A Guide to ‘Good’ Taste in Art: From the Spice Girls to the French Revolution
Oscar Wilde is renowned for his repertoire of cheeky, provocative, willfully inaccurate aphorisms. His assertion that “no object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly”, is undoubtedly not the amongst the best known of his statements. Yet is holds some of Wilde’s most challenging opinions, most startling (and potentially) amongst those with the most truth. He acutely summarises the fine line between the beautiful and the grotesque.
We may take for granted that the two ideas are diametrically opposed; like black and white, north and south, right and wrong. Yet, when we are presented with certain circumstances (visual presentations perhaps in particular) we can find these notions far from clear; in fact often murky and blurred in a disturbing way.
Now I know next to sod all about art theory but Wilde’s comments, coupled with the Jacques-Lois David portrait below, have lead me into thinking that perhaps we should not view the ideas so separately, but as twins of each other.
Art provokes responses from us; whether this is of enchantment or repulsion is a matter of the morality we attach to the aesthetics. And perhaps morality is indeed the accurate word here, as we talk of things being so ‘bad’ they are ‘good’ and vice versa, terms which themselves make moral assumptions.
Artists have long been examining this inherent ‘morality’ we attach to visual experiences and the responses they provoke from us. War photography is chief amongst this, in presenting often horrific scenes with such grace, beauty and skill as to enter the realm of art.
Perhaps the most intense exploration seen in art history, of this ambiguity between the beautiful the grotesque, comes in the form of the painting, ‘The Death of Marat’ by Jacques-Louis David completed in 1793. (text continued below…)
The oil-on-canvass painting depicts the death scene of Jean-Paul Marat, an icon of the French Revolution. Marat’s death was sensational in contemporary Paris due to his high profile and bizarre manner of his assassination. Because of a skin disease, Marat had to spend many hours a day in a bath to relieve his itching. Therefore, to stay on top of his work demands, he had installed across his bath a moveable work table, enabling him to write whilst bathing. During one such soak, a political rival, Charlotte Corday, burst into his bathroom and stabbed him to death. The painting, in a richly dramatic display of propaganda, uses a certain amount of artistic license to imagine the man slaughtered right in the midst of his admin duties.
The Taschen commentary on the portrait has it that the wounds are meant to be evocative of those of Christ- the ultimate symbol of divine and dignified suffering.
I’m not so sure.
Because the black background refuses to offer anything to detract our attention from the scene, our eye is first drawn to the tightly packed area of text upon the parchment within Marat’s hand, before we are lead to look elsewhere. We look at the subject’s face second and, as the expression and still moist wounds suggest that life has only just escaped his body, we feel the guilt of someone who has just missed out on saving him. If we had not lingered at the parchment- we ask ourselves- could we have got to him in time?
The elegance of the painting is further revealed as the jet black ink pot seems reflected in Marat’s position as he seems dunked into the bathtub himself with no more grace than a quill; the still moist and glistening wounds dribble down as thickly as ink. Somehow, this undignified connection, the image of man thrust into a pot like a writing implement being dunked, works artistically. The image should be absurd and bordering on the disrespectful. Yet, in the twist on Oscar Wilde’s maxim, the scene is so ugly that we find beauty in it. It is not such matter of something being in such ‘bad taste’ that it is propelled through the glass ceiling into the realm of what is ‘good’. It is such an intense presentation of both the good and the bad of life; at once revealing the absurdity and intensity of both. It teases this conflict of emotions out of us. Personally, I find it immensely dependent on my mood at any one time when I view the painting, as to which side triumphs in this conflict.