Essay: Beauty Disparaged

Beauty Disparaged

Jacqueline Millner

For it is a crime to speak of beauty, to refer to it, and to imply that it exists… We blush at the mere thought of uttering its name for it is the unacceptable face in art, as it is deemed to be only face, no mind beneath, no conceptual body to hold it up—Michael Petry[1]

1          Introduction

In his recent book The Love of Beauty, Harvard University philosopher Guy Sircello makes the at once self-evident and outlandish observation that ‘beauty is the best and most delightful part of our world and in loving the best and the beautiful we are the happiest and best of creatures’. Self-evident, in that for most of us an examination of our lived experience would likely accord with this observation: we would recognise the feelings of well-being and joy that overcome us when we gaze upon a beautiful scene or a beautiful work of art or the beautiful face of a loved one. Yet, outlandish because beauty has left our public cultural landscape other than in the degraded guise of mass media sentimentality and celebrity. As Petry suggests, the felt experience of beauty and beauty in art brings on embarrassment in the public sphere; we dare not speak its name. Sircello argues that especially since the late 18th century, the love of beauty has lost prestige, so that his statement about beauty now sounds naïve, silly and out of style. He explains this turn by suggesting that, with modernity, the desire to love the world was given over to the desire to control or remake it.[2] In his eyes, with the instrumentalism of modernism began the disparagement of beauty other than as that manufactured as another means of controlling the world. Beauty itself came to be seen as instrumental, suspect, corrupt, and inaccessible, its disdain fuelled by fear of its power as much as by a general distrust of pleasure.[3]

Several scholars, such as Sircello, take a broad historical sweep in their search for explanations of beauty’s banishment from the arts and culture that is instructive as a general background to current investigations. This chapter, however, focuses on the turn away from beauty in the last two decades, a turn that is associated with postmodern theory and art, to establish the context for the central thesis that beauty has re-emerged in Australian contemporary art. My argument is that in influential strands of postmodern art theory and criticism, aesthetics in general and beauty specifically were repressed on account of a series of political complaints against them. Following conceptualism’s rethinking, aesthetics were deemed to be extraneous to art. Conceptualism’s critiques of modernism, coming in response to the dominance of formalism as well as informed by Marxist analyses of culture[4], were cogent and effective, pervasive in the language and practice of advanced art. Its argument against the commodity status of art in particular had a significant effect on the attitude towards beauty: to produce beautiful works became equated with furnishing the market with what it demanded. Conceptualism’s attempt to short-circuit the power of the market to arbitrate on what was advanced art also impacted heavily on much postmodern art criticism, which saw co-optation by the market as the ultimate corruption.[5] The market was the villain (or straw man, as Dave Hickey would have it), while the critical establishment and the artists it championed were the heroes (despite lip service paid to the death of the hero in art). Taking conceptualism’s cue, postmodern theory and practice also looked to early avant-garde cultural iconoclasm, such as Dada and Duchamp, to counter the humanism associated with formal-leaning modernism, exploring early anti-aesthetic gestures aimed at undermining bourgeois taste and values. In an echo of this early cultural iconoclasm, postcolonial critiques conceived of aesthetics as inextricable from Eurocentric cultural oppression and the myths of Western civilisation. Postmodernist criticism was also influenced by Marxist critiques of aesthetics that cast aesthetics as either incompatible with serious political purpose or positively distracting of ethical aims, while feminist critiques identified beauty as a tool for the objectification of women to be avoided. Finally, the postmodern critique of the pillars of classic modernist aesthetics, autonomy, disinterest, and formalism created a crisis in aesthetic discourse whereby aesthetics struggled to find a language outside these discredited terms.

To establish the disparagement of beauty in postmodern theory and art and to explore the reasons behind it, I begin by noting the general spurning of aesthetics in Western humanities within which recent art history and criticism developed. Then I canvass the history of beauty’s fate at the hands of certain modernist movements in order to understand how and why the postmodern—heavily influenced by conceptualism— banished it. This leads to a general consideration of the postmodern anti-aesthetic.

2          The disparagement of aesthetics and the aesthetic experience in discourse

In 1992 an anthology,The Politics of Pleasure: Aesthetics and Cultural Theory, was published which was dedicated to exploring the ‘return of the aesthetic’ in the humanities in general and cultural studies in particular. In the introduction to this publication Stephen Regan noted that ‘the study of aesthetics has been marginalised or simply ignored in the later 20th century’. For many years, aesthetics was synonymous in many minds with ‘a bloodless formalism, a rarefied academic discourse of minimal social relevance and application.’[6] Regan cites the position outlined by Raymond Williams—a hugely influential figure in cultural studies—that aesthetics served to remove art from social processes, as well as the trenchant critique of aesthetics by Tony Bennett[7] that set the mood for a generation of cultural critics, drawing as it did on Bertolt Brecht’s argument that aesthetics are a distraction from more committed and worthwhile endeavours. In literary theory, aesthetics came to be seen as the very embodiment of ideology, in the wake of Paul Le Man’s consistent argument that aesthetics do not so much eschew as conceal political and moral concerns.[8] According to Terry Eagleton, aesthetics was historically disparaged as a branch of philosophy partly because,in England at least, aesthetics was born of the discourse of the body and the senses, and along with the body, disdained in preference to mind. In addition, certain literary theorists saw attempts to analyse and define beauty as fraught with confusion and only hindering of their work.[9]

Italian Professor of Aesthetics Mario Perniola suggests that the turn against aesthetics in the postmodern era has been largely on account of the apparent incompatibility between aesthetics and difference, the dominant idea associated with poststructuralist thought. Perniola ventures that, ‘[t]raditionally aesthetics has implied the ideals of harmony, regularity and organic unity; what is essential to aesthetics is to try to overcome a conflict and aim towards a relief of tensions; the aesthetic is to tend towards peaceful solutions, to search a moment in which pains and struggles are in abeyance, if not completely abolished. In contrast, the ‘thought of difference started with Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger, who rejected the aesthetic reconciliation: it goes towards experiencing a type of conflict which is far greater than any dialectical contradiction’.[10] These founding philosophers of difference took issue with aesthetics on a variety of counts, ‘Nietzsche thought that aesthetics was an aspect of optimism unaware of tragic experience. Freud believed that aesthetics dealt with topics connected to positive emotions, inspired by the beautiful and the sublime, leaving out those aspects of feeling characterised by negative emotion, such as the uncanny. Heidegger maintained that aesthetics belonged to Western metaphysics (to a thought oblivious to the sense of Being).’ Aesthetics were perceived to be founded on an assumption of the stable subject, on the subjectivity of feeling, whereas difference relied on destabilising that subject.[11]

The turn from the aesthetic in postmodern discourse and criticism is also discussed in another anthology born of the desire to reconnect with aesthetics in the humanities, edited by James Soderholm and entitled Beauty and the Critic: Aesthetics in the Age of Cultural Studies(1997). In his introduction, Soderholm bemoans the ‘negative hermeneutics’ that have overtaken the humanities in the last two decades—in the postmodern era—such that ‘there is nothing in art that can be dreamt of outside the ideology of power’.[12] The ‘urge to demystify’ has edged out all alternative forms of criticism, the reaction against aesthetics so strong and persuasively articulated that ‘it may now be nearly impossible to pilot ourselves between …intrinsic literary analysis and extrinsic cultural critique, between …our substantial love for poetry [or art] for its own sake and our deep suspicion that all such loves are poisoned by the ideological masters they secretly serve’.[13] In other words, Soderholm argues that postmodernist criticism interpreted the artwork almost exclusively in terms of its political meaning and agenda, with ‘form’ and aesthetics either dismissed as irrelevant or regarded as a veil that demanded removal. Soderholm seeks to reconnect with beauty as a means of circumventing this form of criticism that has become a new variant of the ‘false ideology’ it sought to debunk. He, like many of the contributors to this anthology, longs to bask in the positive affect of art, longs to grant art some space to breathe outside the cloisters of current critical discourse which circumscribe its ambit to ‘ideologies of power and theories of historicity’. A similar impulse is evident in Richard Shusterman’s Performing Live: Aesthetic Alternatives to the End of Art (2000), which asserts that ‘the 20th century avant-garde undermined not only art’s claim to privileged autonomy but the legitimacy of the traditional pleasures of aesthetic experience’ and urges that we must resist the argument that the postmodern subversion of the modern ideology of ‘autonomy, disinterestedness, and formalism on which aesthetics was established…spells the end for the entire aesthetic dimension’.[14] The argument appears again in Isobel Armstrong’s The Radical Aesthetic (2000), where the author suggests that the ‘anti-aesthetic’ postmodern criticism and theoretical writing that have prevailed over the last twenty years amount to a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, an exhausted strategy that demands alternatives .[15]

The suspicion of aesthetics in general homed in on beauty specifically, such that in 1999 Elaine Scarry could assert that in the last two decades beauty had been banished from the academy on account of a series of political complaints against it—not the least of which were those formulated by feminist scholars, who in 1970s eschewed beauty as symptom of oppression.[16]  Scarry states that,

I do not mean that beautiful things of themselves have been banished, for the humanities are made up of beautiful poems, stories, paintings…debates…and it is this that every day draws us to them. I mean something much more modest: that conversation about the beauty of these things has been banished, so that we coinhabit the space of these things…yet speak about their beauty only in whispers.[17]

