'Can You Define Beauty?'
by Dodie Kazanjian
To mark Vogue’s one hundred twenty-fifth anniversary this year, we asked a number of artists “What is beauty?”—a Vogue question if ever there was one. The idea was to have them make images we could reproduce to raise money for the HIV/AIDS charities God’s Love We Deliver and Born Free (one American, one African). Eleven artists, including John Baldessari, Julie Mehretu, Maurizio Cattelan, and Beatriz Milhazes, signed on, and the always creative fashion house Marni agreed to collaborate by using the artworks on limited-edition tote bags and T-shirts.
The fact that so many artists were willing to participate suggests that beauty is no longer considered suspect in contemporary art. The avant-garde in the twentieth century had demoted beauty to mere decoration and sentimentality. “No, painting is not done to decorate apartments,” Picasso thundered. “It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.” For artists working today, though, nothing is off-limits; anything is possible. The entire history of art is at their fingertips—just click on Phidias or Botticelli or Fragonard, and see how deep the visual pleasures can go.
The Irish painter Genieve Figgis, who adores François Boucher’s luscious nudes, gives us her version of the eighteenth-century French master’s The Muse Erato. “It is Erato who charms the sight,” Figgis says. In her slightly naughty rendering, Erato is “unsure, pausing—her own eye is a black vortex, not knowing how to react or perceive her own image.”
Even for those willing to try to pin it down, beauty is an elusive quality. “I always hear myself saying, ‘She’s a beauty!’ or ‘He’s a beauty!’ or ‘What a beauty!’ but I never know what I’m talking about,” Andy Warhol said. “I honestly don’t know what beauty is.” Clearly it has a thousand faces. To John Baldessari, beauty means “I wish I did it.” In We’ll Have a Barrel of Fun, his accordionist hides behind a bright-red spot. Is it beautiful? Is it he or she? The decision is up to you. The English artist Annie Kevans contributes a portrait of Hari Nef, the transgender fashion model. “Like art, beauty is subjective, and there is an inherent freedom in that,” Kevans says. “In this unique time in history, when global discrepancies have never been more apparent, transgender models such as Hari Nef and Andreja Pejic remind us how fortunate we are to live in a society that not only accepts diversity but finds it beautiful.”
A rhinoceros with a tree growing out of its back looks perfectly normal in Francesco Clemente’s ever-surprising artistic vision. Asked for his definition of beauty, Clemente concedes, “I cannot say it better than Rilke: ‘Beauty is the beginning of terror.’”
Dana Schutz’s Bain de Soleil comes right out of her childhood memory of watching a 1980s TV commercial for that particular brand of sunblock and thinking it was the most gorgeous and sophisticated thing she’d ever seen. The hot sun, the wide-brimmed hat, the white sunglasses and bikini, and the white-crested waves are all remembered; the foreground crustaceans are pure Schutz. Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes has demolished all boundaries between decoration and art. Her riotously colorful Freedom is a powerhouse image built around the peace sign. “Beauty is transcendent, spiritual, magical,” she says via email. “Peace and Love!”
Julie Mehretu’s abstract, black-and-white drawing Untitled never stops moving. It is fluid, fluent, and light as air, and it gives the viewer carte blanche to get involved. In the words of Kerry James Marshall, one of America’s best living narrative painters, “Beauty is oblivious self-assuredness. Unforced radiance.” He calls his image Untitled (Kiss), but it could just as easily be many other things, including the onset of a beautiful quarrel. Maurizio Cattelan, a leading controversialist, throws floral kitsch in our faces and makes us laugh with pleasure. “Live with beauty and bad taste, and treat those two imposters just the same way,” he advises.
Beautiful Truth, by Shara Hughes, channels her childhood trips with her father and three brothers to the family’s tree farm in South Georgia. “My father always told us this was where we ‘found the truth,’” she says. “There was no TV, nothing but trees and space. . . . It meant complete freedom, the space to be yourself. That’s beauty to me.” Her painting comes from a video she took last summer while driving among the pines with her father. “The sun was melting through every gap between the trees, giving them flashes of gold—inside and outside their repeating silhouettes.”
Ragnar Kjartansson, the incorrigibly playful Icelandic artist, used to have trouble spelling the word beauty. “Most of the time, I wrote ‘beuty,’” he emails. “I’ve never defined it myself, but my favorite definition is the Halldór Laxness quote from World Light: ‘Where the glacier meets the sky, the land ceases to be earthly, and the earth becomes one with the heavens; no sorrows live there anymore, and therefore joy is not necessary; beauty alone reigns there, beyond all demands.’”