. the problem of beauty *
is beauty played out?
The restless evolution of Western art-making over the last century has been spurred, below the surface, by an accumulating boredom with the conventional portrayal of loveliness. Had Jean-Jacques Rousseau lived in these times and been summing up the problem of modern art instead of modern man, he might have bemoaned that beauty is born free, yet everywhere today we see it in chains of dulled expectation.
The sapping ubiquity of ordinary prettiness in our image-saturated age marinates our senses around the clock in soothing sunset light until all is comfy and prone, like Prufrock's patient etherized upon a table. Still, we look to fine art to awaken us with a jolt of the sublime.
At this late date, are beauty's stage tricks simply too old hat - too old silk hat - to astonish us in the way that they used to? When it comes to photographic art, is it still possible to do anything fresh with aesthetics that surprise the eye, or has it all, pretty much, been done before?
In studying and collecting images across many years, a sense of dreadful doubt about such questions settled over me some time ago. I regret to feel this, but I have gradually tired of the picture industry's endless iterations of the same consensually lovely subjects - landscapes, flowers, nudes, and such - which have proliferated unviewably into the billions online.
Panicked to think that maybe visual beauty was going dead for me, I put aside my day job in digital media several years back and initiated a sprawling body of exploratory work. I am sharing here what's emerged from this project, new instances of the sublime in dialogue with ideas that become a distinct terrain in themselves.
between art and chaos. Part observation and part commentary, the photographs and interpretive texts here locate glimmers of heaven and hell in overlooked corners, which abound. A content cloud mapping of this site would resemble a gigantic meadow made up of countless rabbit holes to tumble down, leading variously to dismay and disorientation. And so it should: as Lord Byron once shrugged when asked to explain his profligate creation, isn't that also life, is that not the thing?
My work pursues its themes through provocation and understatement, mixed messaging and paradox. It speaks to the tension we feel when experiencing beauty alongside suffering, a dissonance elemental to the human condition.
You will find that these images range widely in subject, at times delighting in sour metaphor and the incipient weirdness of ordinary moments, and at other times celebrating the inherent rhythms of made objects, grieving the collapse of the natural world in the hands of man, or exploring the mysterious power of beauty to establish itself in the face of chaos, decline, and spiritual darkness.
skin deep. More broadly, my practice reconsiders a proposition that Euripedes posed in ancient times, and that Edward Steichen's boosterish 1953 MOMA show, The Family of Man, proclaimed triumphantly for photography as a fine art: "Shall not loveliness be loved forever?"
I would answer this question with a yes, probably, but if you asked many artists working today on the photo-conceptual frontier, their answer regarding the beauty imperative in art would be no, not so much.
What has emerged over time in some quarters is a quiet disconnect between visual passion and conceptualism, which my photography seeks to bridge by exploring the interplay between beauty and ideas in those "thought-things" - Hannah Arendt's term - we call works of art.
what can beauty get done when pretty steps back? I find myself coming back now and again to a question at the bedrock of our craft: beyond peripheral decoration, what is the role of beauty today in art that concerns itself with more than prettiness?
At this stage in the short history of photographs as a medium, some of the field's most admired artists appear to have subordinated aesthetic impact to more coolly intellectualized agendas; and still others seem blurry about how they want aesthetics to figure into their work, and to what end. (To pick a few examples, one thinks of Thomas Ruff and his deadpan portrait series; of Ken Lum's shopkeeper and necrology projects; of Catherine Wagner's Art and Science investigation; and of the quasi-clinical stance from which Thomas Struth deploys his camera, he says, as “a tool of scientific origin for psychological exploration.”)
The outputs produced by such creative inquisitors in lab coats are often stimulating in their own right, and are usually not unattractive, having been crafted with meticulous care and freighted painstakingly with ideas.
That said, creating fresh beauty is not usually the point of conceptualist projects. Indeed, in many cases the images we see would seem designed to operate chiefly as though they were, in effect, illustrating a patent application for intellectual ownership of some new art-making process, theoretical insight, or social experience that the artist wishes to brandmark.
