Thoughts of Beauty
Text by Barbara Safran de Niverville

As a visual artist, my interest in natural elements has led me through a labyrinth of traditions and western aesthetics from the Classics, Medieval and Renaissance Europe, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism. The challenge of creating work that addresses beauty within a contemporary context has propelled me through a period of intense experimentation in interpreting the vigor, delicacy and entropy of plant life in my immediate surroundings. It has led me to confront the marvelous in nature and in art.

William Shakespeare wrote in Love’s Labours Lost, Act 2, Scene 1, “Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye.” But what is beauty as an aesthetic experience? Is beauty valid in contemporary culture or is it somehow “derelict or indecent?” (Danto 28)

Theodor Adorno wrote:

Beauty cannot be defined, but neither can the concept of beauty be dispensed with altogether. . .The image of the beautiful as being a unique entity emerges simultaneously with the process of man’s emancipation from his fear of omnipotent oneness and homogeneity of nature. . .The shaping spirit of art allows only those elements to pass into the art work which it grasps or which it can hope to assimilate. (qtd. in Beech 78-79)

I find myself attempting to comprehend what is amorphous and enigmatic. Beauty and nature are both notions that become more ambiguous the more one tries to pin them down. However, “the shaping spirit of art” attempts to interpret and envision their portrayal.

In his book discussing aesthetic judgments about natural objects,
Natural Beauty: A Theory of Aesthetics Beyond the Arts, Ronald Moore states:

Aesthetic experience is obviously contingent in many ways on social and cultural contexts. And yet it remains anchored to individual response. . . . In this respect, our appreciation of natural aesthetic qualities mirrors our appreciation of artificial aesthetic qualities. . . . What is established in our historical, culturally-conditioned awareness of natural things supplies a base. Reflective natural beauty judgment entails appropriate appreciation of this base coupled with an expectation that each new contribution of aesthetic attention alters the base. (80)

Thus, beauty may be subjective, malleable according to individual preferences and the cultural background of each individual. A shifting backdrop of memory and imagination is activated by what is perceived as beautiful, whether the appreciated object is a work of art or an object in nature.

Beauty gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit, according to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. It is also an elusive discourse which fell out of favor during postmodernism, as anti-aesthetic forms of expression came to the fore. While outrage at injustice held sway in the art world at large, I felt that I had to apologize for my fascination with nature. I resisted defining the beautiful for myself, although I had become discontented with the pretty. In the midst of post-modernism, my work was sometimes read as regressive and out of step with the contemporary scene.

In discussing the disappearance of beauty from the avant-garde of the twentieth century, Arthur C. Danto commented that the philosophical conception of aesthetics in the eighteenth century was

. . .almost entirely dominated by the idea of beauty. . . when apart from the sublime, the beautiful was the only aesthetic quality considered by artists and thinkers. And yet beauty has almost entirely disappeared from artistic reality in the twentieth century, as if attractiveness was somehow a stigma, with its crass commercial implications. (7)

Frederic Jameson added in 1995:
. . . the last remaining enclaves – the Unconscious and Nature, or cultural and aesthetic production and agriculture - have been assimilated into commodity production. . .what characterizes postmodernity in the cultural area is the suppression of everything outside of commercial culture. . . (qtd. in Beech 107)

Beauty became associated with marketing and consumerism, rather than with aesthetic experience. Dave Hickey remarked in his essay “Enter the Dragon: On the Vernacular of Beauty,” that mentioning the issue of beauty in 1988 would ignite a discussion of the corruption of the art market and the complaint that “beauty sells.” However, after considering the controversy over the exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s erotic photographs in 1989, he concluded, “the vernacular of beauty, in its democratic appeal, remains a potent instrument for change.” (qtd. in Beech 23-25, 30)

This note of hope for beauty began to receive more attention in the 1990’s. Kathleen Marie Higgins wrote, “Beauty makes the world seem worthwhile again. . . . It is the bridge to a sense that reality is lovable. . . . Beauty renders disparate materials into a coherent whole, with the elements as interdependent as an organic body.” (282)

