Art is committed to that perception of the world which alienates individuals from their functional existence and performance in society—it is committed to an emancipation of sensibility…
When the latest Sim City real-estate boondoggle was completed in New York, the so-called Hudson Yards project, it was crowned with a piece of public architecture by the British architect Thomas Heatherwick dubbed the “Vessel.” The uninspired placeholder name was apparently a holdover from the drafting stage that no one could find a better substitute for. Heatherwick supposedly sold it as an inverted Eiffel Tower, a honeycomb lattice of stairs and lookout points for tourists to take selfies. The public has taken to referring to it, however, as the “Great Shawarma” and “the meat stick on 34th Street.”
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but people know when they’ve been handed a street sandwich. It’s not just that the Vessel is ugly: it is wantonly so. In a city suffering from massive social deprivation, the expenditure that it represents, compounded by its so obviously being uncarefully made, so indifferent and even contemptuous of the beautiful, is appalling. And yet, dispiritingly enough, it expresses well the process that led to its creation. “We live in undeniably ugly times,” the editors of n+1 declared this winter. As they rightly point out, this ugliness has increased counterintuitively, “despite more advanced manufacturing and design technologies than have existed in human history.” Laser precision, computer-assisted design, it all amounts to what the editors wryly dub the triumph of the “drab sublime.”
The existence of opulent mediocrities like Hudson Yards presents a problem. Beauty has a gift-like quality, it is born of relation, it cannot exist meaningfully or indifferently to the social, the cultural, the ethical or the spiritual. Yet it always introduces some further notion, a kind (and not necessarily a rank) of value heretofore unsuspected, unaccountable, that we receive as if in excess of our expectations, beyond the present limits of our comprehension. Even when it coincides with values that are familiar to us, it disarticulates them. The faces of rich men are sometimes beautiful, but they would be just as beautiful if they were poor. The beautiful temple built by a faith that we have been taught to despise, or even to consider as an enemy, can strike us, however privately, as ineluctably breathtaking. Beautiful music and dance, the beauty of animal life, the beauty of a sentence, or of a certain slant of light—these instances, insofar as they inspire the quality we call beauty, suggest to us the idea of relation, of gift. Behind everything, of course, the gift of life itself, but most especially in beauty the modalities of valuation immanent to it, the ways that gift can express itself, if you will—a range of expression no individual human can ever compass.
Nothing I am saying here is original. The importance of beauty and the human interest in thinking about its place in our lives is a long-standing preoccupation. So, if we don’t lack the technical means or the wealth today to make beautiful buildings to live and work in, beautiful things to observe and touch, then what are we lacking?
Could it be a poverty of theory? Are the people who occupy the positions of command within our economy operating with an impoverished aesthetic sensibility? Is there some further constraint that stops them from pursuing beauty even though they desire it? Is it that they no longer know how to identify when something is beautiful, or is the problem even deeper: that they no longer know why people have bothered to think and converse about the nature of beauty—to think aesthetically at all?
The most remarkable thing about aesthetic theory in the West is how little it has changed in the last three hundred years. When contemporary theorists use the word “aesthetics,” they are referring to a conversation, mainly dispersed across philosophy, art history and literary criticism, that dates to the early eighteenth century. It started with minor thinkers like Alexander Baumgarten and is rapidly dominated by a small handful of big names—Hume, Kant, Schiller—and master concepts: taste, the sublime, judgment, disinterestedness, Bildung. The n+1 editors’ “drab sublime” is only the latest variation, playfully teasing—while also reaffirming—the enduring authority of this vocabulary.
As a corollary of the Enlightenment’s interest in autonomy and secularization, these conversations can be seen as shaping an ascendant class that was intent on displacing the cultural authority of the aristocracy. The established intellectuals were closely associated with the French ancien régime, where ideas like the je ne sais quoi, an unnameable and elusive superiority of taste, were rhetorical weapons in the dangerous play of court politics. In a socially empirical account, the impact of Hume’s relativism, Kant’s interest in common sense and Schiller’s aesthetic education was first and foremost to make aesthetic refinement and security of judgment available to the sons and daughters of the new merchant class. Their ideas and postures empowered generations of like-minded intellectuals and cultural brokers, from Matthew Arnold to William Shawn, whose influence would irrigate “the smart set” of their time and place.
