Roundtable: Beauty

On April 26, a roundtable discussion on beauty took place at Spektrum in Berlin. The event was organized and moderated by Dennis Schep (Friedrich Schlegel Graduiertenschule). Participants were:

Christina Dimitriadis (Visual artist, NYU Berlin)
Chris Fenwick (Literary scholar, Friedrich Schlegel Graduiertenschule)
Joshua Fineberg (Composer, Boston University)
Melissa Steckbauer (Visual artist)

roundtable beauty
Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917


What follows is an abridged and edited transcript of the input statements and the subsequent discussion.

Dennis: What got me interested in this topic is the observation that, whereas one might suppose that art is about making beautiful things, nowadays this aim does not figure in artist’s statements, and neither is beauty a dominant concern in the discourse about art. After spending 10 years in the university and being accustomed to a critical vocabulary, I myself have come to suspect judgments of beauty: to say something is beautiful almost sounds naive. Recently, Sianne Ngai has argued that our aesthetic categories are no longer the beautiful and the sublime, but the cute, the zany and the interesting. Perhaps we could say that beauty is marginalized in the fields of art and academia. I am interested in the reasons for this marginalization.

Christina: Why did we stop talking about beauty? Until some years ago, producing beauty was the goal of art. Then, concept art and Dada came up and separated the meaning of art from beauty. This had a lot to do with the political situation: fascists and communists used beauty as a propaganda tool. Hitler beautified art on the model of ancient Greece; the communists produced monumental sculptures of marching women and men. Art had to find a purpose outside of this use of beauty by totalitarian regimes, leading to conceptual art, etc.

Today, the beautiful is predominantly occupied by the commercial, again sidelining art. The world is beautified, and art tries to escape this commercial beautification. But it also inspires it: just look at Beyoncé recycling the famous video of Pipilotti Rist breaking cars with a flower. Even if we try to avoid beauty in art, we never really get away from it. Even Duchamp’s work, which is about the idea of the artwork rather than its visual appeal, is beautified today. Or does anyone think his work is ugly? Maybe artists try to get away from beauty, but the history of art catches up with them; things are made pretty by their cultural context. We learn to like things, things are made beautiful by circulation. Nan Goldin is another example of someone who produced ugly pictures that are considered beautiful today.

We cannot avoid being brainwashed by visual culture. We are bombarded with images that awaken our desires. Kim Kardashian is everywhere, and all her images are photoshopped. How does this affect our relation to beauty? But in contrast with this beautification and visual saturation of the present, there is the distance created by memory. If we look at propaganda sculptures or paintings from the past, we consider them kitsch. Sophie Calle did a project called Souvenirs de Berlin-Est, where she walks around the city, documenting empty spaces where there used to be monuments of the communist era. In one or two years, they all disappeared. They confronted us with a dark part of history, and therefore could no longer be considered beautiful.

Melissa: We can alter the way in which we read beauty by acknowledging it’s a layered experience relative to our capacity to deepen and expand our perception, with experience being a negotiable term. Speaking for myself, the experience or language through which I read beauty is absolutely haptic. I am less interested in the aestheticization of things, and more interested in understanding beauty as it expresses itself through the body. Recognizing interconnectivity as a form of beauty induces a dynamic, physiological response. Living from within the fabric of the everything sends a wave of charge through the body, either eliciting tears and a feeling of being moved, a soft fluttering in the sex organs, or a full-body electric wash.

I would argue this feeling of connectivity is more or less always there, but is only nodded to once in a while. On such occasions, it stirs a symphony within the body. These reminders may or may not be based on the ocular; all of this may be happening on a posthuman immaterial wavelength. One could argue about the origin of such insight; is this a simulation, is physiological response ocular or not, merely a manifestation of brain function and cultural intersection, is perceived pleasure an enjoyment born of imagination or does it exist, a sublime and measurable interconnectivity apart from human perception?

Leaving those questions aside, what I find interesting is the capacity for an expanded view, past the installation of culturally specific values, objects, historiographies and into some larger paradigm, again based on a physiological response, a feeling of being a part of a larger organism and aliveness. I locate this as an intuitive paradigm related to a broad emotional spectrum. For me it is usually initially ocular – that said, I spend most of my time engaged within visual strata. However, I work very hard to relax and challenge the limits of my own cultural framework, surrendering whenever possible to the imaginary, thus entering a realm of largely immeasurable but ecstasy-inducing conditions.

