Appreciating works of art is supposed to be a pleasurable activity. But this pleasure is reserved for what we call ‘contemporary’ art. It involves an incessant, sometimes tedious, thinking under the pressure of judgement: Do I like this work or not? Do I value it or not? Should I tell others that this work is great or not? We restlessly feel, look, listen, observe, question, analyse, and judge works of art, in the light of our experiences, knowledge and emotions, and in reference to the opinions of others. This obsession with judgement is particularly evident in modern and contemporary art, the quality of which is based on the invention of ‘new’ meanings and stories through individual effort. Art in contemporary time has moved away from the predominantly religious art of the past, where meanings and stories were given collectively. The act of appreciating art in our time no longer takes place in the comfort of faith or sensual pleasure, but rather serves us as a diorama of judgement, demonstrating how a certain opinion is formulated, exercised and contributes to the creation of value systems in the cultural, intellectual and economic spheres. Especially since poststructuralism and deconstruction have taken over the Western intellectual and artistic climate, we like to claim that judgement is not a gift of human perception unique to each individual, but an amalgam of perceptual cannons, stereotypes and discourses that are culturally, socially and politically manipulated. There is not much left for a subjective agency in our feelings and tastes. How we think and how we feel largely depends on the cultural and social contexts. Art is increasingly being dispersed in the discourse of power relations, and the idea of aesthetic experience is dismantled into an exercise of critical thinking.
The recent trend in critical thinking (which in contemporary art owes much to French poststructuralist and deconstructivist philosophers) is essentially designed to assert that the personal is the social, and vice versa. The idea is to show how power intervenes in every nook and cranny of our lives, thinking and behaviour, and how the nature of power has transformed into a ubiquitous exercise in everyday life. Artists, curators, art critics, and art historians, all strive to give art an activist face, exploring its virtue in an application of discourses of political correctness and identity politics – colonialism, racism, immigration, indigenous rights, animal rights, eco-justice, anti-sexism, LGBTQ+ and so on (which seems to be a return of a collective belief). Art increasingly appears as a practice of representing/performing and provoking social issues. Especially since the 1960s, when Conceptual Art and Performance/Body Art began to conquer the Western art world, followed by Relational Art in the 1980s, political correctness has become one of the essential aesthetic categories, whose mission is to cultivate tolerance and understanding of the vulnerable ‘I’ and the ‘other’. Art is responsible for a society: Artists appear as social scientists/activists, materialising and theorising their emotional, aesthetic and ideological/non-ideological response to what is happening in the societies in which they live.
In this climate, the experience of looking at works of art is like a moral test to see if we have the emotional/aesthetic tolerance to embrace something incomprehensible or unpleasant. The criterion is whether we can sublimate an intolerance into a sociological, let us say, ‘anthropological’ curiosity, in the hope of building a bridge between aesthetic pleasure and moral appeal. It would be an intellectual, and almost a moral failure if we could not extract some social significance from any work of art, however rubbish it may seem. If you were ever to show a sense of hatred, disgust or negation, you would be stigmatised as an aesthetic fascist. In this machinery of cultural/aesthetic relativism, and in the binary thinking exacerbated by the emergence of Conceptual Art (concept/material-technique, language/object, theory/practice and so on), the voice of ‘Hey, the emperor is really naked’ is destined to be suppressed. Objects have faded into concepts and events, and language has replaced technique. Art becomes a logo-centric battleground for the self-justifying defence of a concept as against the art of object/image-making. The play between the socio-critical quality of concepts and the craft quality of objects/images is a criterion for the credibility of a work of art in a contemporary context.
On another front, in the face of works of art, we are still (and secretly) longing for the absolute moment that can nullify these intellectual hustles. In the appreciation of works of art, we can’t hold our horses, we can’t contain our expectations until the moment of the absolute ‘yes’, abandoning all these disgusting labours of judgement. Transcendence through an aesthetic experience is our perennial desire, in which we await the moment when we go beyond who we are and how we think, beyond our cultural and social constraints. There we wish to leave behind a thick-skinned shelf of ‘self’ made up of layers and layers of personal/collective judgements and norms. When it comes to art, we are still stuck between two desires;a moralising desire to tolerate and understand any work of art as a social statement, and an aesthetic ‘purity’ that can liberate us from worldly concerns. In a sense, we are still crawling along with Theodor Adorno’s perverted lament for cultural degradation and his desperate search for a reconciliation between social concern and aesthetic transcendence. When it comes to art and literature in the aftermath of the Second World War (after humanity had witnessed an unprecedented scale of violence), as Adorno aptly put it, we are still bound up by a moral obligation to understand the pain and suffering of others in an act of representation. We are obliged to see the world primarily through the eye of humanity’s inherent violence. But while we remind ourselves that the idea of autonomy of art is no longer tenable and that art has to include social dimensions, we can’t stop looking for something fantastic in art, some miraculous space of liberation that can free us from mundane concerns. Social criticism and aesthetic transcendence, this horrendous duality that art imposes on us, is what lies behind our act of looking at works of art.
Text by Michiko Oki
Image by Edward Allington
Video/Sound by Pablo Padilla Jargstorf