On Beauty and Justice


One of the tensions we often faced within Vaux was whether the pursuit of the beautiful was inappropriate when injustice was still present. I’ve been thinking more about this following the Soliton meeting in Northern Ireland last weekend.

This article in The Believer, the interviewer asks the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer “Given that a wealthy couple spends more money going to the theatre than many families make in a year, should we cut out activities like this entirely?” He replies that:

“Support for the arts must come second.”

His reasoning?

“If everyone in the developed world gave just 1% of their incomes to organisations fighting global poverty, we could eliminate poverty and still have enough to support the arts.”

I think this focuses the debate too heavily on money and gets away from the key truth that we all ought to try to grasp: justice is, in itself, beautiful. To consider this another way, art and justice ought both to be corrective.

Whiteread2Good art subverts our comfortable view and alters our perception of the world. It gives us a new way of seeing, or helps us to see beauty in the everyday. It orders what is disordered, or at least gives us a lens through which to perceive disorder, and thus retunes our senses. Art is also a gift. It can never be truly bought or sold.

Justice is also corrective. It brings order to disorder, and sense to dissonance. It is about perceiving the world in a fresh way, with fresh eyes. It is a gift, beyond money, and into the realm of relational potential. We don’t pay for the homeless to be housed so the dirt is cleaned up. We want them to be helped into a place where they can become whole, part of a caring community.

We shouldn’t close the galleries until the soup kitchens have no queues. But artists must try harder to create what is just. Whiteread’s white boxes at the Tate are a gargantuan waste of plastic, an oil-based resource that is a chemical disaster zone. She should have done better.

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2 responses to “On Beauty and Justice”

  1. Giles Fraser seminar.
    Greenbelt 2 years ago. Why Rothko is bad for your health. Exploring the politics of beauty and justice. (Beki can knick one!)

  2. Great reminder… I’ve actually heard it on tape, but had forgotten about it. Well worth a listen.