Political power of beauty in art examined by Dave Hickey in The Invisible Dragon
Dave Hickey is a contemporary American art critic, known for emphasizing the power of rhetoric of Beauty in art and fierce critique of contemporary art institutions. His ideas are important because they embody the discomfort that many felt and still feel about the suppression of beauty in contemporary art and also allow us to think more critically about the role of new liberal art institutions in the development of modern art. This essay examines the ways in which Hickey investigates the power of the rhetoric of Beauty in art and presents his ideas in a historical context.
Hickey`s ideas are best expressed in the book The Invisible Dragon, originally published in 1993 and re-published recently in 2008. The main argument presented in the book is that the rhetoric of beauty in art has a political power and potential to change the structure of society. Taking the argument further, Hickey also examines the reasons and results of the suppression of Beauty in art. Through beauty, an artist makes his claim much stronger and directly accessible to the viewer without the need of any mediators. When the beholder sees the beauty of an artwork, the argument of the artist directly appeals to his senses of pleasure, in other words, it engages the viewer to become part of the artist's (artwork's) argument. The author notes that "Beauty is not a thing. The Beautiful is a thing. In images beauty is the agency that causes visual pleasure in the beholder, and, since pleasure is the true occasion for looking at anything, any theory of images that is not grounded in the pleasure of the beholder begs the question of art's efficacy and dooms itself to inconsequence!" (Hickey 2) He connects the experience of Beauty to the sensations of pleasure, joy, and celebration.
Although Dave Hickey's primary purpose is not to define what beauty is but to argue about what beauty does, it is necessary to present at least some of his thoughts about nature of beauty before passing to his main argument.
Hickey claims that beauty in high art creates a system of desire and that the scenario of our participation in this system of desire is dominance by submission. This scenario is analogous to the way we participate in religion and masochism: we submit to art, religion, sex, but we also control the conditions of our submission. Examining Robert Mapplethorpe's X Portfolio, Hickey claims that the main reason the X images are art, is because Mapplethorpe placed them at the intersection of these three systems of desire: art, masochism, and religion. Claiming that Mapplethorpe employs a Baroque vocabulary of beauty, he draws parallels between Mapplethorpe's X Portfolio and Caravaggio's The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. As Hickey writes, "And just as Christ, by his submission, ennobles his disciple and controls him, so we ennoble the image and control it in our submission. In doing so, we demonstrate that, even though we may be, in all other respects, nothing like the Son, we may still, like him, give ourselves up, trust ourselves to be humbled - by God, by art, by others - and, full of guilt, contract the conditions of our own submission. In that submission, we, like him, may redeem our guilt and dominance, triumph before the arrested image of our desire, in an exquisite, suspended moment of pleasure and control." (Hickey 21) In other words, according to Hickey, the experiences of pleasure and control are the reason that stands behind anyone`s participation in the scenario of dominance by submission.
As mentioned earlier, the beauty of an artwork lays a direct path from the work to the beholder, dismissing mediation from any kind of art institution (academia, galleries, awards, funds). The latter are coined by Hickey as "the moral junkyard of a pluralistic civilization" (Hickey 17) and are held responsible for suppressing beauty in artworks. For contemporary art institutions, beauty became the synonym of the corrupt art market, based on one simple reason that beauty sells. In the art market, no one cares about what the work means as long as there is beauty, while art institution does not care how art looks; it cares about the meaning of the work and does not trust the appearances. However, while the art market is very tolerant about meaning, new liberal art institutions are not tolerant at all towards beauty. Beauty has been exiled by them because it steals institution’s power, which lies in mediation, explanation of the artwork's meaning to the beholder, in other words, the public.
