But the aesthetic and the anti-aesthetic is also an enormous subject.
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The anti-aesthetic has been expanded backward in time, to characterize the reaction of modernism against academic art and against the political situation leading to the First World War: a context in which, as Arthur Danto has noted, beauty became anathema. From that perspective, anti-aesthetic practice has been a sine qua non of modernism in its many forms up to the present.
Beyond the Aesthetic and the Anti-Aesthetic 2 Currently the aesthetic and anti-aesthetic lurk largely unseen in the pedagogic structures of art schools, art departments, and art academies throughout the world. Anti-aesthetic has been a useful label for the activities of students and young artists engaging capitalism in its different forms, thinking about neoliberalism, working out how identities are constructed and represented, addressing the institutions that make art possible and give it value, trying to provide a voice that can be heard above the roar of multinational corporations and the military-industrial complex, addressing the assimilation of cultural differences, pondering the gradual degradation of the planet, and thinking about how art might contribute in disaster areas, in underprivileged neighborhoods, or in the everyday lives of people who do not ordinarily use art.
Such work may not be aimed at changing or even addressing society and wider culture. Its purpose, at least initially, might just be to achieve value as art.
The students and young artists who make such work care, among other things, about the object they produce, and its capacity to amaze, enthrall, absorb, give pleasure. They may not choose to say or think so, but their practices result in aesthetic objects, which hopefully possess one of the many qualities associated with art, from beauty to the sublime. Those two positions are hard to describe, both because they overlap so much and so often, and because a formidable array of theoretical arguments rush in to demonstrate that every aesthetic object is also a political object, and every political object has its aesthetics.
Most any contemporary artistic practice can be shown to be a mixture of aesthetic and non-aesthetic interests, and most any young artist trained in an art school or art department knows how to talk about her work as a mixed engagement of politics and aesthetics. Still, the division holds, and it divides art instruction around the world. The division runs deep, and permeates the world of art instruction.
Beyond the Aesthetic and the Anti-Aesthetic 3 This is not a well studied subject. The pedagogic division between aesthetic and anti- aesthetic activities is discussed, if it is at all, at the level of bureaucracy, administration, and institutional organization and planning. In the absence of any concerted debate, the distinction is reinforced by a wide variety of teaching habits, institutional configurations, and lingering expectations regarding media.
In other words, it persists without being analyzed. The central question of this book is whether or not we are free of this choice, in practice, in pedagogy, and in theory. The question is complicated by the gesture, now common, in which artists, critics, and historians decline to identify their practices as anti-aesthetic or aesthetic, partly on the grounds that the two are inevitably mixed, and partly because the terms, singly and as a pair, are said to be outdated, ill-formed, or otherwise inapplicable. In context, Newman used his now- famous comparative analogy to make several points, not all of them compatible.
His principal complaint was that aestheticians did not advocate for the value of American art, leaving the field open for museum directors and curators. In that case, in a perfect world, if they could learn ornithology, they might come to understand themselves better. In the comparative analogy, that means artists could benefit from aesthetics even if they think it has nothing to do with them. It would describe the situation in which contemporary artists, critics, and historians might find that the aesthetic and anti-aesthetic actually does structure some of their practice.
In the comparative analogy, that would imply that contemporary artistic practice and theory is essentially, perhaps deeply independent of the terms of the aesthetic and anti-aesthetic. Even that minority of contemporary artists who feel they need to become clear about the historical precedents and conceptual foundations of their practice would not need to study the ideas discussed in this book.
This, in brief, is the principal question of this book. I could put it most concisely this way: Is any part of The Anti-Aesthetic still important for contemporary practice and theory? Here I will do two things: I will list, very briefly, some of the principal terms that articulate discussions of the aesthetic and the anti-aesthetic.
The idea here is just to signal how difficult the vocabulary is: the concepts involved are, as Wittengstein said, both hard and slippery. Then I will list some of he principal critical positions around the aesthetic and anti- aesthetic, in order to provide some guides to what happens in this book.
