Photo Journal

Dead Sunflower, Studio

Northrop Frye on the Pursuit of Beauty

by |

Northrop Frye, from Anatomy of Criticism:

Poetry is a vehicle for morality, truth, and beauty, but the poet does not aim at these things, but only at inner verbal strength. The poet qua poet intends only to write a poem, and as a rule it is not the artist, but the ego in the artist, who turns away from his proper work to go and chase these other seductive marshlights…

The pursuit of beauty is much more dangerous nonsense than the pursuit of truth or goodness, because it affords a stronger temptation to the ego. Beauty, like truth and goodness, is a quality that may in one sense be predicated of all great art, but the deliberate attempt to beautify can, in itself, only weaken the creative energy. Beauty in art is like happiness in morals: it may accompany the act, but it cannot be the goal of the act, just as one cannot "pursue happiness," but only something else that may give happiness. Aiming at beauty produces, at best, the attractive: the quality of beauty represented by the word loveliness, a quality which depends on a carefully restricted choice of both subject and technique…

…Whenever the word beauty means loveliness or attractiveness, as it is bound to do whenever it is made the intention of art, it be comes reactionary: it tries to restrict either what the artist may choose for a subject or the method in which he may choose to treat it, and it marshals all the forces of prudery to keep him from expanding his vision beyond an arid and insipid pseudo-classicism.

While the pursuit of beauty may offer temptation to the ego, deliberate avoidance of beauty is simply the other side of the coin and does not offer an escape from this same temptation. In either case the artist is beholden to the same carefully restricted choices—just as a fence restricts movement regardless of which side you stand. Although Frye is writing on literature, I bring this up because the rift between those in pursuit of beauty and those eschewing it is strikingly similar to the distinction between what you might see in a high-end photography gallery and what you'll find in the pages of a high-circulation photography magazine.

Hopefully I'll have more to post regarding Frye's Anatomy. Photography does not have the luxury (or curse) of a long critical tradition. Being a relatively new form, we have no Samuel Johnson, John Ruskin, or Aristotle to turn to in order to trace the genealogy of ideas specific to photography. We are forced to look to other media to construct a critical point of view. Fittingly, most modern photography criticism deals with the differences between photography and more tradition arts and how to define the line where painting and poetry end and photography begins. We shouldn't neglect shared ground with other arts, however, and while critics like Roland Barthes or Susan Sontag inform our work, we sell ourselves short when avoiding a more comprehensive critical point of view. For instance we may take Barthes' insistence on the adherence of the subject of a photograph to the photograph itself in the beginning of Camera Lucida and ask what the difference is between the pursuit of a beautiful photograph and the pursuit of a photograph of a beautiful subject? Are they both folly because of the inseparability of referent from the photograph, or can we look for inspiration in the beautiful around us while still doing what Frye would call our proper work?

Reader Comments

Comments are closed for this note