Philosophers and scholars discussed aesthetics of beauty and questions of beauty since the establishment of civilization. Especially during classical Greek period, notable philosophers such as Plato and Socrates contemplated the notion of beauty, and their works influenced people for generations. Traditional notion of beauty was undisputable until avant-garde movement started questioning normality of human lives. Provocative art movement such as Dada does not call for a problem of traditional view of beauty, rather Dada artists seek to allow people to see the world through unexplored perspectives.
Traditional notion of beauty dictates that the beautiful objects must delight the senses in order to be recognized as beautiful. Especially in the case of the human body, the qualities such as soul and personality were important character to be considered beautiful. According to Plotinus, a Greek philosopher, the intrinsic character of soul is to strive toward beauty, “which is a manifestation of the spiritual force that animates all of reality” (Stolnitz). In other words, merely a physical property of a person cannot identify one as beautiful, rather the possession of soul is what helps someone to be beautiful. In addition to this notion of beauty, Plato specifies which type of soul is necessary for beautiful person. He argues in Philebus that beauty must be free from pain and express pure pleasures. Plato believes that pain causes judgements to be skewed and falsified, thus a person in pain cannot truly distinguish beauty from ugliness.
Sandron Botticelli, a notable Italian painter during the Renaissance period, incorporated classical notions of beauty into his painting, Birth of Venus. In regards to the painting’s physical portrayal of the goddess, Botticelli uses a mathematical principle of the golden ratio to position Venus and the angels surrounding her. The golden ratio in art displays an aesthetically pleasing feature by producing a naturalistic proportion. In terms of the painting’s soul, Venus is portrayed as Venus pudica, meaning the Modest Venus. The Goddess hides her breasts and genital with her hands, and presses her hair against her thighs. The act of concealing her sexuality signifies her modesty as the goddess of love and sex (Dempsey). This painting resonates with traditional notion of beauty by Plato and Plotinus because it demonstrates physiological beauty through symmetry of the golden ratio, and spirit of “pure” nature of Venus.
Although the standard of beauty imposed by classical Greek and Roman philosophers reflects human behavior toward beautiful people or objects, there are consequences to it as well. The second image is a picture of girls crucified during the Armenian genocide. This images demonstrates polar nature of traditional beauty that persisted throughout Europe. In one aspect, classical notion of beauty acts to promote societal evolution by pursuing beautiful characteristics. On the other side, the society blindly excludes minorities to “purify” the nation and to be considered beautiful. During early 1900s, Europe was at its climax of nationalism tension, which eventually led to the First World War in 1914. Ottoman empire, comprised of various ethnic groups, wished to homogenize its nation’s identity to make the country “beautiful” again. In other words, major ethnic group of Ottoman Empire wished to exterminate minor and secular ethnic groups such as Serbian and Armenian because their physical appearance and character did not meet the Empire’s standard of beauty and identity. Inadvertently, classical notion of beauty led to societal mentality of “us” versus “others.”
Gotthold Lessing, a notable German art critique, often address classical sources to refer to cultural tensions in Germany in hopes to “reinforce distinctions between colonized groups and colonial viewers, laying groundwork for ugly ‘others’ to talk back to inscribed values” (Henderson 90). In addition, Lessing wrote a passage that reinforces this belief of ‘we’: “We know how dirty the Hottentotes [South African group] are and how many things that awaken disgust and loathing in us are beautiful, comedy, and sacred to them” (Henderson 90). Lessing’s condescending approach to discredit other group’s standard of beauty reinforces the unforeseen side-effect of embracing traditional notion of beauty. In a response to this attitude of artists, certain artists started a movement called Dada.
Dada movement, which encompasses Cubism, surrealism and Abstract expressionism, primarily targeted the institutionalized art industry to represent Dada artists’ discontent with bourgeois ideals. Moreover, the cruel reality of World War I influenced Dadaists to “question the values of the society that had created it and to find them morally bankrupt” (Glaves-Smith). They believed in their responsibility to act extremes of provocative behavior to eventually shock people out of complacency. Essentially, the goal of Dadaists was to make an art piece that is not meant to attract, rather to make people think and scream (Danto 46). Max Ernst’s Fountain is considered the starting point of Dada movement. This “art” piece is merely a urinal with a text “R. Mutt. 1917” written on the side of it. The idea of spontaneity and anti-art is expressed by Ernst’s submission of Fountain to the Society of Independent Artists; however, the submission committee rejected his object for indecency. In response to this, artists began to contemplate the idea of establish a jury-free exhibition of art to promote progressive and dynamic nature of art. Ultimately, the intention of making people inevitably react toward an idea is what makes provocative Dada art beautiful.
The final image is Salvador Dali’s The face of war in 1940. It is a painting of the dismembered face with another dead man’s face in its eye sockets and mouth, which also holds smaller faces in their mouths and eye sockets. It seems like the disfigured faces express shock and misery toward the snakes around its cheeks. This depiction of continuous agony would not fit the criteria for traditional norm of beauty because the painting explicitly illustrates nature of pain and suffering, which causes one’s soul to be impure. However, the effect it has on audiences reflects the beauty of Dada movement. Upon viewing this image, viewers may contemplate about brutal consequences of war, which is implied through dark depiction of faces.
If everyone has lived in an illusion of pursuing pleasure, would anyone think differently to feel pain? Humans seek comfort and delight in their lives, and they are not afraid to follow the pleasurable path to continuously fulfill their desire. There is nothing unacceptable about admiring attractive body of male or female body in art, but it may be wise to sometimes look up from adoring conventional beauty, and realize the grim reality of world. As illustrated by the three images of Dada movement art, provocative behavior and art expose underlying problems of society that people often overlook by revealing a core of issue that traditional beauty conceals.