Are all beautiful paintings good paintings?

David asked:

Are all beautiful paintings good paintings? If you answer Yes I would say that it’s impossible to view all the beautiful paintings in the world, so it would be impossible to conclude that all beautiful paintings are good paintings. If you answer No, if you view a beautiful painting how can you judge whether it’s good or not, if not all beautiful paintings are good paintings? What would your answer be?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

The logical proposition you have hidden in your question is a worm-eaten fallacy. According to Plato, the good and the beautiful are virtual identities. Therefore his answer to your first question might have been ‘yes’. But then he denied that paintings can be good, therefore there are no beautiful paintings. To reach such a conclusion it is unnecessary to view all paintings in the world. Once you have demonstrated that beautiful paintings are impossible, the issue resolves itself.

Kant’s arguments are somewhat different, more lenient (so to speak). He says, for example, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; but unlike the common adage which makes the same claim, he exerts some ingenuity to prove it. But this also absolves you from viewing all the paintings in the world, because the viewer is the arbiter. He can call the one painting he owns beautiful, and therefore good. He can also make the other judgement you allude to you: that the painting is good, but not beautiful. This simply means that technically speaking it is a good painterly performance, but it isn’t agreeable to him as a visual object and consequently unbeautiful.

The underlying suppositions here differ from Plato, as I said. Still, the crux of the matter is that Kant’s whole philosophy revolves around experience, specifically aesthetic experience. It happens to be a common capacity of all human beings, except for colour-blind or tone-deaf or generally an-aesthetic subjects. Yet still a kind of ‘raw’ capacity until cultural conditioning has added good taste, expertise, discrimination, judgement and a few other desirable attributes that serve to empower you to pronounce a painting ‘good’ and/ or ‘beautiful’. The first point is, of course, that with these personal attributes in place, you can arrive at a judgement of any painting, as long as you’ve seen enough to enable an appropriate judgement. The second point is, that good need not be beautiful, and the beauty may not be good. It depends on the effect it has on you as the subject.

Which brings to the fore one relevant criticism of Nietzsche, namely his question on the sufficiency of the beholder. Is he or she fit to pronounce judgement on beauty and goodness? It is a question you should ask yourself, as you wonder about the goodness of beautiful paintings and the beauty of good paintings.

Meanwhile to your second fallacy. You seem oblivious to the fact that paintings are intentional performances. They convey a message. Now you may ignore this fact if you wish, and simply hang the picture to add colour to your room. But then it serves the same purpose as the paint on the wall. Good or beautiful are then mere expressions of an hedonistic response. But although a great deal of art encourages hedonistic responses, it is not the main reason why those works exist. Nor do deliberately ugly paintings serve only to provoke your repugnance. The arts of mankind do not primarily exist for the sake of beauty or goodness. Contrary to Clive Bell’s fatuous claim, a well-painted cabbage is not superior to an academic Madonna. A painting must speak. It has to address your inner self. All other questions come after this enquiry, and after your response has been included in the circuit.

Finally, so as to obviate a logical follow-up question, the same arguments apply to sculptures, poems, plays and music as well. You don’t need to hear every piece of music ever written to understand how and why any single one of them may/ may not satisfy the criteria.


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