Forces of Change

Western art critique from the Greeks to present day

From beauty to the sublime


From beauty to the sublime – Overview:

A century ago, beauty was almost unanimously considered the supreme purpose of art and even synonymous with artistic excellence. Yet today beauty has come to be viewed as almost an aesthetic crime. What was taught in art schools many years ago in the process of painting included shape and form, colour theory, tonal quality, composition, are all no longer applicable as those qualities no longer are used in the process of creating artwork. Traditional painting of course continues in the use of formal application of painting but in the more contemporary and conceptual work formal qualities do not apply as they are deemed irrelevant to the execution of the artwork, primarily as the theme of the artwork or the concept of idea, is more important than the actual art piece, more important than what is on view in the gallery. Looking at the Greek Idealism of beauty in their art and architecture, rekindled through the Renaissance and neo-Classical movements and jumping way over to the early 20th century Abstract Expressionist who violently shook off the Greek Ideal, which they considered to be the bugbear of European art and European aesthetics for far too long. Spirituality was now over taken and replaced by the humanist ideal of the Absolute and the need to cease in the struggle of European artists continually involved in the moral struggle between notions of beauty and the desire to express the sublime through abstraction.

The Classical Greek Ideal (5th & 4th century BC)

In Plato’s Symposium [1] considered beauty to be the ultimate in what he terms as ‘Idea’ (Form), this places beauty as a general concept within his philosophy as the highest pursuit. Plato wrote that what we may see as being beautiful is only beautiful as the Form of Beauty is eternal, unchanging, is an invisible element embedded within the cosmos. Aristotle in his “Metaphysics” [2] actually gives a broader definition of beauty as having order, symmetry, definiteness. In “Poetics” [3] Aristotle states that “to be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made up of parts, must present a certain order in its arrangement of parts” (Aristotle, “Poetics”, volume II).

Both Plato and Aristotle consider beauty as an eternal objective in that it is not confined purely to one’s personal likes or dislikes. For them, beauty embodies an alignment of essential integral parts forming a consistent whole of proportion, harmony and symmetry. This notion of beauty eventually became the inherent Western concept of beauty that was to be seen in classical and neo-classical sculpture, architecture, literature and even music. The School of Pythagoras further maintained that a cohesive element existed between beauty and mathematics, stating that objects proportioned in compliance with the Golden Ratio would be agreeable and attractive, thus ancient Greek sculpture and architecture utilized this founding principle of symmetry and proportion, which this conviction of beauty was then rediscovered in Renaissance Europe and that in turn became to be known as the “Classical Ideal”.

Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche had comments to make of their own, suffice to say that this essay is not on the concept of beauty but rather how beauty has played its part from ancient Greece to western modern culture. Therefore for readers seeking further details please see the Further Reading list at the end.

Apologies for hopping over vast swathes of history but the purpose of my thread is to try to realize how art reflects the world-view, the prevailing belief system of the day in the four periods before us. A work of art is not necessarily ‘better or worse’ because it has clearly been shaped by one coherent worldview. “Images were first made to conjure up the appearance of something that was absent”. [4] so there are a myriad of theories of beauty on the highway of discourse.

The main characteristics of Classical statuary concerned the accuracy of its anatomy and the realism of its stance. Mathematics of course to the Greeks was an eternal mystery that caused them to explore the science of numbers relative to medicine and art, amongst many other areas of life. Pythagoras of Samos, the Greek philosopher and mathematician of the late sixth century BC paid particular interest in using numbers to explain the unknown in areas of the visual and abstract world. His preoccupation with numbers, underlined a conviction that a mathematical formula or principle could be present in the physical body but also in the abstract realm of justice and peace. Exploring musical harmony, Pythagoras established and demonstrated that the intervals required to produce harmonic chords, using the strings of a lyre, could be indicated as whole numbers. Now that Pythagoras had a belief system inclined towards harmonic dimensions, consequent exploration of number patterns was applied to planetary movement, the stars and the natural world (which we now understand in cell structure, DNA, and even cloud formation) ultimately forming the Greek concept of the cosmos. When these attributes of harmony where compared to dis-harmonic patterns, Pythagoras gave the world another reality, a world of opposites to the harmonic structure. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher and scientist states, “Members of this school [the Pythagoreans] say there are ten principles, which they arrange into two columns of cognates, thus:

limited and unlimited

odd and even

one and plurality

right and left

male and female

rest and movement

straight and curved

light and darkness

good and bad

square and oblong …”. [5]