Once the idea or process behind pictures of this sort is laid out, the photograph has delivered its main payload and the viewer is ready to move on. Any emotional combustion that an image's design and finish might additionally induce may, in some cases, feel almost beside the point, if not a distraction, since the intended viewing experience is more cerebral than sensory, more a matter of exposition than seduction.
A Warming Trend (2022)
beauty's retreat into tropes and sentiment. How did visual reward come to take such a back seat? Understandably, the field's front-runners are eager to leave behind the tired memes and over-sweetened sensibility of conventional photo art, which still sells vigorously because it works within well-trod paradigms of Romantic sensibility that trigger a pre-formatted, sentimental response.
Autumn Tropes (2022). Idyllic beauty becomes our punched-up happy place.
Consider the usual go-to subjects for photo art, which I've come to think of as our beauty ghettoes. These are inherently appealing and instantly familiar aesthetic contexts so pat that many of them constitute basic entry categories in the field's international competitions: breathtaking panoramas, refined floral shots, soaring skylines, amazing sports and nature closeups, fragrant travel exotica, radiant celebrity portraits, gritty street dramas, lyrical human tragedies, quirky characters, winsome children, high-gloss fashion pouts, and an endless barebacked-Godiva cavalcade of arty B&W nudes.
This reductive roll call may sound more snide than is meant. Strikingly lovely art of integrity and individuality is being created every day within these classic subject areas: there is an enormous abundance to admire. Even so, if reading through this top-ten Most Beautiful list makes your jaw tighten a bit, then perhaps you recognize the problem of sentimentalized expectation within these heavily-trod arenas. Has the contribution that aesthetics make to art objects really become so formulaic? Is that where beauty ends in our era, with a jaded sigh?
To achieve originality with mainstream content, especially at this late date, is superlative achievement indeed. My hat is off to those contemporary artists who can find something fresh and stirring to say in the photography of pounding surf, barns in autumn gold, thundering stallions, erotic nudes... For the most part I find that I cannot, so my search for new beauty gravitates toward less happy hunting grounds and odder quarry.
switching the subject. What if the experience of beauty were pointedly detached from its usual habitats and bonded to less anodyne affairs, with visual pleasure operating, not as a secondary sweetener, but as the central reason for appreciating the picture, an experience sharpened by beauty's less familiar trappings and more dissonant content attachments?
Although they saddle up quite a menagerie of disparate themes and topics, taken altogether these images amount to an exploration of art for the eye in less expected places and more varied forms.
True, we live in an era that is all-but-buried in pix of conventionally pretty things to look at. Some worry - the artist, among them - that this abundance is dulling our minds' underlying capacity to respond deeply to beauty in general. Our brains come to anticipate stereotypic ideas of the sublime and plug them into their standard groupings by reflex ("another vivid sunrise," "another alluring model," "another delicate yellow rose in a handsome porcelain vase"...) rather than encounter each new image as a fresh, unique experience.
As we keep reacting to the onrushing barrage of gorgeous things in the expected categories of gorgeousness, a benumbed predictability creeps in. Sooner or later we see Gertrude Stein's point, because a rose is a rose is a rose. What, really, is the good of artists pumping out yet more "new" images along those lines?
Should we, perhaps, consider alternate starting places for the creation of less expected beauty? From the darkroom, can we finger our way toward brighter entrypoints into the animal joy of looking?
the pursuit of unexpected beauty. Hence the challenge confronting photographic artists today: with eyes now glazing before its familiar charms, can one possibly awaken viewers to fresh loveliness arising in contexts - often, uncomfortable, unexpected, or unpromising ones - where beauty's very presence still has the power to surprise and to feel somehow original?
Or put this another way: in a contemporary culture where the experience of beauty has been framed so often as little more than the eye candy come-on of commerce, is there still a way to conjure original images whose aesthetic character - their striking composition, design, use of light and values, energy, emotional overtones or spiritual feeling - becomes the chief point of engagement, the aspect that draws you back to look again and calls forth its own distinct wonder, for reasons over and above whatever animal, vegetable, or mineral happens to be posing for the camera?