Terms 1. Aesthetics itself has been shrunk to individual passages in Kant, and to an identification with beauty; and it has been expanded into a synonym for anything nonverbal, or anything of the body. It can occur in art writing as a placeholder for whatever practices the author wishes to stigmatize or valorize. Kant is an object of ambivalence throughout this book. For much of the conversation he is sunk somewhere in the deep background, indispensable but unquoted. The opposites of aesthetics have grown into an entire exotic fauna.
There are anti- aesthetic, non-aesthetic, anaesthetic, technoaesthetic, post-aesthetic, and inaesthetic positions, some of which have been posed as distinct from others. Art itself is difficult to pin down in relation to the difference between aesthetic and anti-aesthetic. What it signifies beyond institutional frames is difficult to say. I list them here in no particular order, because most have overlapping chronologies and continue, in some form, to be pertinent. Revivals of beauty have been much discussed in the artworld, from the s to the present. This subject is one of the quickest litmus tests of the difference between universities and art schools and academies.
There are also revivals of beauty in the realm of Christian scholarship, although they have gone entirely unnoticed by the artworld.
The Protestant theologian Karl Barth, for example, argued that beauty is the means by which people are persuaded or awakened to faith—a position that intrigued John Updike. So the way you put the question might make it difficult to answer in a fair way. If there were a clear call for any defined position, then it would be possible to answer this call. So I guess I would want to turn that question around and ask the conditions under which you would want to think that there is this necessity.
This is, to my mind, related to the kinds of things that Hal Foster has said about rethinking the spectacle: there are things involved in the homogenization of the spectacle that make it impossible to understand actual individual practices and critical discourses. So, in the same way, in this case, the call for something to address, this deficit or this lack is something which is self presupposes, a monolithic kind of understanding of critical thinking and judgment.
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Is that because the academic canon implies, besides order, structure and previsibility, a political dimension, particularly remarkable in the global culture? JE : I would put this question slightly differently with slightly different examples. To me, Harold Bloom is an eccentric choice. So I would use different examples. There is a constellation of maybe a dozen texts in and around this question of beauty. Even though some people doubt it, I think that these texts are fundamentally conservative.
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Even these texts are quite different from one another. On the other hand, you can argue that they are constitutive and important for the future if you add to them texts like Relational Aesthetics. JE : Of the minor? LN : If these directions are marginal in relation to a more generalized discourse on art, than we can talk about a politics of the minor?
JE : If they are.
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But also, at least for the young art students whom I see when I travel, things like Relational Aesthetics and its more or less open formalism and skepticism of major political change are very attractive. It is, in that sense, a politically flavored, apparently formalist, cryptically aesthetic conservatorism.
This situation is clearly seen in the case of most of the post-Communist countries in Eastern Europe, where the end of the old regime was quickly replaced by the triumphalism of global capitalism. There is a tendency to reject re-thinking the past meanwhile embracing uncritically, unconditionally, a certain standardized capitalism, including the Western system of contemporary art.
The tension between post-Communism and globalization is easily recognizable here not only in urbanism, but also in the generalized political indifference of the citizens. These social particularities seem to have encouraged new forms of political art, which in Western culture appeared to be exhausted. Do you think that political art could really inspire critical engagement with social factors? JE : So if you put it that way, if you just ask your question without a frame, without a preface, then yes, my answer is very pessimistic: I think, in general, the answer is no.
I did spend a fair amount of time looking for examples when we were working on the Stone Summer Theory Institute Art and Globalization. I led a seminar in which students searched for the most politically powerful interesting works that they could find. We did special papers on the critical reception of art projects such as the Critical Art Ensemble and the Yes Men. There are to my mind very interesting parallels to be made.
But the political commitment at that point was no longer aimed as exactly as it had been in the sixties and seventies, because there had been a hiatus of carelessness, political disengagement.
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