The prominent Greek physician Galen, surgeon and philosopher in the Roman Empire attributes, “proportion is not a matter of individual taste but depends on mathematical laws which may only be broken at the expense of formal beauty”, to Polycleitus the Greek sculptor in bronze of the 5th century BC, and his theory of ‘symmetria’ and pursuit of the ‘to kallos’ and ‘to eu’. Here medicine and art meet at the cross roads of attainment of beauty, to define and calculate meaning and purpose that would ultimately give visual resonance.

Art for the gods

In the ancient Greek world, religion was personal, direct, and present in all areas of life. With formal rituals which included animal sacrifices and libations, myths to explain the origins of mankind, they gave the gods a human face, temples which dominated the urban landscape, city festivals and national sporting and artistic competitions, religion was never far from the mind of an ancient Greek. The ancient Greeks expressed their religion through their art and their art expressed the meaning of life as they understood it. They were slavishly devoted to the many gods, in the service of paying homage via absolute beauty in sculpture & architecture. Yet there is in one sense, an avenue towards a humanism as the ancient Greeks employed the skills of art towards signifying an ennoblement of themselves.

So today we visit the museums where ancient Greek and Roman sculptures adorn the vast halls and visit the temples that still stand but we need to remember that we actually view them out of context, we view them as artworks, and as stunning as they are, we need to remember that the artworks were created not to be viewed in our modern museums but rather as accessible avenues, portals, as offerings, as votive homages to their gods. The ancient Greeks were unaware of what we mean by the “art” as they no word for it. They seemed to live within the ‘essence’ of what we have come to term as the Greek Ideal. However, a new and sophisticated concept was born in The Enlightenment, that art was now free and isolated from the function in which it was intended, shifting away from past idealism to fresh concepts. The modern viewer of classical art, sculpture and architecture is systematically placed outside the frame of experience of those that created the artform. This disentanglement, disconnection from the original function of what the ancient Greeks intended as opposed to the creation of art during The Enlightenment, gave rise to the conceptual space of the museum in which art became isolated from the original commission and now showcased to the public as ‘works of art’. A massive shift of identity and altered world-view as applied to the art world was now established.

The Olympic Games, were thought to have begun in 776 BC, inspired the modern Olympic Games (begun in 1896) The Games were held in honor of Zeus, king of the gods, and were staged every four years at Olympia, They were to inspire the great Greek ideal of the body, not simply as an athlete but as gods in human form. From this perception of the body perfect come the elements used in their art and architecture: balance, proportion and order.

The architecture of ancient Greece has influenced building styles until today. The ruins of ancient buildings show us the height of architectural achievement reached by the ancient Greeks. They built beautiful buildings for various purposes, but the best examples of Greek architecture are found in temple buildings.

The Renaissance (1400 – 1600) and the rebirth of classical culture

Europe emerged from the economic stagnation of the Middle Ages and experienced a time of financial growth. Also, and perhaps most importantly, the Renaissance was an age in which artistic, social, scientific, and political thought turned in new directions. However the Renaissance retained the Greek Ideal in balance, proportion throughout their artwork and architecture.

The style of painting, sculpture and decorative arts of that period of European history known as the Renaissance, emerging as a distinct style in Italy in about 1400, in parallel with developments which occurred in philosophy, literature, music and science. Religion still played an important role in the lives of the Europeans although writers, scientists and artists had a reawakening in recognition and appreciation of the natural world around them, which came to be the principle distinction of the Renaissance.

