Academic journal article Journal of Aesthetics and Culture

Beauty and Critical Art: Is Beauty at Odds with Critical - Political Engagement?

Academic journal article Journal of Aesthetics and Culture

Beauty and Critical Art: Is Beauty at Odds with Critical - Political Engagement?

Article excerpt

Copyright: ©2015 M. A. Asavei. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, allowing third parties to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially, provided the original work is properly cited and states its license.

Published: 16 June 2015

*Correspondence to: Maria-Alina Asavei, Institute of International Studies, Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University, U Krize 8, 158 00, Praha 5, Czech Republic. Email:

In an open letter addressed to critics writing on political art, Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert posit that "art about politics is not necessarily political art."1 In other words, "political art" is not art which merely has politics as the subject matter but art which aims to change the very way we see the world, "including what we understand to be politics itself."2 Politically engaged art usually discloses social injustices and takes a critical approach to hegemony. Many contemporary political artists deliberately produce an art as unappealing to the senses as possible because they attempt to raise awareness about social injustices and other troubles. In doing this, they hope to distance their art both from the mainstream art world and from the art market.3 Therefore, the question is: to what extent is the category of "beauty" (as commonly understood) still valid and workable for political-critical art? But to answer this question, we have to clarify first what is meant by "beauty." We often fail to make clear what we mean by "beauty," even if we use this word quite frequently, in all kinds of occasions, related to art or not. When we appreciate that something has beauty, we implicitly accept that X is a source of positive aesthetic value or positive aesthetic appreciation. In the history of philosophical aesthetics, there are many theories and definitions of beauty. Despite differences, most of these theories connect the experience of the beautiful with a certain type of pleasure and enjoyment. Starting with "the aesthetic era" in the 18th century, beauty is taken to be a propensity in some objects to awake in viewers a distinctive type of unmediated pleasure--aesthetic pleasure. This ability to occasion pleasure is the only purpose (function) of beauty. Starting with the 18th century ("the aesthetic era"), many aestheticians rejected the link between beauty and utility/functionality in art appreciation.4 Beauty and function are seen as mutually exclusive. A beautiful object is that object which has no use or function. These aestheticians seem to endorse Augustine's view the male nipple has pure beauty because it serves no function. It is beautiful because it is functionless.

By the same token, beauty in art is thought to have no function; it has to be contemplated and valued for its own sake only. Theophile Gautier (the first theorist of art for art's sake doctrine) used to claim that "nothing is really beautiful unless it is useless; everything useful is ugly, for it expresses a need, and the needs of man are ignoble and disgusting (...) The most useful place in a house is the latrine."5 This dismissal of the connection between function and beauty had been almost unconceivable in the pre-aesthetic era. As Jonathan L. Friedman posits, "listening to music for pleasure was an unknown concept in the ancient world."6 Music has been used in certain contexts (e.g. religious, public rituals, or festivities) to perform certain functions. Outside these occasions, little attention has been given to listening to music merely for pleasure or beauty.

Starting with the aesthetic era, a powerful view developed in post-Enlightenment Western Culture: only fine art qualifies as aesthetic arts (have aesthetic value). …

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