Since I posted the Art Monthly essay on ugliness on the blog, I thought I’d add the article on beauty, too, which was first published in 2007 in AM 306.
Avantgardism interrupted the historical link between art and beauty. In recasting beauty as ideologically complicit with political power, while simultaneously cultivating a sensitivity to the repressed value of ugliness, avantgardism politicised beauty.
To see beauty as politically loaded is to brand private, subjective likes and dislikes as unintentional carriers of coded social information. Today, of course, this kind of political and social inscription (whether understood in terms of ideology, the social function of cultural distinction, suspicion about art’s institutions, the question of elitism or the social history of art and taste) is common currency, but it is a specifically modern conception.
Ancient, classical, medieval, Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers did not trouble themselves about how society weaves its way through our intimate experiences. The history of the emergence of this modern conception of socially inscribed behaviour is charted by Michael Rosen in his book On Voluntary Servitude where he argues that after the 18th Century, society wasseen for the first time as an active, behaviour-forming system or machine in which individual belief and conduct is explained as functional for or produced by society.
What is characteristic of premodern thinking is the conviction that society is simply the aggregate of individual choices and actions. However, Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ and Hegel’s ‘cunning of reason’ initiated a new conception of how individual actions were inextricably tied up with a greater whole. These were faint promises of what was to come – a fully-fledged theory of the ways in which society infiltrates the thoughts, feelings and actions of individuals in even the most private and subjective experiences.
Paul Ricoeur calls this modern interpretation of the relationship between the individual and society the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’. It was inaugurated, he says, by the works of Marx, Freud and Nietzsche. Ideology, the unconscious and the ‘will-to-power’ share a vital theoretical commitment to structures beyond the individual which decisively shape subjectivity itself. As a result, statements made by individuals about their intentions, beliefs and conduct cannot be accepted uncritically. Rather, the suspicion is that individuals are inevitably prey to forces that they cannot control – forces of which they are often entirely unaware.
When avantgardism took up the hermeneutics of suspicion in its diverse forms of cultural dissent, the resistance to beauty was part and parcel of the resistance to bourgeois culture generally. ‘Except in struggle, there is no more beauty’, wrote FT Marinetti in the 1905 Futurist Manifesto. Likewise, the Dadaist Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes put the Avant Garde’s antipathy to beauty in stark terms: ‘One is no longer concerned with knowing whether a thing is beautiful or ugly; whether it is logical, probable or fanciful – we pursue the ugly […]. And for the sake of strategy, since we must always be on the alert to avoid backsliding into habits which had become natural in the course of a long tradition – to prevent the beautiful, the noble, the exalted, the charming, the well-ordered, the perfect from catching the beast by the tail.’
The two most thoroughgoing avant-garde critiques of beauty come from the leading thinkers of Dada and Surrealism respectively, Marcel Duchamp and André Breton. Duchamp’s rules for selecting the Readymades, which he reported to be chosen according to complete visual indifference, deliberately left no room for beauty in art. Breton’s theory of ‘convulsive beauty’ took a different tack, violating the boundaries of traditional beauty with an intense experience of the object based on the hysteric rather than the aesthete.
Art after avantgardism tended to preserve the Avant Garde’s suspicion of beauty even when its politicisation had been cooled. Clement Greenberg, for instance, preferred to talk about works being ‘good’ or ‘successful’ rather than ‘beautiful’. After that, Pop was vulgar, Minimalism was literal, Conceptual Art was opposed to the visual and postmodernism was either more interested in the sublime or regarded beauty as one of art’s institutionalised discourses.
So, when Dave Hickey argued that the concept of beauty could be revived as a meaningful term for art criticism in the late 80s and early 90s, he was pitting himself against the entire history of Modernism and avantgardism, as well as the academics and curators of contemporary art’s institutions that he explicitly attacked. Unimpressed by the history of the politicisation of beauty, Hickey complains in his 1993 book The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty, ‘if you broached the issue of beauty in the American art world of 1988, you … ignited a conversation about the market’.