To the scholars and thinkers of the day, however, it was primarily a time of the revival of classical learning and wisdom after a long period of cultural decline and stagnation of the Middle Ages. The Renaissance had a passion for art. Commissions came from kings, popes, princes, nobles, and lowborn mercenary captains. Leaders commissioned portraits of themselves, of scenes of their accomplishments, such as successful battles, and of illustrious ancestors. Cities wanted their council halls decorated with huge murals, frescoes, and tapestries depicting great civic moments. And civic, dynastic, and religious leaders hired architects to erect buildings at enormous expense to beautify the city or to serve as semi-public residences for leaders. Such art was designed to celebrate and impress and add solidity to the burgeoning society. But, already we can see the discontinuity from the Greek ideal of art as offerings to what they considered most important, that being of course, to Zeus, Athena, Dionysus, Apollo and many others. Renaissance art, now produced to claim the victories and celebrations of man, the great achievements, battles and accomplishments in their own strength and resolve. It was also a time when the role of the artist changed. A remarkable feature of Renaissance art was the heightened interaction between patron and artist.

This new movement of fresh understanding, the Renaissance sowed the seeds of a resolve to loosen away from the religiosity of the Middle-Ages as the awareness of individualism within society and self expression came to be regarded as a principle of the Renaissance. This principle became to be know as ‘Humanism”, a new philosophy where man was at the centre of all things and not the ancient god’s or the church or dogmatic intolerance but rather shifted the emphasis on the individual, the value and self-esteem above all else. This new philosophy also became the new ‘faith’ of European society. While dismissing and displacing the god’s and the church, this did not leave a vacuum or a ‘nothingness’ in the spiritual lives of many, indeed there was no abandonment of personal and societal faith as within the fresh idealized philosophy, there was also an imbued awakening of a new faith, called Humanism.

Within the application and execution of the art forms, focus on greater detail through linear perspective and verisimilitude of the human form was now understood and came to be seen as a primal principal of any artwork. Virtue also became an integral function, which focused on the emphasis of man rather than God, as promoted by Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) when he declared, “happiness cannot be gained without good works and just and righteous deeds”. Alberti, a leading art theorist and architect essentially reflected the constantly growing mood of the modern European in that God or the fates no longer dominated human destiny but rather ‘man’ was now in total control.

Now that ‘man’ gradually took control of his own destiny, the arts, not only were re-directed towards a new emphasis through understanding, application of technology, renewed appreciation of the human form and all under girded by a new philosophy and faith. However, the new idealism also introduced a new criteria of evaluation, a new critique that was to be the now prevalent admonished estimation of any artwork. Humanism and the central role of man of Renaissance Europe was not an existential move away from superstition and dogmatic Middle Ages in a fleeting and blindfolded advance but rather in a calculated and reasoned emphasis. This new movement however did not entirely allow to falter or remove the old faith of Christianity, remaining as the commanding religion where the arts utilized the technique of portraying religious figures, as was so common, in poses that reflected every day people in every day situations with facial expressions of emotions. With this advance of subjected and intentional new emphasis on portraying the Renaissance man as ‘natural’, using the mythological stories of ancient Greece and Rome to hang the new philosophy that Venus or Aphrodite became the exemplar of the new Humanism. At this juncture of the world of art, the Medieval and Byzantine iconography that had had their total emphasis on religious narratives, slowly receded as their strict formalism of expression was no longer relevant or applicable to depict the Renaissance idealism.

The Enlightenment (17th & 18th Century)

A European intellectual movement, of the late 17th and 18th centuries which emphasized reason and individualism rather than tradition. It was heavily influenced, by 17th-century philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, and Newton, and its prominent figures included Kant, Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Adam Smith.

