some bagatelles on the misanthropy of art I: of sentimental activists and the question of taste


Even if we admit that, as patron and inhabitant, his perspective on and memory of the project would differ from those of others, nonetheless, on the cusp of talking his nation into war, why did Hitler feel compelled to write about the aesthetic pain caused by ugly light fixtures?

Hitler at Home (25-26)

Of course, we all know that few people are more hateful, spiteful, envious, paranoid, weak, ignorant, underhanded, double-faced, narcissistic, and dull than artists. The whole social history of art, were one to seriously write one (and no one has bothered to), would consist of little more than listing these litanies of loathing and, depending on the author’s level of perversity, categorizing them with great care and attention to detail. This is not an insult. The worst one can say for hatred is that it is too close to love, too close to being smitten with some trivial element of the world. One ought – and this is the only ethical or moral sentiment of these essays – to hate far better than that.

That art is regarded as an affirmation of life and humanity, if not their ultimate affirmation, is a commonplace. It is also patently false. And this falseness, which is also a kind of artifice, is occasionally drawn up into a moral conundrum about the dangers of aesthetics. Panic mongering about the danger of aestheticized violence or exoticized otherness have been fairly lucrative intellectual industries in academia and the art industry over the past few decades. And art, as a program for objectifying intensities, has duly exploited such pusillanimous squealing.

To take a trivial but local example: Ottawa art galleries (lately at least) seem to display a penchant for bien pensant art-as-therapy. The few commercial galleries, generally stocking landscapes etc., are balanced by artist-run centres and other state supported galleries who tend to organize their seasons around displaying their political fantasies. Amidst all of these was a small commercial exhibit by Jonathan Hobin featuring photographs of various miserable looking children in what is now fashionably considered racist garb with anime sized tears running down their puckered cheeks. The tears are fake, of course, and kitsch plays a crucial role.

In Hobin it is the pseudo-Greuze style portraiture of children re-filtered through sentimental magazine spreads and topped with the cosmetic glitter of fashion photography. Displayed like inflated broaches in a strictly commercial gallery, they foreground the consumer quality of public displays of misery and compassion. The Greuze thing is the sort of phenomenon Diderot pined for, an appeal to sensibilité. All of Paris cried over Girl Weeping Over Her Dead Canary (1765). Diderot stared at it for hours, claiming he got drunk on the tender sadness it offered him. Art audiences have a different level of sophistication now. Since Hobin didn’t satisfy their passions, most of them crossed town to go to exhibits like Walking with our Sisters.

A review of Hobin’s series when it was displayed in Montreal at Art Mur appeared in Canadian Art. Reviewer Emily Falvey uses it as an opportunity for moral pontification, proving that it isn’t sex and violence that offers prurient excitation, it’s ‘inequality’ and the various other cliches of her class which elide the populist snobbism and irrational vulgarity of her position, as well as its entertainment value for the ruling class.

Provocation is not synonymous with social critique, [Obviously, provocation is primarily about publicity; critique is about money] as a glance at the contemporary-art section of any Sotheby’s auction catalogue will prove. [Unlike all that critical art funded by the state.] Indeed, art that bills itself as “provocative” or “transgressive” is now so much a part of the ideological landscape of contemporary art that it is practically orthodox. [Unlike everything she’s about to contrast it with?] As a result, “breaking taboos” [which ones?] has dwindled as a viable form of critique, and increasingly props up an inequitable and oppressive status quo. [I seriously doubt failed provocation is propping up much of anything. But why assume it is critique, at least of a reformative variety, rather than mockery or satire? This is a horrendously utilitarian interpretation of art.]

For this reason, I usually avoid commenting on the work of Ottawa-based artist Jonathan Hobin. [That’s kind of you.] His previous body of work, which used young children to recreate [My stress. There’s a, perhaps non-deliberate, joke here.] disasters, threats and tragedies as diverse as 9/11, the murder of JonBenét Ramsey and the perils of nuclear war, seemed to court controversy for controversy’s sake, with a critique of the myth of childhood innocence merely serving as a convenient foil. [Did you actually look at these photographs?] And although In the Playroom (2010) often succeeded in outraging the conservative audience it seemed destined to annoy [you seem okay with that but thankfully you’re above it, though apparently no less annoyed], in the final [?] analysis it was no more disturbing than video games or Anne Geddes posters [the latter are incredibly disturbing], and not as nuanced as other photographic projects tackling similar issues, such as Diana Thorneycroft’s The Doll Mouth Series (2004­–05) and A People’s History (2008–12). [They weren’t really the same issues.]


