Why cannot people take art for what it is? Why must intrinsic beauty be so hard to experience?

Usually those that are unfamiliar with art, and even some that are familiar, only become impressed by an artwork if there are shapes within it that they can recognize. “What is that supposed to be?” or, “Is that a person?” are statements that put their confusion into words. They feel impersonal, detached, and would rather move on to the next painting in the gallery that contains images they can recognize, to reside within a comfortable state.

Banksy famously once said, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Meaning art should challenge your mentality and make your mind curious, hungry in regards to a new experience. In this way, people can attempt to look at artwork for what it is, instead of placing one’s own opinion of what it should be upon it.

Most of what humans find beautiful is based in their cultural and social upbringing, as an acquired taste they have become used to. This is the concept of extrinsic beauty, however there is beauty that humans can understand inherently irrespective of their internalized bias; that is intrinsic beauty.

It does not need an explanation or meaning, but instead is simply felt. When one steps back, one may find this beauty in even the most mundane, in the humblest of places. In the practice of aesthetic observation, one engages in the recognition, appreciation and/ or criticism of something which is not art, something that is possible for people in general to expose themselves to.

This perspective can be applied to the random blotches of ink that are Rorschach tests and separating artworks from the category they have been assigned. It is also possible to empathize with beauty that others feel, as well as understand that the world, with all its parts, is beautiful.

The Rorschach Test and Its Obligation for a Definition

Take the Rorschach tests for example. A psychologist holds up what is a symmetric ink splotch and tells their patient to say what they see. Suddenly these splotches become a silhouette of two bears walking from a butterfly toward a pointy tree, with a bat spreading its wings at the center. Children, an age that constitutes a close representation of true human nature, love this exercise. They go overboard and create a story, or at least expect one.
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The bears are long-lost twins due to the evil butterfly’s spite in having them separated. The bat helped them understand and sent each bear toward the magical tree at the center of the forest, where they would meet and find each other again. Tell them this and children are comforted; finally, a method to this madness.

On the flip side, if one sees sexual images anywhere in the ink blots, they are schizophrenic according to the psychologists who used this test. Frankly, if one does not recognize the shape of the bear, or any shape for that matter, they would be considered mentally unstable. It’s good that the Rorschach test has been disproved from actually indicating mental stability, because the question here is why is it so wrong to find these ink splotches intrinsically beautiful without defining their shape?

The Statue of Akhenaten and How Uniqueness Banishes Bias

Then there is the issue of organizing the elements of an artwork or the time period it was made into a category, as if the individual’s creation cannot stand on its own to be intrinsically appreciated. Though due to the breadth of art history it is
external image 3ef0aebee5c5205d45bdc0ad444ed9ca.jpgeasier to learn material this way, it does not always have to be the case when the aim is to simply find intrinsic value. For instance, for AP Art History students, Egyptian artwork is broken up into four kingdoms: Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom and the Late Period. In other words, they are categorized into time periods. However, what about the sculpture of Akhenaten that could not fit into any of the periods and instead stood on its own? Its thin waist, full hips, drooping belly, a long neck and face, and large thighs were an intrinsic uniqueness that intrigues viewers. It represents a sudden shift of royal sculptural portraiture, inspiring researchers to acknowledge its different aesthetic and analyze the motivations behind such a femininely shaped representation of a ruler.

It is now known that Akhenaten believed there is only god, the sun god Aten. He brought monotheism to Egypt and proceeded to have his men destroy every deity of the previous polytheistic belief, leaving only sun-shaped sculptures that he deemed worthy of worship. He may also have been transgender, or at least agreed to a vastly different portrayal than those that came before, deviating from conventional norms of idealization. Discovering his iconoclastic and eccentric tendencies may not have been possible if it were not for the innate curiousness that the sculpture creates in the viewer, forcing them to take it for what it is and not pushing it to uphold yet another categorization, allowing it to have intrinsic value

