On Art and Beauty

Keep good company – that is, go to the Louvre. (Paul Cézanne)

The last time I dedicated hours to a museum visit was a few years ago when I went to the Prague National Gallery, which hosts permanent and short-term exhibitions of the most acclaimed art in the world. That’s where I locked eyes with a van Gogh portrait and admired the effortless elegance of Cézanne’s landscapes.

My visit was characterized by the conventional approach any museum hobbyist would take: roam through the galleries, spending an appropriate amount of time in front of each displayed item, to not give the impression that I’m dismissing anything, quickly read the name of the author and title of the work, glimpse thoughtfully one last time and move to the next, where the dance would start over. I’d go from painting to painting with an unquenchable thirst to absorb the sap out of each one, but this desire would never be fully satisfied.

Cramming as much information as humanly possible can be counterproductive. Just like our attitude toward books, the casual museum-goer approaches art as a thing to be deciphered, instead of being internalized.

Going to a fine-dining restaurant twice a year just to fill your belly won’t develop your palette or train you to savor the subtle nuances of each meal. The same goes with fine art. Each piece requires careful inspection, opening yourself up to it so it will in turn open itself up to you, reveal its intricacy.

In Four Thousands Weeks, Oliver Burkeman introduces the unusual assignment Jennifer Roberts, a professor of art history at Harvard University, gives all her students: to pick a work of art (painting or sculpture) and dedicate 3 whole hours to looking at it. In a world where not knowing what happened on Twitter the last 10 minutes seems unbearable, being asked to dedicate 3 hours to one thing and one thing only can elicit a host of emotions and thoughts.

Man contamplating art: "Sampson Gideon and a companion" painted by Pompeo Batoni (1767)
Photo by Mitchell Luo on Unsplash

But Burkeman notices a shift after more than an hour spent looking at his painting of choice, oscillating between restlessness and boredom: the painting started to open up to him.

And the Degas begins to reveal its secret details: subtle expressions of watchfulness and sadness on the faces of the three men—one of whom, you notice properly for the first time, is a Black merchant in an otherwise white milieu—plus an unexplained shadow you hadn’t previously seen, as if a fourth person were lurking out of view.

We don’t have patience anymore to soak in the greatness of a work of art. A great painting or piece of music, if given enough time and attention, can start to grow on us. Like the ivy that latches onto a tree, the same way our minds can be seized by a powerful image or sound, given that we let it work its wonder on us. It requires us to patient enough to allow it to disclose its subtleties, which can open up a whole new world.

I was moved by a number of works from that visit, but now my memories are a cacophony of styles and artists. Nothing stands out.

On top of that, we’re tempted to resort to external metrics when evaluating a painting, or any work of art. Here’s what Paul Graham observes in one of his articles on good taste:

Most people’s response to art is a tangle of unexamined impulses. Is the artist famous? Is the subject attractive? Is this the sort of art they’re supposed to like? Is it hanging in a famous museum, or reproduced in a big, expensive book? In practice most people’s response to art is dominated by such extraneous factors.

This has made me think about my own response to the art I’ve seen in galleries or on the internet. As Graham keenly writes, before we even get to the piece of art in question, we have to come up against a laundry list of adjacent points, as if to make sure our assessment is justified. We’re insecure in our judgement, so rely on external factors to validate our own taste.

The hesitation to appreciate the thing in itself stems from our utilitarian view on life. Very few things are valuable for their own sake nowadays, but rather propped up by instrumentality: they are a means to a goal. In The Sense of Beauty (Being the Outline of Aesthetic Theory), George Santayana writes:

If we approach a work of art or nature scientifically, for the sake of its historical connections or proper classification, we do not approach it aesthetically. The discovery of its date or of its author may be otherwise interesting; it only remotely affects our aesthetic appreciation by adding to the direct effect certain associations.

There’s a paradox here. While it’s true that you don’t need a 2-hour lecture on the French Impressionist style to appreciate Monet’s work, it’s equally true that it would help put it into context.

But still, the gravitational pull of art is inescapable. Every year, the most prestigious museums in the world welcome millions of visitors, who gather to these intimidating and overwhelming places and spend money on tickets, tours and souvenirs. Traveling to a new country and not paying a visit to at least one museum seems like a deviation from the natural order.

Breathtaking galleries adorned with the works of the most brilliant artists in history invite visitors to learn their secrets.

Photo by DAT VO on Unsplash

But the museum visit is often treated as an expected item to cross off your holiday to-do list, and less a place of deep contemplation.

We treat these intimidating places as enclaves of art, carefully delineated from the rest of city life, graveyards for the old dreams of misunderstood dead artists. They remind us there’s a different way one can live, but we quickly dismiss the thought as outlandish. The most sensitive of us can begin to sense an inkling of their transcendent power.