The idealism and utopianism of this early thought was dampened by the battering effects of the industrial revolution, the rise of fascism and totalitarianism, and the ascendance of postmodernist skepticism. Indeed, a Marxist tradition of aesthetic theorizing, clustered around the thought of Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Fredric Jameson, attempted to account for the impact of these social forces. Still, the Eurocentricity of this discourse on aesthetics is paradoxical. After all, the process that led to aesthetics becoming an autonomous conversation also produced the tightly interconnected and cosmopolitan trade flows we usually refer to as “globalization.” As the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has said, today “modernity is decisively at large,” and this multiplication of tributaries might have been expected to produce a diversified watershed, a critical proliferation. Instead, the de facto increase of social “diversity” seems to have done little to help us diversify our theoretical or aesthetic vocabulary. On the contrary, quality and beauty seem constantly counterposed to “diversity”—a sacrifice supposedly demanded by the fall of the West’s confidence in its own “universal” standards. “Besieged” and in retreat, aesthetic values, we are told, have been chased out of the temple by zealous reformers who want to replace them with the ethical virtues of cultural pluralism.
Could this be even a plausible answer to why everything is so ugly? Are the architects and “starchitects” of our time too preoccupied by social justice? I don’t mean the cosmetic question of how they staff their offices, but about what and for whom they actually build. I once saw Rem Koolhaas give a talk about the China Central Television (CCTV) Building in Beijing that he completed in 2012; the talk was interrupted by protesting Tibetans who were furious that he would agree to build a monument to what was, from their standpoint, not only an authoritarian communist regime, but also an imperialist and colonizing one. Koolhaas was unfazed. He had already received criticism from all quarters over the ethical quandaries of accepting the commission. The fact is that Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) works, like any other transnational corporation, in all kinds of countries with all kinds of political regimes. OMA delivers its “concepts” tailored to specific “sites,” but they are always versions of the same postmodernist Mad Libs (not unlike the kitschy baubles that Jeff Koons makes) that Koolhaas likes to present as subtle jokes played on the powerful patrons who commission his buildings. Besides, his taste is in line with elite opinion. According to Nicolai Ouroussoff, the former architecture critic for the New York Times, “the CCTV headquarters may be the greatest work of architecture built in this century.” (Admittedly, the century is still young.)
The question of whether the aesthetic is the handmaiden to the market or whether it can be emancipated from that nebula is one of the open challenges of being an artist in the era of “modernity,” even if it can seem at times like it strikes us today with a special vengeance. In 2016, the writer and filmmaker Ricky D’Ambrose noted the rise of the “look” as a new aesthetic category that is given currency by the “delirious pillaging” of older art forms on platforms like Instagram:
What underlies the shift to “looks” is the belief in neutral, impersonal images: Anything can become a picture, and any picture, overlaid with a look, can be customized, shored up temporarily with a borrowed feeling. And that feeling is confused with evidence of achievement. Thus, all looks take the form of a direct address; each image, no matter how depersonalized and routine, always seems “personalized,” made-to-order, and aimed at gratifying an existing idea of what a ’70s movie or a ’60s canvas or an ’80s photograph is like.
We might justifiably feel that this “Instaland” names an unprecedented territory, especially given the extent of colonization of what was traditionally thought of as the private sphere, personal relations, friendship, our romantic and intimate lives. The Instagrammable, even in its grammar, defines the way we live now. And yet a sentence lifted from an essay by Roland Barthes about seventeenth-century Dutch still-life painting suggests a longer trajectory: “What can be the justification of such an assemblage if not to lubricate man’s gaze amid his domain, to facilitate his daily business among objects whose riddle is dissolved and which are no longer anything but easy surfaces?”
Suddenly, the Dutch still life and the Instagram feed seem dialectally apposite: the air of the bell jar, the frosty claw of the commodity, leap into self-evidence as expressive of a fundamental modification of feeling. What we are dealing with, it seems, is an aesthetic modality intrinsic to market societies, whether one is in Amsterdam painting a windmill or on Amsterdam Avenue scrolling through the “viewing galleries” on Artsy (“your new art advisor”) while waiting in line at Chipotle. The same forces that have made an “art market” as a subset of the speculative market society itself have created a role for the aesthetic that as often as not reinforces the values we already hold rather than making possible the true work of art and beauty: to elicit in us evaluations we didn’t even know could exist, to upset and change our sensibility by enhancing and enlarging its range of appreciation and respect and creating a sense of gratitude for the revitalizing pleasure of these new inlets.