Whistler's The Falling Rocket and The Lack of Need for a Recognizable Subject

But an artwork should not have to be unique to be intrinsically valued. A good starting point is Whistler’s famous painting Nocturne in Black and Gold -- The Falling Rocket. James McNeill Whistler started out as a highly
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technical and splendidly realistic painter, seen in his early portraits and seascapes. Later on, he rejected the notion of a subject in painting and instead focused on presenting an aesthetically pleasing image. In this particular painting, Whistler paints indistinguishable shapes confusing to the eye at first. He wanted to capture the moments of spatial ambiguity that happen in darkness, bringing equal vulnerability to all, for which he coined the phrase “Nocturne painting”. It is like when one waves their arms around in the dark yet does not grasp anything, both intellectually and literally. He was not concerned with representational accuracy, but with rendering in paint the essence of this intangible time and space that only occurs at night.

The Falling Rocket was a painting of a fireworks scene, however this is not obvious. The feeling and light, however, do correlate to an observer’s line of sight. What he held above the ostensible subject of the picture, in this case a fireworks display above the River Thames in London, were the formal qualities of color and mood. When Whistler exhibited it at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, a critic named John Ruskin said it was equivalent to “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Though Whistler sued him for libel, his comment is not far from the truth. The artist’s tendencies of bordering on abstraction fit within the 20th century movement titled “Art for Art’s Sake.” Followers believed that art’s intrinsic value should be held above didactic, moral or political purpose.

The MY Agusta Motorcycle and Empathizing With Others' Opinions of "Beautiful"

Designer Richard Seymour in his Ted Talk “How Beauty Feels” argues however that it is very hard to find intrinsic beauty that is universal. The way people define beauty is usually extrinsic, through information given prior to observation, creating a sort of bias.
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If not intrinsically, then can we find things beautiful through empathy, through trying to understand why the other person appreciates it? One can feel the excitement Seymour feels as he describes the MY Agusta motorcycle he finds beautiful. He talks about the way its consummate reflection management allows for light to flicker across the exterior shapes as the vehicle moves, making the exterior itself a kinetic object. He mentions the titanium that helps keep the bike’s wheels in one piece, and how the front wheel is tucked in. Viewers gain a better understanding, in this way challenging their initial impression of the vehicle’s beauty.

Beauty's Frame and How Everything is Ultimately Beautiful

It is definitely possible to find anything beautiful. In the movie American Beauty, character Ricky Fitts describes a video he has taken of a plastic bag he found twirling with the wind. He says, “It was one of those days when it's a minute away from snowing and there's this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. Right? And this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That's the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there
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was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video's a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember... I need to remember... Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can't take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”

He concludes this immensity of beauty that he feels is in the world from a plastic bag, a piece of garbage helpless to the forces of nature, without a man-made composition or an artistic time period to it. Ricky was looking through a video camera, a frame of sorts, through which he determined the bag’s movement and the time he was filming, before snow, as beautiful. This was the feeling of intrinsic beauty.

Why can people only find something beautiful when it is captured, may it be through a painting, picture, or video? Next time something catches your eye, perhaps the lines on a road, the way your friends’ shirts are similar in shade, or the vertical pattern of a curtain’s folds, take a second and appreciate it. Save yourself the pressure of assigning it a meaning or a definition, take it for what it is. You will be engaging in the action of finding intrinsic beauty.

  1. http://psychwatch.blogspot.com/2009/07/how-to-interpret-your-rorschach-ink.html
  2. https://prezi.com/1laocnhbxqlt/the-sculpture-of-akhenaten/
  3. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/whis/hd_whis.htm
  4. http://www.theartgallery.com.au/Whistler.html
  5. http://www.theartstory.org/definition-art-for-art.htm
  6. http://www.ted.com/talks/richard_seymour_how_beauty_feels#t-1011483
  7. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0169547/quotes
  8. __http://paloform.com/paloform/intrinsic-value-versus-intrinsic-beauty/__