Volume 9, Number 1 (January 2012)
Author: Laura Smith
Aesthetics, in contemporary art, has shifted and largely disappeared in its traditional social function. This essay probes the shift in aesthetic judgement and investigates the implications of such a shift concerning individual viewer engagement by way of an examination of Baudrillard and Virilio’s theorizing. What happens to Art when aesthetics cease to be described in terms of judgement and beauty and become replaced with theories such as the “aesthetic of disappearance” (2003:1) or in Baudrillard terms, the “art of disappearance”(1997.28)? The blurring of traditional artistic categorization leaves an ambiguity that may be unsettling, however, this opening of fields also introduces expansion in potentiality. How are the liberations of aesthetic exploration redefining art engagement, specifically museum experience in the twenty-first century?
Aesthetics has played a pivotal role in our understanding of art and its histories. The value of an image, for example in painting or etching, has largely centred around the aesthetics of style, form, composition, and colour. In our contemporary the lines between Art (capital A) in the market and its capitalist industries, such as advertising or design, have become one. The contemporary viewer finds him/herself with the dilemma of how to sustain engagement with an “Art” image, object, and/or initiative post-Baudrillard analysis.
Baudrillard’s The Conspiracy of Art contributed significantly to the radicalization of the theoretical debate surrounding contemporary art as he highlighted the over-use of images that over-stimulate viewers in multiple aspects of contemporary life. In describing pornography as taking the mystery out of sex, Baudrillard writes that: “The same is true for art, which has also lost the desire for illusion, and instead raises everything to aesthetic banality, becoming transaesthetic” (2005:25). The art that Baudrillard refers to, if done well, screams of nothingness and asks its audience to consider this. However, because contemporary art is presented (or RE-presented) to the world as more of reality itself there is a risk of total absorption. Virilio quotes Heraclitus in Art and Fear: We must put out the excess rather than the fire (2003.35). The blurred lines between art and reality becomes aesthetic subconsciousness, a collection of images that invades silence and risks the blockage of cognitive exterior links.
Baudrillard’s analysis of art may be categorized as the following: art as null, aesthetics as finite, contemporary aesthetics as recycled from the past, aesthetics as cliché, and art as commodity or market exchange (see Toffoletti, 2011). These varied and radical ways of theorizing contemporary art are a significant rupture in how art, aesthetics, and our relation to it, was once understood. Before discussing Baudrillard and Virilio’s ideas it is useful to briefly consider the history of aesthetics and how technologies and events came to challenge the production of our culture in visual form.
II. Aesthetic History
Winckelmann’s “classical” approach is one in which “Beauty” is “the loftiest mark and the central point of art” (see Minor, 1994:89-90). The rules of the game, concerning not only beauty but technique and execution, have both changed and widened since the beginning of the twentieth century. Winckelmann’s discussion of ancient Greek art as “pure” helps situate ourselves in the context of aesthetic discourse, while simultaneously, illustrating the development (and/or gap) between traditional art and the art of today. This shift in ideology began with the investigation of the political implications of “high art” (referring to the purity in which Winckelmann believed).
Robert Gero (2006) describes two contrasting understandings of aesthetics which have long dominated the theorizing of art. The first being the “subjective”, based on an innate emotional response; the second, a “rational” response, which stems from an intentionally employed logic of aesthetics that inspires the cognition of exterior links (2006:3). In highlighting the work of Kant, Gero notes the condition of “indefinite plausible readings” of a given aesthetic art piece (2006.6). This “openness” of aesthetics inspires endless interpretations in terms of cognition. Gero points out that the inventor of modern aesthetics in the eighteenth century, Alexander Baumgarten, defined the term as “sensitive cognition” suggesting to Gero a combination of subjective perception and logical cognition (Ibid.:4.6). These notions, and others, were explored in great detail by Kant, who inspired much of the contemporary thought that has since followed (2006.5). Gero poetically suggests that, “rational ideas are not determinate concepts but are ways of trying to think about, or somehow represent, what lies beyond human experience or what is mysterious and ineluctable within it” (Ibid.:5).