Chris: The word “beautiful” is used in relation to a loose range of phenomena. When we look for beauty in faces, we’re doing something quite different from when we look for beauty in art. But should we think of beauty as purely sensory? Mathematicians frequently discuss the beauty of certain results or proofs. Another example that I particularly like is from Borges’s story ‘The Book of Sand.’ A man discovers an “infinite book” whose pages continually change and never return. He starts to go insane and chooses to destroy it, but when he considers burning it, fears that “the burning of an infinite book would be similarly infinite, and suffocate the world in smoke.” I find the idea here quite beautiful. The beauty arises from a kind of argument, from the thought the narrator arrives at. It is more logical than sensual. Perhaps we should be willing to talk of beautiful thoughts, ideas and arguments, acknowledging that the epistemological or rational already has an inescapable element of the aesthetic within it.

In his third critique, Kant makes a number of observations on the scope of the beautiful. He draws an important distinction between things that are “beautiful” and things that are merely “agreeable.” The agreeable is simply a personal matter – for example, whether someone likes wine or not – and it is related to how it satisfies their desire for the object (eg. hunger or sexual attraction). Beauty is something more, and is unrelated to the satisfaction of desire – it is “disinterested.” It feels as if it has a meaning, which is not merely private – a notion Kant terms “subjective universality.” An experience of beauty remains essentially subjective, but we feel as if we perceive an objective property of an object that should be there for others. Kant’s wish to get away from a simple subjective satisfaction of the senses, of desire, drives us into the domain of the cognitive and conceptual – and further, towards universality. “Beauty” comes into being when we grasp an apparent significance of some object/experience – and in doing so, we search for a general concept for it, via which we could communicate with others.

Agreement over the “beautiful” for Kant doesn’t involve looking at bodily or psychological faculties – for example, showing that the human brain is good at recognizing spirals, and so-called “pleasure centres” light up when we see them. That would be to view human subjects mechanistically: a particular stimulus generates a particular response, and we can “objectively” claim to have found consensus. Viewing humans in this purely naturalistic, deterministic way puts the beautiful beyond our control. There may be a natural basis to certain preferences (maybe even for spirals), but in its reflective, conceptual aspect, beauty also involves locating ourselves within nature as free beings, bestowing value and finding meaning, not just subject to deterministic physical laws.

Nonetheless, Kant does not explore the broader problems of aesthetic relativity and disagreement. “Subjective universality” remains subjective and can still be construed as a matter of personal taste. In this light, maybe we could think of judgments of the beautiful as a kind of gesture. If someone disagrees with our judgment, we can try to give our reasons, but we may just end up gesturing at an object and saying, “Don’t you see?” Judgments of the beautiful will always reach a level at which they defy rational explanation and articulation: the other person either sees the thing, or they don’t. They belong to the same world as us, or they don’t. The inarticulability of the beautiful says something profound about subjectivity – the possibility of never accessing another person’s mind. This is a fundamental aspect of the human condition. If we reject talk about the beautiful as meaningless, because it is subjective, then we miss the point. It is meaningful precisely because it is subjective. It is a way in which we acknowledge and experience an aspect of our nature, the separateness of minds, and attempt to find commonality in the face of it. Yet in doing so, we must always remain open to the possibility of failure. Calling something beautiful involves exposing myself, where I stand, to you, and hoping for a kind of assent. In that sense, judgments of the beautiful establish an ethical relation.

Josh: A lot of what Chris was talking about might be called meta-beauty; the overall assessment of a work as beautiful in some abstract sense. Kant may be trying to get at this when he gets rid of the interestedness. But maybe he does so in a bad way insofar as we also talk about beauty in relation to things we’re interested in. Wine collectors describe bottles of wine in terms that are very close to those used by art critics to describe works of art. They don’t just ask themselves what they feel like drinking tonight; they ascribe more abstract values to the wine and the properties it possesses.

It seems to me this type of supposedly disinterested assessment is almost always coupled with an assertion of value within a hierarchy. This is why, from a political point of view, beauty has always been so dangerous; it’s a powerful bludgeon to say that the thing that I ascribe these values to is better than things that don’t have them. This allows people to draw dangerous political distinctions.

Everything we do is deeply embodied, and shaped by the way our brain functions. The idea of a distinction between natural and cultural or constructed is wrong on both sides; we are animals that live in our brains. Everything, including the most abstract conceptual things we engage with, are deeply influenced by the purely mechanistic way our brain works, and the most mechanistic percepts we have are deeply conditioned by our social context and conceptual frameworks. It’s all mixed up in a way that is extraordinarily difficult to disentangle, but both sides are deeply relevant when it comes to something like beauty.

There’s a big field of study in cognitive science around preference judgments. No one would identify instantaneous preference judgments with judgments of beauty, but it’s clear that the preferences and perceptual characteristics studied by cognitive scientists contribute to building up the data that underlies these larger-scale aesthetic judgments, in a very subtle way tied up with our expectations and experiences.

