Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in Twentieth-Century Art (2001)
[…] Beauty is certainly a magnet for the cultural anxieties of our day: the readjustment of gender roles that has been in the works since the Enlightenment, the commodification of the body in consumer culture, the genetic and evolutionary discoveries changing our understanding of human nature. In the eyes of the geneticist, for example, female beauty is a competitive packaging that increases a women’s chances of perpetuating her genes; for the beauty industry, this packaging perpetuates multinational profits. One way or the other, female freedom and self-realization would seem to require resistance to such an aesthetics. But, eschewing beauty comes at a high price if it closes off passion and procreation and self-understanding. For many women beauty appears to set freedom and pleasure at odds.
Indeed, this is true for men as well. The Enlightenment may have celebrated beauty as an experience of freedom from contingency, but in our day beauty seems anything but liberation, bearing witness, instead, to our socialization or biology. Are we taught to identify certain trades – in people, nature, art – as beautiful, or do we come into the world wired to admire? If the response to beauty is learned, then how should we react to the fact of this acculturation? Beauty in a multi-ethnic society, for example, would seem suspect unless every race can lay equal claim to being beautiful, and that is still far from the case in many countries. But perhaps, on the contrary, our aesthetic socialization is a good thing, every touch with beauty amounting to an all too rare experience of the community and shared values. […]
The history of twentieth-century elite art is in many respects a history of resistance to the female subject as a symbol of beauty. This resistance, in its turn, is related to real-world struggles during the past century – the past two centuries, in fact – as society learned (and continues to learn) to consider women fully human. In general, the avant-garde stood contemptuously aloof from this struggle, disdainful of woman in either her traditional or emerging meanings. Modernists vilified aesthetic pleasure, defining the sublime aspirations of the art as unrelated or antipathetic to the pleasures of feminine allure, charm, comfort. At the same time, they treated the “new woman” and the goal of female self-realization as equally irrelevant to the laboratory of the modern. Though we might deplore their failure to inspirit women during this crucial period of history, the avant-garde inadvertently aided the women’s movement in treating the “weaker sex” with so little sympathy. Their motives, of course, were utterly different: modernist misogyny is something to behold! Nevertheless, their violent break from an aesthetic of passive allure now frees us, paradoxically, to contemplate new possibilities in beauty and its female symbolism. For both feminist and modernist reasons, it is impossible to return to the old stereotypes of woman in the arts. The task that awaits us is nothing less than the re imagination of the female subject as an equal partner in aesthetic pleasure. […]
Wendy Steiner, extract from “Poem”, Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in Twentieth-Century Art; Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2001, pp. xviii-xxv (footnotes not included).
Applications should be sent to the e-mail address email@example.com, which you can find on this website as well as any other information on the International Student Biennial.
Students need to send quality visual material (300 dpi resolution) together with a brief description of the work, and a student status certificate of any level. Expenses and organization of transportation are borne by the students themselves, but the organizer may help according to available resources.
The exhibition is planned for the end of 2019 in Osijek, when three official prizes will be awarded. The awarded works are planned to be presented at a separate exhibition in 2020.
The deadline for submitting the application is October 5th 2019
The Ugly (1994)
[…] Since antiquity, beauty has been regarded as possessing a privileged relation to truth.
From this it follows that an ugly representation, or an ugly object, is a negation not just of beauty, but of truth. The category of beauty plays an epistemological role; it presents the truth of an object. Ugliness belongs to whatever negates that truth. It belongs to a series of categories which similarly distort the truth of objects. It belongs to what is contingent, for contingency cannot admit of the truth of object. It belongs to what is individual, for individuality does not express the truth of objects. It belongs to the hell of error; it can never accede to the haven of what is ideal and what is necessary. This philosophical drama, in which the forces of truth and of error wage war over the territory of art, determines the character of ugliness. Ugliness is condemned to the role of the mistake, to the role of the object that has gone wrong. […]
Ugliness, contingency, individuality are all terms which belong to the pole of negation. As a consequence, it follows that ugliness will be thought of from the point of view of beauty. At a logical level, ugliness is the negation of the beauty; at the level of perception, ugliness is the opposite of beauty. All speculation about ugliness travels through the idea of what it is not. This is indeed characteristic of the philosophy’s attempt to postpone or prevent any encounter with ugliness as such. Ugliness is always shadowed by the beautiful. The argument that will be presented here is part of an attempt to suggest that ugliness has little to do with beauty and that, in fact, beauty and ugliness belong to quite different registers.
