Saturday, August 4, 2012

Beauty and the sublime

I was talking about the art market a week or two ago, and what it says about our wider desires and purposes. I happened to read Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in Twentieth-Century Art in the last few days. The author is Wendy Steiner, who teaches English at U Penn and sits on some prominent prize award boards.

The book is a daringly ferocious criticism of modernism, and with it much of the "wasteland" of twentieth-century aesthetics and art. She argues modernism shunned beauty for a century, in favor of an aesthetics based on the Kantian sublime.

In modernism, the perennial rewards of aesthetic experience - pleasure, insight, empathy- were largely withheld, and its generous aim, beauty, was abandoned (page xv)

Kant thought of the sublime as an experience of limitless, of awe, of power.

Kant and Burke bequeathed to the West a taste for the sublime, an aesthetic experience in which beauty is a confrontation with the unknowable, the limitless, the superhuman. (5)

The sublime is pure and separate from personal interest, in a way the beautiful is not. Judgement of beauty is disinterested, impartial, autonomous and hence an exercise of freedom.

The main symbol of beauty had been the female subject, certainly in the nineteenth century, she says. The avant-garde did away with this.

Indeed, the history of twentieth century elite art is in many respects a history of resistance to the female subject as a symbol of beauty. (xix)

Mary Shelley was one of the first to question this, in Frankenstein. The creator sees his family killed and ends up wandering on the Arctic ice.

Mary Shelley thus pointed out the irony of the sublime: that in providing supposedly the most human of mental states, freedom, it utterly disregards love and family and pleasure, which have at least as much claim as freedom to define the "human". 9p13)

Steiner quotes Barnett Newman, who explicitly said in 1948 "The impulse of modern art is the desire to destroy beauty." (p111)

Instead, the beautiful was dismissed as the merely charming. Abstract form became more important than concrete reality, or the bourgeois notions of harmony, comfort, order or happiness. And there was a condescending interest in the "Other."

From expatriatism to the Jazz Age and the Surrealist's fascination with the "Imp of the Perverse' and the Marquis de Sade, modernists sought out the thrilling "other" to eperience the allure and charm they had eliminated from their art. (p49).

In practice, Kantian abstraction and sadistic interest went together.

The Outsider is the latest incarnation of the trouble with beauty in twentieth-century art, a replacement for the female subject and the process of intersubjective discovery she entails. In its fetishism modernism focused on various figures: the tribesman, the simpleton, the madman, the racial or social outcast. The avant-garde artist used the foreigness of the Other to perpetuate its sublime alienation. The self could be sought but never recognized in the Other, who is available for appropriation but never mutuality, empathy, respect. (p189)

It also entailed the rejection of "ornament".

Ornament belongs to the realm of play rarher than work, and its dominance implies the upset of the practical, pragmatic world. It threatens the notion of universal truth and value, being most subject to obsolescence. The dominance of an ornamental aesthetic would imply the suppression or outright dismissal of atemporal and ahistorical claims for art. Art would be understood as contextual, unabashedly adverstising its disdain for eternity.(p61)

Much followed from this - a rejection of the domestic sphere, for example, with its striving for charm and pleasure and harmony, and filled with feminine respectability and ornament. Constant impersonal and formal innovation was preferred.

There was a rejection of connection.

The avant-garde sensibility called for a deliberate estrangement of the artist from his subject. (p153)

In romance, the point is not to plunge oneself into strangeness and alterity forever, but to experience an Other so as to come home to a new self. Modernism, wedded to the heartless sublime, blocks any such accommodation. To the avant-garde sensibility, the achievement of a satisfying self-realization with an Other is a compromise, a retreat from transcendence. (p151-152).

Beauty, she says, is finally making a comeback since the late 1990s. Arid abstraction has run its course, but much of the arts establishment is still steeped in modernist thinking.

It is the task of contemporary art and criticism to imagine beauty as an experience of empathy and equality.(p xxv)

She develops her argument with a myriad of examples ranging from Bonnard to Basquiat, from Matisse to Rothko, from Don DiLillo to Phillip Roth. It's quite fascinating, even just as a display of intellectual fireworks. It is also one persuasive way to talk about art history - although for a subject as complicated and diverse as modernism, I suspect there is no entirely satisfactory explanation. And of course there could be any number of counterexamples.
I'd have to go back to the original thinking in Kant, and even before, to be convinced. I wonder if the sublime can be traced back before Kant and Burke - and I am not sure. I also wonder whether particular kinds of people are attracted to the sublime, and always have been. The answer is probably that before the eighteenth century and the enlightenment, these feelings were primarily expressed as a religious impulse. And so modernism is a deeper stream resurfacing, a strange civic religious mixture of austerity, puritanism and antinomianism.

The question is is Steiner's story an illuminating way to look at twentieth century art. I would have to say absolutely, although it cannot be the only one.

It also makes me think about the deep concerns about the aestheticization of politics that I mentioned regarding the Olympic opening ceremony. These apparently remote aesthetic deliberations can have vast consequences if, in Neronian style, leadership or government is confused with art. I've talked a lot on this blog about the need for more of an emphasis on purpose and on what people actually want out of daily life. In some ways that is a more connected, domestic kind of vision than some grand universalistic new order. It is much more friendly to beauty than the daring heights and terrifying abysses of the sublime.

Beauty also has a fundamental role in any conception of the good life.

Perhaps some people will never be attracted to a more attainable form of happiness - or, indeed, even happiness itself. We saw in Sarah Ahmed's book the Promise of Happiness a preference for the heroic political struggle for the "mayhap" over any conventional happiness, for example.

Aesthetics will affect the ends that people choose for themselves, and the ends that they even see. It rolls together ideas about connectedness, relations with others, autonomy and freedom, beauty and harmony and order which can be all the more insidiously powerful because they are not explicit - but just presented as matters of taste, of "comme il faut". One is seen as a rube for even questioning the implied ethics. Indeed, this is what class largely is these days, a set of unspoken norms and mannerisms and correct attitudes.

Taste is perhaps the least and most political thing of all.



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