Hickey seemed to be stumped by the idea that artists, curators and writers might be wary of beauty, and makes no mention whatsoever of the history of avantgardism that animates the modern nervousness towards beauty. While it is not true that the art market was the source of the problem of beauty in art, I would suggest that the politicisation of beauty left beauty nowhere else to go.
Hickey’s response to the contemporary art world’s overwhelming resistance to beauty in the 1980s was to switch the blame from the market (which he regards as wholly benevolent) to art’s institutions (which he despises in its every detail) and swap the problem from that of beauty itself to the exclusion of beauty. Hickey doesn’t blame artists for what he sees as the underestimation of beauty in art; he blames art’s public institutions and the academic bureaucrats who he imagines set the agenda according to their own narrow self-interests.
Amelia Jones, identifying herself as ‘just the type of “art professional” Hickey would surely excoriate’, defends the critique of beauty by historicising and contextualising ‘beauty discourse’ in her 2002 book Aesthetics in a Multicultural Age. Jones roots out the ‘colonialist, sexist, and heterosexist assumptions’ of beauty discourse, insisting that the rhetoric of beauty ‘merely veils privilege’.
Although Hickey’s ‘vernacular beauty’ is meant to have ‘democratic appeal’, Jones is concerned ‘to interrogate the particular exclusions that are at work in any discourse that naturalizes “beauty” ’, seeing in the logic of aesthetic judgements of this type not a direct route between artwork and individual, but a historically, politically and culturally suffused product of social division and inequality. Beauty, in such circumstances, has to be loaded. And no less so than when its privileges are internalised to the point of invisibility.
As it stands, Jones’s complaint against Hickey has a lot to recommend it, specifically the central conviction of the hermeneutics of suspicion that the social inscribes itself into individual conduct. And yet, Jones’s critique expresses this modern predicament too forcefully – in too deterministic a fashion. Beauty is not simply a cryptic double for privilege, exclusion and power.
By callingindividualism, or rather, the unmediated sovereign individual into question, the hermeneutics of suspicion does not thereby merely replace talk about individuals with talk about society (a hermeneutics of social certainties); it draws out the tension between individual experience and the social structure. This tension is played out in the contemporary debate over beauty as it is mapped in James Elkins’ Art History Versus Aesthetics. Over and again, a tug-of-war is staged between those who, like Hickey, are interested in individual aesthetic experience, and those, like Jones, who want to historicise and contextualise individual experience socially and politically.
Similarly, at one end, contemporary Adornian philosophical aesthetics endorses aesthetic judgement against the social critique of art, while, at the other end, the critique of the beauty industry sees the individual’s insecurities as exploited for profit.
In fact, the whole debate on beauty and aesthetics today is best understood as revolving around the tension between the individual and society. The point is not to take sides but to rethink the question of beauty and debates on the aesthetic as rooted in the fundamental tensions, divisions and structures of modern, capitalist society.
Modernity is characterised, in Max Weber’s terms, by disenchantment, rationalisation and bureaucracy. Standardisation, efficiency, methodicalness and hard work combine in modernity to produce what Weber, in his 1904-05 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. called the ‘specific and peculiar rationalism of Western culture’
Weber sees rationalisation embedded primarily within the two dominant social structures of modern society – the capitalist economy and its state. According to Weber, individuals within such enterprises and institutions do not just happen to act instrumentally, they are obliged to do so. Which is why Weber describes the fate of the modern individual as constrained by the rationality of economic acquisition as if by an ‘iron cage’, which Adorno later rechristened the ‘totally administered society’.
Rational calculation structures the actions, events and things in the modern world, ultimately including the consciousness, feelings and pleasures of those who live in it. The key social relations of modern life – buyers and sellers, managers and workers, experts and clients, and so on – bring individuals together through anonymous processes of organisation, mediated by forms of rationality. Even the care industries are accounted for, monitored and managed in a unitised, anonymous and instrumental manner.
Rather than detecting these social forces behind the back of beauty, therefore, we can expect beauty itself to be transformed internally by the rise of disenchantment, rationalisation and bureaucracy and the historical marginalisation of ritual, myth, metaphysics and magic. This is why, for instance, Modernism either eliminated or streamlined beauty to steer clear of the suspiciously decorative.
