The Restoration of Beauty or its Abuse? – Thoughts provoked by Jiang Heng’s works
Source: Author:Peng Feng Date: 2012-08-30 Size:
Jiang Heng’s art reminds me the provocative topic in contemporary art and aesthetics: “the return of beauty and the abuse of beauty”. After a silent century, beauty once again became an important topic in contemporary art and aesthetics. In 1993, the acclaimed critic Dave Hick

Jiang Heng’s art reminds me the provocative topic in contemporary art and aesthetics: “the return of beauty and the abuse of beauty”.

After a silent century, beauty once again became an important topic in contemporary art and aesthetics. In 1993, the acclaimed critic Dave Hickey proclaimed that, in the next decade, aesthetics will become the guiding topic. [1] As a coincidence to Hickey’s prophecy, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid executed a painting series names People’s Choice between 1994-1997. They have hired professionals to survey the public on their preference in art, and to map out people’s “most enjoyable art” and “least enjoyable art” with the statistics collected from different countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. From which, Komar and Melamid not only discovered what people thought as the most beautiful artwork in different countries, but also the outstanding similarity in their interpretation of the beautiful imagery. Some aestheticians further theorized that the similarity in human’s interpretation of beauty could essentially find evidence in their DNA and their collective subconscious, because the image people enjoyed the most is the portrayal of the sparse wooded areas on the grassland of eastern Africa, a place where early homo sapiens evolved.

I do not want to make the claim that Chinese artist Jiang Heng’s creativity is influenced by Hickey’s prediction, just as I would not make the claim that the project People’s Choice was implemented under the same prediction. However, I would agree, including Jiang Heng, Komar, Melamid and many other contemporary artist’s creativity are indeed implementations of Hickey’s prophecy. Isn’t it like what Karl Popper has claimed, prediction cause it to come true?

Why did Hickey make such daring prediction? Hasn’t the art of the 20th century known for its ugliness? As many know, Bartnett Newman has bluntly claimed, “The impulse in contemporary art is to “destroy beauty”.” [2] So did Jean Dubuffet, “For me, beauty has never enter the images.” [3] If contemporary art contradicts with beauty, then why would Hickey predict the “restoration of beauty”? The reason for Hickey’s prediction is not grounded on his negligence on the lack of beauty in art, in the contrary, his realization of it. Precisely because, art has not been beautiful for a long time, it is time to call on its return. The art world, like any other, follows a cyclical pattern. It turns to gruesomeness after the long sovereignty of beauty, and would steer to beauty after long dominance of ugliness. And since it has been ruling the art world for a long time, it is time for the return of beauty.

Hickey’s prediction was fiercely attacked by Arthur Danto. Danto believed, not only the art world today does not need the “restoration of beauty”, but must be vigilant with the “abuse of beauty”. In Danto’s view, “Most of the art in the world is not beautiful, and the fabrication of beauty is also not the goal for art.” [4] “It is important to distinguish aesthetic beauty from the general artistic excellence – they are two concepts without any fundamental relevance.” [5] “Art is essentially considered beautiful, it isn’t and has never been the destiny of art.” [6] In Danto’s view, the most significant contribution of art theory from the 20th century is the distinction of beauty and art.

Danto’s refute is not credible, because, there were certain historical period in which art was beautiful, or thought as beautiful. If we compare Egyptian art, Greek art and Roman art, we realize, Greek art is beautiful. Including many aestheticians like Hegel, who believed art is beautiful. And overall, beautiful art overrides the ugly art. How could one ignore the intimate relationship of beauty and art because of its otherwise impartial phenomenon? Moreover, the art from the 20th century is already ugly enough, and it is unnecessary to worry about the “abuse of beauty”.

Why art of the 20th century boycotted beauty? From the art historical perspective, perhaps become the art proceeding it was too beautiful. From a sociological perspective, people needed the gruesome art to recognize the truth in human nature in order to ameliorate human nature. The following paragraph by Richard Shusterman reveals the social context in which art of the 20th century rejects aesthetics:

In the 20th century, especially having experience two horrid world wars, artists began to become skeptical of the function and values of beauty and aesthetic experience, because the art that provided beauty and pleasant aesthetic experience was ineffective for stopping the war. The most cultured and aesthetically developed European nations are also the most evil and destructive. Those without any compassion and sympathy in the war, are those moved to tears from aesthetic experiences. The conspiracy of beauty and aesthetic experience with civilized society, making the artists start to reject the enjoyable feelings found in aesthetic experiences… I am calling such phenomenon as, “aesthetic insensitisation”. [7]

