What is beautiful? Mark Rothko’s paintings most certainly are not (according to the French)


What is beauty? While I was in Paris for Meg Stuart’s premiere, I picked up a copy of Beaux Arts. I just had to, being the author of a blog about art, beauty and culture, because the June-edition of the French magazine has a 60-page special devoted to that question. Quite funny are the results of their ‘beauty’-poll: 67 percent of the French think Mark Rothko’s paintings are horrible, and nude paintings aren’t beautiful at all.


beaux-artsWhat made you feel, recently, that you were looking at, or experiencing something beautiful? The answer to that question for 44 percent of the French is… going for a nature walk.  ‘Making love’ comes second (34 percent), followed by ‘listening to music’ (29 percent), ‘watching a movie’ (20 percent), ‘reading a book’ (18 percent). ‘Going to the opera or to a dance- or theatre-performance’ only gets 11 percent, ‘going to an exhibition’ gets only 9 percent. That’s really close to ‘watching a television-programme’: 7 percent.

When it comes to paintings and what they represent, the French tend to find beauty above all in landscapes (50 percent). A painting of a face can have some beauty for 13 percent and for 12 percent an abstract painting can be beautiful. At the bottom of the list we find nude paintings. Only 6 percent of the French consider those to be beautiful.


It gets really funny when Beaux Arts asks the French to judge 15 works of art. Each of those recently broke a record at an auction. For each of the works they had to chose between one of these four answers: ‘This work of art is beautiful and I like it’, ‘It is beautiful but I don’t like it’, ‘It is not beautiful but I like it’, and ‘It is not beautiful and I don’t like it’. At the top of the list , quite amazingly, comes a Chinese vase from the 14th century (89 percent of the French consider it to be beautiful), followed by a painting of Rubens (The massacre of the innocents, 87 percent), and a painting of Van Gogh (Portrait of Dr. Gachet, 84 percent). What is interesting though, is that the vase and the Rubens-painting also get the highest scores in the category ‘This work of art is beautiful but I don’t like it’: 37 percent for the vase, and 49 percent for the Rubens. Of all the works of art the Van Gogh gets the highest score in the category ‘This work of art is beautiful ánd I like it’: 58 percent.

Balloon_flowerOf all the contemporary works of art strangely enough only a work by Jeff Koons is really appreciated by the French. His Balloon flower is considered to be beautiful by 57 percent of the French. All the others are quite horrible, the French think. A painting by Lucian Freud (Naked portrait with reflection)? ‘This work of art is not beautiful and I don’t like it’, is what 60 percent of the French think. Mark Rothko’s White center? ‘Not beautiful and I don’t like it’, 67 percent of the French are saying. Damien Hirst’s skull (For the love of God)? 61 percent. Works by Takashi Murakami and Andreas Gursky get damning results too: 65 and 71 percent.

Beaux Arts’s conclusion? We need better art education at school. Art is not something to be left to the happy few only. In the meanwhile, all of this makes me wonder: would these results be any different in Belgium?

(For those of you who want to read more about this, Beaux Arts doesn’t really have a website. So you’ll have to buy a copy of the June-issue.)


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