The Enlightenment, also known as the Age Of reason, is what I consider to be the mind or the greater influence towards modernity and especially the building blocks of human reason that would come to be firmly established and manifested in the 1960s. (I also believe in its own peculiar way – a Renaissance of its own).

Order came from laws that arose from Nature, not the Protestant or Catholic God. The Enlightenment called on humankind to attempt to understand its place in the natural world based on scientific reason instead of religious belief. These laws were inevitable and irrefutable, or “self-evident” because they were, a priori, logical. Swiss philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) based his ideas about the human condition upon a Natural Law could be utilized to resolve conflicts so that humans could come together and freely negotiate a Social Contract. In The Social Contract of 1762 he wrote, “Man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains”. In the self portraits of Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805) and Jean-Baptiste Chardin (1699-1779) they give an indication of the artist as a confident, unashamed and reasoned human being, not only being the creator of the artwork but also the subject of the piece, moving away once more from the Greek ideals towards ‘man being the measure of all things’. The most notable of the Enlightenment process was that man was gradually freeing himself from the entanglement of religiosity, superstition and power of the churches to a freedom of self-discovery, self-rule and what I believe to be the beginning of the mind of modern man.

This monumental shift had at its core, a desire to reform society using reason, to challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and to advance knowledge through the scientific method. It promoted scientific thought, skepticism, and intellectual interchange. It opposed superstition and intolerance, very much against the church of the times but more importantly, to distance itself from a spiritual understanding within a worldview to a total dismissal of anything which cannot be rationalized. So here was the beginning of the end for the Greek Idealism, which had underpinned the Renaissance.

1960’s art movements:

The 1960s were a period of tremendous political, social, and artistic activity in the United States and Europe. In 1964, the year following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the tumult of racial unrest arose in many American cities, the first bombs fell on North Vietnam, the Civil Rights Act took effect, and the Beatles invaded America with their first concert at Carnegie Hall. Many artistic impulses began to gain momentum in the mid-1960s: an explosion of consumerism reverberated in the paintings of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein and in the sculptures of Claes Oldenburg and George Segal, whose works embraced elements of popular culture. The 1960s young artists in the United States and England made popular culture their subject matter by appropriating images and objects such as common household items, advertisements from consumer products, celebrity icons, fast food, cartoons, and mass-media imagery from television, magazines, and newspapers. These artists also often used forms of mechanical reproduction that downplayed the idea of originality or the individual mark of the artist. The Pop Art style sought to test the boundaries between art and life.

To better understand these boundaries between art and life, we should travel back before the 1960s, to the time of the First World War. Visual artists, writers and intellectuals of the time, primarily from Germany and France found safe passage to neutral Switzerland. Here in total exasperation, anger and utter frustration that Europe could bring about such manifest destruction, an anti-movement began with assembled exhibits, in response to the Great War and to the artists outrage. We now know this movement as Dada, although at the time there was no organized attempt to exhibit together under one roof but rather individual showing of artwork and writing whenever opportunity arose. By the 1920s, Dada had its first proper exhibition, the First International Dada Art Fair, a fully provocative and subverted strike at the established arts community in Europe. Using elements of chance, ordinary objects such as newspapers, advertisements and everyday household utensils were exhibited in an attempt to offend rather than impress through a highly satirical show of work, it is here, perhaps for the first time, that the ideas, the notions of the artwork, became solidly embedded in the history of art where the ‘concept’ became far more important than the art pieces on show. This was a monumental shift in the reasoning and consequent philosophy of Western art practice even to this day. It is at this point within art history that the first major revolution happened that would come to define conceptual art. Previously, art and beauty were seen as inseparable, beauty being associated with artistic accomplishment and the ultimate objective of art. It was the influence of the Dada anti-movement, which chose to redefine the established values of art as may be seen for example, by Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. “It became in part as an attack on the position, under which art and beauty were internally linked, as were beauty and goodness. And the “abuse of beauty” became a device for dissociating the artists from the society they held in contempt”.[6]