Benjamin’s citation of Paul Valéry’s Pièces sur l’art, La Conquète de l’ubiquité, in the introduction to “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” signalled his awareness of what new technologies meant for aesthetics: “[they] make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful” (see Benjamin, 1969:219). How does the possibility for reproduction change the traditional status of art and the uniqueness of the “aesthetic” image? The technological possibility of reproducing one’s work is linked to the idea of RE-presenting an image, whether it be numerous copies of the original or by means of recycling and appropriation. Baudrillard draws on this insight as he writes: “One has the impression that some portion of contemporary art is engaged in a work of deterrence, mourning the image and the imagination, mourning aesthetics” (2005: 111). Mourning is an interesting choice of words as it suggests a lack of indifference, a lack of meaninglessness, a conceptual awareness despite its flirtation with nullity. This can be seen as a reaction against our contemporary yet simultaneously, a product of it.
In contrast to mourning, Dadaists sought to break with the traditional rejecting a fixed unique “high art” which was shed in favour of an art of the absurd. Benjamin, in his text, notes in relation to the Dadaist artists: “What they intended and achieved was relentless destruction of the aura of their creations, which they branded as reproductions with the very means of production” (1969:240). The work of Dadaists is known for its emphasis on ‘scandal’ and the artwork fulfilling itself with the reaction of its public. This can be seen today in the way in which contemporary art, deprived of any formal aesthetic rules of beauty and taste (a difficult word in itself), is only complete in the context of its social backdrop. A reaction to these works could spur political or social awareness and hopefully, in its ambiguity, leaves room for the viewer to think through the possible interpretations them-self. However, this ambiguity, what Baudrillard might categorize as the banal, could also create a feeling of total indifference and confusion (something that may ‘make or break’ a conceptual piece). Ambiguity can be understood as a double edged sword; ambiguous thus open, or ambiguous thus misunderstood.
Deleuze is among contemporary theorists who have deeply problematized traditional approaches to aesthetics – especially Kant’s contribution. Steven Shaviro (2007:1) highlights the duality that Deleuze illustrates as at once the “possible experience”, sensory-based, and a “reflection of real experience”. These two notions can be traced to Kant’s first and third Critiques of aesthetics. This issue of complex ideas as represented through artistic means is difficult due to its often metaphysical nature but more so in terms of subjective interpretation (Ibid.:2). Deleuze’s reworking of Kant’s ideas of aesthetics can be categorized in three ways: in terms of judgement, subjectivity, and possibility (Ibid.:3). The third aspect of aesthetics, possibility, refers to the possibility of actual experience in relation to the artwork and I will argue what is fuelling conceptual works today. Sensory subjectivity and logical rationale have been very difficult concepts to relinquish since they entered into the discourse of art and aesthetics because they lend a concrete dimension to a rather metaphysical discussion.
Warhol and Pop Art generally shifted our focus from the ‘sacredness’ of art to one which understands art as both a manufacturer and a mirror of social values. In relation to Duchamp’s Fountain, Gero identifies Stephen Davis’ discussion of the famous urinal in the following quotation: “…it gained aesthetic properties ‘as a result of attaining art status’”(2006:9). The urinal, displaced from its “original” environment can be seen as an appropriated object or the “ready-made”, an object already in existence prior to its life as an art object. So too Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, part of a booming consumer society, is acclaimed as art not due to its form, but due to its location in the museum or gallery. Baudrillard understood Duchamp’s Fountain as nothing less than the “the turning point away from traditional aesthetics” (2011.:41). Toffoletti notes that for Baudrillard the notion of art as “banal” is readily highlighted as a result of such artistic practices. “Gone are the days of originality in art-making – art is no longer understood as rare or unique” (Ibid.:40). This is a valid point of view concerning aesthetics since Duchamp’s found-object turned ready-made does not possess any aesthetic qualities that distinguish it from all other (functional) urinals (other than its faux signature: R. Mutt). Does the signature then become a symbol of this object as an art object? This is what Toffoletti suggests in her essay, which investigates the ‘aesthetic value’ and the ‘aesthetic object’ in the contemporary art world. However, does the signature of R. Mutt (or indeed the artist’s real name) matter in the economic value of the work? My view is that the signature and location are the only sign of object turned to ‘art object’, however, Baudrillard goes one step further. Rather than value being anchored in some way to the quality of the work (demonstrated by the signature), it has become liberated into a pure circulation of signs where the escalation of bidding appears to be reliant simply on the value accruing through the very auction process (Ibid.42).