Aesthetic power is related to the problem of emancipation—whether that be from the prevailing political economy, the prejudice and provincialism of one’s family or community, or the tyranny of competing accounts of the beautiful itself, especially if they have been weaponized in various ways and are tacitly (or not so tacitly) in the service of some crude ideology. Beauty is always overpowering. It throws our preconceptions overboard and opens the little doors inside, the ones that make us especially vulnerable because we didn’t know they were there. This is why beauty is a serious problem for every closed system, for every closed mind, for every totalitarian, for every racist, for every dogmatist, for every chauvinist and every saint. It always lies athwart our most extravagant attempts to capture, domesticate, to tell any final story.
The flip side to this coin is that there are many good reasons to think that our ability to perceive, appreciate and in turn create beauty requires emancipation. The most obvious reason for this also presents the greatest challenge. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call it our location. We all know how our social and historical coordinates situate us relative to others, and that they are imposed on us by fate. None of us selected our parents or their combined income, and whether we grow up surrounded by ease and affluence or by immense hardship, whether our parents were poor intellectuals or rich philistines, no one seriously pretends these local factors don’t deeply, and often overwhelmingly, shape how we perceive the world and how the world sees us. The original meaning of aesthetics is simply “perception,” and every individual’s perception proceeds from a restricted point of view.
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Read more essays like this in our
“What is beauty for?” symposium,
such as “The Right to Beauty” by Ursula Lindsey
and “The Art of Ugliness” by Zach Fine.
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We are likewise always prisoners of our historical epoch, a fact that art and aesthetics tends to accentuate. Who hasn’t noticed those mewling outbursts in comments sections online, when some youngish person who has just discovered a recording artist from thirty or forty or even ten years ago laments that they were born in the wrong generation as they pine for the sound of another era? Faced with an Impressionist painting, who hasn’t felt a pang at the sight of a world before power lines and plastic pollution?
We can’t choose to have been born before or after the end of the Second World War or 9/11, any more than we choose to belong to the capital of an empire, or an occupied territory, or a post-Soviet state. For us, Impressionist paintings are inescapably associated with postcards and museums; the outrage and disgust that they initially provoked must be studied to be understood. We are helplessly caught in the aesthetic currents that shape our age; we also participate, however minutely, in creating their contemporary eddies. Being exposed to different ideas of what art was yesterday is always a spur reminding us that art could be different from what it is today, and that aesthetic “common sense” will be different, with or without our assent, tomorrow.
And yet can we really imagine anyone, regardless of their position in life, never once chafing against that inherited perspective? Never once wanting to see if they can enlarge, or alter, or even dramatically dissolve the local context that is theirs solely by virtue of life’s cast of the die? That our aesthetic sensibility requires emancipation is suggested, in the first place, by the structure of childhood. Our experience of growing up, physiologically, is also accompanied by an experience of growing out, as we acquire tastes and capacities and interests that we didn’t have before. This reminds us that while art is not exclusively the province of adulthood, there are necessarily aesthetic pleasures that cannot be enjoyed without growing up, even as they also allow the already grown to grow further out. As Christopher Beha put it in an essay on the controversy over entertaining but simplistic “guilty pleasure” literature: “Putting down ‘Harry Potter’ for Henry James is not one of adulthood’s obligations, like flossing and mortgage payments; it’s one of its rewards, like autonomy and sex.” Finally, there is emancipation from the older, established strictures of the aesthetic, which artists are always contending with in various ways. Sappho’s poems challenged and reappropriated the authority of Homeric epic. Gwendolyn Brooks appropriated Virgil when it suited her and embraced the Blackstone Rangers when she suited them. No successful artist has ever had a segregated imagination.
Nor can we predict how artistic idioms will evolve and exceed their location, sometimes in mysterious ways. Consider the proliferation of video footage from the war in Ukraine, which like all wars has generated its own vocabulary of aestheticized violence. Captured in the eerie video-game perspective provided by drones, as the novelist James Meek aptly observed in the London Review of Books, short clips circulate on Telegram and irrigate other social media streams with gothic scenes of thermite shells showering a landscape of ruins, or impact plumes sprouting across a pockmarked wasteland. Many of these clips are accompanied by a new musical genre called “phonk,” apparently highly popular among the rank and file on both sides of the conflict. It relies on a deliberately tinny house-music pattern that’s layered over with vocal samples taken exclusively from the early-nineties Memphis horrorcore rap scene, known for its fuzzy tape-deck sound, gratuitously violent imagery and the swerving, dipping flow of Tommy Wright III, a style that Three 6 Mafia brought to the mainstream. Who would have predicted that the sounds of the war on drugs in Memphis would end up narrating the war over the Donbas in Ukraine?
