naivety rests all aesthetics.”

Irony, nihilism and shocking behaviour ruled the performances at the Cabaret Voltaire and other places where the Dadas entertained. In the middle of giving a lecture in New York, one of them who was completely inebriated, started to take his clothes off while swearing obscenities at the audience. He was arrested before he finished the job. And in painting, drawing, and sculpture the ugly struggle against madness signaled a new beginning, a beginning in which Beauty was to be ethnically cleansed. The Dada painter, Francis Picabia, proclaimed, “Life has nothing to do with what the grammarians call Beauty. Virtue, like patriotism, exists only for mediocre intellects.”

The objection to Beauty lay in its essence.  Umberto Eco gives a useful summary of its traditional composition in his book, On Beauty. The Delphic oracle declared that Beauty is just, Plato that it incorporates harmony and proportion, Aristotle that it demonstrates order, symmetry and definiteness, Aquinas that it discloses morality; Rousseau believed that “good is none other than beauty in action”, Emanuel Kant said “The man of sanguine temperament has a prevalent feeling for beauty”, and Tolstoi affirmed the profound links between art and morals, Beauty and truth. And it doesn’t require a philosopher to teach us that Beauty was traditionally employed by the State and prominent citizens in architecture, monuments, statues and other works of art to support societal order, or that it masterfully reflected the edifying tenets of religion at a time when they were universally accepted. We can see those features as far back as in ancient Mesopotamia and Pharaonic Egypt, as well as in Greece and Rome, and later civilizations. The new beginning required all this to be erased with the acid of cynicism.

If only the attempt to assassinate Beauty had stayed with its dystopian times, as understandable as they were, even viewed from this distance. But it didn’t.  Abstract art, beginning after the War, and Surrealism in the 1920’s, both of which grew out of Dadaism, maintained the rejection of Beauty, or at least did not support its pre War primacy.  I do not mean to dismiss these art forms, for they have great merit in their own right and can delight and demonstrate important truths, but generally, one of them is not Beauty. That was not their purpose. According to Arp, as quoted in the book entitled Dada by Rudolf Kuenzli, Abstract art was a revolt against “the puerile mania and power –madness [that] expects art itself to serve the stultification of mankind.” According to Andre Breton, its French founder, Surrealism, while not as shocking as Dadaism, was meant to deal with the anti-rational, the bizarre, the unlocking of the subconscious, and should disturb and baffle.

In exploring the caverns of the mind, the Avant-garde had no use for Beauty, at least the type that Marcel Duchamp contemptuously tossed aside as merely pleasing to the eye – “retinal art”. One of the most prominently subversive figures of the 20th century art world, a true Dadaist (although he denied the association), he declared himself “in the service of the mind”, and, after a drunken lunch with friends in New York, took an ordinary urinal from a plumbing factory, signed it absurdly, called it a fountain and declared it a work of art. In 2004, it was selected as the most influential artwork of the 20th century.

Influenced by Duchamp, common, readymade objects such as a soup tin became art merely through the mental process of seeing things differently and placing them out of their usual context. Their mundaneness might allow for an apparent transformation of some interest but never for Beauty. Beauty was irrelevant to the foray of the times into the analytical, the intellectual, and, dare I say it, the technological. The intention was different from before; it was not for the purpose engaging Beauty to portray something, but to analyze it as an object, and often to show it in a way that is sociological rather than aesthetic.

Nothing in the 21st century has changed this fundamental orientation. Indeed, the Dada mockery of art and the desire to shock the complacency of bourgeois sensibilities continues, even evolving into a cynical manipulation of the public’s obsession with celebrity and fascination with bad taste, not to mention ugliness. Damien Hirst, promoted by an advertising agency to become the richest artist in the UK, does this with his tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde and displayed in a vitrine. So does Tracy Emin with her dirty bed. The angry American artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat ventured into new lands of ugliness in protest against the dark elements in his country. After his death, one painting sold for $US 57 million.

While many practices of contemporary art reach into the bizarre in order to shock, I do acknowledge that the underlying purpose of the more serious variety is an analytical and intellectual exploration of reality. It seems worthy enough but far from beautiful. Beauty’s reality is either defined away into a nonsense or dismissed as superficial and trivial, a mere decoration at best. There are, of course, exceptions, for Beauty didn’t really die after all; it was only badly wounded. But they are not common. What a relief they exist to keep us from despair.

If Beauty be considered trivial by the cognoscenti, give me that triviality and let me redefine it in my own mind. Let me gaze on Beauty’s human attempt with awe and wonder, and rise above my anxieties to feel a consonance with an absolute substance that soars high above my ordinariness. I don’t reject contemporary art; I embrace it, at least some of its offerings. They can enlist feelings in me of pity, sympathy, disgust, shock, anger, interest in their intellectual conceits. But I need Beauty to be uplifted