Review by Julian Jason Haladyn, University of Toronto
In A Hunger for Aesthetics Michael Kelly continues his long-standing investigation of the philosophy of aesthetics, which includes, among other texts, the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (Oxford, 1998), a four-volume work he edited, and the authored book Iconoclasm in Aesthetics (Cambridge, 2003). Throughout his approach to the topic we witness an intense desire to demonstrate the value of the aesthetic within contemporary art and culture, a task that is particularly foregrounded in this present book.
More so than in his previous publications, there is a real sense of urgency to the tenor of A Hunger for Aesthetics that drives the author to ground his approach in specific theoretical and artistic exemplars. We witness this in two major ways. The first is through his idiosyncratic titling of chapters as effects, such as “The Dewey Effect” and “The Pop Effect,” with Susan Sontag (“The Sontag Effect”) being the overriding paradigm. This tactic overtly locates his ideas within a larger discourse, focusing the book around the work of a series of philosophers—“Sontag, Arthur Danto, Stanley Cavell, and Umberto Eco”—that deal with what Kelly calls the “regeneration of aesthetics.” (13) The effectiveness of these effects is, however, lacking a clear sense of purpose beyond the obvious and remains, for the most part, a playful structuring mechanism for his ideas rather than an intrinsic feature of his argument.
Let us examine a couple of examples of these effects in detail. As he writes in his introduction: “art as enactment combines the moral-political demand for apprehension of our needs by others with the moral-political demand for the recognition and satisfaction of these needs by others. This combination of moral and political demands involving apprehension, recognition, and satisfaction is what I call the Dewey Effect.” (20-21) Similarly, Kelly describes the “The Pop Effect” by first focusing “on the critical reception of the emergence of American Pop art in the early 1960s” by Sontag, Danto, Cavell, and Eco, “who realized that Pop required them to transform aesthetics,” after which he writes: “I call this influence the Pop Effect on aesthetics, though it is really he cumulative effect of modern art on aesthetics.” (26) In both (and arguably all) cases, we see that the designated effect is ostensibly a placeholder—to use a term Kelly employs—for the critical perspective being referenced (yet not necessarily employed), be it the theories of Sontag or the artwork of Gerhard Richter or Doris Salcedo.
The second major way Kelly grounds his approach is through a focussed analysis of two artistic exemplars, which form the concluding chapters of his book. Here aesthetics is considered not just as an abstract theory but also as a form of practice, as a critical discourse enacted in works of art. We see this when Kelly introduces the works to be discussed in Chapter 3: “Richter’s Baader-Meinhof painting series October 18, 1977 (1988), and his more recent art book, War Cuts (2004), provide compelling cases of contemporary moral-political, traumatic, historical art.” (85) It is the contradictory visual nature of Richter’s work that Kelly focusses on, such as his act of blurring a painting so that it resembles an out of focus photograph except with an overt and highly significant intentionality. The poignancy of this visual approach rests in the manner in which meaning is at once presented and obscured. This is particularly evident in relation to the highly political subject matter of Richter’s October 18, 1977 series—which “consists of fifteen paintings depicting the leaders of the first generation of the Rote Armee Fraktion (RTF), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Group, which was an urban guerrilla/terrorist movement active in (West) Germany, beginning in the late 1960s.” (87) The main point that Kelly stresses is that Richter gives his artworks meaning or voice—with the restoration of such voice being the basis of the “Richter Effect”—through the enactment of the work, that is by painting photographs of the Baader-Meinhof Group; yet, “by blurring the objective reality of the source photographs, he is raising the issue of what counts as objective in this case.” (95–96) These works are not used strictly as representation of the past, of the history from which the photographs are taken, but rather function as materializations of potential meanings that become manifest only through an experience with the work.
