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The heavyweight critics buzzing all about the Hirshhorn’s “Regarding Beauty” show forgot that beauty doesn’t have to mean a thing.

Nearly everyone I’ve talked with and most critics I’ve heard or read agree that the Hirshhorn Museum’s “Regarding Beauty” doesn’t really hang together. But it sure does generate talk. When Dave Hickey, the closest thing art criticism has to a star, came to speak in the museum’s Ring Auditorium, he let exhibition organizers Neal Benezra and Olga M. Viso have it, in his own genteel way. Possessing a Southerner’s ability to graciously tell someone to go to hell and enjoy the trip, Hickey invoked the name of Martha Stewart to embody the curatorial appeal to tastefulness, which, he pointed out, was the opposite of beauty. He rightly attributed the show’s erring on the side of politeness to its aim of encompassing multiple conflicting viewpoints about beauty rather than a host of beautiful works—which, he charitably admitted, would have produced only chaos. New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl, Hickey’s personal friend and beauty-argument comrade, found “Regarding Beauty” lightly peppered with beautiful works reined in by their institutional context; he accused the show of thinking too much.

When catalog essayist and de facto Hirshhorn defender Arthur C. Danto, who doesn’t think you can think too much, gave his Ring talk, he encouraged his audience to send fan postcards to Schjeldahl saying, “Read Hegel, Page 12.” When Camille Paglia gave her talk, booked into the larger Baird Auditorium across the Mall, she apparently sought to establish a notion of “The Romance of Beauty” that seemed to revolve around the need to proselytize on behalf of the not-terribly-novel idea of teaching children about great art that has naked people in it.

Though everybody was talking about, or around, beauty, almost nobody agreed on what beauty was. One might be forgiven for thinking that “Regarding Beauty” was designed as a backdrop to the art talk the Hirshhorn has provoked and diverted into town over the course of the show’s run.

Let’s dispatch Paglia first. They don’t call her Hurricane Camille for nothing. She blew long and loud and went round and round in circles, finally grinding herself down to a few moist breezes on the landmass of what one must assume was either unpreparedness or idiocy. She paid tribute to Oscar Wilde in a preamble that broached no discussion of how the pose of effeminacy, frivolity, and fashion-forwardness, so liberating for obvious reasons to a gay Victorian, would translate a century later to a woman who depicts herself as a gunslinging tough on the cover of a collection of her essays. She then launched into a lengthy and increasingly tedious slide show, pausing from time to time to throw darts at the straw man (sorry) of doctrinaire feminism. Paglia also saw fit to inform the audience, which she must have imagined consisted largely of student teachers, of the viewing tastes of her beloved students at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. She so successfully remained off-topic that when I asked my wife whether she could determine what our haranguer’s theory of beauty was, Rebecca acidly replied, “I don’t know. Maybe we could ask her undergraduates.”

I don’t disagree with Paglia’s main points, which have little to do with beauty outside their basis in the idealization of the human form. It’s just that her observations are blazingly obvious: ’60s-era feminism sacrifices art on the altar of political correctness; the nude pays homage to the pagan power of sex; people would be more sexually liberated if they felt comfortable with libidinous art; fine art and popular art occupy a single continuum; children could stand to be taught art history. The only thing worse than sitting through a cavalcade of such banalities is realizing that there is a real cultural need for Paglia, as well as a large audience of marginally informed middlebrows that welcomes her with open arms and laughs at the lamest of her jokes.

At the opposite end of the accessibility spectrum is Danto. Unsurprisingly, the Columbia University philosopher and Nation critic demands that art be subordinated to thought. He follows the lead of Hegel, who mistrusted art’s appeal to the senses and found that the highest beauty is “born of the spirit and born again” as it is incarnated in the work. To Danto, beauty isn’t a genie artists hope to summon but a strategic choice; once the Dadaists proved beauty wasn’t a necessary condition to the making of art, it fell to artists and critics to determine the aesthetic and intellectual purposes to which beauty is sufficient. Danto’s beauty, pace Kant, starts in pleasure, but pleasure ultimately isn’t necessary, either.

Poetic rather than philosophical, Schjeldahl’s views would naturally be anathema to Danto. His review draws from both Hickey’s writings on beauty and his own 1994 Art Issues essay “Notes on Beauty.” Schjeldahl excels at precise descriptions of the ecstasy of looking. No writer puts you in the gallery with him the way he does, and he approaches beauty as he approaches art, as something that happens to you, at times beyond your control. When his intellect is overwhelmed or merely irrelevant, he says so: “It is always too late to argue with beauty,” he writes, tacitly emphasizing effect over intention. Surely it is Schjeldahl whom Danto has in mind when he quotes Hume to rebut that part of “our century’s own concept of beauty” that states that “beauty is like a blow to the head.”