Stripped of traditional relations and forms of community, the bulk of modern sociality is markedly asocial. Competition, rivalry, antagonism, instrumentality and exploitation are characteristic of the salient structural relations of contemporary society. Not only does subjectivity adapt to such conditions, it is turned into an object of instrumental reason.
Kant’s philosophy of beauty stands uncomfortably at the cusp of this modern world, no longer able to presume the individual subject’s asocial sovereignty, Kant labours to regulate a space for uncorrupted subjectivity by identifying all the major threats to it and then systematically eliminating them from aesthetic judgement properly conducted. For Kant, the subjective was, if adequately protected, a route to universality but for alienated modern social life, the subjective was now framed by a peculiarly asocial version of social life.
Beauty’s version of modern asociality is fully formed when its function is to express cultural and social distinctions as natural or subjective ones. To perpetuate this ideological fiction requires a concept of the subject that seems to exist independently of social forces – one that can be universalised without suspicion. Historically, this subjective position has belonged to those who regard their taste as educated, cultivated and true. Only those who benefit from the cultural profits of aesthetic distinction have an interest in the fiction that beauty originates in subjective judgement and culminates in universal taste. That is known in economics as securing a monopoly for one’s own private interests.
Beauty might seem like something that we know when we see it, but the hermeneutics of suspicion refers such experiences to hidden motives, unintended consequences, structural conditions and spurious rationalisations – in short, the economies of taste. We continue to see beauty around us but this can no longer be the kind of elevated experience that might stand outside ordinary disputes, hierarchies and tensions. I want to call this historical process the secularisation of beauty.
The philosophy of beauty from Plato to Kant may have been ethically charged but it did not theorise how individual pleasures, choices and tastes are always unwittingly charged with social content. Beauty becomes secular through the same historical process by which art sheds its aura. As social relations take on an anonymous, mechanised and abstract manner, beauty itself becomes subject to rationality, commodity exchange and calculation. Beauty gets tied up with design, style and marketing. Losing its innocence in this way, beauty comes to feel saccharine or even as violent. At the same time beauty loses its advantage over vulgarity, primitivism, functionalism or any number of beauty’s rivals. Within Modernism, beauty has no more to recommend it than the chaotic, the accidental, the miserable, the ruined or the overlooked.
Beauty has become utterly contentious. Instead of being an aesthetic category of experience in which subjective feelings of pleasure are expressed, beauty has been fragmented – no judgement of beauty can be made without it being compared with equivalent judgements made by people with different racial, gender, class or cultural inscriptions. This is why the secularisation of beauty is necessarily and irreversibly also the politicisation of beauty. No single code or measure of beauty can be asserted because this would always be thought of, within the modern conditions associated with the hermeneutics of suspicion, as privileging one sector of society or one culture over all others.
If this leads to aesthetic relativism, that is only because the covert social processes that have made beauty seem to be singular and universal have at last been made transparent and open to critique. But we need to be clear about something: Hickey’s revival of beauty would not liberate anybody from the established regime of intellectual taste if, as was the case before avantgardism, art’s institutions were dominated by an authorised version of beauty. What is more, Hickey’s liberatory version of beauty, which seems to place the individual in an unmediated relation to the artwork, would only be possible if (and only if) individuals derived their tastes, feelings and pleasures entirely spontaneously, subjectively and asocially – ie in ways that seemed natural before the 18th Century and became naïve and improbable after then.
Modern social relations bring about two contradictory conceptions of beauty, one is the conviction that it is a purely private, subjective experience, and the other that beauty is, like all subjective experiences, socially inscribed. Each, in effect, represents one side of the tension between individual and society that structures modern capitalism. To choose one of them is to fail to see how beauty has been transformed immanently by the forces of modern alienation.
Our understanding of beauty can no longer assume (or insist on) the individual’s autonomy to make judgements without unintended consequences or to take pleasure without risking structural and ideological complicity and culpability. At the same time, the reduction of the individual to the social does not adequately register the modern tension between individual and society. Beauty is political not despite the fact that it feels subjective but precisely because it feels subjective. Beauty enters us into a world of dispute, contention and conflict at the very moment when we feel to be at ease.