Art and Beauty

Picture this: On a Saturday afternoon this May, I find myself sitting in the Whitechapel gallery’s auditorium, part of a packed audience that has turned up for the Art Monthly sponsored debate based on Nicholas Bourriaud’s influential 1998 book Relational Aesthetics. The debate isn’t going easy for Bourriaud: Adam Scrivener, of the collective Inventory, has begun a comprehensive assault on Bourriaud’s key themes and positions, criticising Relational Aesthetics for its complicit participation in a neo-liberal bureacratisation of the art institution, and for making specious claims about art’s socially transformative potential. The atmosphere is getting heated, and seeing that Scrivener is going to be some time, I decide to pop out for a breather.

The last of the Whitechapel’s upper galleries is given over to ‘The Edge of the Real’, a showcase of contemporary painting by young painters working in the UK. Walking back from the toilets, the first thing you see is ‘The Temples’, 2002, a two-piece canvas by the Glaswegian painter Victoria Morton. Morton’s abstract concoction - a core of fierce dark facets, stipples and strokes emerging into waves of spume blues and greys, themselves encroaching on calmer outer edges of pastel yellow and pink - hangs there, waiting for the kind of response such painting is good at provoking; perplexity, curiosity, the desire to try to make some sense of the constantly shifting and contradictory levels and structures that the paint suggests, and an attempt to describe the perverse pleasure to be had from this interminable goose chase round the painting, an attempt that sooner or later founders in a word like ‘beautiful’. Checking myself from such private, aesthetic reverie, I take myself back to the raucous, public space of critical debate.

‘Beauty’ is an ugly word currently, and ‘aesthetics’ is no less troubled. Yet, if the discussion at the Whitechapel, or the recent discussions in Art Monthly on the subject of curatorial practice are anything to go by, there seems to be no shortage of dissatisfaction about the kinds of ‘post-aesthetic’ alternatives that have emerged in the past decade. Whatever one thinks of Morton as a painter, or Bourriaud as a theorist, it’s hard nowadays to avoid such bizarre, concatenated encounters between these two poles, in which an apparently conservative interest in - for example - painterly abstraction  grudgingly cohabits (though not necessarily on speaking terms) with those apparently radical practice that affirm art’s direct social and political potential. Maybe it’s a consequence of the increasingly out-of-control appearance of the political world, or indeed the failure of more overtly politicised forms of artistic practice to effect the change they aspired to; either way, it’s now a common situation to find contemporary art inconclusively split, unwilling to fully endorse an aesthetics of pleasure, yet increasingly uncertain about art’s effective role in a politics of responsibility.

This isn’t a new state of affairs, but it has now been going on long enough to make out its general character. Take for example the recent appointment of Roger Buergel to the post of curator of the next Documenta in 2007. In contrast to the more activist stance of Okwui Enwezor’s 2002 Documenta, Buergel has already made public noises in favour of a greater interest in art’s aesthetic capacities. Reporting on the appointment, Artforum’s Gregory Williams quotes German critic Sabeth Buchmann, who expects Buergel to present “less political discourse in exchange for art with a capital A”. Williams goes on to suggest that Buergel’s appointment will be ‘music to the ears of many who felt that the pleasure factor was sorely lacking in 1997 and 2002’.

We’ll have to see what Buergel really makes of this novel commitment to aesthetics. Williams notes ‘Buergel’s track record indicates that he is not likely to give prominence to more traditionally “sensual media such as painting.’[1]Retrospectively though, Documenta’s potential shift follows something of a pattern fought out over the supposed division between the apparent irresponsibilities of aesthetic pleasure and the social and political responsibility of ‘critical’ art, in which ‘beauty’ becomes the place-holder for conflicting interpretations of the political status of pleasure in contemporary culture. If Catherine David’s Documenta 10 was preoccupied with reviving the urgency of the 60s generation of critical art, and Enwezor focussed on the globalised political and cultural realities of contemporary art,[2] it was left to others at the turn of the millennium to recuperate the specificity of art’s aesthetic potential, under the banner of beauty. Quite apart from London’s Royal Academy spectacular Apocalypse: Beauty and Horror in Contemporary Art in 2000, one could also note the Hirschorn Museum’s Regarding Beauty: A View of the Late Twentieth Century of 1999-2000, and the ambitiously cross-disciplinary La Beauté held in Avignon in 2000.

