Kalliphobia in Contemporary Art

Article excerpt

I hate it if I notice that I like something, if I am able to do something, so that I just have to repeat it, that it could become a habit. Then I stop immediately. Also if it threatens to become beautiful.

-Dieter Roth

Dieter Roth's kalliphobia, to attach to what has been epidemic in avant-garde circles since the early twentieth century the needed clinical term, employs the idiom of threat for something which in any context but that of art would be an occasion for rejoicing. Who would say that it "threatens" to be a beautiful day except an umbrella salesman-or that one's daughter "threatens" to turn into a beautiful young woman, unless one fears the jealousy of the gods? In most contexts of human life, we would speak of the promise rather than the threat of beauty, so kalliphobia calls for diagnosis, since kalliphilia, to give it its antonym, is what one might think of as the aesthetic default condition for humans, connected with fortune and happiness, life at its best, and a world worth living in. How can beauty, since Renaissance times assumed to be the point and purpose of the visual arts, have become artistically contraindicated to the point of phobia in our own era?

Kalliphobia belongs to the defining syndrome of what I have designated the Intractable Avant-Garde in my book, The Abuse of Beauty.1 It consisted in the first instance of members of the Zurich-based Dada movement at the time of the First World War, who decided to suppress beauty as a gesture of contempt toward a society responsible for a war in which millions of young men were slaughtering one another. It was a kind of strike in which, rather than create beauty, artists engaged in various forms of cabaret buffoonery. Beauty became politicized through flagrant trivialization.

That beauty should become the sacrificial victim in a symbolic war against war was not itself a trivial matter: only against a background in which art and beauty were esteemed to a degree hardly intelligible today could Dada's anti-aestheticism have been deemed an effective measure by those who practiced it. Only if the artist-The Artist-were in the first instance regarded as an exalted being could the sight of artists behaving as buffoons, as the Dadaists did at the Cafe Voltaire in Zurich, be regarded as a significant critical gesture. Only if beauty were esteemed to the point of veneration could withholding it be regarded as a significant deprivation. I drew the title of my book from a line in Arthur Rimbaud's poem of 1873, A Season in Hell. He writes: One day I sat Beauty on my knees, and I found her bitter, and I abused her. I felt this expressed the attitude of the later Dada artists exactly. They found beauty bitter because they were embittered by a society that venerated beauty. In unleashing a terrible war, it abused justice. In symbolic retribution, the artists abused beauty.

Here is a not-uncharacteristic passage from a work published in 1853, titled The True, the Beautiful, and the Good, by the French philosopher Victor Cousin:

The artist is before all things an artist; what animates him is the sentiment of the beautiful; what he wishes to make pass into the soul of the spectator is the same sentiment that fills his own. he confided himself to the virtue of beauty; he fortifies it with all the power, all the charm of the ideal; it must then do its own work; the artist has done his when he has procured for some noble souls the exquisite sentiment of beauty. This pure and disinterested sentiment is a noble ally of the moral and religious sentiments; it awakens, preserves, and develops them. So art, which is founded on this sentiment, which is inspired by it, which expands it, is in its turn an independent power. It is naturally associated with all that ennobles the soul, with morals and religion; but it springs only from itself.2

Max Ernst had served in the artillery, and joined the Dadaists after the war:

To us, Dada was above all a moral reaction. …