It is a moment of calm, the inner peace of reflection, and a fascination with natural forms, which I offer in my artwork. In my view, images that awaken serenity in the individual and celebrate the splendid have as much validity in our culture as those that critique, challenge and shock. I agree with David Rothenberg’s belief that

. . . the most beautiful art is that which makes the world appear richer, deeper, and more meaningful, making nature seem ever more intricate, interesting, and deserving of our attention and love. There is meaning in nature far beyond use; there is form and beauty far beyond function. (34)

Several years ago, in Parma, Italy I came upon a dim room in the Galleria Nazionale where a small, but exquisite painting seemed to glow under the gallery lights. The canvas commanded such presence that it dominated my experience of the gallery. Only 9.7 inches by 8.3 inches in dimension, its memory has
remained with me. La Scapigliata by Leonardo da Vinci, was extraordinary in its ethereal, immeasurable qualities and superseded other works by da Vinci that I had already seen in person. How does one analyze or quantify such beauty?

Since my visit to Parma, I have embraced the daring and perhaps unpopular realization that I aspire to capture a small part of beauty’s potential in my artwork. Compared to
La Scapigliata, this can only be a humble attempt; contemplation in an elastic moment of time, stretched out and extended, a pause in the face of noise and chaos. It is perhaps a study of strength and tenacity, finesse and delicacy, grace and fullness of form in infinite variety. It is about the beautiful observed in nature, with its controversies and vagaries.

Barbara Safran de Niverville *


1 “Beauty”: The quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit. Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh edition. p. 108.

2 “Nature”: that which is not directly produced by humans, and which acts independently of humanity. See Soper p. 15.

3 Extract from
Ästhetische Theorie (1970) (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1973); trans. C. Lenhardt, Aesthetic Theory (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984) 75-9.

4 Eleventh Edition. p. 108.

5 The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary differentiates between “pretty” and “ beautiful” noting that pretty is conventional, pleasing, and nice, but lacking strength, while the “beautiful” excites the keenest of pleasure to the senses and stirs the emotions.

6 Extract from “Transformations of the Image in Postmodernity” (1995); first published in English in Frederic James,
The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern 1983-1998 (London and New York: Verso, 1998) 134-5.

7 From
The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (Los Angeles: Art Issues Press, 1993) 15-24.

Works Cited

“Beauty.” Def. 1. Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition. 2007.
---. “Beautiful.” Synonyms.

Adorno, Theodor. “On the Concept of the Beautiful/1970.” Ed. David Beech.
Beauty Documents of Contemporary Art. Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel
Gallery and The MIT Press. 2009. Print.

Craig, Hardin and David Bevington, ed. The Complete works of Shakespeare.
Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company. 1973. Print.

Danto, Arthur C. The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art. Peru,
IL:Carus Publishing Company. 2003. Print.

da Vinci, Leonardo.
La Scapigliata. c. 1508. Oil on canvas. Galleria Nazionale,
Parma, Italy.

Hickey, Dave. “Enter the Dragon: On the Vernacular of Beauty/1993.” Ed. David
Beech. Beauty: Documents of Contemporary Art. Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press. 2009. Print.

Higgins, Kathleen Marie. "Whatever Happened To Beauty? A Response To
Danto."The Journal Of Aesthetics And Art Criticism 54. (1996): 281-284.
Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 2 May 2013.

Jameson, Fredric. “Transformations of the Image in Postmodernity/1995.” Ed.
David Beech. Beauty: Documents of Contemporary Art. Cambridge, MA:
Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press. 2009. Print.

Moore, Ronald.
Natural Beauty: A Theory of Aesthetics Beyond the Arts.
Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press. 2008. Print.

Rothenberg, David.
Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution. New
York:Bloomsbury Press. 2011. Print.

Soper, Kate. What is Nature? Culture, Politics and the non-Human. Oxford, UK:
Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1995. Print.

* Please note that italics have been used for citations due to the limitations of the web design templates used on this site.