Aesthetics is traditionally defined as the study of the nature of beauty. Aesthetics examines the role of taste, the meaning of art, the purpose of art, the relevance of artistic intent and how art is to be defined. Rather than focus on these traditional concerns I want to show that there is a deeper meaning to aesthetics that links it to transformation, metamorphosis, creativity and ethics.
Oscar Wilde argues that it is “through art and through art only, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.” Art according to Wilde protects us from the Real, from the actual by transporting us into the virtual. Art provides us with a world of antiseptic safety.
Art for Wilde is preferable to life because, “we weep but are not wounded. We grieve but our grief is not bitter.” Art for Wilde transforms the real into the virtual. In my view, art must force us to confront the real. Art can heal us when it forces us to confront our fictions.
If our social space is becoming virtual then our art will conform to reproducing the dominant images of that space: anorexic models, advertising porn, beer commercials, fast food and infomercials. This art is sterile, generic and mechanical. It leads to further confinement, rather than genuine transformation.
The art of the virtual promises us a better world. This better is to be achieved through more consumption of things that we really do not need. In service of this mouth that must always eat and the mind that must constantly be entertained, media, advertising, marketing, merchandizing, financial services and retailing have invented the space in which we are to make ourselves into the new, the exotic and the exciting. This very old game has its roots in the bread and circus of ancientRome.
In our time, instead of actual creativity we have the left over’s of a disposable culture that sells us poison in the guise of what is beneficial. It is little wonder that William Burroughs in Naked Lunch symbolizes this state of affairs in an anus that can speak. Instead of saying enough, it cries more! The empty commodities that we are told will transform us are packed into an ever-growing structure of plastic storage bins to be re-sold on E-Bay. Plastic and junk circulate within a loop of desire.
Modern art shows us the decay of its own meaning much like the end of Pulp Fiction when Samuel L Jackson’s character opens his case. The audience sees a golden glow reflected on the lid but does not see what is inside the case. There is nothing inside the case, even as it is filled with cows, sheep or sharks as in Damien Hirst’s work.
What would it mean to live one’s life as a work of art? The performance artist Stelarc believes his skin hooked body suspensions are transformative. In his performances that make use of prosthetics, he seeks to re-organize the body. He believes the “body is an object for redesign.” Stelarc argues that with a complete prosthetic body we would no longer be subject to the limits of human life. He argues, “this life would no longer commence with birth and end with death.” Stelarc envisions metamorphosis only concerning the organs that would be replaced with synthetic counterparts. For Stelarc this would redefine not only the significance of being human, but “also of that which we call existence.”
The French performance artist Orlan uses plastic surgery to question standards of beauty. The surgical knife becomes the tool that helps her to achieve her metamorphosis. The skin is a site where identity can become transformed. Both of these examples are outer transformations and as such are still caught up in the imaginary and the predictable.
W.J.T. Mitchell teaches us “we cannot see what seeing is.” But we can attempt to uncover the unseen, the unseeable and the overlooked. I take this activity to be what art attempts to do. Because we are seeing animals, our society is arranged on the foundation of visuality. Plato has warned us against the seduction of images because they lead us to ignore the truth of what is real and unchanging. What would a world without images look like? Would eliminating the image mean eliminating the light?
To live in a culture is to live in a culture that is visual. Yet there are societies of the blind where vision is not central and where images do not hold sway. The light, while bringing clarity and clearness, can also bring blindness. We are told not to stare into the sun. Not being able to stare into the source of light we turn our stare to other things. The stare is the time required to make sense of the unexpected. Can the images created by art evoke the stare that holds your eyes in one place? To stare is to be attracted and confused by what is seen.
We gaze at what we desire but we stare at what confuses us. Out eyes cannot adjust to what is placed before our view. I think that excellent images cause us to stare. It sends our vision into disarray. For the most part, our art extends the comfortable narrative we have created—art adorns walls, it is used in advertising and other media. Of course, this is what corporations who control the dissemination of images want. How do we move away from the corporate image-making machine to images created by individuals who show us how to look at our world with new eyes? We must close our eyes to what present day media presents us with so that they can be opened anew. The truth of art lies in its ability to provoke us past our complacency.
In an influential book entitled, What Do Pictures Want? W.J.T. Mitchell outlines the strange relationship we have with images. What does it mean to say that images influence us? We know that pictures are material objects, “marked with colours and shapes.” Yet Mitchell writes we “frequently talk and act as if pictures had will, consciousness, urgency and desire.” Mitchell asks, why do people “behave as if pictures were alive, as if works of art had minds of their own, as if images had a power to influence human beings.” What does it say about us that we can be persuaded, seduced and led astray by the image? Mitchell argues that we have a “double consciousness” towards images. We know they are not alive and yet we treat them as if they were. Mitchell asks, “is our task as cultural critics to demystify these images, to smash the modern idols, to expose the fetishes that enslave people?” Further, “Are images the site on which political struggle should be waged, the site on which a new ethics is to be articulated?”
What would this new ethic of the image look like? It might be in the impulse to lessen the hold that images have on us. In our culture “image is everything.’ This is evidence that we have allowed ourselves to be enslaved by nothing. It is nothing but an image. But the nothing of the image has the power to affect our emotions and behaviour. We give our desire over to what is impotent. The image like the idol is sterile and hollow. This what makes it deadly. It pretends to offer us something and we are so willing to sacrifice ourselves to receive its false promises.
A woman was recently charged for keeping her dead husband in her house for ten years. She told authorities that she could not accept death. She chose to hold on to an image that she had staged for her memory.
The image has a hold on us. The image captures a moment in time. It makes available for future recall. Each photo album is like a crypt to be opened. The image inhabits the realm of death even as it makes us cry or laugh. This is one way to read Holbein’s famous painting The Ambassadors The image already carries with it the stain of death that is its true ground. Yet at the same time, the image provides us with moments of joyous recall. The image is both mourning and joy.
What is there left to see? What new spectacle can art offer us when what is placed on stage for our view is a spectacular example of mediocrity much like a beauty pageant or a fast food commercial?
Art must make visible what cannot be seen. This is why Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes remain coffin boxes. There is no surprise. Art must retrieve what the darkness attempts to hide. It must bring the unseen to light. This light does not only saturate the canvas it also radiates from the face of the child in clarity and beauty that cannot be anticipated and therefore never boxed in.
Following Nietzsche, Schlick sees the metamorphosis into the spirit of the child as the highest of all transformations. Schlick writes that we ca learn from the child who is capable of the purest joy. Schlick believes that the enthusiasm of youth can save our life-worlds from decay. But most cultures, send their youth off to war while generals are decorated with medals for their good deeds in foreign countries. The fight of art, if there is a fight still left to fight, should be against those who serve death and decay in all its forms, while presenting these forms to us as images of true beauty.