Beholdering: The Subject of Beauty

My intense dislike of institutions, my impatience with bureaucracies that in their extreme carefulness produce very little, my hostility to visible signs of authority so acute that I bristle at the cardboard-peaked cap of a uniformed parking attendant have me very fond of the anarchic in Dave Hickey. So I cheered upon finding the newly published book The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (University of Chicago Press, 2009) indicating on the cover in small print,* Revised and Expanded*. (It was first published in 1993.) The introduction, written in the third person by the author, states that the newly added concluding essay “veers where it wishes to infer a history for the West’s long, pagan romance with beautiful things,” and I’m picturing a reliable quarter horse supporting an elaborately worked leather saddle and a pretty woman on a low porch in an off-the-shoulder blouse with a flower behind her ear, but he doesn’t mean that West, or that beauty. What he wrote when he first addressed the topic was that, “In images beauty is the agency that causes visual pleasure in the beholder, and, since pleasure is the true occasion for looking at anything, any theory of images that is not grounded in the pleasure of the beholder begs the question of art’s efficacy.” All that talk about looking and pleasure and beauty is bound to be unsettling.

Hickey said he wrote about the way objects looked, implying that he wasn’t writing about what they meant, intentionally not inserting himself between the art work and the viewer. In this it seems he’s heading off with the institutional position at his back. The curators of those institutions, he tells us, “hold a public trust. They must look attentively and genuinely care about what artists mean, and what this meaning means in a public context–and, therefore … they must distrust appearances and distrust most of all the appearance of images that, by virtue of the pleasure they give, are efficacious in their own right.” Beauty is the most dangerous of all, he adds, since in its ability to seduce, it steals the institution’s power and “elicits the dismay of artists who have committed themselves to the excruciating tedium of plain honesty.” Seduction, pleasure, the unseating of power, all those unmeasurable random responses, all that juice and all that joy–messy, unruly beauty.

Cultural theorist Amelia Jones answers Hickey’s assertions in an essay whose title she borrows, with irony, from the writings of John Ruskin, “‘Every Man Knows Where and How Beauty Gives Him Pleasure’: Beauty Discourse and the Logic of Aesthetics,” (The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 2009). Jones has drawn from a cluster of writers in the history of aesthetics: Kant, Winckelmann and Ruskin, to which group she added Dave Hickey. Each questions–excepting his own judgment–the unreliability of beauty as a means of assessing objects to which we are drawn. Objects that “seduce” us is how she puts it, leaving us wary at the potential for being tricked or led astray. She points out Ruskin’s assumption in determining beauty in the large sense while at the same time claiming its subjectivity. “This dual gesture, which affirms universality even as it admits particularity, structures the aesthetic in its dominant forms of articulation within Western art discourse.”

Kant, Ruskin and Winckelmann aren’t here to respond, but Hickey can withstand her claiming his writing on beauty is a polemic and promising to answer with her own, which she does by the essay’s conclusion in a surprisingly confessional manner. (Or was she again engaging irony?)

Jones says she thinks an aesthetic approach to visual culture, leaning to connoisseurship, is unsuited to the current cultural period. What she wants to do is challenge aesthetics and the rhetoric of beauty as sole determinants of value, and in this, she shares the views of Roland Barthes. His statement in* Mythologies* parallels her approach. He wrote, “I want … to track down, in the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying, the ideological abuse which, in my view, is hidden there.” It may go without saying but not without effect.

And Hickey roots for what he suggests is the unmediated, individual response to beauty because, as an independent-minded, thoroughgoing American, he believes that’s what the response is or should be. It’s Jones’s argument that the rhetoric of beauty, of which she says Hickey is a proponent, excludes as objects to be considered anything that isn’t beautiful. I may be being disingenuous, but if the discussion is the subject of beauty, then it seems we’re back again to subjectivity and definitions.