The phenomenon of “aesthetic insensitization” of art in the 20th century was not only reflected through ugliness, but also on inhumanness. As early as 1913, G. Apolinare has once said, “Primarily, artists are a group of people who want to become inhumane. They are persistently pursuing traces of inhumanity.” In 1925, O. Gasset has made such diagnosis: the typical characteristic of contemporary art is to “make art inhumane”. M. Merleau-Ponty had pointed out in 1948 in a criticism on Cezanne’s painting that it has revealed, “the inhumane natural foundation where humans dwell.” Theodore Adorno use his dialectical style in Aesthetic Theory, published before his death, “Only when art resorts to the pursuit of inhumanity would it obey human nature.” [8]

The reason why art of the 20th century rejected beauty resides in its revelation of inhumanity, and the reason accounts for that is in hoping to make men more humane. Just as Xunzi’s theory of the sinful nature in human, its goal was not to exemplify the perniciousness in human nature, but to ameliorate it. Perhaps Danto’s worry of allowing art to pursue beauty, it might not be effective in its critical or didactic functions, because people would be attracted by the beauty and the pleasant emotions evoked, by which its critical strength would be diminished.

Yet, Jiang Heng’s art tells us, one does not necessarily have to resort to ugliness in revealing inhumanity; through beauty, it is also possible. Jiang Heng’s art portrays mostly femme fatale, yet all of them are transformed into inhumane comic figures. The characteristics such as complexity, depth, and eternity of human nature can no longer be found in Jiang Heng’s comic figures of femme fatale, what is left are the inhumane characteristics of superficiality, ephemeralty and fragility. The femme fatales in Jiang Heng’s art is not those of everyday life, but the spirits or ghosts of beauty.

If beauty could also reveal inhumanity in order to make people more humane, then Danto’s worries were unnecessary. The key to the issue is not to question whether the image was beautiful or not, but whether the artist’s attitude is positive or not. If we consider Komar and Melamid’s attitude as positive and serious, then we should consider People’s Project being the true goal of artistic pursuit, by which to recognize the beauty portrayed in the “most enjoyed paintings”. If we consider their attitude as negative or satirical, then our interpretation would be entirely different, and consider they are ridiculing People’s Choice, that further derides the beauty portrayed in those works.

In order to fully understand Jiang Heng’s work, we also need to figure out his attitude. In my view, if we consider his intent as negative or deriding, we would gain richer and deeper content. Of course, it might not be the artist’s actual intent, but the audience’s imagined intent. This imagined intent is deducted through the audience interpretation, rather than obtained through questioning the artist. [9] If we adopt such method of interpretation, then we can claim that Jiang Heng’s art supports the “restoration of beauty” on the surface, but is in fact exemplary of the “abuse of beauty”.


[1] Dave Hichey, “Enter the Dragon: On the Vernacular of Beauty”, in Dave Hichey, The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (Los Angeles: Art Issues Press, 1993), p. 11.

[2] Bartnett Newman, “The Sublime is Now”[1948], in Bartnett Newman, Bartnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews (New York: Knopf, 1990), p. 172

[3] Jean Dubuffet, “Anticultural Positions”, in Richard Roth and Susan King Roth (eds.), Beauty is Nowhere: Ethical Issues in Art and Design (Amsterdam: G+B Arts International, 1998), p.12.

[4] Arthur Danto, The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art (Peru, Ill.: Open Court, 2003), p. 88.

[5] Arthur Danto, The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art, p. 107.

[6] Arthur Danto, The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art, p. 107.

[7] Peng Feng:《实用主义美学的新视野——访舒斯特曼教授》,《哲学动态》2008年第1期。

[8] 关于20世纪艺术追求非人性的引文,转引自Wolfgang Welsch, “How can We Get beyond Anthropocentrism?” Gao Jianping and Wang Keping eds., Aesthetics and Culture: East and West (Hefei: Anhui Jiaoyu Press, 2006), p. 472。

[9] 关于实际的意图与假设的意图之间的区别,见J. Levinson, “Intention and Interpretation: A Last Look”, in James O. Young ed., Aesthetics: Critical Concepts in Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2005), Vol.2。

[Editor] 马西