However, despite her suggestion to the contrary, in contemporary art beautiful things of themselves were indeed banished, along with talk of beauty! Certainly, beauty is conspicuous by its absence in the discourse of art history and criticism of the last two decades. As Paul Crowther wrote in 1989, ‘the concept of beauty seems outmoded—passé even—in relation to the current practices of criticism in the art’[18]. Beauty ‘rarely came up in art periodicals from 1960s on without a deconstructionist snicker’, Danto notes.[19] In 1997, Catherine David, curator of Documenta X, stated that she had limited selection for the prestigious international exhibition to artists whose work featured a critical political sensibility at the expense of aesthetics[20], exemplifying that ‘for many critics and curators, aesthetic value in contemporary art [was]…necessarily divorced from meaning: form and content may not coexist; beauty is beneath contempt’.[21] As I detail below, aesthetics and beauty in particular were perceived by the postmodern vanguard[22] as epitomising everything that was wrong with art and art writing, or worse, as completely irrelevant to advanced art which was concerned with either the discourse of art or politics, and decidedly not with creating an aesthetic experience. Moreover, in a climate of postcolonial critique, Western aesthetics were suspected of being integral tools of cultural oppression. Writing in 2001, Australian art theorists Rex Butler and Morgan Thomas noted that ‘[t]here has been a distinct unease regarding the use of terms and concepts drawn from Western aesthetics in much contemporary Australian art writing. It has been variously argued that the Western aesthetic tradition serves ideological ends, that it is hostile to cultural difference, that its application to our conflicted, postcolonial present is symptomatic of an aggressive—or regressive Eurocentrism…[so that] to impose the discourse of beauty, form, quality, aesthetics…on the work seems inevitably to do it an injustice.’[23]

Having outlined how aesthetics were marginalised in discourse, let us now consider how beauty was spurned in the artwork.

 

3          The abuse of beauty by modernist avant-gardes

‘…The disguised moralism that beauty is good for you…has turned an entire century against anything to do with beauty, classic and romantic, and have banned it from painting, music, architecture and poetry, and from criticism too, so that the arts…will discuss the idea only to dismiss it, regarding beauty only as the pretty, the simple, the pleasing, the mindless, and the easy. Because beauty is conceived so naively, it appears as merely naive, and can be tolerated only if complicated by discord, shock, violence and harsh terrestrial realities’—James Hillman[24] Comment VR: A date here might help contextualise…

The perceived inseparability of beauty, art and morality was one of the key motivators of the early 20th century avant-garde. It was this suffocating and pernicious triad that the early modernists wished to smash, as powerfully evoked in Tristan Tzara’s ‘mad and starry desire to assassinate beauty’[25], itself an heir of Rimbaud’s ‘abuse’ of ‘bitter beauty’ some decades earlier.[26] As Danto observes, the ‘abuse of beauty, on this view, is the symbolic enactment of an offence against morality and hence in effect against humanity’[27], a violent repudiation of established social values.[28] While many scholars view the challenge to beauty in art as beginning in earnest with the formal experiments of the Cubists, Futurists and Expressionists, it is this early cultural iconoclasm, as manifest for example in Dada-inspired negative aesthetics of ‘abrasiveness and willed indecorousness’[29], that constitutes an important forebear of postmodern anti-aesthetics. Also fundamental was the impact of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, which partly in response to similar concerns, sought to disengage art from aesthetics altogether. The readymade was integral to conceptualism, which along with minimalism and its challenge to affect and the communicative role of art, became the predominant forces in postmodern practice. Given that the various strands of postmodern art that spurned beauty have their antecedents in modernism, it is essential to trace the turn against beauty to these earlier movements and tendencies, as well as to contextualise the postmodern suspicion of beauty in the association of beauty with various instrumental ends during the 20th century.

Marcel Duchamp, with his incisive argument about the conservatism and ‘stupidity’ of ‘retinal art’ had ‘an enormous effect in fostering the widespread reaction against beauty’[30]; his influence is of particular relevance to the current argument given that it reached well into the future with Duchamp’s crowning (contra Picasso) as the true ‘father’ of modern art by the conceptual artists of the 1960s.[31] Duchamp, as is well known in the story of modernism, was frustrated by the limitations of painting and its reliance on visual effects—‘its physical aspect’ and ‘retinal flutter’—to the detriment of ideas. He aspired to an art of the mind that would have intellectual legitimacy equal to the non-visual arts. As was perhaps only fully understood much later, Duchamp sought to separate art and aesthetics, and his readymades were one approach to this end, industrially manufactured objects chosen for their purported aesthetic indifference.[32] According to Danto, Duchamp began to ‘open a space’ between art and beauty, a ‘gap that remained invisible until the great conceptual efforts of the 1960s to define art’.[33] His readymades were already in existence before the outbreak of war in 1914 prompted the irruption of Dada.

Danto argues that unlike many other avant-garde movements, such as post-Impressionism and Cubism, which while initially reviled as ugly came later to be appreciated for their beauty, the Dadaists form an ‘intractable’ avant-garde ‘the products of which are misperceived if perceived as beautiful’.[34] Their dream to ‘assassinate beauty’ was a political reaction to the fact those very cultures which conceived of themselves as the acme of civilization—given material expression in beautiful art—were responsible for the most savage war in history (to that point). The Dadaists refused to ‘gratify the aesthetic sensibilities of those responsible for the First World War’, giving them ‘babbling in place of beauty, silliness instead of sublimity’, degrading beauty through ‘punitive clownishness’.[35] They attempted to disconnect beauty from art as an ‘expression of the moral revulsion against a society for whom beauty was a cherished value, and which cherished art itself because of its beauty’[36]. However, as Danto notes elsewhere, it may well be that Dada anti-aesthetics ultimately became ‘part of the same complex it intended to injure by means of it’.[37]

After World War I, beauty was put to the service of a wide range of masters from utopian idealism to fascist populism; the latter association was particularly damaging given Nazism’s appropriation of the so-called ‘timeless’ ideals of beauty represented by Greek sculpture for ideological ends. Adorno’s aesthetic theory, which cast classicism as a metaphor for inhumane fascist repression in his analysis of the role of art in Nazi Germany, was highly influential in tainting conventionally understood beauty as politically suspect. Adorno argued that beauty was an elitist and exclusionary category forced on the people through violence, through ‘a cruelty of forming’.[38] Moreover, during this time beauty—and its affinity with formal concerns—came increasingly under suspicion for its co-optation by commercial interests. For example, as Estelle Jussim observes, the debate as it was formulated in respect of modernist photography implied that artists who concerned themselves with symbolic forms rather than with some unspecified but still “necessary” humane concern were somehow less moral, less ethical, and less committed to humanistic efforts. This denigration of beauty as ideologically suspect for its marketing appeal is evident in Walter Benjamin’s distinction between art photography and political photography:

Where photography takes itself out of context…where it frees itself from physiognomic, political and scientific interest, then it becomes creative…The creative in photography is capitulation to a fashion. The world is beautiful—that is its watchword. Therein is unmasked the posture of a photography that can endow any soup can with cosmic significance but cannot grasp a single one of the human connections in which it exists…’[39]

Post-World War II, not only did beauty suffer from these connections to both fascist and capitalist ideologies; it was also seen as the bankrupt product of Western European civilisation, associated with ideas of taste that masked racist and imperialist legitimations of European power. For example, Jean Dubuffet sought to strip away the very notion of Western aesthetics—‘I consider the Western notion of beauty completely erroneous’—and Barnett Newman declared that ‘the impulse of modern art is the desire to destroy beauty’.[40] Gestures of ‘aesthetic withdrawal’ proliferated[41]: forty-four years after Duchamp’s ‘sacrilege’ on the Mona Lisa—which Danto reads as the quintessential assault on beauty—the ruthless purge of beauty led Robert Morris to the point that he felt duty bound to eradicate every bit of aesthetic content from his Litanies—legally. Accompanying the sculpture was a “Statement of Aesthetic Withdrawal”, a notarised document that read in part: ‘Robert Morris, being the maker of the metal construction Litanies . . . hereby withdraws from said construction all aesthetic quality and content’. That is, by 1963 Duchamp’s whimsical gesture had become a matter of grey bureaucracy, with all the requisite signatures and seals necessary to make it official. Once Clement Greenberg’s stranglehold on the nature of advanced art came under challenge in the 1960s, ‘the activity of an artist was valued over the formally refined product [and] the pursuit of aesthetic refinement was considered anathema’.[42]

According to American curator Neal Benezra, the most articulate case against aesthetics came in response to what was perceived as the stultifying effects and political conservatism of Greenberg’s formalism, by way of conceptual art. Of particular importance were the acute writings of Joseph Kosuth. Kosuth argued that Duchamp had shown that art could be uncoupled from aesthetics. Art was about ‘what is being said rather than the form of the language’, that is, it was an analytical proposition. Kosuth proposed that art depended both on its artistic context and its nomination as art by the artist, so that its status or raison d’etre was wholly abstracted from any material implication (perceptive or referential) and could be finally equated with that of a linguistic tautology. His Art After Philosophy represents an attempt to ‘transfer the notion of authorship from the “auratic” and visible aspects of the work to the mental and invisible processes’ of making.[43] According to Kosuth, ‘the artist is not unlike a scientist for whom there is no distinction between working in the lab and writing a thesis’. Aesthetic evaluations did not simply mislead the artist concerned with conceptual investigations, but were basically extraneous to art; art needed to free itself from its morphological restrictions and could only do so by ‘becoming aware of its functioning as a kind of logic and thus absorbing the function once relegated to criticism’. Art was an idea, and not ‘high-brow craft for a cottage industry’s specialised market’. As Gabriele Guercio observes, Kosuth’s concern to control the conceptual processes ruling art’s practice had all but edited out the work.[44] Beauty, in other words, was irrelevant to advanced art, a mark of an art that lacked self-awareness and belonged to another era.[45]

