Although only a temporary exhibition, the Baltimore Museum of Art’s ‘Subverting Beauty: African Anti-Aesthetics’ series of work has left a lasting impact on the art world. Originally held between July 2018 and June 2019, the exhibition has challenged what consumers of art consider to be ‘beautiful’, especially in a Western context.
Featuring around two dozen pieces of art from the colonial period in sub-Saharan Africa, the pieces are asymmetrical, rustic, and intentionally not aesthetically pleasing in the slightest. Although, what does it mean for an artefact to be “aesthetically pleasing”?
This moment of reflection is exactly what the exhibition wants to cause, ultimately disassembling the rigid standards by which the Western world holds its art. The Western idea of beauty has historically defined the art world and subsequently what we like and dislike as art lovers. Beautiful pieces are realistic, well-executed as a representation of the subject, and with that, they are proportionate and symmetrical.
I distinctly remember having this conception drilled into me by art teachers in my younger years. I was not allowed to create abstract pieces nor was anyone else. In the teacher’s eyes, fine art and accurate representations of the world are the only acceptable form of art. Nothing else can ever be worthy of being called ‘art’ or deemed ‘beautiful’.
The regularly pictured piece from this exhibition, ‘Kómó Society Helmet Mask’ encapsulates this perfectly. It looks dirty, worn, and rusted, and uses a variety of materials that do not fit together in a conventional and ‘beautiful’ way. The hair on the front and top is raggedy and unkempt, and the horns protruding from the back of the helmet adds an animalistic effect, creating a brutish and ‘wild’ look to the Western eye.
It’s definitely not ‘beautiful’ by Western standards but that’s the point. ‘Beauty’ is a reflection of reality, which is what the artist has probably tried to create. So, is beauty about how well the art serves its purpose or meets its intention? If so, a piece being intentionally anti-aesthetic is beautiful.