Unlike the aristocracy it displaced, the bourgeoisie could not rely on lineage to assure its social status. Bourgeois elevation was bought; hiding this took some doing. Lacking noble lineage, the bourgeoisie ennobled itself by expressing noble sentiments. I should think this accounts for the progressively unhinged character of progressivism, which must always be straining to distinguish itself from both common sense and common decency.
One can grant that formalism once served a purpose as a bourgeois antidote to the bourgeois moralism that threatened to envelop art from the moment it was “emancipated” from aristocratic patronage and became a signifier of bourgeois elevation. The limitation of formalism has always been that it could never be more than a secular stopgap against the profanation of art. In this, it is of a piece with Kant’s overall attempt to rationalize tradition, without his comprehending the violation that such a rationalization would inflict on the rationalized principles, whose authority is either absolute (and inhuman) or else nonexistent. All of formalism’s notorious blindspots, starting with Kant’s ridiculous notion of disinterested judgement issue from this misguided effort.
The economic stakes involved in the game of art should by now be sufficiently evident to not require more than a mention. Yet formalist discourse withholds even a mention. It completely forecloses any hint that the work of art circulates as a commodity. The aesthetic object (which only becomes an aesthetic object after formalist discourse has succeeded in dislocating it from any context other than that of its connection with other such dislocated objects) undergoes an isolation that forces its meaning to depend on a wordless communion with a subject who is conceived as equally removed from any symbolic network. Once this operation is accomplished, all manner of ineffable qualities can be found in the object corresponding exactly to the investment that went into ripping it out of its context. In other words, what the formalist worships in pure form is his own capability to abduct the object from every relationship other than with himself. Pure form is the mediating term of narcissism.
That the formal qualities of an object structure its meaning is not to be disputed but form has meaning within an intersubjective (social, cultural) context. The discourse of beauty never takes us far here because beauty only indicates the effectiveness of the Gestalt, the lure. This lure only has a purpose within a structure that structures a subject to be caught by it. The object is the embodiment of a pact, which as Lacan never ceases to insist, is what every symbol is first and foremost. Ranciere’s hallowed statue of Athena is erected and placed in a temple to reinforce the group identity of the Athenian citizenry–which is why the looting and destruction of temples and public monuments is one of the priorities of conquering armies to this day.
Panofsky defined art as consisting of objects that “demand” to be considered aesthetically. But if objects demand anything, it is because they are apprehended as speech, which always calls for a response. This is what formalism does not want to know, in so far as it wants to preserve the aesthetic object in its alienation as the mirror image of the self, a self already conceived as an object, an ego–so that the aesthetic experience can then take place as an encounter between objects. For it is only as a relationship between objects, both mortified to the point of inertness, that one can postulate the disinterest of disinterested contemplation.
What we encounter in formalism is in fact typical of modern anti-modern ideologies, which recoil from the banality of modernity but are compelled to oppose this banality in modern terms (i.e. on rational, secular grounds) because they dare not affirm tradition.
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.