The increasingly hardline stance of conceptualism guaranteed that the reductionist battlelines would be drawn between formalism (read conservatism) and conceptualism (read criticality) in art, although this schism took place in the context of a ‘deep-rooted suspicion of the formal elements of the visual arts by all who profess engagement’[46] that some critics trace to the dichotomy between truth and beauty that has dogged aesthetics since Plato.[47] Nevertheless, the schism had profound consequences for postmodernist art and criticism given that these drew heavily on the conceptual legacy. Aesthetics was cast as an expression of elitist culture and a badge of conservatism—in criticism, the journal October and its associated theorists epitomised this position, while in art practice, the Dada-inspired anti-aesthetics of artists such as Mike Kelley were representative. In the context of the US culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, for example, critics and theorists persistently refused to acknowledge the aesthetics of a work in order to read the work according to political criteria.[48] Neal Benezra asserts, ‘beauty had disappeared from critical discourse’.[49]

Also of significance in the modernist turn from beauty is minimalism’s association with the wane of affect, banality, and boredom. ‘Classic’ minimalism’s strategy of intensifying minimal stimulation sought to revitalise the relationship between ‘viewer’ and work such that the former became ever more conscious of their embodied subjectivity and their role in creating the meaning of the artwork. However, minimalism also invites ‘an anti-aesthetics of the unpresentable’ that marks the turn to the postmodern through a divergence in the role of aesthetics: whereas certain forms of modernism relied on understanding, which aims to make sense of the work, postmodernism sought rather to confound meaning, prevent the viewer from ‘mastering’ the work through understanding.[50] Increasingly, ‘minimal stimulation’ tipped over into utter affectlessness, no longer informed by modernist aspirations to reconnect viewer and object, but on the contrary effecting ‘the numbing and evacuation of the viewer and their interests’.[51]

Classic minimalism was also conventionally associated with a particularly masculinist sensibility: with monumentality, heavy industrial materials, tough-mindedness, and a downright loathing of any ‘extraneous’ decoration. This provides another lead in considering minimalism’s role in the denigration of beauty, for several feminist critics have observed that beauty has in modernism been rendered feminine, potently arguing the link between this gendering of beauty and its denigration as a term in 20th century art. Wendy Steiner, for instance, holds that the modernist and subsequently postmodern preference for the sublime over beauty was partly on account of its ‘virile’ attributes contra the perceived feminine qualities of beauty. Peggy Zeglin Brand notes that since antiquity, gender played a significant role in discussions of beauty[52], with beauty traditionally associated with the body, the ‘frivolous’ concern with appearances, and sentimentality, denigrated terms which in turn were considered the province of the feminine. Dave Hickey also considers the question of the gender of the artwork in his discussion of beauty in modern and contemporary art. With reference to two influential analyses of modern art by Michael Fried and Frank Stella, which portray ‘the “rise” of pre-modern art toward “exalted” modernism as a virile struggle with, and ultimate struggle over, the effeminacy of illusionistic space and all other devices designed to ingratiate the beholder’[53], Hickey argues that a male gendering of the artwork in effect denigrated the deployment of beauty in modern art. Beauty became associated with ‘weakness’, since in this teleological genre of art criticism, ‘weakness’ came to be detected in any artwork where the artist’s presence was not potently asserted, where the bond between the artwork and the spectator was stronger than that between artist and work. In this category Hickey would place most works that deploy beauty, which elsewhere in The Invisible Dragon he argues is a quality in art powerful partly on account of its connection with ‘the non-canonical beholder’, its ability to persuade and make art accessible. Whereas this modernist reading assumes that the beholder will be dominated, dumbstruck and overpowered by the ‘masculine’ artwork, art that relies on beauty as affect enables a more democratic exchange between artwork and beholder. Hence, the modernist gendering of the artwork as male has also contributed to the denigration of beauty as a strategy in contemporary art. Hickey notes that while the ‘antique “feminine” qualities’ of beauty, harmony and generosity are still extant in current works of art, they are ‘simply not validated by our language of value. As such they remain verbally invisible and therefore accidental to any determination we might make in “serious” discourse about the virtues of the works’.[54]

These modernist strategies and tendencies that denigrated beauty—the uncoupling of art from aesthetics, the denigration of beauty in accordance with its being gendered feminine, the identification of Western aesthetics with Western imperialism, the suspicion of beauty as the seductive mask of capitalist and fascist ideology, and the understanding of beauty as vacuous, frivolous and incompatible with serious political purpose—provided key antecedents to the postmodern refusal of beauty and embrace of the anti-aesthetic.

4          The Postmodern Anti-Aesthetic

The aesthetic is best defined by its enemies—not conception and concern, but boredom, indifference, worry, confusion, and past a certain point, pain’.[55]

Introduction

The ‘inconsequence of beauty’ in 20th century images, comments Dave Hickey, has left us ‘trapped… in a visually impoverished terrain’.[56] He observes that in American contemporary art circles of the 1980s and 90s, beauty—what he defines as the causing of visual pleasure in the beholder, the language of visual affect, or the rhetoric of how things look—[57] had become taboo, a derided and denigrated notion. Part of the blame he lays at the feet of the continued dominance of ‘the canonical status of flatness’ that had managed to squeeze out the sematic spaces and rhetorical facilities employed by painters in the past, forcing artist to time-based and spatial media in order to ‘at best crudely approximate effects that were effortlessly available to Titian on his worst day’.[58] In a sense this resonates both with Hal Foster’s anti-aesthetic (as discussed below)—in particular Douglas Crimp’s argument in ‘On the Museum’s Ruins’ that all art was now a play of textual surfaces—and with Thomas McEvilley’s notion of the abstract sublime that had done away with the ‘figure’ or pictorial elements associated with beauty to leave behind only the ‘ground’ of the sublime (as discussed in Chapter 1: Situating Contemporary Beauty). However, according to Hickey the main culprit in the banishment of beauty is what he terms the ‘therapeutic institution’ of art, that ‘loose confederation of museums, universities, bureaus, foundations, publications, endowments’[59] that usurped the traditional function of beauty in the last 60 years. This institution set itself up as uniquely positioned to guarantee the criticality of art, given its avowed inviolability to the ‘corruption of the market’, and cast beauty out as irrevocably identified with that corrupt force; according to the art institution, beauty had, in effect, become the ‘signifier’ of the market. In a similar vein to Hickey, Robert Morgan denounces the narrow interpretation of worthwhile art practice—denoted by the rubric of the anti-aesthetic—that came out of an American art education system fed on Artforum and October that denigrated the idea that art can be made with relation to feeling and imagination.[60] What the ‘therapeutic institution’ achieved was to substitute discourse for aesthetics, and declare that only discourse-based art was worthy of attention.

The postmodern critical privileging of a particular kind of ‘political’ art is also proffered as a reason for beauty’s banishment by Arthur Danto. Danto speculates that the preference of the American postmodern artworld of the 1990s for an ‘art of indignation’ precluded any gesture which might seem consolatory—a role beauty has traditionally played. It was frequently asserted in the artworld, by artists and critics, that beauty was an inappropriate response to an ugly social reality, that beauty and aesthetics represented a dangerous form of quietism that distracted one from the action that is imperative to change existing repressive political relationships.[61] Certain strains in modernist and postmodernist critiques cast beauty as a form of consolation, as a means of ‘mitigating bitter truth’ when the morally superior response would be to admit that truth and actively fight it: ‘And to the degree that this represents the current attitude, it is not difficult to see what has happened to beauty in contemporary art. It is not art’s business to console. If beauty is perceived as consolatory, then it is morally inconsistent with the indignation appropriate to an accusatory art’.[62]

The postmodern critical establishment disparaged aesthetics as pertaining to a discredited modernism that it sought to abandon. It found it difficult to accept that aesthetics and politics could co-exist, and since politics were preferred, aesthetics were banned or ignored. Writing about one of the more controversial exhibitions of post-modern ‘issue-based’ art, The Whitney Biennial of 1993, Michael Kelly noted that the critics ‘of the left’, including Rosalind Krauss, refused to engage the work on its aesthetic properties, valuing only its conceptual register, while those critics ‘of the right’ such as Hilton Kramer dismissed the works on the basis of what was judged to be their impoverished aesthetics. Kelly concluded that while the exhibition presented a challenge to the dichotomy between art as either aesthetic and autonomous or political, that dichotomy remains ‘pervasive in discussions about art in general’.[63]

