"Some believe ethics must come before beauty, the no-poetry-after-Auschwitz school. [Marcel] Duchamp, for starters: no more beautiful art for an ugly world. The Splasher, for another: ‘OUR STRUGGLE CANNOT BE HUNG ON WALLS. DESTROY THE MUSEUMS, IN THE STREETS AND EVERYWHERE.’ Less typographically excited but just as certain, Arthur Danto says beauty cannot return to art until politics ends injustice, while Peter Schjeldahl calls beauty ‘a necessity that waits upon the satisfaction of other necessities.’
They’re probably right. Art isn’t water, it’s wine. But I like wine. The problem with putting politics before beauty is that it makes beauty contingent upon utopia, and I can’t wait that long. Until the Marxists make the world perfect, perhaps the rest of us can make it a little better, a little fairer and a little happier—with the help of Dan Witz and Swoon, and, yes, Martha Stewart and Thomas Kinkade.
Beauty is not all there is or should be. I don’t want to live inside one of Kinkade’s bucolic paintings, and not just because I’d burn in his utopia. The human range of emotions deserves a range of aesthetics: it would be a mistake to abandon everything art learned in the twentieth century, just as it was a mistake to abandon everything it learned about beauty in the centuries before, the skills we replaced with theories. Nor is the beauty of the beautiful the end of the story: to call an artwork beautiful does not say all there is to say about it, any more than it says all there is about a person. And nor, finally, are beautiful shoes without their pleasure or virtue. Soweto’s new malls are better than its old shanties—not perfect, just better.
But while we’re waiting on utopia, beauty could do this imperfect world some good. Especially in public spaces, beauty could bring us together, remind us of what we share—in times of joy as well as grief. It could win our attention back from commercial beauty, showing us other pleasures besides shopping, other ways to see and think about our bodies, our values, our cities. Maybe, just maybe, it could point the way toward a fairer politics as well as a fairer home. And even if beauty can’t do those things—even if it can’t make the world we want—it can certainly make it easier to live with the world we have.
We don’t just like beauty, we need it. Life is pain eased by the comforts we scratch on the walls.”
— Nick Mount, “Beauty Goes Public,” Rites of Way: The Politics and Poetics of Public Space (edited by Mark Kingwell and Patrick Turmel)