Robbie Harmsworth, ‘On Beauty’
Some twenty years ago, philosopher Elaine Scarry published a little book entitled On Beauty where she argued that beauty had been banished from our discourse on art and literature for spurious reasons, and that it was urgent we reclaim it for our own well-being and that of the planet. Scarry noted that beauty had been accused of seducing our gaze away from the ills of the world, or being responsible for the increasing objectification and commodification of what was deemed beautiful. On the contrary, she proposed: beauty attunes our perception and increases our sensitivity both to others and to injustice, and incites us to perpetrate and protect that which we deem beautiful. To consider the Earth beautiful spurs us to defend it; to honour beauty is to hone our responsiveness to the world as well as find a salve for the injuries it inflicts.
Beauty allows us to connect with a broader sense of life beyond our immediate needs: it has the power to de-centre us so that the energies devoted to self- preservation and self-advancement are momentarily diverted to causes beyond our own. It works to focus our attention and demand our time in such a way as to predispose us differently in its wake. And it is able to render acceptable that which might at first appear incompatible or incomprehensible, to grant what art theorist Arthur Danto termed ‘aesthetic amnesty’ to content we might otherwise find morally repulsive.
These perspectives conceive of beauty as an experience, a unique exchange between a beholder and a stimulus, be it object, place or thought. As such, they avoid attempting to define beauty by reference to a set of principles that risks ossifying this precious notion and necessarily denying its pleasures and status to certain phenomena. Yet this delimiting of beauty in terms of formal qualities is a major part of its history in the Western tradition, which for centuries was dominated by the aesthetic ideals of antiquity — harmony, symmetry, integrity of form. Despite the modernist reaction against them — what Danto has termed ‘the abuse of beauty’ — classical principles remain deeply ingrained in our practices of looking. It is a persistence that stands in contrast to other traditions, where beauty is but a moment
of perfection that harbours a profound melancholy at its heart given its transience.
Robbie Harmsworth’s new suite of paintings mobilises beauty in many of these ways,
invoking beauty’s paradoxical association with both transience and classical ideals, while working towards creating experiences of deep connection and heightened sensitivity. These works embody the artist’s personal search for a salve to her recent passage through loss, a desire to recast the alienation of the world and transform it as so much matter. Harmsworth’s process entails re-making histories and memories: the artist brings together image scraps collected over time and invested with particular meaning, then sifts through and listens to each, before arranging them in a new synthesis. That new creation captures not only the re-living of pain through reflection and rumination, but also the affirmation of different meanings, of another reality. In these works, Harmsworth’s once primarily muted or monochrome palette is now vivid with colour, the once tragic resonances of her classical references are now playful and open to change.
In contrast to modernist shock — intended to violently change perception — beauty does not repel but attracts. Beauty offers pleasure instead of repulsion, inviting the viewer to spend time with a work, time the viewer may offer in exchange for what they intuit as the artist’s own generous investment in the work. This investment is clearly evident in Harmsworth’s paintings. The intricacy of the compositions, the layering of disparate elements into an integrated whole, the embodiment of time through dripping paint and the mix of ancient and contemporary imagery, all serve to garner the viewer’s extended attention such that different modes of sensing and thinking may emerge.
Beauty is a profoundly moving aesthetic response that is not grounded in fear but rather elicits positive pleasure and hope, bringing with it the desire to live, a sense of the plenitude of life. Connected as it is to life, however, beauty also harbours transience at its heart, a paradox achingly captured in Harmsworth’s work. For here we sense a love of the world that invites us to do the same, affirmation in the face of loss and an artful recrafting of memory, balanced with acceptance that these
elements are configured not for eternity but only for the brief time we can divert the energies devoted to self-preservation to a life beyond our own.