Beauty. A recent dinner party at a private home in the Los Angeles suburb of Brentwood brought me to a mildly disturbing observation on this subject. Magazine editors and academics tend to so settle into their interests (and their opinions) that, even when spirited debate is called for, their arguments spill forth by rote. Having sinned on both fronts (as a graduate student, I tarried in the Babylon of critical theory), my notions of the concept of objective beauty, as well as its subjective corollary, personal taste, were shaped from the gray wet cement of the standard-issue liberal-arts canon (Plato to Kant) and are, by now, well set. Because the theme of this annual issue deals, on multiple levels, with these two attributes, it seems fitting to share the conversation that took place when I sat down to dinner with three individuals well versed in both: a close friend and longtime art collector; an art and antiques dealer from Frankfurt, Germany; and our host, an art expert from Southern California’s most prominent museum.
“Beauty,” sighed the art expert as the wilted salad was served, “has been out of fashion for more than a century.” The dinner was all but inedible (those with a finely tuned aesthetic sense frequently are immune to the pleasures of gastronomy), but the talk was rich: The disquisitions of our host (who can speak with easy authority on everything from early Christian tapestries to contemporary conceptual artists) are always morsels to be savored. “Ugliness is now the standard of measure,” he continued in clipped, matter-of-fact Teutonic syllables (he, too, is German). “From the 20th century on, art is the manifestation of ugliness.”
A forensic catalog followed, in which our host traced the decline of Western art from the classical standards of form—proportion, symmetry, and balance—espoused by Plato and Aristotle to the nihilism of Dada, the minatory mission of which was to thumb its nose at established traditions, most especially at bourgeois standards of beauty. At which point our art dealer, a pragmatist by profession, chimed in. “Ah, but it’s all the same,” he said, waving his fork dismissively. “I’m a businessman—I can find a buyer for anything. A Duchamp toilet, for example, which plenty of collectors today would prefer to, say, a pudgy Rubens Venus, all apple cheeks and adipose.” The baroque ideals of substantial, often overflowing female pulchritude as epitomized by the nudes of Peter Paul Rubens have equipped many a debater with his polemic against universal standards of beauty and for the relative nature of artistic (as well as amorous) inclinations. “Look at Picasso, his nudes,” the Frankfurter went on. “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon? Ugly by classical definition, but if Picasso could paint a dozen more,” he smiled slyly, “we dealers could sell them all—and at top dollar.” He munched, his hunger piqued by this remunerative thought.
“You dealers would sell them whether he painted them or not,” jibed my collector friend. “And anyway, Picasso ripped that painting off. He stole that style from African masks.” Indeed, numerous critics have pointed to the potential influence of a Paris exhibition of Fang tribal art on this seminal Cubist painting, executed in 1907. This thought prompted some grumbling from my friend, a consummate consumer as well as a connoisseur, one of whose favorite complaints has been the fact that the very best African tribal art has been snatched up by other collectors before he could get to it. “Picasso started it all,” he growled.
Our host interpreted this comment as an affirmation of his own views. “Yes—you see, the painting is a celebration of the ugliness of the female form,” he interjected. “It is the expression of the anti-aesthetic sentiment that pervades the last century.”
Adept in the casuistry of the marketplace (which demands at least flexible scruples, if not always flexibility, with regard to price), the dealer observed, “The measure of beauty is desirability. What you may find ugly, to another is priceless. Take the shrunken head, for example. My gallery has acquired several of these, and I do not mind telling you, they fetch good money, particularly those that have a long and silky head of hair—and nose hair,” he added with emphasis. “The nose hair is most important: This is one of the best ways to tell whether it is a fake, because in Ecuador, where the shrunken heads come from, counterfeiters will shape a false head from goatskin, but they cannot duplicate the nose hairs. Of course, even real heads can be counterfeit if they are not made by the Jivaro tribesmen. I recall one physician who did a very healthy business shrinking the heads of corpses he obtained from the coroner’s office—even a few entire bodies. I may even have had one of his pieces: a Chinese head, lovely, supple, with a soft, jaundiced skin and a long mandarin’s moustache. Beautiful,” he said, longingly. Then, bristling, “But too beautiful. Often, you see, the fakes are of higher quality, made with modern tools. And genuine foreign heads are rare. No, the true prize is a well-shaped native head—with nose hair—and gray skin, the shade of a well-done roast beef.”
I glanced down haplessly at the overdone specimen on my plate.
“That reminds me,” said my collector friend, for whom one of the chief charms of any object is attainability, “if you can’t get good African tribal pieces, you can still get great tribal masterpieces from South America. The Oceanic art of New Guinea is fascinating, with an exquisite sensibility. Really wonderful, primitive, cannibal stuff. They outlawed cannibalism there in the late 1950s, but it continued for a while after that. I read an article about one tribesman who asked his wife to dig a pit. She went straight to work; pigs are cherished commodities among the tribesmen, and so whenever one is cooked, it’s a big event. Once she’d finished the pit and the fire was primed, the man clubbed her over the head and threw her in. Later, when the authorities questioned the man about why he ate his wife, he looked at them in surprise and shrugged. ‘Because I was hungry,’ he said.”
By this time, I certainly was not. But I did have some fresh food for thought. As an editorial functionary for Robb Report, I have operated under the necessary presumption that, as our host believes, reliable, timeless, and impartial standards of beauty—of quality—can be isolated and identified by the connoisseur who has acquired sufficient knowledge of (and gained sufficient exposure to) the “Best of the Best.” However, secretly, the critic in me has clung to the heresy (at least from the perspective of the authoritative, magazine-selling editorial voice) of aesthetic relativism, which attributes our ideals to accidents of culture, time, and place. “Each mind perceives a different beauty,” wrote Scottish philosopher David Hume; but if, as the art dealer and my collector friend’s opportunism suggests, one’s artistic judgment—one’s aesthetic hungers, if you will—evolve in accordance with one’s opportunities, then under the right circumstances, I realized with a certain unease, I too could potentially acquire an appreciation for the precious trinkets of the Jivaro—or the tastes of a New Guinea tribesman. Relatively speaking, of course.