If works of art, or perhaps it is better to say objects regarded as art, are simply being circulated through a constructed system of signs, have aesthetics truly disappeared? And what does the seemingly secondary term of ‘disappearance’ specifically contribute to the concept of aesthetics?
Baudrillard and Virilio discuss the notion of what can be called “disappearance” both in terms of artwork (aesthetics) and in terms of the human subconscious experience of time, speed, and duration. These ideas are fundamentally linked and, I would say, mutually reliant. Art is experience that may be seen as outside of the limitations surrounding time, speed, and duration. It is often said that one may get “lost” in art or music. This experience takes the viewer out of themselves yet at the same time creates an environment, that upon reflection, may inspire exterior links (in keeping with the notion of aesthetics). The why of art is directly because of the why of our fundamental being. Virilio notes that during childhood we existed without conscious temporal constraints (1991.10). It is difficult to remember a time before the awareness of one’s own mortality (and the mortality of others). The ability to connect with the imagination is crucial in this discussion as well as an attention and awareness to the ephemeral. Art that attracts our attention draws us in innately and due to this ‘involvement’ creates a bubble of unmeasured time, the time of aesthetic attraction, a time of inspiration. If we go back to the traditional definition of aesthetics in its focus on initial reactions, our innate and subjective attraction to one piece of art over another, the what of our singular experience becomes secondary to the why. Virilio, in The Aesthetics of Disappearance, highlights frequent “picnoleptic” absences in our consciousness (1991:12, 13). The ‘gaps’ that Virilio writes of and our desire to “patch up sequences” is linked to the definition of aesthetics as our initial and partial (subjective) reaction yet perhaps also reaches to Jung’s concept of collective unconsciousness (1991:10). Virilio writes: The absence lasts a few seconds; its beginning and its end are sudden. The senses function, but are nevertheless closed to external impressions. (…)Conscious time comes together again automatically, forming a continuous time without apparent breaks.” (1991:9).
“Disappearance” relates both to the decline of traditional aesthetic judgement and also describes the human experience of ‘lost’ or liberated consciousness (which can extend to our experience of art). Disappearance is a magical word- it is often what art explores linking the two through their common element of mystery. Isn’t the nature of humanity a fluid and mysterious happening and isn’t art an extension of this exploration? Where has this shift in aesthetics left the viewer in terms of initial attraction? What part of ourselves must be presented in an artwork to make us stop in an environment that is constantly competing for our attention? Perhaps this innate pull is part of subconscious memory and/or a collection of what Virilio explores as picnoleptic absences. Where is it that our brain goes during these moments of subconscious absence and how do these frequent moments affect our engagement to an image or an object that could seem banal or ordinary? What does affectivity look like for the contemporary viewer?
A personal example of engaging artwork is the photography of Nan Goldin in the eighties. Her work reflects disappearance in all its complexities for me. Images of sex, drug abuse, faces of friends laughing or crying, taking baths and showers are the scenes that Nan Goldin has collected over decades of her close friends who are like family to the artist. The facial expressions tell a story, often a haunting story full of mystique that stays with the viewer after visually pulling them inward. The saturated colours presented in the artist’s work are an aesthetic choice made in an effort to highlight the intensity of the image. I think specifically of the image entitled “Ryan in the tub” (Provincetown, 1975).