What we might call the philosophical account of ugliness was already laid down in antiquity. For Aristotle the beautiful object is one which has the ideal structure of an object; it has the form of the totality. […] Internally it exhibits coherence; externally it establishes a sharp boundary between itself and the world. This establishes a relation between perfection and idea of the beautiful object. In this case, perfection does not mean, as it does to us, the zenith of beauty. The perfect object is, rather, one which is finished, completed. Any addition or subtraction from the object would ruin its form. […]
This stress upon the object’s being perfect and therefore finished already suggests a philosophical criterion as to what will function as ugly. It is that which prevents a work’s completion, or deforms totality – whatever resists the whole. An ugly attribute of a work is one that is excessively individual. It is not just that monsters and characters from low life belong to a class of objects which are deemed ugly; it is that they are too strongly individual, are too much themselves. As such, they resist the subordination of the elements of the object to the ideal configuration of a totality. The ugly object belongs to a world of ineluctable individuality, contingency and resistance to the ideal. […]
Ugliness can deform a work, but it can also strengthen it. For the stronger the totality of a work of art, the more it has had to overcome those elements within itself that oppose its unification. Indeed, if this is true, a new doubt about a certain type of beauty arises. If the structure of a beautiful object has been too little tested by whatever opposes that structure, than it is facile, “merely” beautiful.
Ugliness, by complicating beauty, achieves an ambiguous status – utterly excluded from the beauty, and at the same time a “moment” in the unfolding of a beauty whose form as a totality is all the more triumphant for having overcome the resistance to itself in its “moments” of ugliness.
Mark Cousins, extract from “The Ugly” (Part I), AA Files, no. 28 (London, Architectural Association, 1994), p. 61.
On the Concept of the Beautiful (1970)
If there is any causal connection at all between the beautiful and the ugly, it is from the ugly as cause to the beautiful as effect, and not the other way around. To put a complete ban on the concept of beauty would be as damaging for aesthetics as is the removal of the concept of the psyche from the psychology or that of society from sociology. The definition of aesthetics as being the theory of beautiful, however, is sterile because the formal character of the concept of beauty tends to miss the bountiful content of the aesthetical. If aesthetics were nothing but an exhaustive and systematic list of all that can be called beautiful, we would gain no understanding of the dynamic life inherent in the concept of beauty. Actually, this concept is only a moment in the totality of aesthetic reflection. It points to something essential without being able to articulate that essence directly. To be sure, if people did not make statements about this or that artefact being beautiful in some manner or other, then all the interest in such an artefact would be unintelligible and nobody, artists and spectators alike, would have any reason to participate in that exodus from the realm of practical ends – in essence, self-preservation and the pleasure principle – an exodus that art by its very nature dictates.
Even Hegel arrests the dialectic of aesthetic thought by given aesthetic definition of beauty as “pure appearance of the Idea to sense”. Beauty cannot be defined, but neither can the concept of beauty be dispensed with altogether. This is an antinomy in the strict sense of the term. Without conceptualization aesthetics would be mushy. It would merely be able to describe in historical and relativistic fashion what passed for beauty in different societies or different styles. While it is possible to distil certain common characteristics from these empirical data, the resultant abstract definition is necessarily a parody that fails to have any explanatory power when confronted with any specific art object picked at random. The ominous generality in the concept of the beautiful is however not accidental. The passage to the primacy of form, perpetuated by the category of the beautiful, already contains the germ of the formalism – the coincidence of the aesthetic object with the most general subjective characteristic – which came to cause all the difficulties for the concept of beauty.
It would be a mistake to dump the formally beautiful in the order to put beauty as a material essence it its place. Rather, the principle of formalism must be viewed as the historical product whose dynamic, and hence content, needs to be grasped. The image of the beautiful as being a unique entity emerges simultaneously with the process of man’s emancipation from his fear of the omnipotent oneness and homogeneity of nature. Because it is able to insulate itself against immediate existence and to carve out inviolable domain, the beautiful appropriates and preserves that fear. Art is beautiful by virtue of its opposition to mere being.
Theodor Adorno, extract from Aestetische Theorie; Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1973; trans: C. Lenhard, Aesthetic Theory; Routledge and Keegan Paul, London, 1984, pp. 75-6 (footnotes not included).
The idea of the aesthetic encourages us to believe that by isolating objects from their use, and purifying them of the economic conditions that produced them or which tied them to human interests, we somehow see what they truly are and what they truly mean.
