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.
which, among other things, he explicitly resists antiaesthetic interpretations of his work, even though he may seem at times to endorse them.4 Many theorists would discount Richter’s (or any artist’s) writings about his work, however, on the grounds that they are self-serving, incoherent, or misleading, that the artist’s intentions are not to be privileged, or, stronger, that the artist (qua author) is dead. By contrast, I think Richter’s writings are part of a larger body of evidence that we
of the RAF are now seen to be mediated (by those who took the photographs). As Guerin put it, “where painting and photography meet, we find Richter’s most devastating claim regarding the failure of both media to mimetically depict the reality of that which they see.”58 But, as she adds, Richter does not merely “dichotomise the photographic representation and that of his paintings. Rather, he uses the discrepancies between the two media to find a common ground.”59 As it turns out, however, the
experience.41 Such autonomy is temporary because Salcedo’s art breaks it down, in effect, by giving every viewer the opportunity to apprehend the endured suffering enacted in her installations and to make it part of his or her everyday experience. As we just saw with Shibboleth, for example, Salcedo intended for the “crack” she cut into the floor to disturb the space of Tate Modern in the same way that immigrants disturb the consensus and homogeneity of European societies. Her intention was thus
lives of the survivors and, in turn, enacted (embedded, rubbed, sewn, inscribed, etc.) in the objects comprising her art. Yet, when Salcedo points to her “being incapable of acting effectively,” she (like Sontag earlier) is talking about her predicament as a person once her artwork has been completed by the audience. So the efficacy or power in question here concerns her not as an artist, but as a member of the public affected by the experiences of the Other’s endured suffering enacted in her
it yields pleasure in its aesthetic configuration without denying cognitive gain, then it does its job.”86 Salcedo’s art generally meets these criteria, so she succeeds in creating effective moral-political art by critically engaging viewers affectively and cognitively through her aesthetic strategies. To make Huyssen’s measure sharper and more moral-political, however, we need to add that the goal of attentiveness in Salcedo’s art is not merely Michael Fried’s idea of absorption in aesthetic