 This cluster of activity at the turn of the millennium is interesting inasmuch as they reflect the broader revival of questions around beauty and aesthetics that had been occurring throughout the decade, particulary in America. Whilst Nicholas Bourriaud was setting out the terms of ‘relational aesthetics’  through  his editorship of the magazine Documents sur l’Art, in 1993 the American critic Dave Hickey published his influential collection The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty. In the ensuing decade, Hickey has become something of a cheerleader in the US for beauty as aesthetically affirmative, yet potentially culturally troublesome and socially liberating. His success is troubling those on the critical, left-leaning wing of the art world, inasmuch as Hickey’s rhetoric seems to present a convenient apology for a booming art market, coupled with an evacuation of critical discourse in artistic practice. As Grant Kester comments of Hickey’s early success in Variant, ‘there was an obvious intellectual market for a theory that could preserve the cherished truths of conventional art practice (the magical power of the artwork to transcend its commodity status, the artist as a heroic visionary, the primacy of taste, and the aristocratic pleasures of the collector and the connoisseur) while insulating the artist from charges of elitism or co-option by the art market.’[3]

There is already a mini-literature of Hickey-bashing, mostly from those anxious to defend the political and cultural gains that critical artistic practice had supposedly won by the early nineties.[4] Without entering into those debates here, there are two issues that emerge consistently from Hickey’s writing (in Invisible Dragon and his 1997 collection Air Guitar) that extend to much of the antagonistic debate over beauty and the aesthetic dimension: One is the problematic question of constituency, the other the opposition of the reconciliatory or negative value of aesthetic experience as a form of political effect. These are clearly not merely American concerns; anyone who recalls the ‘philistine controversy’ initiated by John Roberts and Dave Beech in the late 90s will recognise that what was at stake was aesthetic pleasure as a site of cultural and political conflict.

While these writers conduct these arguments from wildly differing political viewpoints, a shared preoccupation turns on the way that radical discourse in art had by the early 90s become institutionalised. Hickey’s rhetoric is continuously directed at the way in which he sees art had been hijacked by the various factional representatives of ‘political correctness’, reducing the artworld to a set of orthodox ‘radical’ agendas, a coterie of gays, feminists, black activists, Marxists and worst of all, academics! This is of course a common refrain amongst American conservatives who bitterly resent the loss of certainty and common values born out of the ‘culture wars’ of the 1980s, and it is this ground that neo-conservatives have sought to reclaim in the 1990s, much to the consternation of the liberal-left. Yet Hickey’s caricature of the politically correct art institution does pose a problem for those who defend the political differentiation that goes with the discourses of gender, sexuality and post-colonial identity that typically make up the critical ‘orthodoxy’ Hickey bemoans.

A recurring motif in Hickey’s Air Guitar is the phrase ‘communities of desire’, that’s to say, self-forming constituencies of aesthetic pleasure, formed by and forming the art work. What is important about this formulation is that, in its libertarian way, it circumvents and threatens the usual categories of subjectivity, of gender, sexuality and so on, as they are perpetuated in their institutionalised form. It would be wrong to suggest that Hickey sets out intentionally to do this, or that his influence has much to do with his skills as a cultural theorist or a writer. Rather, the social and political constituencies that formed in and through the identity politics of the 1970s and 80s, and on which so much of the critical institutions of art are still premised, no longer exert the social and cultural pressure they did at the moment of their emergence. Feminist, gay and post-colonial politics are now the mainstream, and it is important to consider what other critical rallying points a younger generation of practitioners form themselves as a constituency. Without this kind of attention to new contexts, critical artistic practice ends up looking back to the lost days of the 70s and 80s, just conservatives look back to the modernist aesthetic idyll of the 50s and 60s.