Let us now consider in more detail the rationale behind the so-called therapeutic institution’s disparagement of beauty, first by analysing Hal Foster’s early summary of postmodern concerns in The Anti-Aesthetic; second, by evaluating the objectives and political valency of abject art in the U.S. in the 1990s, again focussing closely on the theoretical valorisations of these anti-aesthetics by Foster; and finally by considering the consequences of the privileging of the sublime over beauty in postmodern art and theory. In early postmodern art, we can discern at least two manifestations of the anti-aesthetic, namely a practice heavily influenced by minimalism and conceptualism that aims for anti-illusionism through a denial of visual access to the viewer, and another strand more indebted to the Pop legacy which deployed appropriation and image-saturation to the point of affectlessness. In both of these, to a greater or lesser degree, the ‘flatness’ that Hickey avers to is evident, a refusal of the greater ambit of visual rhetorics previously available to artists, and in certain cases a purposeful evocation of boredom. In later postmodern art, a reaction against the earlier almost single-minded preoccupation with representational effects saw the ‘return’ of the body to art, and the emergence of a different anti-aesthetic, this time concerned with revulsion and shock, in significant respects a re-run of Surrealist and Dada avant-garde strategies.[64]

Early postmodern anti aesthetics: affectlessness/closure/boredom

Integral to the therapeutic institution that Hickey railed against was the critical establishment that had emerged as the custodian of postmodern theory and powerful arbiter of advanced art given its enormous contribution in legitimising such practice; if art had become discourse, this was an unavoidable consequence. A key player in this critical establishment was Hal Foster—professor of art history at Cornell University and co-editor of October— who as early as 1983 had proposed that aesthetics were inimical to critical practice. In that year, Foster published an edited anthology that was to become a touchstone for postmodern art theory and practice. Entitled The Anti-Aesthetic, it contained now-classic essays including ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’ by Rosalind Krauss, ‘Critical Regionalism’ by Kenneth Frampton, and ‘On the Museum’s Ruins’ by Douglas Crimp. The title itself revealed a great deal about the place aesthetics occupied in the new postmodern landscape. Aesthetics had come to be equated with ‘official representations’, and Foster deployed the term ‘anti-aesthetic’ as a ‘rubric’ that encapsulated a variety of postmodern concerns:

A critique of Western representation(s) and modern “supreme fictions”; a desire to think in terms sensitive to difference…; a scepticism regarding autonomous “spheres” of culture or separate “fields” of experts; an imperative to go beyond formal filiations (of text to text) to trace social filiations (the institutional “density” of the text in the world); in short, a will to grasp the present nexus of culture and politics and to affirm a practice resistant both to academic modernism and political reaction.[65]

How ironic, if not entirely unpredictable, that within a decade it would be Foster and his cohort who would become the new academy of advanced art theory with its exclusive criteria of entry (and that within two decades that same cohort would be wondering why artists increasingly looked elsewhere for critical dialogue[66]). In any event, Foster’s ‘anti-aesthetic’ became shorthand for advanced art of the 80s and early 90s. The rubric of this early postmodern anti-aesthetic was a prescription for the disparagement of beauty as representing everything cloying, conservative and irrelevant about art, as being anathema to serious conceptual critique and necessarily aligned with commercial interests. Aesthetics came to be associated with a whole raft of misdemeanours: suspect ‘official representations’ that were used to legitimise existing power relationships and repress difference; the claim that art could exist outside of and untainted by politics; the privileged position of the artist/author who professed originality and autonomy; the belief in a unified subject capable of a meaningful aesthetic experience; faith in the ability of language, including visual language, to express feeling and communicate effectively; the interpretation of artworks according to their internal, formal properties rather than by reference to a cultural context; and art that pandered to the market, for to be beautiful was equated with being commercial. As art struggled to define its role vis a vis popular culture, and as discourse-based art strove to distinguish itself from the market-bolstering ‘hot’ painting of the trans-avant-garde, beauty increasingly came to be associated with tainted, uncritical commercial interests.

Foster asserted that ‘the very notion of aesthetics, its network of ideas is in question here’, that is, the traditional Romantic/modernist association of aesthetics with disinterest, autonomy, universality, and the idea that art can effect a ‘symbolic totality’. Foster even jettisoned Theodor Adorno’s notion of aesthetics as a ‘critique of the world as it is’, that is, as ‘subversive, a critical interstice in an otherwise instrumental world’. For, to Foster this criticality was now ‘largely illusory’. What remained was rather ‘a new strategy of interference’, one allegedly driven neither by modernist utopianism nor modernist negation, a strategy that became manifest in early postmodern art: art concerned with the critique of the subject and focused on the image-screen to illustrate that the subject was dictated by the symbolic order; art that was either anti-illusionistic and hence anti-visual or which vaunted the simulacral status of the image to the point of affectlessness; and, art that sought to break the repressive economy of the gaze (and which ultimately granted artist and viewer little agency).[67]

Foster was at pains to distinguish the postmodern anti-aesthetic from ‘modernist nihilism’, marked as it was by ‘negation’ or ‘espoused in the anarchic hope of an “emancipatory effect”’; his brand of anti-aesthetic was not ‘utopian’ but ‘rather a critique which restructures the order of representations in order to reinscribe them’.[68] That is, modernism with its investment in the autonomy of aesthetics had failed in its attempt to subvert existing power regimes, instead eventually becoming the official culture; postmodern art must therefore do the opposite, abandon autonomy, thereby abandon aesthetics, and engage directly with the vernacular. The distinction Foster seeks to assert proved to be hardly clear-cut, however (as I elaborate in Chapter 5 when considering the Australian version of the anti-aesthetic). Early postmodern anti-aesthetic works, with their critique of representation, traditional modes of viewing and aesthetic response, were most certainly associated with political projects, notably feminism, and critically contextualised in terms of their ‘resistant’ or ‘transgressive’ qualities. It may be true that the radically changed socio-political context for such artistic responses inevitably altered their meaning and effect, and that with faith in grand narratives thoroughly shaken, any notion of utopia became problematic. However  it is also true that a kindred avant-garde impulse to challenge the perceived forces of conformity—by demonstrating what they repressed in order to function—was nonetheless operative in much early postmodern art. Despite claims to the contrary, postmodernism arguably failed to undermine the avant-garde’s self-conscious mission to compel the ‘bourgeois public’ into an acknowledgement of the ills and hypocrisies of its society and the artworld as its microcosm[69]. Moreover, as Paul Mattick points out, Foster’s strategic distinction evaporated as quickly as postmodern art became the new official culture.[70]

Robert Morgan notes that ‘the anti-aesthetic, frequently associated with postmodernism in visual arts, [was] not so much a style as a method of critique’, characterised by the rejection of quality and originality.[71] To Morgan, the wane of aesthetics in postmodernism was a result of the waging of intellectual war on Eurocentric art that was cast as merely a representation of a much broader yet concealed history of colonialism and expansion: ‘In such a climate, aesthetics was no longer useful…what replaced aesthetics was a sort of applied theory’.[72] Morgan goes on to argue that for postmodern criticism and the art it favoured, aesthetics as such, the visual rhetoric of the work, interfered with the theoretical arguments about the work that, in accordance with conceptualism’s legacy, had come to be privileged.[73] Postmodern criticism also recoiled from the phenomenon of experience in relation to a work of art; experience was nearly relinquished or usurped in favour of theory, so that criticism became more a philosophical or sociological inquiry with little to do with aesthetics.[74] The discursive method was essentially a cynical one—Morgan cites the criticism of Benjamin Buchloh as an example—a method not unrelated to hyperrationality, which entailed the denial of the subject’s experience as a pre-eminent concern in critical writing.[75] This position emanated from one of the central thrusts of postmodern philosophy, the critique of the subject and the feeling of subjectivity, both of which are predicates for the traditional understanding of the aesthetic experience.[76] As a consequence of this lack of desire for aesthetics, Morgan claims that criticism lost its contact with the object, and experience no longer had a language.[77]

The critique of the subject was central to the postmodern abandonment of aesthetics, as encapsulated in another key text of the postmodern condition, Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism or the Logic of Late Capitalism. As is well known, here Jameson identified the postmodern condition with the ‘wane of affect’. As the subject of modernism is eclipsed, so too is the possibility of the aesthetic experience, which relies on feeling:

The end of the bourgeois ego, or monad, no doubt brings with it the end of the psychopathologies of that ego—what I have been calling the wane of affect…As for the expression of feelings and emotions, the liberation, in contemporary society, from the older anomie of the centred subject may also mean not merely a liberation from anxiety but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling. This is not to say that the cultural products of the postmodern era are utterly devoid of feeling, but rather that such feelings—which may be better and more accurately following Jean-Francois Lyotard, to call intensities—are now free-floating and impersonal and tend to be dominated by a peculiar kind of euphoria’.[78]

That wane of affect, to the point of affectlessness, is of course already evident in one of the key reference points of early postmodern practice, the work of Andy Warhol. Although there has been much debate as to whether Warhol’s affectlessness does not disguise some engaged, critical quality[79], it is generally agreed, by critics across the ideological spectrum, that Warhol’s art represents an effacement of the self, disconnection from feeling, a simulacral deployment of the image that undermines its referential power.[80] Integral to a traditional understanding of aesthetics is the emotional register of the aesthetic experience. American philosopher of aesthetics Henry David Aiken wrote in the 1950s that it is ‘undeniable’ that the quality and value of works of art is in part determined by ‘the richness and depth of their emotional expressiveness’; but the representation of that expression must be understood as such, for without such understanding any emotion the observer feels would remain the ‘private, dumb, inexpressive importation of the observer himself’.[81] In direct contrast to this conception of aesthetics, the post-modern anti-aesthetic was characterised by a critique if not outright rejection of expression, and a loss of faith in the reliability of representation. Indeed, the postmodern anti-aesthetic was concerned to underline the failure of communication, to render both the work and the observer ‘dumb’, to undermine the observer’s expectation of a ‘meaningful dialogue’ with the artist or the artwork. The point was to promote a critical relationship with all representations and a consequent impulse to alter reality through altering representation, although it is also the case that many artists during this time relinquished pretensions to any political efficacy at all. An absence of critical purchase or political position indeed became de rigeur for many.[82]

Later postmodern anti-aesthetics: formlessness and abjection

As Foster himself observes, the limitations of this early postmodern anti-aesthetic became evident in works that focussed on the image-screen ‘to the neglect of the real on one side and sometimes to the neglect of the subject on the other’.[83] Hence the shift that Foster describes as ‘from reality as an effect of representation to the real as a thing of trauma’.[84] The most compelling instance of this ‘return of the real’ is abject art, a phenomenon that continues the anti-aesthetic impulse of the postmodern but in a very different guise: a shift from affectlessness to affect, but to the negative affects of horror, shock, disgust and revulsion.