For me as an artist, beauty is probably one of the most powerful things I work with. It involves a lot of guessing about how people will perceive things, but this does not happen in a premeditated meta-beauty way. When making art we play with the sense of beauty. We all have an aesthetic sense that makes anything from an equation to a person to a glass of wine seem more balanced, more beautiful or more desirable than something else. When we’re making art, we try to manipulate this aesthetic sense over time, and when we succeed at doing this, we start ascribing what we might call meta-beauty to the overall experience of beauty and non-beauty that goes on over the course of the piece. However, when we privilege some kind of conceptual framework over the bodily response, we ascribe a hierarchization to different processes that are in fact very entangled.

Chris: Let me briefly respond to your point about hierarchy. We make judgments of beauty in the hopes of finding some sort of consensus, not of imposing our views on others. I don’t think my perspective is necessarily latched onto elitism. Regarding “meta-beauty”: the kind of perception I am talking about isn’t an “overall assessment.” It’s very much present in responses to individual moments within a work. Concepts are present within experience.

The problem I have with cognitive science approaches is that they exclude the dimension of meaning from the relation between stimulus and response, and from the perspective of Kant, this dimension is precisely what distinguishes us as humans. My second objection is more speculative: cognitive scientists try to come up with an objective standard (beauty is the activation of this and that brain circuit), which refuses to acknowledge that subjectivity is the point. I think they’re afraid of skepticism.

Josh: This whole dichotomy is mystifying to me. Of course you have to understand the mechanics of the brain, but understanding these mechanics is not understanding the whole phenomenon. On the other hand, ignoring these mechanics seems nearly insane: we can’t step out of our heads when we think about beauty. The percept of beauty as it occurs in visual arts, in music, or even in wine often feels related, because we are using similar brain mechanisms. Thinking about how the image of music is formed in our minds does not reduce it to a stimulus-response mechanism, whereas simply neglecting the biases ingrained in the neurological apparatus doesn’t make those biases go away; you’re just going to be pushed around by them because you’re not aware of them.

I also want to come back to the polysemy of the notion of beauty. There was a brief time in my life when I was collaborating with several cognitive scientists. We worked on harmonic tension. The scientists found: as soon as you try to define tension, people got very heterogeneous results. But if you made no attempt to define it, people’s experience of tension was highly correlated. Perhaps percepts are more shared than the way we talk about them.

Melissa: Perhaps I’m being holistic, but we share a single sensorial fabric, even together in this room. Our brain is doing things, but in my body I feel everyone’s presence. There is a larger poetry happening; it is close to intuition, but within a community. Something is joining; you are reading a fabric that exists. You sink into something that feels alive, but is also localized; I can grab pieces of it.

Dennis: Let’s move on to the question of today. Design and advertising colonized the beautiful, everything is more and more commercialized and instrumentalized. Modern art often placed itself in a subversive position in relation to this; think also of the Frankfurt School’s suspicion of art forms that reconcile us with capitalism. Can art still occupy that subversive position today?

Christina: Of course capitalism makes everything problematic. Sometimes I refer to our times as a galloping capitalism. It takes our desires and creates products. We are bombarded every day, and life becomes very difficult. But we still need art; we cannot live without it. We just find it in places where we don’t expect it. Benjamin believed the aura was something unique and sublime, threatened by reproduction; but where do we find art when everything is reproduced? I myself refused to see art around me for years, but I could not avoid it – I read poetry, I listen to music. So I realized: I cannot live without art; it is the only way of understanding the world. We live in a turbulent time; there is Brexit, there is Trump. We are bombarded with news. Art allows another aesthetic, another narration, another way of speaking. This is something we will always need, and something that will always be there.

Chris: Christina said the category of beauty has been colonized by the realm of commerce. The percept is exploited in advertising. Perhaps we can say the same about the experience of falling in love, which is totally tainted by social expectations. These days, falling in love is commercialized; just look at Valentine’s day and the way it appears in your Facebook news feed. Some of our most intimate experiences are perverted for the gain of other parties. This is close to what you see when it comes to beauty.

For myself, beauty is still an important criterion in terms of what attracts me to works. Most academics choose a topic because they think it’s beautiful; many even obsess over the type of writers or questions that they were obsessed with when they were 15. What I try to do as a critic is not to try and give a historical contextualization of the work; I try to show something about the work that I think is important, and that I see as an objective property – something I can show to others. I believe this is something literary critics should try to do: to illuminate something within a work for other people. And that may include beauty.

In response to the charge of elitism; couldn’t we rephrase this issue? Are large Hollywood production firms not the real elites? If you are attacking a group of adjunct professors at a poetry reading, haven’t you picked the wrong enemy? These people may have cultural capital, but little social influence.