Art and Beauty in Modernity

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Art and Beauty in Modernity
By Oliver Maughan

Oliver Maughan is a British landscape painter

As life slowly returns to the heyday of pre-pandemic times, I find my appreciation for the purity and beauty of everyday life has only strengthened. In a society of ever-increasing pace, we must take the time to stop and truly look at the world around us.
Walking around London I am always excited by the vast potential of subject matter provided by the cityscape and its inhabitants. As a landscape painter I closely identify with Baudelaire’s character of the flâneur, adopting a role where I simultaneously observe, understand, participate in, and portray urban life.

Today, the immediacy of social media and news cycles expose us to a relentless bombardment of information, overwhelming us with negativity that can easily overshadow the pleasures and joy of the world we live in. Disillusionment has also found its way into mainstream culture, with an ever-increasing focus on the ugliness and transgression in modern life, making it all the more important for us to renew our outlook to a more positive light.

With this in mind, I was inspired by the late philosopher Sir Roger Scruton’s lecture, “Beauty and Desecration”. His reflections highlight the crucial role of art and beauty in modern culture, reminding us of the inspirational and enriching powers of art.

Scruton introduces Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, a classic Impressionist painting of a mountainous landscape. For Renoir, this particular nature scene was a familiar subject matter, being depicted in many of his other works. Like most other Impressionist landscapes, there is a charming rawness to the scene we are faced with, presenting the world without ideological or moralistic judgements. The beauty of this painting comes from the ordinary, a reality we can immediately recognise and will often encounter.

Paradoxically, it is this very familiarity that reveals the sublime and special beauty of the world, and art is the tool that allows this to be realised. However, we are increasingly faced with a loss of beauty in culture. Since the rise of modernism, art has moved away from its original aspirations to show beauty and has found a new value in rebellion and shock, resulting in art’s appearance and form becoming increasingly distorted and abject. It is this very process that Scruton calls “postmodern desecration”.

Since the development of photographic technology in the early nineteenth century, artistic skill has become increasingly tokenised as reality could now be ‘objectively’ captured by photographs. We can see the extent of photography’s dominance today as a central form of visual media, ingrained in every aspect of our daily lives and making us take the production of visual content for granted. Easily forgotten, art and photography do not need to be mutually exclusive nor is one inferior to the other, each possessing their advantages and disadvantages.

Looking at the unique abilities of art, it is able to capture a spiritual and emotional quality that can be lacking from photographs. Inspired by the Impressionists, my style allows the ‘hand of the artist’ to remain visible on the canvas, embracing the personality and subjectivity of how one may experience a specific moment in time.

While studying in New Hampshire, I was greatly fortunate to train under Paul Ingbretson. His 1988 essay “Art and Revolution” prefigures many sentiments expressed by Scruton, particularly regarding ideas about desecration and loss of beauty in art of the modern age.

I am in agreement that art should be pleasurable for the senses and be enriching for the soul, creating an experience of beauty that allows us to renew our appreciation for life. There is value in returning to this more positive perception of the everyday, highlighting its ordinary yet wonderful qualities instead of wasting it as a target for our vitriol. Through art, I seek to identify and celebrate the beauty of the ordinary, sharing its comfort and joy with all.

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