Just as Robert Frank did, “When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.” This challenge drives much of the work here, within a compendium that, across 40 galleries, brings together several hundred images, plus a diverse selection of text-and-photo essays, completed over the last decade.
breaking the surface. These are forays into the relationship between surface and substance, intended as soundings into deeper matters that remain to some degree unspecified. Photography is a tool "well-fitted," as John Szarkowski once pointed out, "for the exploration of those areas of our experience in which we recognize but do not understand meaning."
Akin to what Agnes Martin once said about her paintings, many of the images here are less about what is seen than about what breaks through, long known in the mind. Art of this kind is less concerned with capturing the decisive moment than with stirring murmors in the viewer's heart and brain, which take on the work of interpreting the picture by projecting emblematic meanings onto it. Here, interpretation is prompted further by image titles and texts that are suggestive yet open-ended.
In pursuit of new beauty that might break through, the photographer gallops off in all directions at once across a sprawling horizon. Even clinging to a site map and trailing a sack of bread crumbs, newcomers may, at first pass, find this riding hard to circuit.
Rather than unearth yet more images from the locales where beauty is traditionally mined, most of the photography here starts by looking elsewhere, in places where beauty can instead emerge from resonant metaphor, from invigorating contexts of order or disorder or spiritual darkness, and from emotionally complex - rather than merely picturesque - landscapes.
so picture this. When presented in large prints on gallery walls, many art images today suggest themselves as spotless windows framing views to literal elements - persons and things - in an actual space located somewhere else, a frame that we peer through as a mode of visitation; the image operates as a teleportation device, a step through the looking-glass. The hallmarks of beauty for such photography stress crystalline focus, large-format camera detail, and the rendering of pictorial depth in a way that feels literally true to the eye, complimented by lighting skillfully devised to further this effect. Altogether, a sophisticated aesthetic built around spatial realism.
Much of the work here intends a different experience that either dispenses with or subverts that premise, presenting instead the two-dimensional image as the viewer's final destination, a place compressed with meanings, a space that operates under its own rules and posits its own non-documentary realities.
Indeed, preferring viewers to remember at all times that they're examining the contrived realm of an art object, with a shrug I let some digital brushstrokes show by leaving editing imperfections on random display. I then go further, modifying the aesthetic dimensions of many images in subtle or obvious ways, such that a picture's appeal might strike the eye as somehow unexpected or even alien to its subject matter.
strangeness as aesthetic. Deliberately alienated beauty can heighten the viewer's attention and engagement in ways that more familiar and expected expressions of beauty cannot. Often it is through alienation that a certain music, or a glint of the uncanny, slips into an image by the side door.
The wide-open approach that this work takes toward the introduction of unexpected beauty by any suited means follows that of Ernst Haas, the pioneering poet of color photography. The eloquent Austrian liked to think of himself as "a painter in a hurry," and of his creative process as "dreaming with open eyes." Through a range of deliberate alterations, Haas embraced his unfettered liberty to "transform an object from what it is to what I want it to be."
Although generally unlike his artwork in subject matter and much the lesser in technical finesse, the images here take Haas's creative principle forward, presenting an intensified or augmented reality of sorts that owes as much to the expressive latitudes of painting as it does to the documentary presumptions of photography. This is street photography from the streets of a slightly different universe.
where from here...
Plunge into .. ideas if you are up for a longer lap around art photography's aesthetic divide, and for hearing more about this site's offbeat framework to perceive unexpected beauty.
For a speedier tour d'horizon, you can browse the why pages that introduce each gallery set (especially, the first two of these) and illustrate my approach with examples of beauty in relation to:
On the other hand, if you are someone who is only marginally interested in this stuff anyway, then you have already made yourself slog through quite enough artspeak. Now you are probably best advised to simply poke around the place in search of something unexpected.
Except where indicated, all text and images at this website are (c) 2023 Hunter Madsen, with all rights reserved. No reproduction or distribution without prior written permission.