Foster positions abject art as another form of anti-illusionist art, or critique of representation, one that tries to ‘evoke the real as such’, its ambition being ‘to tease out the trauma of the subject’.[85] Its critical framework relied largely on the thought of French philosopher Julia Kristeva, for whom abjection marked the limit of subjectivity—the abject is what must be ejected for the subject to properly constitute him/herself—and is what becomes evident when subjectivity is threatened. Hence, abject art continues the early postmodern assault on subjectivity, although at the same time seeks to access the truth of the subject outside the chimera of representations. In general, according to Foster, abject art took two directions: one, identifying with the abject and probing the wound of trauma; and two, representing the condition of abjection in order to provoke its operation; Foster compares these strategies to the divergence in Surrealism in the 1930s between ‘excrement-philosopher’ Georges Bataille and ‘idealist aesthete’ Andre Breton. On one hand, in the Bretonian tradition, abject art amounted to ‘Oedipal naughtiness’ where artists provoked the paternal law ‘as if to ensure that it is still there—at best as a neurotic plea for punishment, at worst a paranoid demand for order’. Here, the work in a sense was only completed once the law intervened, as in the notorious case of Andres Serrano and U.S. Senator Jesse Helms elaborate briefly in a footnote, provide date. The artists Foster associates with this direction tended to be women, including Kiki Smith and Rona Pondick. On the other hand, in the Bataillian tradition, abjection amounted to ‘infantile perversion’, wallowing ‘in shit with the secret faith that the most defiled might reverse into the most sacred, the most perverse into the most potent’.[86] The artists identified with this direction tended to be men, including Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, whose ‘shit movement’ Foster interprets as ‘a turning from the father that is a twisting of his law’. In describing Kelley’s practice, and the central role trash, shit and detritus play within it, Foster evokes many of the qualities of late postmodern anti-aesthetics:

The result is an art of lumpen [from the German word for rag that gives us Marx’s lumpenproletariat: ‘the scum, the leavings, the refuse of all classes’] forms (dingy toy animals stitched together in ugly masses, dirty throw rugs laid over nasty shapes), lumpen subjects (pictures of dirt and trash) and lumpen personae (dysfunctional men that build weird devices ordered from obscure catalogues in basements and backyards). Most of these things resist formal shaping, let alone cultural sublimating or social redeeming.[87]

Drawing on Bataille’s transgressive ‘informe’, Kristeva’s liminal abject, and Adorno’s notion of the aesthetically revolting as decrying domination, Foster’s analysis locates abject art in terms of its purported challenge to the social law and the cultural exigencies of subjectivity.[88] The abject tests the boundaries of sublimation set by bourgeois society, it disturbs identity, system and order in the individual and in society. While Foster’s analysis does not consider the abject from the perspective of the art institution, I would argue that abject art, particularly as practiced in lumpen mode, is very much aligned to the anti-skilling and outrage to taste and connoisseurship that has long roots in modernism but were most coherently articulated in conceptual and post-conceptual practices. Robert Hughes traces the anti-skill impulse in advanced American art to the pronouncements of Clement Greenberg who regarded pictorial skill as ‘a snare and delusion’, deceptive and mind-fooling, ‘a claim to importance by minor artists’.[89] However, such an impulse has a much longer tradition in European art with the romance of ‘the primitive’ and the ‘unmediated’ that began with the earliest 20th century avant-gardes. When conceptual artists took up the anti-skill agenda in the 1960s and 70s, it was distinct from both these rationales; it became rather a challenge to the institution of art, to the narrow parameters within which value was awarded, to the elitist claim that artists had visionary powers and ‘genius’, to the so-called ‘purity’ of art that did not countenance alternative modes of representing. With his inimitable dismissive wit, Hughes blusters that in the U.S., by the 1990s, anti-skill ‘was so far internalised that it became simply a rationale for having little or no technique; and at this point it acquired political virtue by a semantic trick: the disparaging of the word “mastery”’. In other words, an artist could ‘subvert’ painting simply by being bad at it, as was claimed on behalf of American artist Sue Williams. Hughes cites the catalogue of the notorious 1993 Whitney Biennale that legitimised ‘bad’ art thus: bad art ‘deliberately renounces success and power in favour of the degraded and the dysfunctional, transforming deficiencies into something positive in true Warholian fashion’.[90] This kind of abjection arguably ‘traps’ criticality within the institution, affording ‘the pleasure of striking more or less radical attitudes without the risk entailed in radical belief’, an argument that undermines the critical valency of abjection.[91] Hence, not only was abject anti-aesthetics fuelled by a desire to challenge the social law; it also found its raison d’etre by seeking to outrage taste and test the institutional limits of the artworld.[92]

The question then arises, how convincing were abject art’s claims to criticality, particularly given the rather hackneyed (and some would say thoroughly discredited) claims to ‘subversion’ and ‘transgression’ and the fact that the institution generously accommodated it? I will consider this at the conclusion of this chapter as a way of introducing the revitalised critical value of beauty. However, it remains to consider another key aspect to the postmodern anti-aesthetic, the privileging of the sublime over beauty.

 

The sublime over Beauty

The breaching of the body, the gaze devouring the subject, the subject becoming the space…: these conditions are evoked in recent art…It recalls the perverse idea of the beautiful, redefined in terms of the sublime, advanced in Surrealism: a convulsive possession of the subject given over to a deathly jouissance…[comprising] ecstasy in the imagined breakdown of the …symbolic order;…horror at this …event followed by despair about it.[93]

So Foster in The Return of the Real explicitly links the abject with the sublime in contemporary art. Abjection suggests an all-powerful negativity, formlessness, the ultimate challenge to the subject: precisely the qualities of the sublime. The sublime captured the imagination of many a poststructuralist thinker and postmodern artist for its infinitude, unrepresentability, and elusion of language, appealing qualities for a project that aimed to challenge the perceived univocal authority of dominant discourse and sought avenues for the expression of difference.

As early as his introductory essay to the quintessential postmodern anthology, The Anti-Aesthetic, and again in The Return of the Real, Foster had already averred to the return of the ‘surrealist revolt’ in postmodern art as marking some of the key characteristics of this art of ‘resistance’. In Compulsive Beauty, Foster develops his anti-aesthetics, further exploring the connection between the abject and the sublime. Here, he argues for the replacement of beauty—and love and liberation as Breton would have had it—by the sublime—‘traumatic shock, deadly desire, [and] compulsive repetition’—as the founding impulse of Surrealism, a movement that was to prove so important to the critical art of the late 20th century.[94] For the ‘compulsive beauty’ of the Surrealists, argues Foster, has less to do with beauty than with the sublime: it not only stresses the formless and evokes the unpresentable, but it also ‘mixes delight and dread, attraction and repulsion…a negative pleasure’. Convulsive beauty, despite Breton’s efforts to distinguish death from beauty, is like the sublime, it ‘involves the patriarchal subject in the inextricability of death and desire’[95].

Such aesthetics are precisely what has prompted certain attempts to reverse the privileged relation between beauty and the sublime in contemporary art, including Philip Fisher’s revitalisation of wonder as an alternative to fear in our response to the world—considered in the Chapter 3: In Defence of Beauty[96] —and Wendy Steiner’s analysis of the denigration of beauty and hope on account of modernism’s romance with the sublime.

Both modernism and postmodernism in different ways romanced the sublime, denigrating beauty by comparison. While, as noted in the introductory history of beauty, beauty and the sublime have come to inform each other, both in Kant’s ‘taming’ of the sublime and in contemporary reconceptualisations of beauty, the privileging of the sublime in the theory and practice of modernism and postmodernism played a key role in the denigration of beauty. In Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in 20th Century Art (2001), American English professor and cultural theorist Wendy Steiner argues that the Kantian sublime has dominated modern and contemporary art for the last century to the exclusion of beauty. The sublime, characterised as incommensurable, unattainable, overwhelming and terrifying, became the guiding spirit of the modernists, and despite some critiques in postmodernism, still ruled most contemporary art until very recently. Steiner associates the sublime with a profound negativity, with hopelessness and an acceptance of the inevitability of devastation that distinguishes much modern art from its pre-modern counterparts. She also associates the championing of the sublime and the concomitant derogation of beauty with a pervasive misogyny in Western culture. Beauty came to be associated with the feminine—domesticity, ornament, modesty of scale, sensual pleasure—and just as femininity was marginalised as conservative and frivolous in the avant-garde stakes, so was beauty.