What seems apparent here is that the return to beauty, and the question of aesthetic experience more generally, far from being a systematic or fiercely argued return to tradition or ‘conservative backlash’ (as liberal commentators tend to portray it), in reality reflects a deep uncertainty about the ability of artistic practice to operate as an effective politico-cultural intervention; at the Whitechapel event, even Bourriaud was cautious to affirm the aesthetic character of the art he championed, rather than having to justify it on instrumental or interventionist grounds. This situation is compounded by the very real distance emerging between academicised critical discourses, and the active concerns of newly forming constituencies of artists working presently. A return to the aesthetic specificity of artworks might simply suggest that older critical narratives no longer exert the influence they once did. In other words, new articulations of social and cultural experience, formed within heterogenous and mutating constituencies, find their articulation in a renewed attention to formal and aesthetic effect.

If the 80s signalled the high period of the synergy between radicalised constituencies and a critique of traditional aesthetics, then art in the 90s is marked by the slow unravelling of that close relationship, as those constituencies became culturally and politically normalised, and in which time the claims to art’s political effect as critique found itself faced with changing political realities and a newer, more sceptical generation of artists and audiences. Perhaps as a consequence, politicised art took itself further into the realm of direct intervention, whilst artists working within the visual context of gallery art found themselves addressing a broader, and more heterogeneous public than had previously been the case. With a booming commercial market demanding the aesthetically affirmative, and the public sector increasingly backing the cause of socially engaged art, it’s not hard to see how the contemporary split between an aesthetic of affirmation and politics of direct engagement taken shape.

The danger here is that this can easily signal a quiescent withdrawal from any effective interaction between art and its historical moment, into an aesthetic reflection in which all contradiction or conflict is banished, and critics of the revival of the aesthetic are at least right to be wary of the consequences of such a retreat. The contradictory nature of aesthetic affirmation, the tension between art as immediate uncritical pleasure, as reconciliation with the iniquities of the present through the institution of art as it stands, and art as a provocation of the present towards what might be, underpins this anxiety. It is perhaps why Theodore Adorno’s theorising is so fashionable at the moment. In Aesthetic Theory, Adorno formulates this contradiction;

‘At the centre of contemporary antinomies is that art must be and wants to be utopia, and the more utopia is blocked by the real functioning order, the more this is true; yet at the same time art may not be utopia in order not to betray it by providing semblance and consolation.’[5]

But Adorno’s antinomy, though it is echoed in the current tensions around what affects, aesthetic or otherwise, art should expect, is perhaps too easy an opposition. After all, whilst aesthetic affirmation might indeed participate in a betrayal of utopia, that’s to say, to allow ‘reconciliation’ with the status quo, it might also use that affirmation to confront the and upset the ‘real functioning order’. It would be equally valid to argue that the inevitably partial affirmation that can be found in aesthetic experience might mobilise antagonism rather than reconciliation, change rather than repetition. In ‘The Edge of the Real’, David Thorpe’s collage Good People embodied the rallying fascination amongst recent artists over representing utopia in the present. Later, whilst listening to another panel discussion on ‘the role of the curator’ at the independent gallery Studio Voltaire, another work suggested that the desire for social transformation could articulate itself in relation to visual affimation; a print by Ian Breakwell, a cheerfully coloured list of contemporary things to do when ‘Bored Enough’, from the banal and tedious to the criminal, self-destructive and psychotically violent, a dark celebration of cultural dysfunction and social upheaval.

Whilst the claims made for art’s directly political affect currently look more than a little exaggerated, the serious revival of interest in aesthetics may similarly reflect the exhaustion of the belief in art’s antagonistic cultural potential, and a retreat to safer ground. Outlining Buergel’s position, Williams suggests that ‘the realm of aesthetics operates at a productive remove from the everyday world of social crises and political machinations and thus has the capacity to offer alternatives to the “dominant fiction.”’ But this begs the question; what alternatives? If the revival of interest in aesthetics is to be anything more than a disguised acquiescence to political and social entropy, then it has, at some point, to start to reforge the difficult relationship between a disruptive, affirmative aesthetics, and a new politics of change.

[1] Artforum, February 2004

[2] See  Matthew Higgs in AM 209 Sept 1997, and Michael Gibbs and Alex Lapp in AM 258 Jul-Aug 2002

[3] Grant Kester, The world he has Lost, Variant issue 18 Autumn 2003

[4] See for example Suzanne Perling Hudson, ‘Beauty and the Status of Contemporary Criticism’, October, Morris Yarowsky, Mark Van Proyen Art Criticism

[5] Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory p32


Published in Art Monthly no 269, September 2003 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated