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Aestheticized Life, An-aestheticized Art: The Case of Visual Artist Mona Hatoum *
(Parol on line, gennaio 2000) di
Monica Sassatelli

*I have presented a draft of this paper at the XIVth International Congress of Aesthetics, (1-5 September 1998, Ljubljana, Slovenia). I would like to thank Roberta Sassatelli, Jasper Chalcraft, Jane Beckett and Giuliano Piazzi for the time and help they have given to me in the various stages of my work. I am also grateful to Pieter Duvenage, Martin Jay and Raffaele Milani, with whom I had the chance to discuss my paper during and after the congress.

This paper addresses the question of the aestheticization of life from the point of view of art. Broadly speaking aestheticization suggests a process by which what was previously outside the aesthetic enters it. How, or if, this process would effect the field of art - the traditional domain of traditional aesthetics - is a question that remains secondary if touched at all. A selective reading of current definitions of aestheticization, with special attention to the place they reserve for art, can offer a possible interpretative key for some contemporary artistic phenomena. A feed-back relationship is in fact sometimes highlighted: on the one side life is being rendered somewhat artistic, shaped as a work of art, on the other side art is being challenged by the banalisation of the aesthetic to find other forms of expression. As we call life aestheticized, we could call such art an-aestheticized. In trying to substantiate this idea of anaestheticized art it is possible not only to question art but also to reconsider some aspects of the so-called aestheticization of everyday life.

Immagine 1My analysis is not aimed at providing analytical definitions of the terms involved. Instead I reconsider concepts from a sociological perspective. That is, rather than pursuing an analytical philosophical investigation, I address how concepts, such as aestheticization, are put to work; how their use functions in the discursive creation of objects and subjects - meaning here, art and everyday experience.[Experience being defined, after Foucault, as "the correlation between fields of knowledge, types of normativity, and forms of subjectivity" (Foucault, 1987:4).] As a case-study I investigate the work of contemporary visual artist Mona Hatoum. Due to the limitations of my case-study (I should probably say a pilot case study) I make no pretence to generalisation, I just try to open new perspectives and hypotheses for further research.

Bearing this in mind I shall develop my analysis, starting with the question of aestheticization of life.

§ Aestheticization

The so-called "aestheticization of everyday life" can still be considered an open issue (Gronow, 1997:17) and in lack of a canonised definition it is liable to be used in "sensational" expressions. Nevertheless, the term is increasingly mentioned and is gaining relevance as a device to label trends in the shaping of contemporary everyday life (Welsch, 1997). Trends towards an increased role of images, appearance, superficiality (Featherstone, 1991; Chaney, 1996; Gronow, 1997). A kind of superficiality, though, that doesn't hide depth but wholly substitutes it (Baudrillard, 1983). Aestheticization is in fact sometimes referred to as a shift in the legitimating rhetoric of the social bond, due to the failure of previous (modern) dominant values, at the level of both discourse and practice [A failure that features commonly in the definition of "postmodernism". Aestheticization can thus be considered postmodern too. Here, however, I preferred concentrating on its actual implications rather than on its being modern or/and postmodern. ]. "Aestheticization" would thus be a way out of the impasse of groundlessness engendered by this failure, a move from ethics to aesthetics [This "aestheticization of ethics", although not unprecedented (Shusterman, 1988) seems to mature as ethics fails to be the base for shared values. On the "aesthetics of existence" see also Ferry 1990; Foucault 1987; Maffesoli 1990.]. This would work, as it is often stated, through the blurring of art and life, through the shaping of one's own life as a work of art, the latter representing a self-grounding criterion and an end in itself.

Immagine 2However such a criterion is itself grounded in a very specific, historical, notion of aesthetic as concerned with beauty and art. [I refer here to aesthetics as the theory of beauty and art, the discipline progressively defined since the XVIII century (Welsch, 1997, Shusterman (ed.) 1989). At basically the same time also the "modern system of the arts" was coming into being (Kristeller, 1951-52). ]In that context art is elevated to a kind of self-sufficient, autonomous subject, according to the criteria of pure aesthetics [In particular in the (vulgarisation of the) Kantian aesthetics. This has been criticised as both class (Bourdieu 1979) and gender (Buck-Morss, 1992) biased. However it is important to stress that Kant was not so much trying to give an ideological foundation to the superiority of a class (or a gender) as to find a basis for a conciliation between the subjective and the universal that would not be founded in external general criteria, and could thus be the ground for a free communal life. See Caygill, 1989, on Kant; Bowie, 1990, on aesthetics and subjectivity and Gronow, 1997, for a sociological interpretation.]. This can be reductive. A more comprehensive, etymological if you like, meaning of aesthetics directly addresses bodily perception and sensual cognition. Indeed, the various meanings may look at odds: aesthetic distance and detachment but also sensual cognition and contact; disinterestedness, purified pleasure, but also contact, physical pleasure [On the tension between distance and involvement in the aesthetic see also Simmel, (1907) and (1908).].