Ostensibly, Hobin’s work marshals the idioms of a particular kind of critical art, one that seeks to subvert oppressive stereotypes through grotesque exaggeration. [This is the pious reading. Besides, aren’t ‘oppressive stereotypes’ already ‘grotesque exaggeration’.] The problem, as I see it [as someone educated by the art establishment to see], is that he has not fully considered the question of racial caricature, and particularly how it relates to his own social status as a white male. [If a white woman, would this be radically different?] When Spike Lee made Bamboozled (2000), a satire centered on a televised modern minstrel show featuring black actors in blackface, he was critiquing both the contemporary and historical experience of blackness—an experience that was also his own [Spike experienced the history of blackness?]. When Kent Monkman dons a headdress and stilettos [“marshals the idioms of a particular kind of critical art”] to become his alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle [Have you overdosed on Judith Butler? This wasn’t even “transgressive” in the 80s. Now it’s more conservative than Keeping up with the Kardashians], he is exploding [what happens to the remnants?] oppressive racial and gender stereotypes [thanks to his corporate patrons and significant state funding] that he, a person [millionaire] of Cree [and Caucasian-Anglo] ancestry, actually faces on a daily basis [while his assistants make his work].

We must [this is an imperative from where?] ask ourselves: What is Hobin performing through the image of a white child in blackface or a black child dressed up as Aunt Jemima? [How about neither?] If the answer is, as I think it must be, his white privilege [if he’s ‘performing’ this, what does that actually suggest about its function?], then his use of racial caricatures becomes less a form of social critique [ideological enterprise] and more a modality of appropriation [the production of art], one that co-opts the political struggles [images are not political struggles] of [theoretically] oppressed and marginalized groups in the name of provocative art [If anything it’s just in Hobin’s name. Besides that, isn’t this review an ‘appropriation’ for the sake of a ‘critique’ predicated on the co-option of vaguely defined struggles?]. While I am critical of this approach, I cannot help but note [pontificate] that it also raises some rather important questions [which you don’t ask]. For example: Can white people [whoever they are] legitimately participate in an ironic critique [is it really critique when it’s ironic?] of racial stereotypes borne out of white-supremacist ideologies? [Can anyone?] Or does any such critique merely [all that pathos] amount to the co-optation of artistic strategies necessarily grounded in an actual experience of systemic racism? [Nothing about these strategies is particularly grounded in that. The satirical tradition it relies upon goes back centuries before any of these issues would even be seriously considered and the cult of ‘experience’ held sway.] While Hobin’s work certainly doesn’t answer these questions [or ask them], it nonetheless brings them to the fore, [if you force them into a preconceived ideological box] and herein lies its value. [Assuming art works need to be prostituted to sanctioned political causes.]

Of course, only a fool would think that Hobin’s works are shocking or that they are about a social issue other than the mental retardation of the Canadian art establishment. What they accomplish, rather, is to objectify idiocy. Functioning as a dutiful apparatchik of the state ideological apparatus, Falvey vomits up current cliches with the kind of keyword thought process encouraged by the country’s institutions when they pretend to encourage people to practice critical thinking.

Pierre Bourdieu

Pierre Bourdieu set up a basic bifuraction between the taste of an elite (generally glossed according to claims for a kind of Kantian ‘disinterestedness’ and personified in the pedant or mondains) with the taste of the vulgar or popular. The latter interprets art functionally, associating it with ‘life’ or experience, and regarding art as its representation; the former increasingly distances itself from the quotidian and seems to believe only in the representation itself. The aesthete raises the representation out of life, isolating it and prioritizing the aesthetic over the ethical. They deny, sublimate and purify pleasure, placing the object of pleasure (the work of art) in a sacred realm and so separating themselves from the ‘vulgar’. “That is why art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences.” In doing this “[t]aste classifies, and it classifies the classifier.”

While Bourdieu, at times, is attentive to some of the issues raised by the Modernist or avant-gardist position (either that of artists or ‘intellectual proletaroids’) and their (problematic) tendencies to ally themselves with the disenfranchised, he doesn’t fully examine the degree to which a privileging of life over representation-in-itself has functioned as a major component of this position. tumblr_m6vokuhcSl1raclu0o1_500This has been the case to a substantial degree since the 1980s, though, in his criticism, Wyndham Lewis had hinted at a comparable dynamic at work in the art of the 20s and 30s, tracing it back to the Impressionists (ex. The Diabolical Principle and The Dithyrambic Spectator, The Art of Being Ruled). In other words, there is a kind of socio-political formalism that has been every bit as a present, and perhaps more insistent than the strictly ‘disinterested’ Formalist type of avant-gardism that Bourdieu tends to outline. Part of its absence from his account of taste may be due to Bourdieu’s occlusion of an aesthetic tradition that was at least as significant as the Kantian – that of the Encyclopédiests, in particular Diderot and the notion of sensibilté, in which social and symbolic capital can be displayed through acts of gratuitous compassion. Basically, there is a puritanizing of the ‘vulgar’, not only in the contemplation of popular culture and the treatment of it as an object of contemplation, but in the inversion of the bifurcation that Bourdieu sets up. The sacralization of art in its segregation from life, in the raising of form over function, has turned to an insistence on the primacy of the referent and representation (in other words, of the social), of art’s value being derived almost wholly from its moral or political utility, both in affective terms and as instances of ideological pedagogy.


