Sara Deraedt - Essex Street - October 13 - December 18, 2016
The Aesthetics of the Refusal of Aesthetics
As I remember it, the experience of this show had little to do with my evaluation of the quality of the photographs. They're just pictures of funny-looking vacuum cleaners, and they are nice, but the point of the show lies elsewhere. Rather than an expressive dynamic where the photographer seeks to explore something through their work, to capture an aesthetic sensibility, these images deflect their own stylistic content, even deflecting the non-style snapshot aesthetic of consciously bad Instagram posts. The artist rejects these photos, and the photos reject the viewer. They aren't for looking at. You can look at them, but they embrace their own pointlessness so thoroughly that your attention turns elsewhere. It turns to the oddly staggered layout of the hanging of the photos, the repetition of one photo in a different size with a different frame, the space itself, the awareness of yourself standing in the space itself. The work goes from an innocuous set of photos to a rare example of true post-conceptualism in the sense that it explores the gallery space and the function of art in a way that was pioneered by conceptualism, but it does so without an apparent concept. Most artwork is affiliative, it invites the viewer inside of itself to be understood on the terms it sets up: its visual aesthetic, the illusion of three-dimensional perspective on a two-dimensional canvas, the imposition of a sculptural form in a space, etc. But it can also refuse to do so, as Deraedt does, and it's the ramifications of this refusal that beg further examination.
However, before we approach the refusal of aesthetics, we must first address what aesthetics actually are. An aesthetic is, simply put, an expression of a culture. By way of a reciprocal movement, a culture develops its traditions and the aesthetic sensibilities that follow from those. The ancient Greeks developed their own aesthetic mode, the Romans stole from the Greeks but modified their sensual piety into a commodity that better matched their own taste for militaristic rigor. Before the Romans, the Etruscans also copied the Greeks, but they did it differently because they were not the Romans. The Northern Renaissance differed radically in kind from the Italian Renaissance for an irreducible complex of reasons: the pigments available to artisans, the ways techniques were taught in workshops, the models used, the differences in temperament that arise from differences in climate, religion, cuisine. The philosophical divide of The Orient vs. The Occident, the difference between people from the West Coast vs. the East Coast vs. the Midwest, etc., each results in an aesthetic sense, though naturally a culture is not pure determinism. I only mean to suggest that a culture produces an individual's aesthetic tastes more than creative individuals produce their own aesthetic or singlehandedly reinvent culture. Even epochal shifts that can be traced to an individual, like Brunelleschi's invention of perspective, or James Brown's invention of funk, or the works of Jackson Pollock, or Duchamp, these developments are less one of individual genius and more of being in the right place at the right time. An artistic culture was poised to accept a radical break and an artist, as the product of their era, happened to have the correct mindset to seize the potential space of that break and act upon it.
Aesthetics didn't used to be a choice. A little romanticized, made-up example: At the yearly harvest festival in a small village, the older adults watch the recently of-age young adults do the traditional dances. As they dance, the onlookers observe the finer details of gestures from each dancer, the surprising beauty of a quiet girl's movements, the expected awkwardness of a brash young boy. The purpose of this observation, aside from the exposure of personalities, beyond the pleasure of the cyclic renewal of the holiday ritual, is to expose the competencies of these young people, to show not simply who can dance but who is capable of adhering to the rules of society, who can conform. Drinking too much to dance well reflects poorly, as does the inability to remember the sequence of moves. A boy who dances carefully may be an ideal match for the graceful quiet girl, which her parents take note of. This space, this observation of the infinitude of minutiae of different expressions within a form, is freedom, an apprehension of the variegated aspects of human beings as with the variations between two trees of the same species that stand next to each other. To go further, returning to the girl who dances beautifully, the beauty of her gestures comes not only from a formal competence but also from a coextensive sensitivity to the emotions being expressed through the gesture itself, learning the movement and then learning to feel the meaning of the movement as it is performed. A classical musician mustn't simply memorize the notes, they must also go through the much more complicated process of becoming emotionally invested in the piece. One first achieves the rigid accuracy of form before instilling fluidity and spontaneity afterwards to bring the piece to life. This is the difference between affect and affectation, an authentic expression of feeling through an artistic form as opposed to going through the motions of an emotive signifier without the experiential signified. This example of the village dance is unconcerned with choice because the form is entwined with the expression. There is no decision of how the dancer will self-express, they express by performing in a better or worse manner than the others in deference to an unrealizable perfect performance.