It is important to recall this here because an awareness of the history and semantics of "aesthetic" allows us to appreciate the functioning of the concept, whether complex or simplified [And, again, not in view of an analytical investigation. Among the sources more directly linked to this paper's perspective there are also Williams, 1988; Eagleton, 1990; Guillory, 1993; Mattick (ed.), 1993.]. In this case it seems to be mostly a simplified notion of aesthetic as artistic which is applied to the derivative aestheticization. It thus establishes a basic link between aestheticization and art. In one sense this is a matter of course since those notions of aesthetics and of a "system of the arts" are the product of the same society that is now said to be aestheticized. However such a reduction can have far-reaching implications.

§ An-aestheticized art

Immagine 3As mentioned, a feed-back relationship has sometimes been indicated between aestheticization and changes in the realm of art. Art, understood as the gatekeeper of the aesthetic, is unlikely to remain unaffected by the spread of the aesthetic throughout life. A peculiar approach to the aesthetic in artistic phenomena corresponds to the changes that modernity brought about, progressively enhancing the aesthetic dimension of experience and perception. It can be said that art reacts to the wider state of the aesthetic in society as much as in the field of art itself [As W. Welsch noticed: "....[A]rt has reacted very consciously to the societal state of the aesthetic time and time again. Wherever in the world sensibility has been under threat, art - heedful of its old bond - understands itself as the harbinger and rescuer of the sensuous (Dubuffet); where embellishment is rife, it can see its responsibility in countering this and behaving decidedly demurely (arte povera, concept art) - just as earlier in an aesthetically more sparing world, it had championed the Elysium of beauty. Art reacts not only to art, but constantly to reality and particularly to the state of the aesthetic therein" (Welsch, 1997:30). Therefore, as reality is now undergoing a generalized process of aestheticization, "A good share of today's art [...] sees its purpose in the mediation of hard reality, corporeality and drastic experiences - that is, all that which we have lost in reality as a result of aestheticization processes" (Welsch, ibid.:28). ].

However to say that could be misleading, for more than one reason. On the one side, it suggests a causal relationship, while what can be looked for are just interrelationships and analogies: art is implicated in the changes that aestheticization brings to culture and society. On the other side, such expression seems to personify art, suggesting a general, rational subject acting in a purified intellectual sphere towards the perfection of a coherent system of art itself. It thus overlooks that these processes always take place in society and are therefore also determined by very concrete and strategic moves of different actors, which may or may not respond to solely aesthetic considerations (Bourdieu, 1979 and 1993). The relation between aestheticization and changes in the field of art is not only in terms of the latter's reaction in view of its internal coherent development, but also a question of the strategies that can guarantee its very survival as a separated field.

These considerations can work as an argument against the idea that in an aestheticized world art dissolves, because rendered aspecific [This seems to be Baudrillard's position, even if ambiguous: "And so art is everywhere, since artifice is at the very heart of reality. And so art is dead, not only because its critical transcendence is gone, but because reality itself, entirely impregnated by an aesthetic which is inseparable from its own structure, has been confused with its own image" (Baudrillard, 1983:151-2).], undoing that (modern) process of differentiation which created art as we know it today. This is an idea that was also the explicit program of the blurring of art and life adopted by the avant-garde [Two species of: old programmes à la Schiller (life into art), and historical avant-garde (art into life).] and that we find renewed in some definitions of aestheticization ["The more general significance of increased importance being attached to aesthetic matters both in everyday life and in the delineation of structural concerns is two-fold. First, to suggest an intrinsic connection between lifestyle practice and personal identity [...]; and, second, to suggest that the self-conscious aestheticism of the dandy is likely to be no longer restricted to avant-garde élites but becomes part of a more widespread aestheticization of everyday life". (Chaney 1996: 69-70).]. These programs and their outcomes are probably one of the reasons for the increasing difficulties in defining "art". However, if there is confusion at the level of discourse, this is not the same at the level of practice [That could be linked to the mentioned idea of a coherent system and refusal to think of concrete, strategic elements, which would render it easier to account for the complexity of today's art worlds (Becker, 1988).]. Never has the art system been so differentiated, both internally and externally. In this sense the projects of blurring art and life failed - and should we say that they were doomed to? - precisely because they were artistic projects: what they touched they rendered art.