The same can be said of Salcedo’s Shibboleth (2007–2008), an installation at the Tate Modern in London consisting of “a 548-foot-long crack in the concrete floor” in Turbine Hall, which seems to represent an important aspect of the aesthetic for Kelly. Significantly, his book ends with an examination of Salcedo that revolves around his treatment of Shibboleth, which “serves as a metaphor for all of Salcedo’s work,” he writes in his concluding paragraph. (173) In fact, Shibboleth acts as a metaphor for Kelly’s theories as well. One key reason for my suggesting this is the fact that he appears to take considerable pleasure in mentioning “the crack in Turbine Hall was deliberately repaired in a way that created a permanent scar, with all the sculptural material built into the crack in the floor buried beneath the newly sealed surface.” (173) This detail about the aftermath of the Shibboleth resonates with much of what Kelly discusses, particularly his repeated calls for a regeneration of aesthetics. For me, this connection represents a vital interpretation of the aesthetic as, to borrow Kelly’s words, a contemporary philosophy that is deliberately repaired in a way that creates a permanent scar, which (especially if this is an intentional proposal) he really needs to develop. Such a vision explains why there is never a consistent interpretation or understanding of his use of the term aesthetics, which at different points in the book takes on different and even contradictory meanings—with his idea of regeneration further complicating the issue. If we approach his proposal for a regeneration of aesthetics not as a renewal aimed at fixing problems outright (eliminating all traces of the crack), but rather as a repair that intentionally highlights philosophical difficulties (embracing the scar), then the aesthetic becomes a way of critically talking about what is buried beneath the newly sealed surface of contemporary art.
Kelly’s focused analyses of Richter’s and Salcedo’s art projects are generally speaking very commendable, since they both actively connect the philosophy of aesthetics with the practice of art—two related aspects of the aesthetic that are often treated as opposites. However, his specific approach to the works is for the most part not critical, relying instead on factual descriptions that are (historically) interesting but do not add much to his argument. This is particularly problematic when we try to relate Kelly’s ideas to the larger resurgence of the aesthetic that has taken place since, most notably, Hal Foster’s edited collection The Anti-Aesthetic.
In fact, one of the most discernable and consistent issues of A Hunger for Aesthetics is Kelly’s blatant attack on theories related to the anti-aesthetic, which he spends the entire book rallying against in various ways. In fact, the thematic core of this book appears to emerge directly out of his contentious response to the anti-aesthetic stance, as he refers to it. His preface sets this tone quite overtly: “To reject aesthetics by adapting the anti-aesthetic stance is to weaken or undermine art that aspires to be critical, which is clearly self-defeating as long as a major rationale for this stance is critique. As it turns out, the demand for art critique is a hunger for aesthetics.” (xix) Here the connection between an anti-anti-aesthetic stance and what he—somewhat curiously—terms a hunger for aesthetics is made explicit; rather than negating the aesthetic, Kelly advocates for a stance that understands the problems of aesthetics in contemporary art as furthering the need (or hunger) for aesthetic theories. In a thesis-like statement in the opening pages of the book, Kelly writes: “The ultimate aim of the regeneration of aesthetics here is to find a third way between the total rejection of aesthetics entailed by the anti-aesthetic stance and the uncritical restoration of the status quo ante implied by some of the recent revival of aesthetics.” (2) While expressing a subtle criticism of books that have emerged out of what he calls the recent revival of aesthetics—of which Robert Morris is the sole author named in an accompanying footnote, with important aesthetic theorists like Jacques Rancière and Alain Badiou being mentioned only later in the text—Kelly appears so intent on opposing an anti-aesthetic rejection of aesthetics that he fails to sufficiently demonstrate his third way.
While a critical valuation of the aesthetic is an active and important element in this book, the overall structure of Kelly’s arguments begs the question of whether aesthetics for him is a question or an answer. At times the aesthetic is treated as a question posed through art, art history, and art criticism. While at other times it seems to be put forward as an answer to the problem of criticality in current art historical discourse, with the regeneration of aesthetics being tied to a quest for an understanding of art beyond the modern. This aesthetical duality complicates many of the theories Kelly puts forward and, I believe, undermines attempts to situate his arguments in relation to current treatments of the aesthetic. What A Hunger for Aesthetics suggests that I believe is both unique and promising is the idea of contemporary aesthetics as a scar, something that cannot be negated or ignored but instead should be seen as a reminder of the critical space it opens up: the regeneration of aesthetics remaining “an open work for philosophers and other theorists to complete.” (173)