Even the upending of many modernist truths by postmodern critiques—the celebration of carnival, humour and the supplemental, the privileging of impurity and miscegenation, the insistence on materiality and contingency—did not entirely remove the sublime’s hold on artistic expression, as was argued above with the example of abject art. Indeed, postmodern criticism saw the renewed valorisation of the sublime as the principle of ‘advanced’ art.[97] Jean-Francois Lyotard, whose theory of the postmodern sublime proved extremely influential to a generation of artists, pronounced, ‘Since the turn of the century, the arts no longer deal with the beautiful but with something like the sublime’[98] and ‘I think in particular that it is in the aesthetic of the sublime that modern art…finds its impetus and that the logic of the avant-garde finds its axioms’.[99] According to Lyotard, the sublime in art is enticing to philosophers as ‘the gap through which the work escapes being converted into meaning’.[100] That is, the sublime appeals to poststructuralism’s embrace of formlessness, of that beyond representation that does not fall captive to the logocentrism inherent in language. Whereas the beautiful ‘in nature concerns the form of the object, which consists in the object being bounded…the sublime can also be found in a formless object in so far as we present unboundedness’.[101] Lyotard ventures that with modern art, artists turned from the presentation of form—beauty—towards an attempt to access matter, presence, without form—the sublime; they turned from assuming an affinity between nature and understanding in form, to a desire to do without such understanding that necessarily subscribed to pre-existing concepts. To access matter without form, Lyotard enthused, means to experience an ‘invasion of nuance’, an ‘infinity of harmonies’.[102] His theories inspired a great deal of art that sought to evade meaning through formlessness or evade language and representation through silence.

Despite the association of 18th century conceptions of the sublime with nature, the postmodern sublime was radically severed from nature. Poststructuralist critique had exposed nature as inherently constructed and totally suffused by culture. With the fall of nature as a legitimate subject and source of inspiration for art-making came the concomitant aversion to explorations of the beauty of nature in art. Indeed at the peak of the anti-aesthetic in contemporary art, it would have been difficult (if not laughable!) to make work within the institutional framework of ‘advanced art’ that treated the natural environment poetically as a source of wonder and joy.[103] Rather than a response to nature in its overwhelming power (as the sublime was interpreted by Romantic painters, for example), the sublime in postmodern terms was indeed much closer to the abject, as Foster proposed, a sublime evoked in the shattered subject, in loss of meaning, in formlessness and instability.

Let us now consider the political valency of the/an abject anti-aesthetic in order to question why beauty and affirmative aesthetics had been so devalued and marginalised in postmodern advanced art.

The political valency of abjection anti-aesthetic

The political valency of an (abject) anti-aesthetic (of abjection)

Having considered Foster’s 1980s pronouncements on advanced art, the phenomenon of abject art and the postmodern sublime, we can come to some understanding of the postmodern anti-aesthetic and its repudiation of traditional aesthetics as not just ill-equipped to handle, but veritable anathema, to the exigencies of a resistant practice in late capitalist culture.[104] Yet it is curious that the postmodern anti-aesthetic should repudiate beauty given that modernism had already done such a thorough job; in other words, repudiating beauty meant perpetuating a modernist strategy. Presumably, one argument would be that postmodernism’s critique of the pillars of modernist aesthetics—formalism, disinterestedness and autonomy—marked a clear break between the two approaches. However, it is indisputable that critique of these shibboleths was already well underway in several modernist movements—indeed, as we have seen, Foster, amongst other theorists, looked to Surrealism and Dada in order to explain the critical operation of postmodern practice. Perhaps another argument might be that only certain strands of modernism disdained beauty, namely those very critical strands that Foster et al valorised over the ‘conservative’ strands that peaked with formalism in the 1950s—that is, materialist Surrealism valorised over idealist Surrealism, Dada and Duchamp over Cubism and Picasso, (let alone Matisse). However, such arguments oversimplify a complex negotiation of beauty whereby it was expunged or lacerated by most modernist movements and particularly those accorded the highest institutional regard. VR comment: yes, this thought has been recurring for me while reading: that a function of an anti-aesthetic approach may indeed have been to differentiate the advanced art sheep from the populist– I know what I like–goats…ie. Those other, non-institutional, art practices. Common people commonly like beauty and they need special education to divest themselves of this urge… to become advanced. Political, even class, issues arise.. Aah, and a page on, I see that Perniola suggests something along these lines…

What is also curious is that advanced postmodern practice persisted in engaging with anti-aesthetic gestures—including attempts to outrage and shock which had clear antecedents in early modernism—when not only had dominant social values and political realities radically changed, but the whole idea of a transgressive avant-garde had been so thoroughly problematised. These anti-aesthetics indeed smack of bad faith. Having undermined their own capability to perform a social function, eschewing all notions of utopianism, these anti-aesthetic gestures merely go through the motions of ‘transgression’ without a rationale. Indeed they become part of a new conformism, the conformism of abjection, to use French philosopher Paul Virilio’s recent phrase.[105] As Foster also suggests, if the symbolic order/image-screen is deemed to be torn, then to attack it ‘might be beside the point’; even Foster’s critical alternative, ‘to expose [the order] in crisis, to register its points not only of breakdown but of breakthrough’ does not appear convincing as a description of the ‘shit movement’ of abject art.[106] Moreover, if postmodern anti-aesthetics were a reaction to the stultifying dictates of formalism and high modernism, these were long dead and buried. Indeed, it could be argued that postmodern anti-aesthetics may well have misrecognised its enemy.

The art of abjection that aims to disgust presumably is only effective if its audience is still capable of this affect. As Danto argues, ‘it would be of no value to such artists if a taste for the disgusting were normalised’; it is essential to the aims of such art ‘that the disgusting remain disgusting, not that audiences learn to take pleasure in it’[107], or alternatively, become completely inured to it or bored by it.[108] And yet, there is much to suggest that contemporary culture has indeed normalised disgust. One critic, the director of the Musee Picasso in Paris Jean Clair, has argued that the anti-aesthetics of ‘repulsion, abjection, horror and disgust’ form a ‘new aesthetic category’, whereby disgust now occupies the position previously held by taste.[109]

Another issue pertinent to the political valency of the anti-aesthetic was its descent into inscrutability. One of the initial objectives of anti-aesthetics, for example as practised both  by the Dadaists and certain postmodern artists influenced by conceptualism and minimalism, was to ‘deflate’ the art object by reducing it to a thing in the world, undifferentiated from other objects. However, all too often the result was that anti-aesthetic works were ‘unreadable as art by any public other than that educated in advanced aesthetic theory’.[110] Indeed, the work, rather than become more accessible to the audience through its use of vernacular materials, intimidated the viewer in a similar, if distinct, manner to high modernism—a point Dave Hickey argues as one of the compelling reasons for the return of beauty (see Chapter 4). As Paul Mattick surmises,

While the anti-aesthetic has meant a repudiation of Greenberg’s identification of modernism with non-linguistic visuality, language here still hovers outside the artwork (even when that work consists of text) as the explanation, external to it, necessary for its full functioning as art.[111]

The reactionary impulse of reproducing disgust and abjection in art has also been noted and analysed by Italian philosopher of aesthetics Mario Perniola. Citing Derrida and Kristeva, Perniola points out that not only can the negative pleasure of the sublime still be sublimated and overcome in art, but even the disgusting—the one dimension thought by Kant to be incapable of being absorbed by aesthetics, a dimension that seems to be irremediable and unmentionable, absolutely ‘other’ to the system—can be relieved by vomiting, by expulsion.[112] To Perniola, the aesthetics of difference would have yielded ‘disappointing results’ if the only options are disgust and abjection, for these remain as categories that privilege their opposite: ‘the aesthetics of difference cannot be an aesthetics of disease, of trash, of abjection, because they are an indirect way of confirming identity and positivity’. In other words, ‘transgression’ has become a thoroughly culturally accommodated value. Moreover, Perniola adds, ‘our research of an extreme negativity, the total abandonment of any criticism of the most brutal and disgusting reality, makes us fall victim to spiritualism, to fanaticism, to the most repressive tradition. The effort towards emancipation, the motive force of difference, is cruelly defeated’. Perniola warns that ‘it is naïve to think that the negative owns a kind of integrity and autonomous splendour and to think evil as if it were good’.[113] In other words, attempts to deploy anti-aesthetics, particularly those associated with abjection, as the exclusive means of forging a critical art have backfired. Such anti-aesthetics run the risk of reinforcing existing power structures, of damning the lumpen to its ‘proper’ place, of underlining rather than offering alternatives to the abject horror evinced by certain aspects of post-capitalist society.[114]