Immagine 4Certainly, though, the relation between art-works and the aesthetic becomes a problem. In particular if one is not ready to reconsider the meanings of "aesthetic". When life is crowded with beautiful, or artful, images, visual art - so the argument goes - is not any more meant to be beautiful, and maybe not even an image. This can be stated also à la Benjamin: with technological innovations art loses its aura and becomes, by the same token, accessible to the masses. As a result, life is on its way to aestheticization and art leaves the realm of beautiful semblance [See Benjamin, 1936: 224. This very influential essay, on the whole an apology for the potential of mass culture, ends with a warning. It warns against aestheticization inasmuch as it amounts to a kind of sensory self-alienation and, extended to politics becomes a powerful instrument of stultification. "Humanity, that according to Homer, was once an object of spectacle for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it is capable of experiencing its own destruction as an aesthetic enjoyment of the highest order. So it is with the aestheticization of politics, which is being managed by fascism. Communism responds with the politicisation of art" (Benjamin, ibid.:235. The translation of the text has been changed, according to the version quoted in S. Buck-Morss, 1992)]. It is still art, though: art galleries, critics, artists, exhibitions, markets, are all there to disperse doubts about this (and, incidentally, also the question of the loss of the aura needs reconsideration) [From both a theoretical and an empirical point of view. See, for instance, Mattick, 1993.].

In the art scene there are an increasing number of phenomena difficult to fit in the discourse of artistic aesthetics. Such art can be thought of as an-aestheticized. As such the expression is empty. It demands to be given a content by looking at concrete works of art, whilst implying a problematization of what we think is art for the aesthetic and the aesthetic for art.

§ The Gaze and the Guts: Mona Hatoum's work

Immagine 5I have decided to look at the work of Palestinian Mona Hatoum [Mona Hatoum is a Palestinian visual artist currently living and working in London. She was born in 1952 in Beirut and went to England in 1975. She then studied at the Byam Shaw School of Art and at the Slade School of Art (London). She firstly became known during the eighties with performance works, but she is also a video and installation artist. In 1995 she was shortlisted for the Turner Prize. ]because it questions traditional aesthetic boundaries. Certainly many other artists could have provided similar material. The complexity of her work, though, renders mine easier: her performances, videos, installations are particularly revealing not only because they address confrontational themes and represent some of the most "advanced" forms of art, but also because they bypass the limits of their explicit issues and question those new forms or categories, working with the resulting paradoxical aspects.

This may not be evident at first sight. Especially in the early performances which made Hatoum known her work emerges as engaged and issue-based. Her performances and videos address oppression and resistance: the individual, the woman, the people, versus institutions. Much of the significance of Hatoum's work clearly relates to the artist's origin: born in Beirut of Palestinian parents, she left Lebanon to study art in London, just before the war broke out in 1975 preventing her return home. (Under Siege, 1982; The Negotiating Table, 1983; Variations on Discord and Divisions, 1984.) Power structures are addressed also within communication: she aims at stressing the bias introduced by the media, in particular with reference to the Third World and women, whose history is constructed mainly through occidental, male, reportages. (So Much I Want to Say, 1983; Crosstalk, 1986; Measures of Distance, 1988.). However what is relevant for this paper is the implicit level underlying these explicit issues. More than the specific messages, what interests me is how the message is conveyed and why that is possible and appropriate; in other words, the strategy that makes these pieces function as they do as a critique of both social issues and aesthetic categories.

That is easier to grasp as Hatoum shifts to installations, where the viewer often becomes the protagonist. If in earlier pieces a quick look might miss the critique at work, she now makes sure you will really feel it. Let's consider in some detail the work Corps étranger, 1994 [Now at the "Musée national d'art moderne", Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (Contemporary art collection).].

Generally speaking, Corps étranger (Foreign body) is a video installation. From outside it is a white circular "room" with two narrow openings. Inside it is dark, speakers enclosed in the walls lined in acoustic material reproduce the sound of heartbeat and breath. On the floor is projected, on a circular screen that leaves little space for walking, a video of the outside and inside of a body (the artist's). A micro camera travels around the surface and enters every time it encounters an orifice. The viewer can either stay very close to the wall or walk across the screen and have the images projected on him/her.