If we think back to the notion of “sensitive cognition”, Nan Goldin’s images may be understood as inhabiting the balancing point between an image that aesthetically draws the viewer in and subsequently invites him or her to connect to a greater idea of the human condition. Virilio’s notion of time, absence, speed and duration may be subsequent cognitive paths of these moments captured by Goldin (1991.43). Aesthetics, in this sense, does not necessarily connote an image of ‘beauty’ as Winckelmann links to aesthetics. There is beauty in the rawness of Goldin’s work, however, beauty here takes on a different meaning than Winklemann’s suggested definition. Some images (namely those of the aftermath of abuse) can be understood as “ugly” for most viewers yet for that reason they are powerful. “The visceral, the everyday and the ugly are the mainstay of galleries everywhere- indeed, it is what art lovers expect to see” (Baudrillard, 2011:41). In the case of Goldin she has largely maintained a traditional sense of aesthetics through composition, subject, and colour choice. Although rules of judgement for aesthetics have changed, the traditional definition of sensitive cognition has largely remained true. If sensitive means personal, or, thinking back to Baudrillard perhaps, mournful, what can be said about pieces of art that (opposite of banal) seem to instill fear in the audience? For Virilio the “ugly” has violently replaced the traditional cannon of art.
IV. Extensions of Violence
In the discussion of the personal and collective subconscious arises not only the concepts of absences but also the concept of the inescapable (memory). On the opposite spectrum of the banal, our senses are often overloaded with visual choices. In Art and Fear John Armitage interprets Virilio’s writings as the following: “…the search for humanism that can face up to the contempt shown towards the body in the time of what Virilio labels the ‘sonorization’ (the artistic production of resonant and noisy soundscapes) of all visual and virtual representations” (2003.2). What Armitage is referring to in this description of Virilio’s investigation is largely centred around the aesthetic developments of the modernist period (practices that are continued/recycled today) specifically in terms of their aesthetic violence and simultaneously, their inescapable abundance. Armitage notes Virilio’s experience of the Second World War and the monstrosities that occurred in twentieth century Europe. Out of this war, brilliant yet horrific art movements were born such as German Expressionism, Dadaism, Italian Futurism, and American Abstract Expressionism (2003.4). Virilio describes these movements as not only representations of the cruel acts of both world wars, but as extensions of them; a form of “visual cruelty” in their own right (2003.4). In this way the viewer looses a certain degree of liberty in personal experience as what is presented becomes reality. The power of art can be understood as both a reflection of, and a generation of, humanity’s values.
In Virilio’s essay, “A Pitiless Art” he makes a distinction between the terms representation and presentation in noting it is the latter with which contemporary art is leading. Virilio notes: “…the art of the twentieth century became ‘monstrative’ in the sense that it is contemporary with the shattering effect of mass societies, subject as they are to the conditioning of opinion and MASS MEDIA propaganda…” (2003.35). Through the depiction and reaction to contemporary politics in the twentieth century (and this rings true today as well), art, in Virilio’s point of view, has adopted the “pitiless” characteristic of politics in its harshness. This can be contrasted to traditional art as, perhaps, pitiful, literally full of pity in its careful rendering of allegorical stories full of symbolism and intentional meaning (of course traditional images had their overt political propaganda as well). Virilio discusses many artists of the a fore mentioned art movements in their desire to disrupt not only the “meaning” of the work, but their subsequent perceptual dictatorship (2003.34). Taking the slogan of the First Futurist Manifesto in the early twentieth century (1909): “ ‘War is the world’s only hygiene’” Virilio suggests that the horror of contemporary politics was not only mirrored in the artworks produced in modernity, but part of the horror itself by turning potential cognitive objects into objects of fear (2003.29). The artwork of Otto Dix, embedded with the fear of war, death, the decay of the system, and at the same time of aesthetics itself (as traditionally recognized) is an example. Virilio links aesthetic inspiration (or lack of) to the “decline of representative democracy” in modernity.
Baudrillard describes the virtual arena that the art world creates and turns to reality through its excess. The ready-made, for Baudrillard, is a step further than the ugliness and brutality of early twentieth century art in its position of “trans-aesthetics” (2005.62). This type of art object, taken from ‘real’ life and placed in an elitist pre-determined system of hierarchy, no longer fits the notion of aesthetics, and so, challenges the art world to rethink the last few centuries of judging artworks. This blurring of lines between what exists outside versus inside the gallery walls can be described with such a Baudrillard sentiment: “ The excess of reality disheartens me as does the excess of art when it imposes itself as reality” (2005.64). Art expresses the horrors of life, for example with movements like German Expressionism, and art reflects sociological shifts such as globalization and mass-production, for example with the work of Warhol. When the tortured faces of Otto Dix’s work, and the Campbell soup cans of Warhol not only represent but become our world through continual visual repetition, what is there left to desire? Robert Gero mentioned the term “aesthetic alienation” referring to the loss of aesthetic’s link to truth and meaning in modernity (2006.6). Can aesthetics still function for contemporary viewers in a world, which seeks to fully expose the image?
