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August 23, 2005

Arthur Danto

Excerpts from chapter 2 of Arthur Danto's The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art, "The Intractable Avant-Garde"

From Taste to Disgust
The narrative of aesthetic redemption assures us that sooner or later we will see all art as beautiful, however ugly it appeared at first. Try to see this as beautiful! becomes a sort of imperative for those who look at art that does not initially appear beautiful at all. Someone told me that she found beauty in the maggots infesting the severed and seemingly putrescent head of a cow, set in a glass display case by the young British artist Damien Hirst. It gives me a certain wicked pleasure to imagine Hirst's frustration if hers were the received view. He intended that it be found disgusting, which was the one aesthetically unredeemable quality acknowleded by Kant in the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment. Disgust was noticed by him as a mode of ugliness resistant to the kind of pleasure which even the most displeasing things—"the Furies, diseases, the devestations of war"—are capable of causing when represened as beautiful by works of art. "That which excites disgust [Ekel]," Kant writes, "Cannot be represented in accordance with nature without destroying all aesthetic satisfaction." The representation of a disgusting thing or substance has on us the same effect that the presentation of a distgusting thing or substance would itself have." Since the purpose of art is taken to be the production of pleasure, only the most perverse of artists would undertake to represent the disgusting, which cannot "in accordance with nature," produce pleasure in normal viewers.
I don't know what works of art, if any, Kant could have had in mind as disgusting, and he may have counted the very idea of disgusting art as incoherent: if a piece of mimesis was of something disgusting, it would itself be disgusting, contravening its status as art, which in its nature is meant to please. I have seen a sculpture from Nuremberg from the late Gothic era, where a figure, known as "The Prince of the World," which looks comely and strong from the front, is displayed in a state of wormy decay when seen from behind: the body is shown the way it would look decomposing in the grave. Such sights explain why we actually bury the dead. It is intended thus to be seen as revolting by normal viewers, and there can be no question of what is the intended function of showing bodily decay with the skill of a Nuremberg stone carver. It is not to give the viewer pleasure. It is, rather, to disgust the viewer, and in so doing, to act as a vanitas, reminding us through presentation that the flesh is corrupt, and its pleasures a distraction from our higher aspirations, namely to achieve everlasting blessedness and avoid eternal punishment. To show the human body as disgusting is certainly to violate good taste, but Christian artists were prepared to pay this price for what Christianity regards as our highest moral purpose. One has, I suppose, a choice between denying that it is art since it contravenes taste, as I surmise that Kant would have done; or to dismiss taste as he and his contemporaries understood it as too narrow a criterion for defining art. (49–52)

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Abject Art
"Nothing is so much set against the beautiful as disgust," Kant wrote in his 1764 essay, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime. The sublime is too large a topic to address at this point in my inquiry, but it is worth noting that in the pre-critical text, Kant deliciously observes that the antonym of the sublime is the silly, which suggests that the effect of Dada was less the abuse of beauty that the rejection of the sublime. But just possibly the disgusting, as logically connected to beauty through opposition can also have the connection with morality that beauty does. In the early 1990s, curators recognized a genre of contemproary art they designated "Abject Art," which may be what Jean Clair has primarily in mind. "The abject," writes the art historian Joseph Koerner, "is a novelty neither in the history of art nor in the attempts to write that history." Koerner cites, among other sources, a characteristically profound insight of Hegel: "The novelty of Christian and Romantic art consisted of taking the abject as its privileged object. Specifically, the tortured and crucified Christ, that ugliest of creatures in whom divine beauty became, through human evil, basest abjection." Rudolph Wittkower begins his great text on art and architecture in Italy after the Council of Trent by recording the decision of that coucil to display the wounds and agonies of the martyred, in order, through this display of affect, to elicit the sympathy of viewers and through that to strengthen threatened faith. "Even Christ must be shown 'afflicted, bleeding, spat upon, with his skin torn, wounded, deformed, pale and unsightly' if the subject calls for it." Hegel cites the art historian, Count von Rumohr on an earlier Byzantine tradition:
Accustomed to the sight of gruesome physical punishments, [they] pictured the Saviour on the Cross hanging down with the whole weight of his body, the lower part swollen, knees slackened and bent to the left, the bowed head struggling with the agony of a gruesome death. Thus what they had in view as their subect was physical suffering as such. [By contrast] the Italians were accustomed to give a comforting apperance to the face of the Saviour on the Cross, and so, as it seems, followed the idea of the victory of the spirit and not, as the Byzantines did, the succumbing of the body.
The tendency in the Renaissance to beautify the crucified Christ was in effect a move to classicize Christianity by returning the tortured body to a kind of athletic grace, denying the basic message of Christian teaching that salvation is attained through abject suffering. The aestheticism of the eighteenth century was a corollary of the rationalism of natural religion. It was Kant's stunning achievement to situate aesthetics in the critical architectonic as a form of judgment two small steps away from pure reason. Romanticism, as in the philosophy of Hegel, was a re-affirmation of the Baroque values of the Counter-Reformation. The problem with art, as Hegel saw it, lay in its ineradicable dependence upon sensuous presentation. As with the blood, the torn fleash, the shattered bones, the flayed skin, the broken bodies, the reduction of consciousness to pain and agony in Baroque representation. What Abject art has done is to seize upon the emblems of degradation as a way of crying out in the name of humanity. "For many in contemporary culture," the critic Hal Foster writes, "truth resides in the traumatic or abject subject, in the diseased or damaged body. Thus body is the evidentiary basis of important witnessings to truth, of necessary witnessings against power." (56–7)

* * *

What the disgusting and the abject—and for that matter the silly—help us understand is what a heavy shadow the concept of beauty cast over the philosophy of art. And because beauty became, in the eighteenth century especially, so bound up with the concept of taste, it obscured how wide and diverse the range of aesthetic qualities is. Disgust, for example, provokes the viewer to feel revolted by what the work of art that possesses it is about. It does so in just the same way that eroticism arouses the viewer to be sexually attracted to the subject of the work. These observations are slightly simple-minded, of course. It may take considerable interpretation to see what the fact that it is disgusting means in a work of art. The purposes of eroticism in a work or art may be to get the viewer to think about his or her inhibited personality or emotionally impovrished life. (59)

More: A small index of (more or less) related textual excerpts...

"Arthur Danto"
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Referenced in this post:

Amazon: The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art—Arthur C. Danto
Iconoduel: Never shake thy gory locks at me (a compendium)