What this hackneyed fable of a traditional culture's aesthetic form of the dance has is faith, which is what we lack. The dancer makes no choice of how to dance because that is how dancing is done in their village. Their style of dress is a certain way, they eat certain foods, their artworks have a certain consistency of style. This process not only expresses their culture, it is their culture. Its formal consistency creates a collectivity of feeling, a shared sentimentality held through the ritualized combination of components that make a society. There is no need to break with a formal system to express your individuality when that system functions.* Ancient Greek pottery was not an expression of style, it was a part in a system that held together the very reality of being Greek. This historical condition of being raised within a coherent cultural mode differs radically from our contemporary relationship to aesthetics, which was first transformed in the 20th century by the rise of mass production, consumerism, neoliberalism, etc., etc., but exploded entirely through the ascendancy of the internet. What these shifts have wrought, to art in particular, is an overexposure to the pseudo-freedom of choice, which in reality is little more than a mode of anxiety. Similarly to how you have 20 choices of shitty mass-produced coffee at your grocery store, a painter is now forced to "choose" a style of painting instead of participating in a cultural context, and each of these choices presents an inherent danger by virtue of being a choice. This is not to imply that I advocate for a state-imposed rule of socialist realism or the like, only that choosing is a terrible burden. The danger in choosing comes not from the possibility of choosing wrongly but from the fact that choosing itself may imply that every choice is already wrong. This is because, as we've established, aesthetics are the expression of a culture. The ability to choose an aesthetic is not the opportunity to choose a culture but to prove our lack thereof. As humans living together we do have a culture, of course, but that culture is the bleakest state yet of vacuous consumption where the only expression manageable is the ceaseless repetition of the meaninglessness of our own empty gestures, the spectacular void of the Spectacle observing itself. If you've seen a Marvel movie you'll know what I mean. Optimization for profit has streamlined the excesses that allowed for the flourishing of the culture industries, leaving our real life so abject and devoid of expression that we're left to do nothing but to re-reappropriate the aesthetic formats of the past, trying to squeeze blood from a stone. This is the state that an artist like KAWS basks in, which certainly doesn't render his emptiness into "good art," but it does make his work impressive from a certain vantage. Luckily, there are other options.
This brings us back to Deraedt. Her refusal of aesthetics, the negation of pictorial content to rebound the work off of the picture plane into an experience of space, becomes an authentic aesthetic experience by virtue of its adherence to reality. Rather than working within a format of expression through stylized photography, her subject becomes the context of the gallery space itself, an interest that has become explicit in her subsequent exhibitions, particularly her most recent solo show at Etablissement d'en face. By approaching art in this way she escapes the trap of compulsively affectated aestheticism, negating the virtual reality of cultural spectacle to get back down to the tangible basics of life, a material engagement with our world as it truly stands instead of diverting elsewhere. The affiliative, virtual nature of most art is perhaps near exhausted at present.** Where devotional images served to briefly pull serfs out of their daily toil into their only respite of religious reverie, our constant media oversaturation due to the internet, video games, and so on has made our avoidances of reality into the norm, which in turn has damaged art's ability to evoke by its distance from reality. When the virtual dominates the real, art's inherently virtual (i.e. imaginative, intangible) function must turn away from presenting further escapes from reality and instead bring us back down into ourselves.
* Humanity's cultural traditions have always, of course, been oppressive on the level of class, race, gender, etc., but a line should be drawn between the benefits of a shared collectivity in the abstract as opposed to the injustices specific cultural systems have caused historically. Our current anti-cultural social model of capitalist individualism doesn't seem to have made life any less unjust, for instance.
** This is not to suggest that only this particular kind of post-conceptual installation art is the only valid medium, every art form will always have potential.