In The Conspiracy of Art Baudrillard highlighted both Beaubourg itself and the artwork which it houses as participants of the global indifference of contemporary art. He notes, “What is fascinating is this sort of global uselessness…” (2005.135). This spectacle, which houses simulacra turned “real”, has inspired “the collapse of distinct aesthetic spheres” (2011:42). So, does Art need categorical spheres after its liberation from traditional aesthetic judgement? Virilio asks, “Contemporary art, sure, but contemporary with what?”(2003.27)
Baudrillard writes, “Our reality is the idea that there is no longer any difference between levels of quality, that everything can be contained in one polyvalent space, selling and consuming at the same time” (2005.136). Art, perhaps to Baudrillard in this context, is finite in its aesthetic possibilities through the decline of quality distinctions. This all may seem problematic. Baudrillard asks, “How can such a machine continue to operate in the midst of critical disillusion and commercial frenzy? And if it does, how long will this conjure act last?” (2005.29). At this point, it is obvious that the art market is doing well despite the recycling of aesthetics and the integration of the virtual into our world. It has integrated itself more and more into the realm of business and spectacle. In an array of images, are contemporary viewers able to distinguish works that respect them as agents of sensitive cognition?
Virilio, in his essay, “Silence On Trial” highlights colour and sound in “the contemporary crisis of meaning” (2003.70). What do we lose in straying away from black and white photography, from silent film? The sonorization of our time can often be overwhelming, create chaos instead of meaning, create an over-exploitation and lack of mystery as discussed in Baudrillard’s theories of art and pornography. In speaking of technology and aesthetics Virilio notes, “Once the photogram hit the scene, it was solely a matter of mechanically or electronically producing some kind of reality effect to get people to forget the lack of any subject as the film rolled past” (2003:73). Technological tactics, meant to grab our attention yet that inspire no real “cognition”, is overly present in Hollywood films of our day. The aesthetics of such films seek to shock in exactly the same way some contemporary art seeks to shock its viewer (although the stakes keep getting higher). Often the viewer is left numb, straying from his/her internal awareness and ability for sensitive cognition. Perhaps it is difficult for art today to hold onto to the values of the first part of aesthetic’s traditional definition, that of sensitivity. An important question remains: Where do these traditional values, that are no longer relevant in the contemporary art world, come from?
V. Institutional histories
In order to understand the art object and the continuation of “Art” post-aesthetics, the museum, the institution, will be highlighted as a key factor in the production of modernity itself. Donald Preziosi investigates this in his article, “The Art of Art History”. Preziosi highlights the notion of representation itself, or as he suggests “RE-presentation”, as assuming an original existence of said- objects outside the gallery walls (1998.507). The fact that this is not the case, highlights the museum as a constructed environment set up for political and social reasons of knowledge, and Foucault might argue, control. Preziosi radically notes the following: “It thereby served as a disciplinary mode of knowledge-production in its own right, defining, formatting, modelling, and ‘re-presenting’ many forms of social behaviour by means of their products or relics” (1998.509). What does the structure have to do with the art objects in the museum and specifically their aesthetics? Preziosi’s discussion of the institution points back to its origins of curiosity cabinets and collection-making. This points to colonial activities and the art object as instructor of knowledge and cultural identifier. Preziosi describes the art institution akin to the theatre in its “staging” of knowledge. This “staging” mimics reality, confusing the virtual and the real, and ultimately becomes the real although this can be contested in theatre theory. “…The staged and storied museum artifact is simultaneously a simulacrum of an agental being or subject […] with whom the viewing subject will bond, or by whom he/she will be repelled” (1998:515). Some form of aesthetics seems necessary for this. The ready-made, the null, and the banal seem to have made their way into the art gallery, however, do they succeed in attracting the interest of the viewer whose desire for distraction may be a challenge? This brings up the current shift in museology that highlights the art object (perhaps not despite but because of its lack of traditional aesthetics) as a catalyst for cognition.
