Is It Okay To Like Art Simply Because It's Beautiful?

Last weekend I read a good chunk of Alastair Sooke's biographical musing, 'Henri Matisse: A Second Life'. 

The book explores the creative pursuits of Matisse in the latter stage of is life, during which he was mostly bedridden, pioneered his famous 'cut-outs', and eventually turned his back on traditional painting in favour of a revitalized and re-branded style. The book is substantial enough to draw meaning, yet concise enough to act as a leisurely Sunday morning read.

The book appears to chronicle the artist's working methods and key artworks, but turns into an eye-opening account of his conflict over creating work of meaning, and work of beauty.

The book explains that in the mid-1940's, Matisse fervently produced close to 150 pages of cut-out designs, for a book called 'Jazz'. Within this, he moved away from the classical still-life and nude portraits that consumed much of his earlier career, instead favouring free-form, gestural and Minimalist cut-out shapes.

  Henri Matisse, 'Icarus', Plate VIII from 'Jazz' , 1947, Paper Cut-Out  | ©   rocor/Flickr     |   Creative Commons Licence CC BY-NC 2.0

Henri Matisse, 'Icarus', Plate VIII from 'Jazz' , 1947, Paper Cut-Out | © rocor/Flickr | Creative Commons Licence CC BY-NC 2.0

Whilst the project was a huge milestone in Matisse's career and a fantastic development of his practice, it's said that throughout this period he carried constant anxiety about producing work that was deemed irrelevant or 'too decorative [and] superficial'. His long-standing professional rivalry with Picasso added to the sense of a need to 'keep up' with his contemporaries. 

A quote which immediately struck me is an statement by Matisse, made in an essay published in 1908, which came back to haunt him down the line, as his critics and skeptics were given a meaty soundbite on which to hook their accusations of superficiality:

'What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, and art that could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence over the mind, something like a good armchair that provides relaxation from fatigue'.

Matisse's words were met with a harsh reception. Surely 20th Century art needed to stand for more than just pretty shapes and colours. I suppose I'd have to agree, but isn't there a place in the art sphere for work that inspires self-reflection, an appreciation of talent, or at least an appreciation for the human ability to create something out of nothing?

Since my own work has always been about self-expression and exploration - an attempt to make sense of my inner world rather than affect the outer - I can empathise with Matisse's love for simple, harmonious and composed work. However, in a world in which art is considered a luxury, not a commodity, is there any space for art that makes no attempt to affect social change?

It seems that in the current climate of engagement stats, funding shortages and spending cuts, the art world is forcing itself to diversify, favouring work that sparks discourse among viewers. Perhaps there's no longer a place for work that explores the inner world and favouritisms of the artist.  

  Henri Matisse, 'The Nightmare of the White Elephant', 1947  | ©   Sharon Mollerus/Flickr   |   Creative Commons Licence CC BY 2.0

Henri Matisse, 'The Nightmare of the White Elephant', 1947 | © Sharon Mollerus/Flickr | Creative Commons Licence CC BY 2.0

Henri Matisse, 'The Lagoon', Plate XVIII from 'Jazz', 1947, Paper Cut-Out | © rocor/Flickr | Creative Commons Licence CC BY-NC 2.0

Recently I've been researching Abstract Expressionism and the celebrity status of its most notable members. See: Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Mark Rothko.

The movement speaks for itself; a process of pure expression, of intuitive mark-making. It would be difficult to argue that Pollock's canvases sparked any sort of cultural, political or philosophical debate, yet that doesn't stop them being valued in the tens of millions. How can one artist be scalded for his inclination towards compositions of equilibrium, beauty and colour, and another held up as a genius.

Personally, I love the Abstract Expressionists, because their work is so full of energy, almost primal. You can imagine the movements and gestures required to create the work, the artist stepping around the borders of a huge canvas laid out on the floor. However, sometimes I love work simply because its beautiful, or because it resonates with me, or reminds me of something, not because it carries any groundbreaking revelations or cultural implications. Does this make me a bad art lover? Or a bad artist?

I think it takes guts for an artist to create 'selfish' work. Work that documents a time or an experience. Perhaps a memory of travel, or a self portrait. I think it takes even more guts for an artist to create work that's purely abstract, with absolutely no representational value. It causes the viewer to look inward in their search for meaning, rather than outward. Perhaps introspection is the best way to incite change, anyway.