Immagine 6Here, the issue is the body and its being dominated, opened and disciplined by the gaze and institutions (here materialised in modern technology). However, voyeurism and discipline are not negated, but exploited against themselves. The viewer is empowered as the voyeur, the classical aesthetic relation of the viewer, distant and detached, gazing down at the object is here literally, materially, true. But the viewer is also inside the viewed, the body could be theirs, or they could be the camera. All the structure suggests identification both with the body - the circular space recalling body channels - and with the camera - the circular screen alluding to the eye form; the sound is there to increase the sense of total immersion. Visual and corporeal merge and vision becomes - or re-becomes - an all-round bodily sensation. Something apparently voyeuristic is used to engage the whole sensorium and provoke a "gut" reaction. An image is used against images: this is the strategy, the critique, that functions because it is internal [See also P. Crowther's account of Hatoum's art in the context of the significance of twentieth century conceptual art. Crowther, 1997: 180-2.]. Hatoum is thus resisting not only oppression and objectification but also aestheticization: Corps étranger is not any more a body transformed in an image, as much as an image that takes us back to the very physicality of the body [In this sense her work is opposed to Orlan's, the French artist who has made of the transformation of her face a work of art, claiming to be flesh becoming an image. (Omnipresence series: a series of surgical operation through which Orlan is reshaping her face, partly according to the features of art masterpieces. The operations themselves, directed by the artist under local anaesthesia and networked live around the world are the resulting art work). Such a total aestheticization, however, just reveals that there is nothing behind (that) image: this triumph of the image looks a bit too much like a failure (Adams, 1996).].

This is even truer of an earlier work, The light at the end, 1989 [Exhibited at the Showroom, London. Part of the Arts Council and artist's collection.], with which a too detached look could even be dangerous.

We find ourselves in a dark, windowless room, with black walls. It is triangular and we are walking toward the apex, where there is, as the title says, a light at the end: six vertical bands of faint light. However, as we approach, this promising, yearned for happy end proves deceptive: sight gives way to an overwhelming sense of heat, and we realise that the lights are incandescent electrified heating elements, supported by a metal frame. Moreover, they create a little cell beyond, forming a prison window exactly as the space left most intimately relates to the human scale.

Immagine 7In this work the viewer is the protagonist. The pattern of spectator, the eye, looking from a distance and spectacle, the body, being looked at, objectified, is upturned. This work engages the whole sensitivity of the viewer, in a way that cannot be ignored (aestheticized?), with a physical menace. This reveals that sight can be deceptive [Read for instance the following comments: "Attraction to the warmth was mixed with revulsion... At that moment the habitual connection of the eye with detachment and distance was challenged. It became almost physically impossible simply to 'look on' in a state of neutrality, and you felt yourself responsible for your choices" (Brett, 1992: 2-3). "[T]he unwary artlover in search of abstract illumination almost finds himself trapped into scorching his fingers on the incandescent monochrome vertical bars of a grid transformed into something like a prison window. The result is that a cry of anguish at least potentially displaces the ecstatic silence of aesthetic revelation"(Abrioux, 1994:5).]. The divergence of the visible and the tangible, the contrast between visual attractiveness and physical repellence, creates a space where the paradox of sight is given material embodiment. The sense that gives us the most detailed information, sight - doing it from a distance - can prove highly deceptive. This, however, would not be particularly relevant if Hatoum just put you in a dangerous situation or menaced you somehow. Instead she does that through an image, through aesthetic devices: you find danger where you expected an "aesthetic" experience and to engage your aesthetic sensitivity, meaning an acute but detached, disinterested look. Again, the aesthetic is challenged from inside [In Hatoum's words: "My work is often strongly paradoxical. The title "The Light at the End" sets up an expectation of optimism which is then disrupted when the work is experienced physically. Violence and danger are not just inferred but are actually present within the work to set up in the viewer conflicting emotions of attraction and revulsion" (Quoted in You Are Here Re-siting Installations, 1997, exhibition catalogue, London, Henry Moore and Gulbenkian Galleries, Royal College of Art, p.65).].