It is evident that contemporary art has moved beyond traditional aesthetic limitations. This traditional concept of aesthetics no longer holds true for art of the contemporary. There are examples of contemporary works which line up with traditional notions of aesthetics, however, when the beautiful, as Winckelmann highlighted as the essential to art, is destroyed and replaced by the vulgar or by the banal, our perception of aesthetics and art itself largely transforms. Baudrillard in his book, Art and Artefact, describes the hyper-reality in which the contemporary world finds itself and suggests that criticism of this virtual reality only fuels its existence (1997.20). “…Everybody is invited to present themselves as they are, key in hand, and to play their live show on the screen (with all its obscene connotations), just as the ready-made object plays it hyper-realistic role on the screen of the museum” writes Baudrillard (1997:21). If humans are creating and communicating through this new form of social mediation, the real seems to have been replaced by the virtual (the new real, our reality). With this, there is gain and there is loss. Baudrillard suggests that disappearance comes into play through the ‘handing-over’ of human production to the “machine” (1997.24).
VI. After Aesthetics – Dialogue
Aesthetics, a philosophical concept at its core, carries a confusing and ambiguous meaning in the twenty-first century. Moving away from the ancient Greek definition of aesthetics as symmetry-based, pure beauty, art went through a shift of commenting on contemporary horrors, as explored by Virilio. With the “ugly” or the grotesque in the canon of art, aesthetics had to be revisited in its new context. The inclusion of the ready-made, pieces of mass production and the proclamation of the Dadaists as rejecting traditional modes of representation, questioned the foundation of ‘Art’ itself as well as the museum itself. Baudrillard argues that “there is no longer any possible critical judgement, and only amiable, necessarily genial sharing of nullity” (2005.28). In this way, Baudrillard suggests both the nullity of art and the conflict of the institution, which continues to operate despite this shift in meaning. How do museums react then, in housing and displaying new types of objects, with diverse, unregulated aesthetics?
Irit Rogoff’s essay “Turning” (2010) describes the broadening of the field of the arts, namely that of art history, toward a multidisciplinary approach of visual cultures. Rogoff views contemporary art as a sort of “intellectual challenge” in its open possibilities of interpretation. Liberated from aesthetic judgement, the art object holds potentiality (possibility as suggested by Deleuze) to become a platform for conversation and participation (2010.39.36). These conversations are multidisciplinary in that they may relate to politics, economics, sciences, and so on (reflecting Gero’s exterior indefinite links). Art, in the positive, has been liberated from representing beauty (or defining beauty) and has crossed over into the role of sparking awareness, debate, and general intellectual stimulation (cognition). The emergence of a new role for art, linked to the demise of traditional artistic judgement, indeed focuses both on the individual and the collective responsibility of engaging with the world around us at large.
In contrast to this, Baudrillard writes, “When the indifference of the masses becomes dangerous for the political or cultural class, then interactive strategies must be invented to exhort a response at any price” (1997:22). The shift of the viewer’s active interaction with an art object stems from the shift in the viewer as consumer of cultural material. In an age of conceptual work emphasis is on participation, information-exchange, and “conversation” as Rogoff describes. These are not new foundations of art, however, they have been pushed through to the forefront after the decline of hierarchical aesthetic judgement. Rogoff’s challenge, given what Deleuze, Baudrillard, Foucault, Preziosi, and others have theorized, is that if art is to live on in a meaningful manner in contemporary culture it should do so by inspiring open dialogue. As we pass through the many theoretical pathways which have led us to the disappearance of aesthetics, this seems the most promising role for art. Art as a challenge to dialogue – I think Baudrillard and Virilio could both live with that.
About the Author
Laura Smith is a Graduate Student at the Department of Visual Cultures, Goldsmith’s University, London, England.
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