Can Images of War & Destruction be Beautiful?

RICHARD MOSSE-Of-Lilies-and-Remains
RICHARD MOSSE-Of-Lilies-and-Remains

Follow the news and there’s no shortage of imagery of war and it’s destructive side-effects.  Can these images actually be considered beautiful? The Jack Shainman Gallery’s thinks so.  In it’s exhibit, A Change of Place, this Kinderhook, New York gallery features four artists who share riveting, sometimes shocking, and deeply human images of war.

But how can photos of people suffering, total destruction, and violence be a thing of beauty?  I get that such images can be expertly photographed or painted.  But when the content is so horrifying can we truly deem it beautiful?  It feels, well, amoral.

I’m not the only person raising this question.   After experiencing A Change of Place, Mebrak Tareke ponders this question in his post aptly entitled: The Unsettling Urge to Find Beauty Amid War.  He shares some of the best work from the show, especially from artists like Richard Mosse and Hayv Kahraman, and dissects them with a keen eye.

So how are they works of beauty?

He, along with veteran war photographer, Don McCullin, whom he cites, explain that we have an impulse to find beauty in — not because of but in spite of — the horror of war.   He doesn’t truly explain why but my sense is that we need to find such beauty to help us feel a sense of hope.  He shares another explanation offered by one of the photographers: such work gives dignity to the war-torn people and places captured.   His best explanation is that through these works of art we gain a new perspective.  He writes: This form of art

“also offers an opportunity… for us to reflect on violence in ways that perhaps television and the news may not.  In A Change of Place, there are images that really push me to want to uncover the past of places we may have lost, instead of making me look the other way.”

But I would take it a step further.  Beauty doesn’t necessary imply goodness.  When we appreciate beautiful images we don’t always have to take pleasure in them as much as UNDERSTAND them.  When we visit the MOMA and stare at works of art, we may not be enjoying the experience they evoke.  But we are being moved.  We are learning something.  For beauty to effect us, it needs to provoke a reaction.  It could be a soothing pleasant one or a jarring and startling one.  Of course with any works of art, we expect a degree of craft, talent, technical skill, imagination and originality.  Crap is crap.   But there is no ONE type of beauty.   In fact, sometimes it’s important to witness, even partake in the ugly side of beauty to appreciate the beauty of our everyday and what it takes to create it.

So can imagery of devastation be horrible, painful and frightening?  Yes. Does it mean we are pleased to see pain and destruction? No.  But sometimes we need to experience this form of art.  It not only sheds light on other worlds, it inevitably forces us to appreciate or question our own.

Richard Mosse, “Space Wagon Mosul”
Richard Mosse, “Space Wagon Mosul”

Provocative Theories of Beauty: Why & How It Stirs Us


“As the force of physical attraction, beauty drives fertility, inspiration, creation, and reproduction. Beauty ricochets through the body and mind … Beauty has been the root of deep division and politicization.  But our attraction to beauty endures.”  — Andrea Lipps and Ellen Lupton

This sums it all up for me.

I stole the quote from a great review by CNN of the “Beauty—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial” exhibition.  The article describes how the exhibit’s artists, ranging from jewelry designers to ceramists to lighting designers, bring to life the many different definitions of beauty.  I’ve summed up these diverse explanations of beauty as follows:

  1. Ever changing.  Objects of beauty transform, e.g., we age or clay hardens. And of course, beauty ideals alter, e.g., overly tanned skin was out then in and now out of style.
  2. Expresses the passing of time.  To quote the article directly:                                                                                              To honor his grandmother’s failing memory, Tuomas Markunpoika welded small rings of steel around a hulking wardrobe. He then burned away the wood, leaving behind a lacy shell of blackened metal.The piece became “a physical memory of the furniture—kind of a smoky, shady, semitransparent memory of it.”
  3. Ignites our senses.  Beauty isn’t just visual but can stimulate our aural and olfactory senses as well.  In one instance, visitors can experience the scent of New York Cit’s Central Park.
  4. Challenges our perceptions.  From dresses made out of straws to images of decay, beauty pushes us to react, think, analyze and see the world anew.

This last description is, by far, my favorite.  In fact I’ve been especially taken by beauty as represented by death and decay (see my post: Beauty in Decay, Dirt and Death).  I know I may sound gruesome, but that’s not my point.  Rather, I’m blown away by expressions of beauty that challenge our expectations.

And that is the real purpose all my posts.  Originally, I chose to focus on beauty because I spent a number of years working with beauty brands, and it’s a topic that never goes out of style.  But as I dug deeper into the topic, I realized how complex, fascinating and wondrous our relationship to beauty truly is.  The topic of beauty can be a source of fun, angst or even ridicule.  But downplaying our understanding and reaction to it isn’t the answer.  Things of beauty may just strike us at first glance, but upon deeper reflection it becomes a window into our culture and ourselves.  It can open our eyes to how we live, what we value, and how brilliant and creative we, human beings, truly are.

If you get a chance to visit the exhibition, let us know what you respond to.