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Must art be beautiful? Picasso's The Old Guitarist

Video transcript

(upbeat piano music) - [Steven] I think often we make the assumption that art is beautiful, but is that required? Must art be beautiful? - [Beth] We also think, well this is ugly, so this can't be art. As an art historian, it's become clear to me that there are many different ideas of beauty, that every culture has its ideas, over time ideas of beauty change. - [Steven] And over my lifetime, what I consider to be beautiful has changed. That does suggest that there is not a fixed notion of what is beautiful. - [Beth] Nevertheless, most of us would agree that a rose is beautiful and cockroach is ugly. - [Steven] And that's referencing an 18th century German philosopher who's name is Kant, who spent a lot of time thinking about how we define what is beautiful. What philosophers call the study of aesthetics. - [Beth] And there's been a lot of science about the fact that human beings seeing attracted to forms that are symmetrical, forms that have certain kinds of proportions and so it does seem like maybe there's a biological truth about what is beauty for human beings. - [Steven] And as a historian, I'm interested in the way that notions of beauty have changed over time. The ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras thought that beauty was rooted in kind of a universal harmony and that when we produced something that reflected those harmonies we saw that thing as beautiful. And then there's the issue of who determines what is beautiful. I think in the 21st century I think we're very comfortable with the idea that beauty is something that's determined by one's experience that is deeply personal, but that was not always the case. - [Beth] Well, we live in an era where the individual is paramount, old forms of authority that would have told us what is beautiful don't exist in the same way for us. In the 19th century and hundreds of years before that, there were art academies that decided what was beautiful. - [Steven] And it's interesting to think about how the academies, the royal academies in Europe determined on what was beautiful. - [Beth] And that relied on ancient Greek and Roman culture. - [Steven] And so artists focused on understanding a kind of ideal proportion of the human body especially. That became of paramount concern. - [Beth] The academies promoted a concept of the ideal. - [Steven] There was a standard that artists tried to achieve. - [Beth] And all of art education was geared toward teaching one to be able to achieve that kind of beauty. - [Steven] But that must have been so oppressive. It must have been suffocating for artists. - [Beth] It's interesting to look back to the mid 19th century and artists like Courbet and art criticism by Baudelaire, both of whom promoted an idea of beauty that was specific to the time one lived. That is a beauty that was contingent and not eternal so that the modern streets of the city which everyone would normally define back then as ugly, could be seen as beautiful. - [Steven] And it's not incidental that that writer and that artist lived at a moment when the authority of the monarch was being challenged. - [Beth] And challenging a single idea of beauty was really important for artists. - [Steven] We're standing in the third-floor galleries of the Art Institute of Chicago, looking at a really famous painting by Pablo Picasso. It's the Old Guitarist from his Blue Period. We're seeing the work of a young artist and although from our position in the 21st century, it might be relatively easy to see the painting as beautiful. For someone looking at this painting when it was new in 1903, 1904, it would have been radically ugly and I can say with certainty because of the way that the artist is deforming the human body. - [Beth] And it's not as though Picasso was the first artist at the end of the 19th century to do that but he is doing it to an extreme degree here. - [Steven] We see a man in rags. His eye is closed, a reference to his blindness, but he's actively playing a guitar. - [Beth] His neck is inclined in a way which is impossible but which is also very expressive. - [Steven] There have been many times throughout history when artists have distorted the body for particular purposes. It's clear that Picasso is looking back to the great Spanish painter, El Greco, who attenuated and distorted bodies to create a heightened sense of the spiritual. - [Beth] We are looking at a figure who's very close to us, there's no space that recedes behind him. We have these flat planes of color and the guitar itself is almost also completely frontal and that neck is inclined down toward the guitar as though his whole body is absorbed in listening to the music that he's playing. This figure, in his solitude, is finding comfort in his art. - [Steven] And is having an aesthetic experience, engaged in that music that is almost identical to the aesthetic experience that I have when I stand in front of this painting. And so Picasso is doing something extraordinary. He's creating a bridge between the melancholic experience within this canvas and the experience that I'm having. - [Beth] And in some ways, Picasso gives us a painting where we can't see either. The figure's enclosed within this rectangular shape. This is a figure who's in his own world. - [Steven] And so Picasso is creating this, I think, universal experience and because of that, he heightens my empathy for this man, for his plight, and he does that in a number of different ways. He does it through his distortion of the body. He does it through the use of blues and browns and greens and blacks. And he does it through the proximity but also he produces a sense of empathy because of the evident poverty of this figure. - [Beth] This is a man who feels exposed to the elements of the world and yet those elements don't enter this painting. - [Steven] So let's go back to this issue of what beauty is and whether or not this painting is, in fact, ugly. I would argue that the empathy that the artist creates is itself a kind of beauty and perhaps is actually a more profound form of beauty than easy beauty, than an image of a rose. - [Beth] Another image of a blind man playing guitar might now have that same effect so the formal elements together with the subject matter are what move us. (upbeat music)
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