On 5th November a keen crowd was present for Art + Argument at Anne Mosseri-Marlio Galerie. Kathleen Bühler opened the defense of the motion ‘This house believes art is dangerous’ by citing two works by the performance artist Marina Abramovic. In Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful, 1975, Abramovic brushes her hair ever more violently while saying the title of the work repeatedly. The work points to two aspects of beauty – the social and the aesthetic tradition; in a “delicious contradiction” the artist is attacking the tool she is using. 35 years later, Abramovic stages the work The Artist Is Present, 2010, in MoMA New York, in which she looks directly into the eyes of members of the audience sitting opposite her. In the intervening period, however, she has enhanced her appearance, appearing almost as youthful as in 1975. She is within her rights to do so of course, but as an artist who uses her body as her medium, it cannot go unnoticed, nor that she collaborates with fashion house Givenchy. “Beauty, noted Bühler, “is dangerous because its lure is so strong that even critical thinkers such as Abramovic forget their initial resistance.”
Samuel Leuenberger started the opposition on a pragmatic note, citing the mechanisms of the art world. Museums, collectors, galleries and the public operate within an economy that understands beauty as that which people agree is such. Thus beauty is defined in retrospect “by a set of people rather than by the item itself – if the right curator, the right critic, right collector, right artist come together and decide that something is good, it becomes good and potentially beautiful”. (Leuenberger would later cite Richard Prince as an artist whose work was thus recognised.) This consensus makes for a solidity of collections and a stable market – but not dangerous beauty.
Barnaby Drabble spoke of being made a pariah when, as a student at Goldsmiths, he dared to call a work beautiful. In an attempt to find out why it proved so outré, Drabble sought a definition for beauty, looking to two sources outside of art writing, firstly the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury. In the Swiss Alps he encountered 'beauty inconsistent with reason … beauty mingled with horror, fear and despair'. This beauty hinted at the inadequacy of reason, while the beauty Henry David Thoreau observed in Walden was borne of observing nature, re-connecting with it and re-experiencing time. Beauty, as Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe has noted, is intransitive and beyond discourse, and, Drabble noted, “proposes the inadequacy of a modernist idea of progress“. “Clearly in its countering of reason, of history and of progress it [beauty] is subversive, or at least has subversive potential.”
Adam Szymczyk began his opposition in an unexpected fashion. He too looked outside aesthetics, choosing three poet’s quotations. First Arthur Rimbaud’s rejection of beauty in the preface to A Season in Hell: ‘One evening, I sat beauty on my knees. And I found her bitter. And I reviled her.’ Isidore Lucien Ducasse, writing as the Comte de Lautréamont described beauty found ‘in the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella’. These sources manifest the transformation from an idealistic notion of beauty to beauty as contemporary sublime. In the early 20th century it was defined in relation to the horrors of World War I, as Rainer Maria Rilke’s elegy prophesied: ‘For beauty is nothing, but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.’ Szymczyk reasoned, that as “three great writers of modernity involve the element of terror and despair in beauty – that would be to say that beauty is dangerous – so I cannot strictly keep to my argument, but the way I would like to defend the argument I was given, is that I completely disagree with the line of argument proposed by my predecessors”.
From this point both teams were swift to counter their opponents’ statements, and Szymczyk proved that any initial sense of security on the part of Bühler and Drabble would be proved false. In fact, he said, “I would totally leave [beauty] out from discussion and preserve it as something strictly private; it is not something that can be subject to a discussion that can be verified. Historically you can follow this discussion, but it still doesn’t teach us anything about the nature of the notion that seems to be completely overblown, so it blocks the possibility of discussing other categories and leads to simple laziness. But still I don’t think that this is dangerous, this is just slightly useless. I don’t feel threatened.”
The ensuing discussion circled around arbiters of quality, the use of beauty, its definitions and the danger of danger. Members of the audience probed the panel on beauty defined by capital rather than the social, the subjectivity of art and on the supplanting of the aesthetic with the critical, and how the aesthetic can ultimately re-absorb this supposedly critical.
In the close closing vote the proposition (Bühler and Drabble) won by 16 votes to 13, (with several abstentions) though Drabble and Bühler both admitted they agreed with their opponents’ arguments!
Many thanks to all the participants, to the audience and to Anne Mosseri-Marlio for the generous invitation to host the event in her gallery.
For more information on Art + Argument please contact aoiferosenmeyer (at) gmail.com