The Aesthetic and the Anaesthetic

December 2005

"I shy away from the word 'creation' (…) I don't believe in the creative function of the artist. (…) I doubt its value deep down." Marcel Duchamp.

"History is a nightmare from which we are trying to wake up." James Joyce.


I was down in Miami and talking to this collector who remembered the old days.  That would be the sixties.  Back then, there were critical authorities in the art world with strong opinions on what was good and bad art, who were very keen to advise the collectors on the right things to buy.  Back then, the collectors were young and very idealistic about the importance of major art and they were anxious to take this advice.  The time passed and some of the things that these advisors had been endorsing didn't look so good, or at least not so important.  So the collectors began to say to themselves, this is our money, if this isn't so important anyway, we might as well buy what we like.

It is widely assumed that the measure of art is Beauty.  Beauty is now taken mostly to signify a conceptual ideal of leisure consumption.  It is supposed to yield pleasure for those who have the ability to purchase it.  It decorates the houses of the affluent and lends social prestige to their lives.  Modern art, of course, whether it be a landscape by Cézanne, which his contemporaries considered clumsy and unfinished, or a contorted figure by Picasso, not to mention a urinal signed 'R. Mutt' by Duchamp, has often been condemned for failing to attain to Beauty.

Another term also comes into play: the aesthetic.  Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy which concerns itself with attempting to define the notion of Beauty, usually in terms that have something to do with Morality and Reason.

It is difficult to escape the feeling that these different attempts to account for the phenomenon of art, especially in its modern and contemporary manifestations, areunhelpful and misleading, even perhaps willfully trivializing.

It is for this reason that I was very happy some time back to pick up a slim volume of essays by the culture critic David Levi Strauss entitled Between Dog and Wolf - Essays on Art and Politics.  The first essay is titled 'Aesthetics and Anaesthetics".  If we are unable to come up with a positive definition of aesthetic experience, we do, however, clearly understand its opposite - the anaesthetic.  The anaesthetic numbs the body and the mind.  It dampens down sensation.  It puts us to sleep.  So, therefore, it would follow that the aesthetic is not about Reason or Morality or beautiful decoration, as the philosophers would have us believe, but rather about awakening the senses and the mind to the intelligent experience of being alive in the world. Levi Strauss does not make the connections, but such a notion of aesthetics is advanced by Nietzsche and Bataille and reveals the serious purpose of modern art from the time that it constituted its identity by breaking with academic values in the early nineteenth century, two hundred years ago.

Paul Rodgers