Tag Archives: beauty

Pisser

For at least a century, beauty’s most felicitous relationship has been with merchandising, not art. Today, one is more likely to come across something beautiful in a mall or in front of a screen than in a gallery or museum. Consumer economies run on eye candy and are remarkably good at manufacturing it. The best creative talent is enlisted in the making and marketing of sexy consumables. The fine arts make do with the spoiled children of the rich.

This was already evident when Duchamp proposed an upturned urinal as an entry in the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibition. The truly shocking thing about Fountain was not the nomination of a urinal to the status of art but the much-slower-to-sink-in actuality that a mass-produced urinal might be as beautiful as a Brancusi.

In other words, with hindsight, Duchamp’s gesture appears realistic rather than nihilistic. It acknowledged that industry had robbed art of its privileged relationship with the aesthetic. If art was to remain fixated on beauty, it was obliged to express this fixation by the practice of framing as art what was already readily available as commodity, via what came to be known as appropriation.

How could the idea of fine art survive Duchamp’s gesture? There was simply too much cultural and financial capital invested in the idea of art to permit it a graceful exit.  What’s more, by emancipating art from overt social function, modern art endowed the art object with the potential to achieve close to limitless speculative value. This is what the avant-garde ultimately contributed to modernity: a new type of commodity, at once empty and unique and, by virtue of that combination, the most desirable commodity of all.

Freak Show

Part of what constitutes our decadence, or maybe is the very essence of our decadence, is our cowardice in the face of ugliness, our willingness to compromise with it.

We know the difference between ugliness and beauty or we would not mount arguments against the unfairness of the distinction. But we are compromised: we cannot uphold beauty because we cannot uphold unfairness.

Now this would seem to be an inevitable consequence of what we call democracy given that beauty stands out because it is uncommon and that its appreciation must therefore slight the common. The antagonism between democracy and beauty is confirmed by the fact that the bulk of the beautiful things that have been handed down to us and that we take care to preserve were produced under decidedly inegalitarian and authoritarian conditions.

More fundamental to our predicament is that fairness is absent from nature, which is innocent of any notion of universal rights, and that our modern idolatry of fairness is, therefore, an expression of a radical alienation from nature.

Beauty and naturalness are intimately connected to the degree that beauty could be said to represent nothing else than perfect naturalness and the necessity that we perceive in naturalness. Conversely, ugliness and unnaturalness are synonymous. It follows that the affirmation of beauty is possible only alongside an affirmation of the order of nature.

Therein lies the root of the modern antagonism toward beauty. For modernity recruited its promoters and adherents by promising an emancipation from the constraints of nature. All our investment in the empirical sciences has been driven by that promise–which science has more than fulfilled but at the price of rendering us, its late beneficiaries, into wholly unnatural creatures.

The horrific mutants and aliens that populate sci fi are us. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was a vision of what post the ascension of the bourgeoisie, Western man was becoming.

Modernity is in its very essence the triumph of unnaturalness and ugliness. It is the age of the freak.

And this is why beauty has fled from us, and why we are powerless to resist the ever-more-hideous abominations that science and technology foist on us, be they misgendered and transgendered beings, architectural obscenities, or abysmal manners.

Today, ugliness has rights. And beauty is a detestable privilege.

And yet, we have not successfully eradicated all beauty. It lingers as our bad conscience, as a repressed awareness of our degradation. And to that extent, it lingers as our death drive, for deep down we loathe our ugliness and seek our own extinction, the means to whose realization science has also mercifully bestowed upon us.