In 1997, as staff art critic for an upstate New York newspaper, I went to a museum exhibition of works from the 1970s through the 1990s called "Is It Art?"—a coyly provocative question with the clear answer, Yes, whether you like it or not. The exhibit was an adjunct to a book (not the other way around) titled Art on the Edge and Over: Searching for Art's Meaning in Contemporary Society, that sought to explain and endorse the work of thirty-seven of our age's most highly regarded artists, including Joseph Beuys, Sophie Calle, Gilbert and George, Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, and Gerhard Richter. In the book, each artist was chosen for his or her explorations of a culturally relevant concept or theme; hence, the idea of "Data Collecting" was illustrated by the pixelated pointillism of painter Chuck Close; of "A Chicano Woman" with the icon-crowded installations of Amalia Mesa-Bains; of "Self-Sanctification" by the multiple videotaped plastic surgeries and phials of fat tissue of French artist Orlan; and so on in this manner. The subject "Urine" was personified by Andres Serrano, who in the early 1990s had been a lightning rod in the first "culture wars" for his photograph Piss Christ, which, with Robert Mapplethorpe's images of homosexual sadomasochistic sex, and the work of other politically, sexually, and religiously controversial artists, had been assailed by right-wing politicians in a scorched-earth campaign against contemporary art and government funding. For much of the '90s, detractors from Sen. Jesse Helms to the television journalist Morley Safer prosecuted a case against the very same aesthetic that "Is It Art?" was mounted to defend.
Although my job at the paper was to act somewhat as an expert, I was at the time largely self-taught, with limited exposure to the postmodern avant-garde or its controlling philosophy, expressed by Linda Weintraub, author-curator of the book-exhibit, as "deviation." Today, a decade and a half later, the fashionable word is "transgression," but the project is the same: to challenge cultural norms and dispute accepted ideas of order. I was stymied and shaken by the exhibit's mood of perpetual indignation, belligerent irony, and zealous embrace of chaos. Its implications bewildered me, to say nothing of my own half-recognized responses. Despite my confusion, the exhibit had its intended effect, setting in motion an engagement with contemporary art that continues to this day, though one, I allow, generally closer to an interrogation than a love-in. Indeed, the show was a turning point of my thought-process and my career. But that's another story.
I recalled all this while listening to Edi Rama speak about the ways beauty improved the civic life of Tirana, Albania, where he was mayor from 2000 to 2011. I should put the term in the uppercase—Beauty—for as Mr. Rama's TED talk reveals, it was not simply the presence of pleasing color that enhanced his city, but the ideal of order and integrity that beauty represented. Beauty was conspicuous in its absence in Ms. Weintraub's book and exhibit (in truth, in the book it was not at all absent, but explicitly nullified in an afterword by postmodern apologist Thomas McEvilley, which I failed to read till many years later)—one could not help but observe that the art on display was starkly un-beautiful, as each artist adopted a stance, from banality to shock to sheer ugliness, to undermine all hope of visual pleasure. The effect was quite obviously purposeful, like there was a movement afoot. How long had this been going on? In fact, since the 1960s an anti-aesthetic ideology had grown up in artist studios and art departments that rejected beauty as a humanist virtue and considered it, far from Keatsean truth, an insidious lie. Toiling far from urban galleries and academia, I had not connected the dots on the new paradigm. Till then, I had regarded beauty more or less like oxygen, something we could all agree on. The fact that certain works were not beautiful had never struck me as an assault on the idea of beauty, any more than a rhombus negates a sphere. In the exhibit in question, though, the lack of all elegance, grace, proportion, balance, fineness, or any other quality appealing to the senses, was plainly a call to arms.
This call brought me face to face with my own unexamined assumptions about beauty. I've never been a push-over on the subject. I don't swoon in front of every Impressionist painting on the wall. But I knew that the aesthetic intention of "Is It Art?" was to make me feel shitty, and I was not so suspicious of my instincts as to welcome its hermeneutical defoliation. What self-respecting person suffers a churl, or worse, a roomful of them? Weighing the question of aesthetics, immediately, almost instinctively, it was clear to me that as an ideal Beauty is not simply a matter of pleasure, delight, awe—it has a moral component as well. I could not at the time have defended this impulse, but is was and remains self-evident to me that to live in contact with beauty is immeasurably healthier to the spirit than living amidst ugliness, whether that ugliness be the blight of an urban slum, the brutal classlessness of a communist tract, or the drab uniformity of a suburban subdivision. Those forces that deny great swaths of the population access to the sensual and spiritual influence of beauty—whether out of indifference, bigotry, ideology, or greed—commit a kind of mass soul murder. When artists, our chief orators of beauty, deny its importance as well, they make themselves complicit in the violence.
That change, Rama asserts in his talk, manifested itself in increased civic pride and social cohesion, and in a reduction of crime. "Beauty was acting as a guardsman," Rama told his TED audience in Thessaloniki, Greece. "Beauty was giving people a feeling of being protected." He tells the story of a shopkeeper he met in the act of replacing the metal grate on her storefront with a large display window. "How is it—?" he asked. Look around, the merchant returned; since the neighborhood was painted there have been fewer thefts, fewer crimes, the people feel more secure. "It's beautiful. It's safe."
This is slight anecdotal evidence, but it points the way. Cosmetic upgrades obviously could not solve all of Tirana's ills (they had no effect on the city's decrepit water and sewage system, for instance). Beauty cannot redeem the world on its own . But we are wired to adapt to our surroundings and take our cues from the unspoken values the environment imposes and fosters. A view that supports beauty's emotional and ethical necessity can conceive of humane solutions to a myriad of challenges. Dickens' entreaties for the aesthetic needs of the poor applies to us all. As a value, Beauty has been freighted with numerous and not entirely unreasonable doubts for so long it will not be restored to some former, unambiguous glory. And yet, without it we are lost. This era we are in, this time of post-postmodernism, metamodernism, neoclassical romantic baroque modernism, call it what you will, urges us to seek latent energies in the old virtues, to go back and look again for overlooked possibilities. Is it beyond reason to expect artists, as a kind of minimal job description, to grasp these imperatives? Before becoming a politician, Edi Rama was a painter.