Other artists such as Andy Warhol and his Brillo boxes during the 1960s finally slammed the door shut on beauty but more importantly on the role of aesthetics which, were no longer applicable in that no definition may now be made why one is considered a work of art and the other a mere object. The prevailing centuries of understanding art finally begins to fall apart and succumbs to the new world of ‘conceptualism’, Plain objects, everyday objects now became the centre of attraction replacing the previous notion of beauty as the principled height of art, the ‘objects’, which were once including in paintings became ‘art’ in and of themselves. Beauty was dethroned, abandoned to the side streets, marginalized, forgotten as the notion of the concept took the star role of the 20th century

“When you think about it, department stores are kind of like museums.” stated Andy Warhol. When in Birmingham taking photos of various objects in a large retail store, I thought that many of the displays would not be out of place in Tate Modern but was approached by security to stop taking the photographs. The new banner of modernity with its new masthead, conceptualism, changed the art world from mere observational to a highly intellectual discourse. It is the era when artists began to be self -obsessed, inward looking to the degree that their self portraits were no longer their physical representation but rather that which bothered them, influenced them in such a way that what they created was a reflection of them selves. Of the many ways Pop Art challenged traditional art was by equating the mass-produced imagery of advertising with fine art. Attracted by the simple, graphic directness of consumer packaging and advertising, Pop artists such as Andy Warhol, took product labels and logos out of a commercial context and displayed them as art. He made sculptures identical to Campbell’s soup cans and Brillo boxes.

Arthur Danto describes the route on how art and its evaluation has transformed our understanding and approach in the twentieth century. Critics, artists, gallery curator’s et al, subliminally introduce a system that discards the traditional means of criteria to one where thought that allows for a system that imperceptibly imbues modern art with other ultimate principles. Within this new world of myriad conclusions on any art piece, where one view is as good as the other, a sense of loosening of valid critique and general chaos in any evaluation of this modern art forms. It is here in the circumstances of unguided principles in evaluating conceptual art that aesthetic understanding, is no longer applicable or indeed required to assume any function whatsoever of any assessment or critique of art as was previously engaged for centuries. So the theorist goes in search of contemporary art’s most exhilarating achievements, work that bridges the gap between art and life, which, he argues, is now the definitive art of our time. He argues that aesthetic considerations no longer play a central role in the experience and critique of art. Instead art addresses us in our humanity, as men and women who seek meaning in the “unnatural wonders” of art, a meaning that philosophy and religion are unable to provide.


In conclusion, from beauty to the sublime, to defining beauty, to defining the sublime, such as ‘Three-Way Plug’ by Claes Oldenburg. So from beauty to the sublime, from creating works of art in homage to the gods, to mimicking consumerists media as artwork through to faith in something other than our selves, to pre-occupation with the divided self. Have we lost something in our 21st century art or have we produced the ultimate sublimity ?


Do we need beauty and if we do – why? Should we try to make sense of contemporary art? Doe’s it matter where we are heading? While we don’t venerate the ancient god’s anymore, is our artwork nevertheless dedicated as we pay homage to the substituted god’s of our age?


Further Reading:

Kant, Immanuel. Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. Trans. John T. Goldthwait. University of California Press, 1961, 2003.

Hegal, W. F. Georg, Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, trans. Bosanquet, B. Penquin Books, 1993.

Jarrett, James L. The Quest for Beauty, Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1957.

Danto, Arthur C, The Abuse of Beauty, Carus Publishing Company, U.S.A. 2003


Foot notes:

[1] Plato. The Symposium. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company. 1989

[2] Aristotle. Metaphysics. Hugh Tredennick – Harvard University Press – 1980

[3] Aristotle. Poetics. Gerald FrankElse – State University of Iowa – 1967

[4] Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. BBC, London – 1972

[5] Aristotle, Metaphysics, I.5.986a22

[6] Danto, C. Arthur, The Abuse of Beauty. Carus Publishing Company, USA. 2003