We think we border our great paintings with luxurious, elaborate frames to glorify them, but we do it at least as much to insist to ourselves that the glory of the painting itself ends at the frame. That bounding, that bordering, leaves the world we are familiar with comfortably intact and unchanged. We do not want that beauty reaching out past the limitations imposed on it and disturbing everything that is familiar.1Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life

Art became something we inject briefly in our lives, sometimes because we think we’re expected to, but mostly as a means of getting in touch with that ineffable part of us that longs for a deeper connection.

Some people would perhaps object to my criticisms and argue that in today’s modern society many people can’t afford the luxury of thinking about useless things such as art (be it poetry, theater or sculpture) because they have a family to raise, a job to keep and other pressing matters to attend to. On the list of most people’s priorities, having art in their lives probably doesn’t even make the cut. Or it’s low on the list.

In a culture where the main drive is profit and growth, it’s understandable why art seems superfluous. But a careful reading of the literature would quickly expose the untruth of this position.

The scholar Irina Dumitrescu recounts her unforgettable visit to The Memorial Museum of Sighetu Marmației, Romania, a place dedicated to the victims of the communist regime, comprised mostly of intellectuals. She describes how the walls of one of the rooms were completely covered in poetry.

Poetry was meditation. Poetry was occupation. Poetry served as a secret code.

The secret code is both metaphorical and literal. Prisoners taught each other Morse code and used it to pass on poetry from cell to cell.2Rumba under Fire: The Arts of Survival from West Point to Delhi Far from being dispensable, poetry was so vital that people went above and beyond to keep it alive. Because it kept them alive.

Although we’ve been led to believe art is dispensable at best, wasteful at worst, we can see from the tales of people subjected to the most despicable conditions that art is the medium through which dignity and hope are kept alive. Art’s role isn’t merely to entertain, but to equip us with the spirit of resistance much needed in hard times.

Zena Hitz writes in Lost in thought about Russian dissident Irina Ratushinskaya:

Even on the transport train to the prison, at any point of contact with other prisoners she would recite poems, original or classic. Memorized poems were written out and exchanged between prisoners. When she was denied writing materials, she scratched her poems onto bars of soap with matchsticks, washing them away after she had memorized them. She transferred them to cigarette papers when she could, and they were smuggled out of prison to be published in the West.

It’s been said that art provides an escape from reality. I disagree. While some might be tempted to think that the prisoners in concentration camps or political prisons used poetry (or other forms of art) as a distraction from their unfortunate condition, I think it’s more accurate to say that they used it to gain agency over the circumstances. Creating something (writing poetry or your memoir) in a difficult situation can offer a sense of being outside of it, if just for a moment, by contemplating the product of your work and distancing yourself from it.

I think, ultimately, art is a portal into a deeper understanding of reality. It bridges between that which cannot be expressed, but only experienced and concrete concepts.

Art is deeply personal at its core. Whether on the side of the artist or the observer, it evokes feelings that were already dwelling inside our being, waiting to be called out, examined and nurtured. Of course, not all these emotions are positive.

Art elevates our being. A work of art is an interruption in our linear way of experiencing life, it throws us into the vertical dimension of being. A portal out of time, into eternity.



All this talk about art made me curious about how we cultivate beauty in our lives.

Humans’ fascination with beauty is a perennial element of history, captivating the minds of poets, philosophers, artists and lay people. Observing and being attracted to beauty is inescapable to our human nature.

It’s important to stress that our appreciation of beauty is deeply rooted in our biology and evolutionary history.

But what is beauty? Beauty is pleasure regarded as the quality of a thing, as viewed by philosopher George Santayana.3The Sense of Beauty (Being the Outline of Aesthetic Theory) Santayana evokes masterfully the relation between our perceptions, values and beauty:

Whenever the golden thread of pleasure enters that web of things which our intelligence is always busily spinning, it lends to the visible world that mysterious and subtle charm which we call beauty. 

Symmetry and unity play an important role in our perception of objects. Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson argued that beauty is “unity in variety and variety in unity.”

I think it’s a mistake to limit beauty to only that which is pleasing to the eye, if not perfect. It’s predictable. It’s obvious. Apart from beauty as a gratification of our senses, we can find other qualities of it that have been lost from our mode of being.

We don’t have the expression “striking beauty” for nothing. Beauty is also capable to affect you deeply, to the point where it could even disturb you. A truly beautiful object has substance and depth that lure you in and invites you to enter a relationship with it. To open your mind to new ways of seeing things. And sometimes the line between beauty and terror was a blurry one. The night sky beaming with stars is both a source of awe and unease.

How to cultivate our sense of beauty?

It starts with being observers. James Elkins teaches his readers how to use their eyes, because there’s a difference between looking and seeing. One is passive and detached, the other is alive and involved.

To be continued…


  • 1
    Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life
  • 2
    Rumba under Fire: The Arts of Survival from West Point to Delhi
  • 3
    The Sense of Beauty (Being the Outline of Aesthetic Theory)

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