I’m not staking a claim for the beauty of phonk. But I am interested in what its existence tells us about the necessarily and inevitably rhizomatic formation of aesthetic sensibilities in the world that neoliberalism has built. Those who purport to be on the cultural left and right alike have complaints about the mess we’ve been left with. But there is no unscrambling the egg: whatever beauty is possible in the world today and the world of tomorrow will have to evolve out of the plurality of cultural inputs that continue to interfuse and fission at a dizzying pace around us.
Any theory capacious enough to describe the aesthetic qualities available to us under capitalism at present is going to need to expand far beyond the set of stock tropes that made sense when it could credibly be described by Adam Smith through the quaint example of a pin factory. This means moving beyond the textbooks on aesthetics that include zero non-white writers, thinkers or artists. Books where if African art, for instance, shows up at all, the entire continent and its innumerable aesthetic traditions are invariably reduced to the impact of masks on Picasso. Accounts that seem blissfully oblivious to the discourses on aesthetics among the diverse and millennia-old traditions of the Indian subcontinent, the territories of modern-day China and Japan, the archipelagoes of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, the Islamic world and the pre- and post-Columbian societies in the Americas. It should no longer be acceptable that none of these has even remotely the kind of centrality that Hume, Kant and occasionally Schiller continue to hold. It is manifestly possible to read the major European writings on the aesthetic alongside a set of perspectives from the rest of the world.
We ought to have an aesthetic theory that knows something about the appeal and malleability of Afro-Cuban lullabies across the Caribbean and Latin America; that can speak to the affective persuasions of Japanese anime; that might investigate the tension and release in the sway and skanking of Jamaican reggae; that has considered the lethal sarcasm of the landays, those poems of intimacy and coded secrecy exchanged by Afghan women, or ideas about rhetoric and its uses taken from any of the world’s hundreds (if not thousands) of oral literary traditions. If we did, maybe we would already have a word, or several words, to describe the effects of scenes from films like Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, or Ousmane Sembène’s Guelwaar, or Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, when the sense of being arbitrarily lost within the completeness of a world epic is simultaneously combined with immense allegorical immediacy. Perhaps there would be some concept available to us that could explain why some voices take on the quality of a popular myth and aspiration, the tone and grain of an epic voice: why Umm Kulthum means what she does to the Arab world; why Héctor Lavoe is the voice of Puerto Rico; why, although Biggie was a rival, Jay-Z far more successful and Kendrick Lamar more subtle, only Tupac Shakur sounds everywhere and always like the voice of an entire people in struggle. In short, we should be actively seeking to disrupt our own aesthetic theories, to emancipate them by opening ourselves to theories radically different from our own. After all, who is not in need of aesthetic emancipation? Who can fail to have an interest in perceiving anew the gift of life?
I’ll end with a brief personal anecdote. Like most young black men of my generation, I discovered jazz retrospectively. If Ahmad Jamal is one of my favorite pianists, I owe it entirely to Pete Rock, who sampled a chord progression from the song “I Love Music” on Jamal’s 1970 album The Awakening and used it to anchor “The World Is Yours,” one of the great singles on Nas’s now-canonical debut record Illmatic. I knew when I heard that record that something larger than I could put words to was happening. But I didn’t know the source of that warm clamoring sound, that love of music rising behind the virtuosic verbal swagger Nas was putting on it. One day after elucidation had led me to the source, I found myself in a record shop in San Francisco placing that particular Jamal album, The Awakening, on the turntable and letting it play. Maybe you’ve heard this song, “I Love Music,” and maybe you haven’t. What I promise you is that it sounds, I mean the music itself, sounds like the voluptuous joy of discovery. That moment of serenity when a new expression of the beautiful holds its shimmering horizon before you and says: yes. That record, that sample, that song, that artist Ahmad Jamal, that music of my people that I had not even known how to love or appreciate, it opened before me, and I grew outward, my life became larger and better than it otherwise would have been.
Art Credit: Nathan Walsh, Hudson Yards, 2020 Oil on linen, 144 × 269 cm Courtesy of the artist