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some thoughts on aesthetics (6) : beauty

This post is part of my series sharing some thoughts and investigations on “aesthetics”.

Today I am going to go on to think about beauty, and take a look at a beautiful art work, thinking about the association in the work between emotion and beauty. The work is Grayson Perry’s pot Precious Boys.

Grayson Perry intends his work to be beautiful. He has criticised contemporary artists whose work is clever, but disconnected from physical processes of making, and points to a tendency to overlook beauty in art:

“Decoration and beauty are still often seen as swear words in contemporary art, but as I get older I realise that there is a profundity to be found in decorativeness. There is an over-privileging of ideas in contemporary culture that can trivialise the power of pure visual beauty, but art doesn’t have to have a deep concept behind it to make it serious.”

Jacky Klein, Grayson Perry, 2009

The material that Perry draws on in this work is personal story-telling; he puts what is inside (his emotional world and his early life experiences) on the outside of the body of his pot. In Jacky Klein’s book about his work, Perry explains that he was inspired by a Japanese Art Nouveau vase, but in this re-interpretation “putting transvestites in place of the lily-pads and jet planes in place of the carp”. He says : it is “a bit of a self-portrait”, incorporating a “sort of brooding masculinity and aggression alongside this quite poignant, attractive surface”.

Precious Boys is large, 530 x 330mm, and viewers must come up close to see the detail. Perry wants to draw attention to the surface. He is using what he describes as a cliché vase form. Viewers have been drawn in to come for a closer look – they recognised from a distance that the work fits into a non-challenging genre that they could understand and appreciate, coming close enough to register the stories in the drawings.

The surface itself is composed through a complex layering, and each pot is extensively planned and worked. The design of this one is symmetrical around the pot from bottom to top, moving upwards from a dark base through blotchy greys to the golden rim. Light-coloured drawings of fighter planes in a sketchy style cover the lower half. Above, large bold drawings of figures circle its shoulder, overlapping and facing outwards. Each portrait expresses a mini-story from life, through body language and interaction with the viewer: we see transgender people modelling clothing; undressing; holding a baby.

A layer of patterned and coloured photo-transfers on the clothing emphasises the importance of dress in how we mark gender. Behind the figures are two other types of floral patterning work. As Perry points out,

“even though the actual surface is only microns thick, the illusion is that there are deep layers underneath, made up from the painted marks, the scored marks, the impressed marks, and the gold”.

Jacky Klein, Grayson Perry, 2009

We are seeing a play of surface and depth, inside and outside, and above and below; both in the decoration and in the content of this self-portrait pot.

The ornamentation of this pot – the layering, repetition, harmony, pattern, colour and shine – is beautiful. But there is also a quality of beauty in the figure drawings; in the awkwardness, loveliness, sadness and vulnerability.

We saw in my earlier post that “disinterested contemplation” of beauty underpinned Kant’s very influential theory of “aesthetics”. Notice that in his ideas about “beauty”, the particular pleasure that was distinguished (and elevated) was very specifically uncomplicated by desire or emotion.

But when we notice that the drawings on this pot are at the same time beautiful and are an honest account of the tenderness, violence, loveliness and dissonance of the artist’s inner world, we recognise a need to move on from Kant’s aesthetic theory.

We will go on in my next post to look at the work of some other thinkers who can give us something else to work with to understand our experience of beauty in Grayson Perry’s pot – in the narrative and emotional content, and in the felt connection between the viewer and the work.

Sources, & resources for further research and reading:

Klein, J (2009) : Grayson Perry. Thames & Hudson.

Victoria Miro Gallery website : https://www.victoria-miro.com/artists/12-grayson-perry/

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