Magazine article Art Monthly

The Politics of Beauty: Dave Beech Argues That Beauty Is Political Not despite the Fact That It the Feels Subjective but Precisely Because It Feels Subjective

Magazine article Art Monthly

The Politics of Beauty: Dave Beech Argues That Beauty Is Political Not despite the Fact That It the Feels Subjective but Precisely Because It Feels Subjective

Article excerpt


To see beauty as politically loaded is to brand private, subjective likes and dislikes as unintentional carriers of coded social information.

Today, of course, this kind of political and social inscription (whether understood in terms of ideology, the social function of cultural distinction, suspicion about art's institutions, the question of elitism or the social history of art and taste) is common currency, but it is a specifically modern conception.

Ancient, classical, medieval, Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers did not trouble themselves about how society weaves its way through our intimate experiences. The history of the emergence of this modern conception of socially inscribed behaviour is charted by Michael Rosen in his book On Voluntary Servitude where he argues that after the 18th Century, society was seen for the first time as an active, behaviour-forming system or machine in which individual belief and conduct are explained as functional for or produced by society.

What is characteristic of premodern thinking is the conviction that society is simply the aggregate of individual choices and actions. However, Adam Smith's 'invisible hand' and Hegel's 'cunning of reason' initiated a new conception of how individual actions were inextricably tied up with a greater whole. These were faint promises of what was to come--a fully fledged theory of the ways in which society infiltrates the thoughts, feelings and actions of individuals in even the most private and subjective experiences.

Paul Ricoeur calls this modern interpretation of the relationship between the individual and society the 'hermeneutics of suspicion'. It was inaugurated, he says, by the works of Marx, Freud and Nietzsche. Ideology, the unconscious and the 'will-to-power' share a vital theoretical commitment to structures beyond the individual which decisively shape subjectivity itself. As a result, statements made by individuals about their intentions, beliefs and conduct cannot be accepted uncritically. Rather, the suspicion is that individuals are inevitably prey to forces that they cannot control---forces of which they are often entirely unaware.

When avantgardism took up the hermeneutics of suspicion in its diverse forms of cultural dissent, the resistance to beauty was part and parcel of the resistance to bourgeois culture generally. 'Except in struggle, there is no more beauty', wrote FT Marinetti in the 1905 Futurist Manifesto. Likewise, the Dadaist Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes put the Avant Garde's antipathy to beauty in stark terms: 'One is no longer concerned with knowing whether a thing is beautiful or ugly; whether it is logical, probable or fanciful--we pursue the ugly ... And for the sake of strategy, since we must always be on the alert to avoid backsliding into habits which had become natural in the course of a long tradition--to prevent the beautiful, the noble, the exalted, the charming, the well-ordered, the perfect from catching the beast by the tail.'

The two most thoroughgoing avant-garde critiques of beauty come from the leading thinkers of Dada and Surrealism respectively, Marcel Duchamp and Andre Breton. Duchamp's rules for selecting the Readymades, which he reported to be chosen according to complete visual indifference, deliberately left no room for beauty in art. Breton's theory of 'convulsive beauty' took a different tack, violating the boundaries of traditional beauty with an intense experience of the object based on the hysteric rather than the aesthete.

Art after avantgardism tended to preserve the Avant Garde's suspicion of beauty even when its politicisation had been cooled. Clement Greenberg, for instance, preferred to talk about works being 'good' or 'successful' rather than 'beautiful'. …

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