Certain thinkers in the Marxist tradition add a further twist to that argument [that is, the contemplation of pure beauty of nature]. When the followers of Shaftesbury presented their theories of disinterested interest they were not, such thinkers suggest, describing a human universal but merely presenting, in philosophical idiom, a piece of bourgeois ideology. This ‘disinterested’ interest becomes available only in certain historical conditions, and is available because it is functional. The ‘disinterested’ perception of nature, of objects, of human beings and the relations between them, confers on them a trans-historical character. It renders them permanent, ineluctable, part of the eternal order of things. The function of this way of thinking is to inscribe bourgeois social relations into nature, so placing them beyond the reach of social change. In seeing something as an ‘end in itself’, I immortalize it, lift it out of the world of practical concerns, mystify its connection to society, and to the process of production and consumption on which human life depends. More generally the idea of the aesthetic encourages us to believe that by isolating objects from their use, and purifying them
of the economic conditions that produced them or which tied them to human interests, we somehow see what they truly are and what they truly mean. We thereby turn our attention away from the economic reality and gaze on the world as though under the aspect of eternity, accepting as inevitable and unchangeable what ought to be subject to politically organized change. Moreover, while rejoicing in the fiction that both people and things are valued as ‘ends in themselves’, the capitalist economy treats every thing and everyone as a means. The ideological lie facilitates the material exploitation, by generating a false consciousness that blinds us to the social truth.
If we cannot justify the very concept of the aesthetic, except as ideology, then aesthetic judgement is without philosophical foundation. An ‘ideology’ is adopted for its social or political utility, rather than its truth. And to show that some concept—holiness, justice, beauty,
or whatever—is ideological, is to undermine its claim to objectivity. It is to suggest that there is no such thing as holiness, justice or beauty, but only the belief in it—a belief that arises under certain social and economic relations and plays a part in cementing them, but which will vanish as conditions change.
The distinctions between means and ends, between instrumental and contemplative attitudes, and between use and meaning are all indispensable to practical reasoning, and associated with no particular social order. And although the vision of nature as an object of contemplation may have achieved special prominence in eighteenth-century Europe, it is by no means unique to
that place and time, as we know from Chinese tapestry, Japanese woodcuts, and the poems of the Confucians and of Basho. If you want to dismiss the concept of aesthetic interest as a piece of bourgeois ideology, then the onus is on you to describe the non-bourgeois
alternative, in which the aesthetic attitude would be somehow redundant, and in which people would no longer need to find solace in the contemplation of beauty. That onus has never been discharged. Nor could it be.
Roger Scruton, Beauty, Oxford University Press, 2009., pgs. 62-64 (chapter “Aesthetics and Ideology”)
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, 1790
Four definitions of the beautiful:
(1) Taste is the faculty of judging an object or a mode of representation by means of a delight or aversion apart from any interest. The object of such a delight is called beautiful.
(2) The beautiful is that which, apart from a concept, pleases universally.
(3) Beauty is the form of purposiveness in an object, so far as this is perceived in it apart from the representation of an end.
(4) The beautiful is that which, apart from a concept, is cognized as object of a necessary delight.
This definition of the beautiful is derivable from the foregoing definition of it as an object of delight apart from any interest. For where anyone is conscious that his delight in an object is with him independent of interest, it is inevitable that he should judge the object as one containing a ground of delight for all human beings. For, since the delight is not based on any inclination of the subject (or on any other deliberate interest), but the judging subject feels himself completely free in respect of the liking which he accords to the object, he can find as reason for his delight no personal conditions to which his own subjective self might alone be party. Hence he must regard it as resting on what he may also presuppose in every other person; and therefore he must believe that he has reason for expecting a similar delight from everyone. Accordingly he will speak of the beautiful as if beauty were a feature of the object and the judgement were logical (forming a cognition of the object by concepts of it); although it is only aesthetic, and contains merely a reference of the representation of the object to the subject; – because it still bears this resemblance to the logical judgement, that it may be presupposed to be valid for everyone. But this universality cannot spring from concepts. For from concepts there is no transition to the feeling of pleasure or displeasure (save in the case of pure practical laws, which, however, carry an interest with them; and such an interest does not attach to the pure judgement of taste). The result is that the judgement of taste, with its attendant consciousness of detachment from all interest, must involve a claim to validity for everyone, and must do so apart from a universality directed to objects, i.e. there must be coupled with it a claim to subjective universality (pp. 42-43)
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement [Kritik der Urteilskraft, 1790]
Quoted after edition by Oxford University Press (ed. Nicholas Walker), 2007, translated by J.C. Meredith, pp. 42-71