This is a view shared by Paul Virilio who proposes that abjection has become the new conformism, one that ‘innovates an academicism of horror, an official art of macabre entertainment’. Virilio, like Foster and Perniola, also traces the anti-aesthetics of contemporary art to its modernist forebears. In his most recent publication, Art and Fear, Virilio writes that ‘it was through the carnage of the First and Second World Wars that modern art from German Expressionism and Dada to Italian Futurism, French Surrealism and American Abstract Expressionism…developed first a reaction to alienation and second a taste for anti-human cruelty’. This observation prefaces his remarks about contemporary artists, who, ‘spellbound by human violence’, have ‘abandoned their function of continually reassessing the creative practices and sensibilities, imagination and cultural meaning of advanced societies’.[115] Rather, such artists have ‘murder[ed the] signs of artistic pity in the name of freedom of artistic expression’, enforced ‘the artistic suppression of sympathy’, and sought to destroy ‘careful viewer contemplation’.[116] It is a loss of compassion and pity Virilio attributes partly to art’s loss of contact with nature[117], and its increasing identification with the values and aspirations of digitised post-capitalism. The modern and postmodern impulse to shatter the subject and evoke the sublime of abjection tragically coincided all too easily with the horror of contemporary social and political realities: ‘You would think the drive to extinguish the suffocating culture of the bourgeoisie consisted specifically in exterminating oneself into the bargain,…thus giving ideas…to the great exterminators of the 20th century’.[118] Virilio adds that the ‘the verbal delirium’ of modernism ‘seems so oblivious to its own century and yet condescends to preach to the world in the name of freedom of expression…we are now supposed to break the being, the unicity of humankind’.[119] In reference to Adorno’s powerful maxim that after Auschwitz it is obscene to write poetry, Virilio surmises, ‘Whether Adorno likes it or not, the spectacle of abjection remains the same, after as before Auschwitz. But it has become politically incorrect to say so. All in the name of freedom of expression, a freedom contemporary with the terrorist politics Joseph Goebbels described as ‘the art of making possible what seemed impossible’’.[120]

In the contemporary cultural climate, claims Virilio, an ‘escalation in extremism’ has brought with it a concomitant rise in insignificance, ‘with significance going the way of the heroic nature of old-fashioned official art’.[121] This is a key point in the politics of late postmodern anti-aesthetics, which vaunts its insignificance and worthlessness as a perverse form of cultural capital. As Virilio observes, ‘without limits, there is no value; without value there is no esteem, no respect and especially no pity…everywhere you turn, you hear the words that precede that fatal habituation to the banalisation of excess’.[122]

5          Conclusion

There is an intriguing and disturbing continuity between modernism and postmodernism in their disparagement, suspicion and casting out, of beauty. What is so dangerous about beauty? Surely the vehemence of its disparagement indicates that the primary motive was not simply repudiating conservatism. Does beauty challenge institutional power too directly through its democratic impulse? Does it threaten the legitimacy of the critical establishment? Is it simply ‘too much’, ‘uncontrollable’, in a radically different way to the excess of abjection?[123] Is it the fear of hope that makes beauty so untouchable? As we have seen, late postmodern anti-aesthetics—the art of trash, shit, lumpen forms and abjection—continued to dominate advanced art practice well into the 1990s (and beyond, in many instances) even when its critical purchase was clearly exhausted. Surely it was now time to reassess the critical potential of beauty, precisely the task to which this thesis now turns.

Jaqueline Millner


[1] Michael Petry, A Thing of Beauty Is…, p 7

[2] Guy Sircello, Love and Beauty, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989, p 4

[3] This is propounded, for example, by Marwick in his sociological study of human beauty since the Renaissance, as well as Ivan Gaskell in his entry on Beauty in Critical Terms for Art History: ‘One reason why many contemporary scholars avoid the use of such terms as…”beautiful”…is that such terms are associated with pleasure. We generally hold the experience of beauty to be pleasurable. Part of the heritage of modernism is its disavowal of pleasure. This led to a distrust of the notion of the beautiful for much of the twentieth century, a distrust inscribed upon the agenda of modernism. Under modernism, pleasure was trivial or a distraction from modern art’s work of uncovering authenticity.’: p 272.

[4] For example, Adorno and Benjamin.

[5] On the other hand, of course, there are strands in postmodern theory where such market co-optation is seen as inevitable.

[6] Stephen Regan, ‘Introduction: The return of the aesthetic’ in The Politics of Pleasure: Aesthetics and Cultural Theory, London: Open University Press, 1992

[7] Tony Bennett, ‘Really Useless “Knowledge”: A Political Critique of Aesthetics’, first published in Literature and History (1987) and recently reprinted in Outside Literature (1990).

[8] Regan, pp 3, 12

[9] For example, British literary critic I.A. Richards who posed a challenge to Clive Bell and Roger Fry’s notion of the aesthetic experience as having unique value.

[10] Mario Perniola, ‘Feeling the Difference’, James Swearingen & Joanne Cutting-Grey, (eds.), Extreme Beauty: Aesthetics, Politics, Death, New York & London: Continuum, 2002, pp 4-5

[11] Perniola goes on to argue that there are means by which aesthetics— sensations, emotions, affections—can be released from the tyranny of the subjectivity of feeling, of the ‘I feel’.  Relying on postmodern theorists of the text, especially Roland Barthes, Perniola develops a notion of the ‘sex appeal of the inorganic’ whereby aesthetic pleasure can be derived through the ‘it feels’, where the ‘it’ is the text: See Mario Perniola, ‘Feeling the Difference’, James Swearingen & Joanne Cutting-Grey, (eds.), Extreme Beauty: Aesthetics, Politics, Death, New York & London: Continuum, 2002

[12] James Soderholm, Beauty and the Critic: Aesthetics in the Age of Cultural Studies, Tuscaloosa & London: University of Alabama Press, 1997, p 2

[13] Soderholm, p 3

[14] Richard Shusterman, Performing Live: Aesthetic Alternatives to the End of Art, Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 2000, p 5

[15] Isobel Armstrong, The Radical Aesthetic, Oxford & Menton: Blackwell Publishers, 2000, p 1

[16] Pacteau, p 13

[17] Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just, p 57

[18] Paul Crowther,  Kantian Sublime, p 3

[19] Danto, Abuse of Beauty, p 25

[20] ‘Kassel Rock: Robert Storr talks to Documenta’s Catherine David’, Artforum, 36 #9 May 1997, cited in Neal Benezra, ‘The Misadventures of Beauty’ in Benezra (ed.), Regarding Beauty, Washington: Hirschhorn Museum and Scupture Garden, 1999

[21] Neal Benezra, ‘The Misadventures of Beauty’ in Benezra (ed.), Regarding Beauty,  Washington: Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 1999, p 19

[22] As represented by the influential theorists grouped around October in the US, and its sphere of influence, including the views expressed in Artforum, and in Australia, those approaches privileged in the pages of Art & Text, and in the various art theory departments in conceptually-based art colleges

[23] Rex Butler & Morgan Thomas, ‘Tracey Moffatt: From Something Singular to Something More’, Eyeline 45 Autumn/Winter 2001, p 23

[24] James Hillman, The Practice of Beauty, p 162

[25] cited in Danto AB p 39, find original source.

[26] In A Season in Hell (1873), Rimbaud writes, ‘One evening, I sat Beauty on my knee, and I found her bitter, and I abused her’: cited in Danto, Abuse of Beauty, p 39

[27] Danto, Abuse of Beauty, p 40

[28] As Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmeyer notes, the early modernists came to associate beauty with social repression and the strictures of convention, ‘the rigid decorum imposed from above’: p 284. Ugliness—as manifest in the grotesque, the primitive, irregularity and naivete—to the modernists promised ‘an aggressive aesthetic of renewal’: p 288: Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmeyer, ‘Ugliness’, Nelson and Shiff (eds).

[29] Arthur C. Danto, Beauty for Ashes p 184

[30] Benezra, The Misadventures of Beauty, p 23

[31] Particularly influential was Joseph Kosuth’s art historical revisions and popularisation of Duchamp’s extraordinary theoretical interventions in art.

[32] Note however the argument advanced by Thierry de Duve that Duchamp’s readymades are less anti-aesthetic than meta-aesthetic, that is about how aesthetic judgements are made.

[33] Danto, Abuse of Beauty, p 46

[34] Danto AB p 49

[35] Danto AB p 57

[36] Danto, AB. P 48

[37] Danto, Beauty for Ashes, p 185

[38] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 1997, p 50, cited in Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, p 283.

[39] Walter Benjamin, cited in Abigail Solomon-Godeau, ‘The Armed Vision Disarmed’, Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions and Practices, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991, p 68

[40] Jean Dubuffet in Anticultural Positions (1953?), Barnett Newman in ‘The Sublime is Now’ (1953).

[41] For example, Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning and Robert Morris’ Statement of Aesthetic Withdrawal.

[42] Benezra, Misadventures of Beauty, p 31

[43] Gabriele Guercio, Introduction, Joseph Kosuth, Art After Philosophy and After: Collected Writings, 1966-1990, Cambridge, Mass. & London: MIT Press, 1991, p xxv

[44] Guercio, p xxviii

[45] Paul Mattick comments, however, that for all Kosuth’s purported refusal of aesthetics, in his writings and in his art he nonetheless continued to rely on aesthetic principles: ‘Kosuth’s account of Conceptualism is remarkable like the “formalism” he vociferously attacks, describing artworks as “analytical propositions” providing no information about the world outside art but “asserting” only that they are works of art : see ‘The Aesthetics of Anti-aesthetics’in Art in its Time, op.cit.