258e64723f64ffe6d4dd2ecf713f9119The faith in the personal being political was embraced by the post-68 New Left who sought to generalize from this assumption. This concern with the affective significantly expanded the purview of academic history too, as it increasingly sought to examine the way people lived and their microhistories. These considerations have also been manifest more popularly in re-enactments, family histories, immersive public displays and a sense of nostalgia. As Mark Phillips notes in On Historical Distance, the desire to known the experiences of the past has been a fairly recent development in the history of history writing. What has become valuable to remember has become more ‘feelings than doings’. This poses problems for the historian, recasting their work as something closer to scripting a TV series as they attempt to probe the inward depths of scantily documented experiences. History writing takes on the qualities of novelization, deliberately calculated to create a sense of identification and empathy. “What is asked for, rather, is the involuntary movement of compassion that anyone might experience when placed in the situation of the onlooker in the face of suffering – an altogether less heroic and more democratized emotion.” He warns that this can lead to prurience unless the proper intimacy is attained.

Phillips sees the development of this type of history writing as roughly continuous with eighteenth century sentimentalism (Rousseau, Hume, Smith and their distrust of ‘pure’ reason) and its movement toward narrative as the means of moralization; a morality rooted in compassion and tested by the sentimentalist’s capacity to gauge their expanding sympathies while reflecting on their own inner state. He cites a general insistence on the value of the emotions as a requisite to morality and justice as well as claims that reason is inseparable from emotion. The sentimentalist looks to expand their sympathy as a means of cultivating their humanity, thus, concerning themselves with ‘scenes of common life’, the narrative genre, the anecdote. Presence is what is cultivated to inflate the emotional reward of sentiment. “Actuality, not exemplarity provides their pedagogical program.”616px-Jean-Baptiste_Greuze_-_The_Father's_Curse_-_The_Ungrateful_Son_-_WGA10661

Within this tide of sentiment, historians began to treat their work as a form of moral witnessing, intended to rescue the marginalized from obscurity or disappearance, and providing history’s victims with dignity. These trends were co-extensive with a shift from more abstract to identity politics, to an insistence on the ethical and epistemic value of sense experience, from a turn to ‘authentic feeling’ and the recognition of such that trumps all else. Yet, this also risks ‘facile pathos’ and ‘learned voyeurism’. Coincidentally, in eighteenth century aesthetic thought this experiential obsession would have been called the picturesque, that strange moment of romantic empiricism mixed with antiquarian fetishism that become explicitly manifest in Rousseau.

While the history discipline has mimed politics, it has found itself strangely mirrored by the emergence and increasing domination of the immersive spectacle in pop culture. In part because of this, a dread of spectatorship and voyeurism tends to stalk across the chapter, appearing on nearly every page, providing Phillips with the opportunity to remind the reader of his moral position. After the second or third occasion, it feels rather put on. “The sentimentalist’s tendency to reduce all questions to their ethical dimension lays him open to the charge of embracing the local and the personal at the expense of engagement with larger public and political issues.” After all, what this tendency evades is precisely the implications, intrinsic to (if unacknowledged in) the structure of Phillips’ own rhetoric, that morality is not much more than taste raised to the level of pathology. There is a degree of aesthetic policing organized to prevent morality’s potential obscenity from being exposed, a point substantially expanded on in his introduction, if not brought to any significant conclusion. This also leaves him open to one of Nietzsche’s most oft-stated contentions – that the writing of history, particularly in its sentimental variant, is a lie, the power of the false to suit the (more or less cynical) desire for power.

In a slightly different vein, one could suggest a Benjaminian reading. Since the aura of the authentic original projected a powerful distance that kept intimacy at bay, the shift to a politicization of minutiae in the era of mass (re)production has led to a mania for intimacy. Capitalist consumerism and the sentimental personalization of history or politics are one (capital in its historical instantiation has been almost indissociable from the empathy production necessary for consumerism, a fact inevitably lost on the majority of leftists). This is not because the market co-opts ‘struggles’ but because it manufactures them. The struggle itself is as intrinsic to market function as taxation is for the policing of private property. Political activity is a tax paid for embourgiousment.



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