Hunger for Aesthetics: Enacting the Demands of Art (Columbia Themes in Philosophy, Social Criticism, and the Arts)
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For decades, aesthetics has been subjected to a variety of critiques, often concerning its treatment of beauty or the autonomy of art. Collectively, these complaints have generated an anti-aesthetic stance prevalent in the contemporary art world. Yet if we examine the motivations for these critiques, Michael Kelly argues, we find theorists and artists hungering for a new kind of aesthetics, one better calibrated to contemporary art and its moral and political demands.
Following an analysis of the work of Stanley Cavell, Arthur Danto, Umberto Eco, Susan Sontag, and other philosophers of the 1960s who made aesthetics more responsive to contemporary art, Kelly considers Sontag's aesthetics in greater detail. In On Photography (1977), she argues that a photograph of a person who is suffering only aestheticizes the suffering for the viewer's pleasure, yet she insists in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) that such a photograph can have a sustainable moral-political effect precisely because of its aesthetics. Kelly considers this dramatic change to be symptomatic of a cultural shift in our understanding of aesthetics, ethics, and politics. He discusses these issues in connection with Gerhard Richter's and Doris Salcedo's art, chosen because it is often identified with the anti-aesthetic, even though it is clearly aesthetic. Focusing first on Richter's Baader-Meinhof series, Kelly concludes with Salcedo's enactments of suffering caused by social injustice. Throughout A Hunger for Aesthetics, he reveals the place of critique in contemporary art, which, if we understand aesthetics as critique, confirms that it is integral to art. Meeting the demand for aesthetics voiced by many who participate in art, Kelly advocates for a critical aesthetics that confirms the limitless power of art.
toward their capacity to remember or redeem the experience of the traumatised victim.”1 This skepticism is equally, if not more, evident in critical responses to art dealing with such events. So moral-political art depicting traumatic history is a clear (though not the only) choice here. RI CHTER AN D AESTHETI CS Gerhard Richter’s Baader-Meinhof painting series, October 18, 1977 (1988), and his more recent art book, War Cut (2004), provide compelling cases of contemporary moral-political,
To this end, Richter’s comments on this strategy 99 T H E R I C H T E R E F F E C T are quite revealing, though what they reveal is fundamentally different from how the blurring is typically interpreted by critics and theorists. Richter lists a number of reasons for the blurring strategy, which he has utilized since 1963: “I blur things to make everything equally important and equally unimportant. I blur things so that they do not look artistic or craftsmanlike but technological, smooth and
forms of visibility, and possible ways of thinking about their relationships (which presupposes certain ideas about thought’s effectivity). —Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics The anti-aesthetic stance may have been productive at times when, for example, it opened up space for conceptualism in contemporary art, as we saw with Robert Morris in the preface. But it is clearly problematic when it is dominant for too long, as has been the case since the 1960s. To some extent, the dominance
is its silence that, as we have seen, is meant to echo the silence of the Other who has been disappeared. In Bennett’s words, Salcedo reworks “familiar objects in ways that evoke the losses that households have borne and the silences that descend in the spaces inhabited by the bereaved.”65 At the same time, however, this silence (its echoing) is a way for Salcedo, qua witness/artist, to give voice to the Other whose endured suffering has become enacted in the everyday objects transformed into
a target of such thinking. This transformation is evident in longstanding fields such as art history that aim to supplement aesthetics with new forms of critique and in the new fields (visual studies, 5 T HE DE W EY E F F E C T cultural studies, etc.) that were formed in part with the explicit aim of displacing aesthetics, even though they have recently begun to turn back to aesthetics.8 To regenerate aesthetics is to restore its agency as art critique. The regeneration of aesthetics is