[46] Estelle Jussim, ‘Icons or Ideology: Steiglitz & Hine’, The Eternal Moment: Essays on the Photographic Image, New York: Aperture, 1989

[47] As Estelle Jussim notes in the context of considering the different status of ‘art’ photography on the one hand and ‘engaged’ photography on the other.

[48] Kelly offers a number of examples, including Rosalind Krauss’ reading of Lorna Simpson’s work which disregarded elements that she claimed disrupted the ‘signifier of the work’, Fredric Jameson’s reading of Robert Gober’s work, and Janine Antoni’s own assertion that her work was motivated by aesthetic reasons: Kelly, pp 237-242

[49] Benezra, Misadventures of Beauty, p 35

[50] Peter Williams, ‘When Less is More, More or Less: Subtraction and Addition in (Post) modernist Poetics’, Extreme Beauty, op.cit., p 40

[51] Sue Best, ‘Banality, Burnout and Intensification’, p 15

[52] Zeglin Brand, Symposium: Beauty Matters, JAAC, p 3

[53] Hickey, ‘Prom Night in Flatland’, p 41

[54] ibid. p 47

[55] Henry David Aiken, p 265

[56] Dave Hickey, ‘Prom Night in Flatland’, The Invisible Dragon, p 40

[57] Hickey, ‘Enter the Dragon’, pp 11-12

[58] Hickey, ‘Prom Night in Flatland’, p 40

[59] Hickey, ‘After the Great Tsunami’, p 53

[60] Morgan, p 205

[61] In a sense, this position finds resonance in Kant’s proposition in his Third Critique that beauty is ‘disinterested’, that ‘an object may be deemed beautiful only when it pleases “apart from all interest”’: Arthur C. Danto, ‘Beauty and Morality’, in Bill Beckley & David Shapiro (eds.), Uncontrollable Beauty: Towards a New Aesthetics, New York: Allworth Press, 1998. However, as suggested throughout this thesis, re-readings of Kant suggest that ‘disinterest’ does not mean ‘apolitical’ or ‘uncritical’ as such.

[62] ibid. p 34

[63] Michael Kelly, ‘The Political Autonomy of Contemporary Art: the case of the 1993 Whitney Biennial’, in Salim Kemal & Ivan Gaskell (eds.), Politics and Aesthetics in the Arts, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p 222

[64] These two discernible tendencies in postmodern American art has also been remarked on in British art, if characterised in a somewhat different way: 1980s postmodernism as cerebral, lofty and intellectual, 1990s postmodernism seen to abandon the seriousness of the preceding decade and opt for the base and the dumb (as in stupid, not mute): John Roberts in ‘Mad for It! Philistinism, the Everyday and New British Art’, Third Text 35, Summer 1996. These tendencies are arguably also evident in Australian practice as I elaborate in Chapter 4.

[65] Foster, AA, p xv

[66] This is certainly the central question preoccupying the founding editors of October in a recent roundtable on the perceived current crisis in art criticism and theory: See October Roundtable, 2002

[67] Foster describes this phenomenon in Return of the Real, p 146

[68] Foster AA p xv

[69] Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths

[70] Paul Mattick, p 127

[71] Robert Morgan, The End of the Art World, p 203

[72] Morgan, p 5

[73] Akin perhaps to Danto’s postulation that with postmodernism came the end of art in that art now amounted to arguments about it, to the discourse of art.

[74] Morgan, p 35

[75] Morgan, p 36

[76] See Perniola

[77] Morgan, p 27. Morgan argues that  ‘experience of the work of art is the fundamental ingredient in one’s critical response, the foundation of any authentic interpretation’ and entails both thought and feeling (the allusion here is to phenomenology)(29) Morgan argues that without experience, there is no possibility for taking a position: semiotics, formalism, or deconstruction are theoretical positions that if used in relation to one’s experience may be useful instruments of interpretation, but if uncoupled from experience, becomes vacuous and dangerously abstracted.

The current artworld begs for the wilful absence of experience on the part of critics (30)

[78] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, cited A Postmodern Reader, p 319

[79] For example, in the writings of Thomas Crow, ‘Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol’, Serge Guibault, (ed.), Reconstructing Modernism, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990

[80] Hal Foster refers to this view of Warhol in Return of the Real, pp127-130, while in American Visions, Robert Hughes comments that Warhol’s importance stems from one central insight that he embodied, that there is a role for affectless art, that ‘[y]ou no longer need to be hot and full of feeling’. Hughes goes on to associate that loss of affect with death, remarking that ‘somewhere near the heart of Pop morbidity lurked’, and with the rejection of nature that Pop and minimalism shared: American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, London: Harvill Press, 1997, pp 539, 541, 563

[81] Henry David Aiken, p 270 (Aesthetics Today?)

[82] The prime example of this in American art was Jeff Koons. In Australia, John Young and Matthys Gerber epitomised this position.

[83] Foster RR, p 146

[84] Foster RR p 146

[85] Foster RR pp 152-153

[86] Foster RR p 159

[87] Foster RR p 164

[88] As Athanassoglou-Kallmyer reminds us, Georges Bataille’s notion of the informe ‘evoked not only lack of significant form or meaning, but also a process of aesthetic, moral, and physical degradation, the bringing of “things down in the world” by stripping them of all lofty references…Bataille viewed [the operation of the informe] as an aggression against established, academic, and bourgeois aesthetic demands and norms’: Athanassoglou-Kallmyer. P 291. For Adorno, in modern art’s ‘penchant… for the nauseating and physically revolting…the critical material motif shows thorough: In its autonomous forms, art decries domination’: Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 1997, p 49, cited in Athanassoglou-Kallmyer. P 293.

[89] Hughes, op. cit., p 613

[90] Hughes, op. cit, p 614

[91] Hughes, op. cit. p 613

[92] As Hughes quips, ‘nothing was more delicious to “advanced” taste than an enhanced sense of its own tolerance’: Hughes AV p 605

[93] Foster RR p 165

[94] Hal Foster, Compulsive Beauty, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993, p xi

[95] Foster, CB, p 29

[96] Fisher, Wonder, the Rainbow and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences,

[97] The now classic contribution to this debate was Jean-Francois Lyotard’s essay on the sublime in contemporary art. EXPAND

[98] Jean-Francois Lyotard, After the Sublime: The State of Aesthetics, David Carroll, (ed.), The States of Theory: History, Art and Critical Discourse, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990, p 297

[99] Lyotard, Art inTheory, p 1012

[100] Mark A. Cheetham, Kant, Art and Art History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p 102

[101] Kant, cited in Cheetham, p 105

[102] Lyotard, After the Sublime, p 301

[103] Of course, a great deal of contemporary art continued to respond to nature as a theme, but generally this was in terms of institutional critique, to comment on the collapse of the nature/culture divide, or as an ‘art of indignation’ that called attention to environmental crisis. Rarely would these works engage with the aesthetics of beauty, or of they did, rarely was this granted critical recognition: See for example, Fragile Ecologies. However, as the critical climate became more accommodating, works included in certain exhibitions themed around nature began to display more openly their engagement with aesthetics: for example, the biennial exhibition of Australian contemporary art, Perspecta: Between Art and Nature in 1997.

[104] It is interesting to note here Paul Mattick’s argument that even Hal Foster’s purported anti-aesthetics could not escape the aesthetic impulse: even when artists made work by taking components from non-art contexts, the result tended to function institutionally like aesthetic art, and moreover, the political efficacy of the works often relied on the formal choices of the artist: Mattick, pp 126-127

[105] Virilio, op.cit., p 55

[106] Foster, RR, p 157

[107] Danto AB p 53

[108] As in the following description by Rick Poyner of the audience for Jake and Dinos Chapman’s work Hell comprised of a large dioroma depicting in graphic miniature the atrocities of the Nazi regime in the exhibition Apocalypse: Beauty and Horror in Contemporary Art: snickering, gum-chewing adolescents, bored suits…from Obey the Giant

[109] ‘The Muses Decomposed’, presented at the Nexus Conference in Tilberg, The Netherlands, 21 May 2000, cited in Arthur C. Danto, Marcel Duchamp  and the End of Taste: A Defence of Contemporary Art, Tout-fait: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal, Vol 1 Issue 3, December 2000

[110] Mattick, p 128

[111] Mattick, p 128

[112] Mario Perniola, p 11

[113] Perniola, p 12

[114] Perniola proposes instead an aesthetics not of trash, but an aesthetics of recycling trash, illness, psychosis…that is, perhaps, of making beauty out of trash: Perniola, p 12

[115] Virilio, Art & Fear, p 4

[116] Virilio, Art & Fear, pp 5-7

[117] Virilio, AF, p 49

[118] Virilio A & F, pp 30-31

[119] Virilio, A & F, pp 32, 55

[120] Virilio, AF p 57

[121] Virilio, AF p 56

[122] Virilio, AF p 63

[123] Certainly the ‘excessiveness’ of beauty, and aesthetics more generally, is increasingly being invoked as an antidote to the confines of Theory: for example, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Peter Schjeldahl, and recent rhetoric about affect and emotion in art.

Copyright Jacqueline Millner

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