To make his point more vivid, he refers to Michel Foucault's Surveiller et Punir where the latter gives us a choice between bureaucratic surveillance and autocratic punishment. By juxtaposing a king's savage execution and Jeremy Bentham's theory of reformative incarceration, Foucault argues that "the king does not care what we mean. The king demands from us the appearance of loyalty, the rituals of fealty, and, if these are not forthcoming, he destroys our bodies, leaving us our convictions to die with. Bentham's warden, on the other hand, demands our souls, and on the off chance that they are not forthcoming, or cannot come forth into social normality, he relies on our having internalized his relentless surveillance in the form of self-destructive guilt and henceforth punishing and ultimately destroying ourselves." (Hickey 6)
Making the main point of his argument, Hickey takes it further. He claims that the whole reason for banishing beauty from art is to neutralize the political power of art. He explains that beauty makes artwork's claim powerful, persuasive, and provokes a response, in other words, it has political consequences. Hence the reason that bad governments employ powerful and seductive imagery. During the early epoch of modernity, when old norms were swept away not only in art but in everyday life, "A gorgeous island of gaudy, speculative images was borne forth like blossoms on the great tsunami of doubt and spiritual confusion that swept through the late nineteenth century, cresting into the twentieth and exploding across Europe in a conflagration of wars and revolutions, scattering beauty among the bodies." (Hickey 54). Powerful rhetoric of beauty was employed to express views, thoughts, realities of a widest range and diversity in the whole history of art and these images always found their audiences and enfranchised them. Beauty politicized these alternative realities, persuaded and suggested them as options to "normalized" social structure. The situation became threatening, as it was hard to control it. However, Hickey claims, that political consequences of the rhetoric of beauty were soon clearly realized by powerful elites in USSR, USA, Germany. For that purpose, a total subordination of form to content was proclaimed by regimes with different political agendas but with the shared will to neutralize art, "because as long as nothing but 'the beautiful' is rendered 'beautifully' there is no friction, no subversive pleasure, and things do not change." (Hickey 55) In other words, the axiom that the meaning of a sign is a response to it was forcefully applied to art. It can be supposed that, following this logic, art institutions become executors of a state's will. Hickey claims, that areas outside the influence of state funded art institutions, galleries, grants etc, which he all collectively coins as the "therapeutic institution", still successfully employ the rhetoric of beauty. For example, the area of advertisement uses the powerful rhetoric to promote their products and we respond to it by buying them. Hickey clarifies that he does not mean that art is just advertising, "only that art, outside the institutional vitrine of therapeutic mystery, is never not advertising and never apolitical." (Hickey 56) What the institution does, is neutralize the power of rhetorical aspect of beauty by emphasizing mainly the formal values of huge cultural inheritance and monitoring the modern high art world through grants, stipends, awards and gallery shows which neglect art that employs beauty as a tool for the persuasiveness of its claim.
Once again, Hickey enriches his claim by comparing the rhetoric of beauty to masochism and the experience of art in a therapeutic institution to sadism. He is basing his argument on the essay of Gilles Deleuze, who opposes Freud's presumed reciprocity between masochism and sadism, and says, that these two preferences are in reality mutually exclusive. According to Deleuze the masochist, the victim, orchestrates and controls the conditions of his own servitude, negotiating them with his persecutor, whom he trusts and educates. The sadist, on the contrary, needs an unwilling victim, whom he can abuse, instruct and control. Taking Deleuze's argument, Dave Hickey associates it with two different experiences of art. He claims that "The rhetoric of beauty tells the story of those beholders who, like Masoch's victim, contract their own submission - having established, by free consent, a reciprocal, contractual alliance with the image. The signature of the contract, of course, is beauty. On one hand, its rhetoric enfranchises the beholder; on the other hand, it seductively proposes a content that is, hopefully, outrageous and possible." Such experience is not an end in itself for the beholder, because it is also based on a dialogue between the beholder, the work itself, and the artist. By contrast, in the modern art controlled by art institutions, the triangle of work-artist-beholder conversation is changed into alliance of work-artist, and the beholder is left outside of this dialogue. For him, the experience of art within the therapeutic institution becomes an end in itself. He plays an insignificant role in masters narrative - work-artist alliance. This alliance, like Sade, imposes its ruthless authority on the beholder. The latter feels ignored, instructed and disenfranchised. Because only beauty can include all parties into the conversation, redeem and celebrate all that was previously uncelebrated. But when it is banished, we get what we have - artworks whose claims cannot reach the public as strong as they could, had the artist employed the rhetoric of beauty.
In a 1997 talk Art in a Democratic Society given in the University of Memphis, Hickey defines art as the stuff that we make to replace the stuff that we hate. Talking about distinction between the beautiful and beauty, Hickey says, that "the beautiful is a set of attributes and configurations that a particular culture creates to control the behavior of the members of that culture. Beauty is something altogether different. Beauty is something you have never seen before, that you always wanted to see." He further adds that beauty is a force which changes the structure of the society. Beauty is not created by communities, it is created by individuals, who do not like the existing order of something, and want to propose an alternative. So beauty creates its own communities, as Hickey describes them, communities of desire, and therefore is regarded as the primary destabilizing force for all communitarian and tribal structures. (Samosays, Youtube) In the interview given to BOMB magazine in 1997, he adds: "So, let me make a distinction here between beauty and “the beautiful.” The beautiful is a social construction. It’s a set of ambient community standards as to what constitutes an appropriate visual configuration. It’s what we’re supposed to like. Beauty is what we like, whether we should or not, what we respond to involuntarily." (Ostrow, BOMB mag.) Later in the same interview, he remarks: " Beauty’s not the end of art: it’s only the beginning. It’s what makes secular art possible since it creates conditions under which we might voluntarily look carefully at something."
