The strength of this book is in its discussion on what is beauty from the perspective of a number of philosophers but what is not discussed to the same level is - what is art. Prettejohn limits her study to painting and sculpture. Printmaking, drawing, photography, let alone the media arts don't get a look in. In spite of this, she does provide a very sound foundation that can be readily transferred to any visual art form. Her writing is very readable and it is a bit of a page turner. I recommend it as a thought provoking good read in a subject that has had so little discussion.
Author Prettejohn has written an excellent book, accessible to all, on the relation of beauty to art. She starts with Johann Winckelmann in the 1700s who felt that beauty was important, but not definable. Philosopher Immanuel Kant stated that beauty cannot be objective. Beauty is not in the object, but is in the contemplation of the viewer. We should view art in a state of disinterest, not encumbered by our self interest. In other words anyone in any culture should be able to see the beauty in a work of art.
Madame de Stael takes Kant a bit further and says that art's purpose is to elevate the soul. Victor Cousin in the 19th century constructs a scale going from physical to intellectual to moral beauty. Art should not be a close imitation of nature, but should improve on nature. The artist Delacroix writes that the individuality of the artist produces the beautiful. It makes the bridge between the artist's soul and the observer. Academic painter Ingres felt there was no difference between the beauty of art and that of nature. Then we get to Baudelaire who hated realism. To him art should do something more imaginative than servile imitation of nature.
From there we move on to modernism and postmodernism where beauty seems no longer necessary to art. Color and form become important. The canvas is a two dimensional medium, and thus considered unsuited to scenic representation. Representational art thus takes a dive, and modern critic Greenberg substitutes the word taste for beauty. Taste, in his opinion is based on consensus. If those in the know agree that a work of art is good, then it is good. Of course Greenberg felt his sense of taste was superior.
This is really an excellent introduction to the concept of beauty as applied to visual art. Fortunately, unlike many books on aesthetics, Prettejohn's book contains numerous (127) color prints that help illustrate the concepts being discussed. The book is constantly engrossing, and never pedantic.
I found this look at the development of the concept of beauty in art fascinating since I have always taken the idea itself for granted, of course art is beautiful. I never really thought about how that idea had to form and gain acceptance and constant be rethought and re-challenged as art forms changed, grew and matured. It's easy to forget how shocking the Impressionist movement was in its day or how radical it was to create art for its own sake instead of to teach a lesson or reflect an event in history. It is easy to forget in general how much of our thoughts and attitudes towards many things have been shaped by those who came before us in ways we don't even realize. Overall the writing style was very approachable and easy to follow and I loved how many color plates there were so the reader could actually see what the author was referring to especially when comparing and contrasting different works, almost every major example cited was given a colored plate to back it up. This is not done nearly enough in books on art. There were a few times the writing got a bit dense and hard to follow, mostly in the end of the book as the author delved into our Modern Art, though this may have more to do with my own bias with this art form and critics who write about it than the writing of the author of this book. Overall this book has made me think more about my own attitudes towards art and to appreciate the work others have done in the past allowing me to experience art in the way I do.
I thank Elizabeth Prettejohn for this important work. Beauty as a scholarly subject has received far too little attention during the past century as far as I am aware, and the author of Beauty & Art has provided an invaluable bridge linking nineteenth century art theory and practice with the current redevelopment of aesthetics in art which is now taking place after a century of disregard for Beauty and Pulchrism.