When Ronan Keating and Yvonne announced their split-up recently, I heard quite intelligent people in the media (assessments of their intelligence balanced against the fact that they were discussing the matter at all) asking how and why Ronan could possibly cheat on Yvonne when she was “so beautiful." The corollary of this is, of course, that if she were not beautiful it would have been quite understandable for Ronan to cheat on her.
I thought of this again when reading The Ethics of beauty by Alain de Botton (Apollo Magazine – here). In The Ethics of beauty de Botton makes a claim for the necessity of beauty in the built environment, following the philosophy of Plotinus, to argue that “the quality of our surroundings counts because what is beautiful is far from being idly, immorally or self-indulgently attractive. Beauty is a material version of goodness that can teach and remind us about the qualities to which it alludes, such as love, trust, intelligence, kindness and justice."
From these examples, we learn that beauty in architecture is an avenue to and a prism for moral and ethical good, while beauty in human form is an excuse for behaviour – an inducement to morality if you are already in ‘possession’ of the beauty, but equally an excuse for immorality if the beauty is elsewhere than your current relationship (I have often thought that if Camilla Parker Bowles had been an acknowledged beauty, her enduring romance with Prince Charles would have been recognised for what it was: one of the great love stories of the modern era).
But where does all this leave contemporary art? As aesthetics retreated from beauty, often denying it altogether, visual art, (obviously) the most visual medium of all, is in the interesting position of being the one form of expression that routinely eschews beauty – often to emphasise the seriousness of its intent. Equally, artists possessed of particular physical beauty are trusted less, and even valued less than artists with a more ‘interesting’ physiognomy. Why is visual art the one area where we don’t have faith in beauty? And what are we losing in our pursuit of what we believe must lie behind its artifice?
(Gemma Tipton has curated Making nature, which runs in the Rubicon Gallery, Dublin, until 10 July.)