Before passing to more recent developments of Hickey's claim, it can be useful to grasp the character of the time when The Invisible Dragon was first published to put his ideas into historical context.
Around 1965 when Hickey graduated from Texas Christian University and began to be actively involved in the underground art world, it was a time of activism rise in the US. Civil rights movement, struggle for equal rights for women and men, racial equality and LGBT were all flourishing. The social changes were affecting the arts, and social context began to be expressed also through the language and methods of new art. On the other hand, as expressed by Northrop Frye in his talk for the Canadian Conference of the Arts in 1961, art was more and more perceived as an academic and scholarly activity, with contemporary artist depending on recognition by a community of scholars. Whether one liked it or not, stated Frye, "scholars are the public on whom the artist must make his first impression" (Frye 130)
By 1993 when Hickey published his scandalous book The Invisible Dragon the perception of art as described by Frye has become even more established in art educational institutions. The book is a polemic against the perception of art as a scholarly activity and art becoming a mere commentary on social issues or illustration of somebody's scholarly ideas. The rebellious character of the book, perhaps conditioned by the author's rock-and-roll playing past, was crushing established conventions of the time. It was either praised or hated, generating a lot of mixed reviews. Hickey gave lectures in Universities "during which the faculty rose en masse from their seats in the back row and marched out" (Hickey xvi). Eventually, he took the book out of print and re-published an edited, calmer version only in 2009.
Around the time of the second, calmer publication of the book, he expressed some additions to his initial critique of the institution. For example, in his most recent talk given for in Rice University of Houston in December 2013, he says, that the institution is controlling the development of art history, by promoting the same type of art and assigning older artists to teach younger artists. "Since Manet European art style change has been an accelerating sequence. Impressionists - 4 years, Neo-Impressionists - 4 years, Surrealists - 4 years, Cubists - 4 years, Abstract expressionists - 4 years, Pop and Minimalism - 4 years, Post Minimalism - 45 years... That's when we started administering art history and started creating situations where the style cannot change. " (Glasstire, Youtube) At the same time, he characterizes the institution, state's funding of arts as useless, because it was not able to really influence the art world. According to Hickey, the art world would have been just as glamorous as it is now, the only difference is that there wouldn't have been people who say "Can I put you on hold" when someone calls. A couple of years earlier, in 2007 interview to The Believer, he notes that during the last twenty years "we’ve gone from a totally academicized art world to a totally commercialized art world" (Heti, The Believer mag.) In the same talk, Hickey also speaks about the involvement of the art underground in various raising awareness groups and social struggles which brought to its gradual involvement into the mainstream. So, going back to his text in The Invisible Dragon to make a connection with the ideas expressed in the talk, it can be assumed that the state and institution's politics are directed on abolition of beauty, and one of the causes of such politics is the involvement of the art underground into the mainstream, because, as he illustrated with the example from Foucault's Surveiller et Punir, care means control.
Beauty is a political force. The claim made by Dave Hickey, the way he sees beauty and its impact, is also extremely political. In American Beauty, the last essay in The Invisible Dragon, added by Hickey in 2009 publication, it is noted that according to the US Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776) its citizens have unalienable rights, such as Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. And if something threatens the safety of the citizens, the Government acts to protect them. In Hickey's book, the threatening force - is beauty. Under this light, one can draw a parallel between Dave Hickey and Edward Snowden. Both deal with the institution, which controls because it cares to protect the safety of its citizens. It creates the best conditions to establish prophylactic control. And of course, in both cases, one can argue about what is prior safety or beauty/rights. Hickey himself notes, that we have a right to be seduced by beauty, we do not have to give it up for the sake of the meaning. Snowden says, that we don't have to give up our rights to have a safe government.
To summarize, Dave Hickey's main claim is that beauty is a powerful political tool that causes change. When beauty is employed in art, it makes art's claim a hundred times more persuasive; the art itself - more powerful. In order to establish control over the effect that ideas expressed through art can have on the public, beauty was suppressed in contemporary art world, because in democracy one cannot instruct artists on what should they paint, but it is possible to create a situation, where the power of their claims is much weakened, if you take away the rhetoric of beauty. State-funded art institutions, like the academy, galleries, state funds, and awards are all serving that mutual goal. In the recent developments of his claim, Hickey notes, that art world has now changed from totally academic to totally commercial, and all these institutions are useless as they were not able to affect art market in any way. Taking this last comment further, it can be supposed, that if all the efforts on banning beauty from art turned out to be in vain, there soon will be another beauty boom, which hopefully won't be only in commercial spheres but also in art. According to Hickey, and to recent neurological studies, our response to beauty has a physiological character, it is a bodily response. Then, if it is so, it just cannot be banished for long.
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