However personal his investigations, Schjeldahl avers that beauty matters only to a group, that “[a]n experience of beauty entirely specific to one person probably indicates that the person is insane.” But it is Hickey who expressly pins his theory of beauty on the way pictures work among groups of people who view them. He tells the story of discovering Warhol’s flower paintings and finding them “bitching.” His artist friends found them bitching, too, but for different reasons. Stephen Mueller liked them because they were “gay,” Hickey because they were “sophisticated,” Ed Ruscha because they “made jokes about the language of incarnation.” What matters to Hickey is not meaning, on which nobody can seem to agree, or artistic intention, which may be muddled to the artist and inaccessible to the viewer. He cares about consequences, the effects artworks have in the world. Beauty, as “the language of visual affect,” “the rhetoric of how things look,” “the iconography of desire,” and “the agency that causes visual pleasure in the beholder,” is what grants images their entry into the world, what gets people talking about them, establishing a commerce of ideas.

Segue to a favorite Hickey theme: the functioning of art in a democracy. Hickey exalts a freelance life spent in the commercial underground of galleries, record shops, nightclubs, and recording studios, setting this milieu against that of authoritarian, prescriptive “therapeutic institutions” such as the Hirshhorn. A freelance-writer friend of mine points out, however, that Hickey’s democracy looks to him a lot like cliquish boho snobbery, and one is tempted to ask if underground snobbery is really preferable to the institutional kind.

In “Notes on Beauty,” Schjeldahl argues for the resuscitation of artistic quality alongside beauty, writing, “Much resistance to the reality of quality, as a measure of fulfilled purpose, bespeaks the condition of people who either lack a sense of purpose or whose purposes must, by their nature, be dissembled.” This phenomenon is borne out by my own experience. The District’s gallery scene is hobbled by a plethora of low-quality work hung with an obligation not to art but to friends, to the myth of the neglected local artist, to the unadventurous tastes of local collectors. So it’s hard to feel as Hickey does about the relative merits of official and unofficial culture when five minutes of the spring-cleaning May Queen of Pipilotti Rist’s ultrasexy, profoundly beautiful Ever Is Over All (in “Regarding Beauty”) outshines hour after hour of the Art-O-Matic free-for-all here in D.C. last summer.

As varied as their backgrounds and biases make them, all the “Beauty” commentators share the belief that, to use Hickey’s term, beauty must have a “rhetorical load.” Or, as Schjeldahl puts it, “Beauty is never pure for me. It is always mixed up with something else, some other quality or value….Nothing in itself, beauty may be a mental solvent that dissolves something else, melting it into radiance.”

What repels us, I think, is the prospect not of an objectless beauty, because beauty always arrives attached to something, but of pointless beauty—beauty without reason, intention, consequence, meaning, the lot of it—a vehicle without a payload; a messenger without a message, who hangs around pestering us, reminding us through his mere, sheer presence that while, in this particular instance, we might have no need of his services, we enjoy his company, or at least find it difficult to part with.

We don’t like thinking of ourselves as automata, even occasionally, and we don’t cherish the possibility of unflappably running on empty. Our age has set against religious faith not nihilism but humanism. We might question the nature of the object of our devotion but not belief itself. What we call faithlessness is simply a redirection of the machinery of belief to gnaw on something we didn’t earlier recognize as holy. The idea that life-animating belief might hum along just fine, for any stretch of time, without fodder of any sort, is deeply unsettling.

Though, as Schjeldahl says, beauty traffics in the sacred, in its functioning it is closer to lust than to faith. One of last year’s most provocative shows was the Hirshhorn’s hosting of recent paintings and sculptures by Juliao Sarmento. His fragmentary women, specific but depersonalized, not objectified but denatured, spoke to the free-floating nature of heterosexual male lust, which seeks not an eternal Other, located in the exotic ideal, but always an Else, fixed nowhere in particular. Few people would question that there is a mechanism of lust that, absent love’s welcome restraints, seeks its own satisfaction; perhaps there is also a beauty mechanism that at times requests that it be similarly unencumbered.

It is unquestionably preferable for beauty to have a payload or for it to be “internal,” as Danto calls it when beauty participates appropriately in a work’s meaning. But it seems wishful thinking to set the beauty threshold so high and then relegate all sub-liminal experiences to lesser classes, such as the “merely beautiful” or the “pretty,” as when Schjeldahl finds works by Anish Kapoor and James Turrell “glamorous rather than beautiful” for failing to “inspire awe for a specific proposition about reality.”

In October 1998, I fell hard for the monogestural paintings of Jason Martin at Robert Miller Gallery in New York. I mentioned them to a Museum of Modern Art curator, who dismissed them as a throwback to midcentury formalism, tossing in that they smelled nice, an allusion to Duchamp’s condemnation of “olfactory” art. But here I am, more than a year later, still entranced, remembering them more clearly than many things that stake a stronger claim to beauty’s full range of import. I make no claims for them, and they make no demands of me but that I worship them. And I do.

It’s a rare thing, sure, but every now and then the mind’s gate opens to beauty’s Trojan horse, and we find in its unnourished belly neither marauders nor heroes nor cherished ideals confirmed nor foreign ones ennobled—nor, even, cozy boho cliques—but a vast nothingness. And we don’t—honestly, we don’t—find the situation desperate, desolate, vacuous, niggling, or sad. Just beautiful. CP