In conclusion, Hatoum generally wants to awake numbed senses, to disperse the desensitised, anaesthetised attitude towards war, violence, and virtually anything induced by the overload of stimuli (from the media but not only) to which everyday experience is increasingly submitted ["(Hatoum) challenges the inertia and the paralysis of peoples in the West where an anaesthetised approach to violence is fed by media and government distortion, concealment and bias" (M. Allthorpe-Guyton, 1988:38. My emphasis). See also Hatoum's own words on her (early) work in Hatoum, 1987 and Diamond, 1987.]. It is in the framework of such an attitude that she sets her work. That mode of experiencing everyday life enters with the public in the gallery and there, challenged, it can be exploited to create unease. The unease results from an inversion of the world of simulations we are now used to, that makes things look real without making them real, thus also undermining our sense of reality [The idea of aestheticization is in fact sometimes strictly connected to the development of sophisticated simulation technologies, from television to virtual reality.]. In Hatoum's work instead we find ourselves trapped precisely because we were prepared not to react, expecting a false trap looking real. The conventional aesthetic strategy of aestheticizing pain and fear [A strategy that has important sociological implications: "If one way of dealing with the material inequalities of city life has been to aestheticize diversity, another way has been to aestheticize fear" (Zukin, 1995:2). Unfortunately Zukin, who uses this concept also in her conclusions, does not develop it further. ], neutralising them by rendering them "sublime", is reversed. Fear and pain are not aestheticized. On the contrary, aesthetic devices are exploited - they are not just negated - to attract you into a real trap.

§ Some final considerations

I have suggested to call such an art an-aestheticized, as it reacts to, challenges, aestheticization. More specifically, Hatoum's work is not an art without aesthetics, as much as an art that reverses traditional aesthetic strategies. An art that, leaving behind traditional artistic aesthetics, revives the side of aesthetics that seemed lost in the reduction of aesthetics to art, that is, mainly, "vulgar" perception and sensation.

I will not (and cannot) generalize my comments on Mona Hatoum. However, the very notion of an-aestheticized art opens a large number of critical possibilities. It is a device to highlight the ambiguity of the aesthetic, that is what makes it so plastic, multifunctional when used as a discursive tool. A tool that, as it has been argued, can be both ideological - a means of social distinction and control - and at the same time, for the same reasons, a critical and emancipatory instance [Cfr. Eagleton, 1992. Eagleton stresses how the aesthetic can work both as an instrument of internalised repression and as a means of emancipation - it can be both ideological and critical - while suggesting that it is the versatility and ambiguity of the concept that made its fortune.]. Similarly, aestheticization as the extension to life of fictionality, playfulness, disinterestedness, detachment, sublimation of sensual pleasure - attributes of the experience of high art - can be interpreted as the self-conscious shaping of life as a work of art. However it could amount to an induced apathetic attitude towards everything, life included, and an uncritical homogenisation as well. In other words, a form of literal anaesthetization [Practically, this is due to the ambiguity of the common root, aesthetic. When aestheticization and anaesthetization are derived from antonym meanings of aesthetic, they turn out to be, strange as it may seem, synonyms. Aestheticization in this sense would be a kind of sensorial anaesthetization, obtained not with a small quantity of a specific drug, but with an overload of stimuli. See in particular the analysis of S. Buck-Morss, tracing a short history of these terms, along with an history of medical anaesthetics and of modern phantasmagorias (her essay is a reconsideration of Benjamin), to show how "aestheticization" can actually amount to a kind of literal anaesthetization. (Buck-Morss, 1992. See also Kester, 1997, an interview with Buck-Morss.) ]. In the latter meaning it is the target of an-aestheticized art, if we want to think of it as critical.

That, however, is precisely the problem. How to establish what is critical and what is ideological. We have learnt that art runs the risk of being an emancipatory instance just for a very selected audience, and thus actually a means of social distinction. Critiques of aestheticization have to consider whether it is not their own version of aestheticization that deserves critique and whether other forms of it are at work. Can we tell when (or whether) aestheticization is a form of aesthetic awareness and when it is a sophisticated form of levelling and controlling? I shall leave this question open, as I tend to believe that answers can never be given once and for all, but have to be looked for in well determined and contextualized discourses and phenomena. I just want to add two considerations that follow from this. On the one side, simplification is a strong temptation but can't be the solution. It is instead more likely to serve the ideological than the critical side: the fact that common notions of aestheticization can amount to a form of literal anaesthetization is quite suspect. On the other side, all this suggests that critique always risks being as one-sided, simplifying and thus ideological as that which it criticises. Exactly as the aesthetic discourse that founded the "fine arts" sacrificed the senses to the pure beautiful and sublime, this time what runs the risk of sacrifice in the process is all that, at least since modernity, aesthetic has meant for art and life [Which is, incidentally, what can allow also this an-aestheticized art to generate an expectation of an "aesthetic experience" and thus be perceived in a way different to the general anaesthetised distraction. The capacity of the artwork to generate contemplation and meditation is strictly linked to its traditional aesthetic legitimacy (its aura, we could say).]. Ironically this may cause the loss of the very critical edge of art that allows it to challenge uncritical aestheticization.


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