An occupational hazard visual artists face these days is making work that might appear to be pleasing and beautiful and have it declared “decorative”. For a work of art to be called beautiful has become a veritable kiss of death in the institutional art world. No serious painter wants to be known as a maker of “pretty pictures”. This is a global phenomenon.

There seems to be a dominant sentiment in contemporary art that artists should resist making work that is pleasurable and beautiful because given how much is wrong and ugly in the world such art would be an irrelevant distraction and a distortion of reality. Art should focus on rendering what is troubling, ergo not beautiful, of which there is indeed plenty in our world.

This conflict between beauty and the socio-political reality emphasised in art these days seems to be based on some inherent tensions between form and content and, also, because of confusion about the levels of beauty in art.

Art is often divided into form and content. Form includes the materials used, the style employed – realism, impressionism, cubism, abstraction and so on. These determine and influence the way space, light, line, colour and texture are used in a painting or sculpture. Form is also an artist’s individual style, their particular nuances, mannerisms and habits. Using their style, artists could express a variety of content – a flower study, a landscape, an autobiographical moment, emotional states, a portrait, social commentary, a political statement and so on.

Styles differ. They can be more restrained or less, subtle or in your face. Some are more pleasing than others. Just because an artist has a style that is gentler, less abrasive, it does not necessarily mean it cannot be used to address harsh and uncomfortable content. Protests and calls for change do not always have to be screamed and shouted, they can be spoken gently, in persuasive yet steely whispers too.

The question we need to ask is whether a painting of someone being raped or killed, of someone suffering an illness, someone dying, of garbage and waste or urban ugliness can ever be done beautifully or would that be untruthful?

[Anjolie Ela] Menon insists there is a difference between what is pretty and what is beautiful and argues forcefully for a place for beauty in art. In her work, she explains how content and subject matter are a distinguishing criterion between beauty and prettiness. For example, if there is an image of a severed head, the painting could not be pretty but it can still be beautiful. She suggests that authenticity is critical to beauty, which is typically absent, ignored or excluded in prettiness.

In an essay in Uncontrollable Beauty – Toward a New Aesthetics, Arthur Danto questions whether art that connects to the subject of human waste, for example, can be beautiful and aesthetic. Can the content of waste be rendered in a beautiful painting and, conversely, could the forms connected with human waste, such as Duchamp’s urinal, ever be considered beautiful? In other words, doesn’t the content of a painting circumscribe its beauty and since a urinal is about piss, which is ugly, how could we ever consider it aesthetic?

This offers important insights into the prevailing art establishment’s attitudes towards beauty. First, beauty is not considered possible when dealing with pain, angst, cruelty, poverty, injustice, ecological damage and so on. Second, having enthusiastically embraced as art a urinal that Duchamp exhibited under the title The Fountain as a challenge to the establishment’s notion of what art is, beauty could no longer be a valid criterion for art.

Duchamp’s urinal launched a whole new direction for art and we find that beauty has no place in what would, thereafter, be considered cutting-edge contemporary art. This is exemplified by the kind of art that keeps winning the Turner Prize in the UK every year.

In the same essay, Danto argues that if something is beautifully rendered, this gets transferred to the content of the work itself. He tries to make a distinction between the beauty of a painting and the beauty in it. He describes a Tibetan thangka (scroll) depicting the Buddha’s death, which takes place in ‘an achingly beautiful garden, with green lawns under blue skies, rainbows fluttering like pennants, ornamental birds and plantings’. He says this beauty would ordinarily be dissonant with the subject of death. However, he allows that in this case it is not because he thinks it is in sync with the Buddhist view of death and dying.

What he perhaps means is that the internal beauty in the thangka comes from the level of meaning it depicts. The Buddha’s death is also the moment of ultimate release, his mahaparinirvana, which is a joyful, positive and beautiful event. Therefore, at the content level of meaning, this painting suggests that death is not necessarily ugly. As such, an alternative understanding of death itself would allow for these beautiful elements.

We need to be wary of mistaking literalness for truth.

What is depicted in art may not define its meaning, for often what is suggested is more important than what is depicted. This principle was understood and emphasized in Indian aesthetics.

Three levels of content or meaning were identified – abidha, lakshana and dhvani. The first two were the primary and secondary meanings that were directly depicted in a work of art. The third, dhvani (literally “resonance”), was indirect and suggestive. Dhvani was considered to be the suggestive quality in art that precedes or surrounds the literal or denotative meanings.

The essence of art was not in its representational adequacy and effectiveness, or in its formal construction, but in its suggestiveness – its ability to evoke a state of feeling. As feelings cannot be communicated directly, their evocation had to be done indirectly, through suggestion and implication, and this is the basis of the well-known Indian concept of rasa. This evocation through suggestiveness was the special and distinguishing skill of great artists. It was recognition of the human ability to sense meaning beyond what is depicted, which gives the arts their extraordinary power to touch and communicate.

Both Ashok Vajpeyi and Menon emphasise the importance of truth and authenticity in beauty. Explaining this, Menon tells us that beauty must be based on an unshakeable truth and this rules out superficiality because superficialities are seldom based on unshakeable truths.

However, she does not see this transference in the causal way Danto does. For her, there are two levels of beauty involved in a painting: on one level is a beauty that is known by how things look and on another level is beauty that is known by the meaning of things. She believes these can be brought together powerfully in art and tells us that we must not lose this precious combined beauty.

Death, illness and old age are inevitable truths and while it may be difficult to make a painting that would be pretty of an old or a suffering person, it can, however, be made beautifully. Another example of death being rendered beautifully is the immensely powerful sculpture of the dying Buddha with a grieving Ananda, in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. We have further testaments of this relationship between beauty and meaning in the many beautiful sculptures and paintings of Christ crucified on the Cross and the dying Christ in Mary’s arms in Michelangelo’s Pietà.

It is not necessary to show blood, spilled guts or tears and screams to deal with death and the pathos or loss it engenders.

In this respect, it seems that contemporary art is becoming too literal. It wants to bring the unmade bed and dead cows to us. This suggests another kind of superficiality and a loss of aesthetics. Surely, there is more to truth and honesty in art than this sort of obvious literalism.

Menon cautions us about the reach and impact of socio-political and didactic art, especially in India. In most countries, the art world has become an elite subculture, almost completely cut off from the rest of society that artists and curators might wish to impact. All the protests and calls for change through art are happening in art galleries and museums, which are like little Petri dishes with little, if any, connection with the living biology of the world outside.

Many people find the art being made today both bewildering and amusing. They are not even sure if this is art at all, partly because it does not meet their expectations and needs for beauty. For them, going to an art fair or a biennale is entertainment and may be like going to the circus or a theme park. The dominant response to art these days has become awe and in art, at least, we find “awful” and “awesome” have lost their distinction.

Art has always played the role of providing opportunities for a shift of experience from the ordinary humdrum of life. Whether it has to do this mainly by bringing us a profusion of the bizarre is questionable. Another way the arts have done this in the past is by affording us experiences of ecstasy. And, according to Menon, the pinnacle of beauty is ecstasy and ecstatic beauty is available in painting, in a great piece of music, and in love-making.

She did, however, ruefully remind us that it is a fleeting and ephemeral experience and will remain rare and elusive in art and in life.

Excerpted with permission from The Promise of Beauty and Why It Matters, Shakti Maira, HarperCollins India.