In between is the argument Dave Beech makes in his introductory essay, “Art and the Politics of Beauty,” Beauty: Documents of Contemporary Art (London: Whitechapel; Cambridge: mit Press, 2009). He says beauty has always been difficult to define because of the subjective nature of pleasure, and taste. Following from the works of Freud, Marx and Nietzsche is what philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls the “hermeneutics of suspicion”: now beauty is subjective, and controversial. Modernism, Beech says, has introduced a politics of beauty, to the regret of those like Hickey who argue for its return in pure form. The hermeneutics of suspicion posits that the individual is shaped by social forces both beyond their control and of which they would be unaware, and questions the existence of the “unmediated sovereign individual,” drawing out “the tension between individual experience and the social structure.” This kind of awareness would not have shaped perceptions of beauty before the modern period, and he adds that “Kant’s thinking on beauty stands uncomfortably on the cusp of this modern world.” To secure a space for subjectivity unsullied by social influences, Kant identified whatever would threaten this status and then attempted to eliminate the threatening elements from any aesthetic determination. “This tension between the subjective and the social,” Beech writes, “has become characteristic of modern disputes about beauty.”

Jones’s response is that Kant and Hickey both make a tidy, tautological argument that, by its very nature, goes nowhere. She points out, ” … beauty is an agency supposedly emanating from the work of art which causes the viewing subject to judge it beautiful … while reciprocally confirming the arbiter of beauty as ‘correct’ in his judgment.”

It wouldn’t be sensible to deny Jones’s analysis, but I go back to Hickey whose writing about art has always sparked me–as language and as passionate, energy-filled observations about a subject that should provoke responses that quicken the pulse. He outlines the shift in authority from church and state that began with the Renaissance and was replaced, as the source of meaning and subject of images, by a more intimate relationship between the viewer and the image being regarded. As Hickey puts it, “Images become mobile at this point and irrevocably political.” And it’s not the politics of the state he means but the politics of the image itself and its viewers in their various social negotiations. Following his splendid jibes and jabs at institutions and bureaucracies, and from my own prickle-backed point of view: they want the control and the power back. Happily, artists don’t take well to herding.

What follows could stand in part as a kind of Hickey Manifesto on Beauty: “The task of beauty is to enfranchise the audience and acknowledge its power—to designate a territory of shared values between the image and its beholder and then, in this territory, to advance an argument by valorizing the picture’s problematic content.” If definitions of beauty remain sufficiently open ended and the subjective is broadcast, and even allowing for the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” how would this be a difficult proposition to consider?

Unless there were a determination to remove the artist as a singular individual, we would have to acknowledge that something particular impels the artist in making art. Hickey says (and I love his using the word “urgent”), “Without the urgent intention of reconstructing the beholder’s view of things, the image has no reason to exist, much less to be beautiful.” There’s no question as to his sincerity and commitment bolstered by his tantalizing the reader with descriptions that are near religious in their zeal and then sexual in his skillful use of language. Biblical, almost, in writing about Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. “Thus do ‘the religion of Christ’ and ‘religion of art’ erotically infect one another. For just as Christ trusts Saint Thomas and suffers himself to be intimately touched, we trust the image and suffer ourselves to be intimately touched—taking beauty as the signature of the image’s grace and beneficence.” If it’s cool indifference and theoretical structures you want in a response to art, Hickey isn’t your man. For sexual nuance in art writing—still discussing The Incredulity of Saint Thomas—we would stand before the painting and consider our yielding to its ravishing effect by giving over to its skill and subject and submit like Christ has to Saint Thomas’s intimate probing where we might “ … triumph before the arrested image of our desire, in an exquisite, suspended moment of pleasure and control.”

In measured metre Amelia Jones offers “ … a way of evaluating works of art that is more in sync with contemporary politics and culture—one that understands rather than veils or occludes the contingency of meaning and value and the role of the interpreter in determining both.” Still subjective—who after all, is looking and responding?

Dave Beech suggests we would be engaging a hermeneutics without suspicion if we believed we were able to make judgments free of unintended consequences or unmindful of our pleasure being accompanied by ideologies or existing systems. Beauty is political because it is subjective, he tells us, in its provoking us to bring the composite beings we are into play at the moment of our engagement with a work of art.

Each of us is an amalgam of a larger social environment, the more immediate one of familial nurture and background, and the particular mix of the somatic network and circuitry that is wired to the head, through the heart. Culture and circumstances can only obscure or augment our responses so far, and then, looking at art and sometimes seeing beauty, it’s the subjective, singular each of us.❚