Seeing a Different Perspective: “Brutal Aesthetics” by Hal Foster | Culture & Leisure
Most artists I know joke that after taking an investigative art course the discussion leaves Europe after Van Gogh – post-impressionism, perhaps after sprinkling Max Beckmann – l German expressionism. Then the professor would lead the lecture “across the pond” to New York and American Abstract Expressionism, ignoring post-war Europe. Ab-Ex or Formalism quickly became the punching bag of the 60s, with its anti-war and feminist contextual projects, as well as Pop Art, embellished by Madison Avenue advertising. However, the artists of a war-torn Europe, reacting to the “massive deaths of WWII, the Holocaust and the hydrogen bomb (4)”, had a different perspective, having suffered emotional collapses and economic.
Hal Foster’s “Brutal Aesthetics” deals with European artists; Jean Dubuffet and George Bataille de France, Asger Jorn from Denmark, Eduardo Paolozzi from Italy and America, Claes Oldenburg of Swedish origin.
“Brutal Aesthetics” begins with the art / philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) whose essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935)”, contemplates the uniqueness (aura) of art – poignant in light of the present day Fake-news. Foster, through Benjamin, explains the escape with Disney products. Benjamin guess, “Mickey [Mouse] cartoons are so popular because they offer “enormous relief” to Europeans rocked by catastrophic war, intensive industrialization and economic catastrophe (4). Perhaps this is why Marvel Comic’s blockbuster “Black Widow” offers an escape from the Covid pandemic? However, Foster’s five artists do not portray the escape; they are reacting to the horrors that resulted from the two world wars.
Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) who founded Art Brut comes from a wealthy family of wine merchants from Le Havre. Leaving art school and eschewing aesthetic beauty, he incorporated thick oils with gravel, tar and straw. Foster writes: “Dubuffet sought a ground for his work in ‘art brut’, which he approached … through children’s drawings, the graffiti of the common man and the art of fools (27) . He continues: “Dubuffet turned to children to ‘unlearn’ what they had not ‘yet’ learned, the conventions of visual realism; on the other, he sought to transform the childish vices of synthetic incapacity, arbitrary color, etc., into modernist virtues of his own art (37). Dubuffet loved graffiti long before it displeased former New York Mayor Rudy Giuiliani. For him, “the graffiti image is attacked at the very moment it is made; representation and destruction converge here (38). Sorry Rudy, Graffiti is now gallery approved. Dubuffet also turned to the art of fools, because it is shameless and “does not anticipate any spectator and does not recognize any public (46)”. And what about the classic nude, which has become the antithesis of Dubuffet’s art? Foster suggests that the nude has always been “linked to a very traditional notion of form, and Dubuffet brutalized it even more than … his predecessors (58)”. Hitler and his colleagues loved the classic and considered any form of abstraction to be the work of the madman and therefore of the degenerative.
George Bataille (1897-1962) is Reims; his father was a tax collector. Trained in philosophy, he first turned to surrealism. He became fascinated by Lascaux where the rock art depicts men killing not only beasts, but each other. Regarding Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he writes: “Man is the only animal that kills stubbornly and furiously (71). Bataille rationalized the horrors of the two world wars through Lascaux who “invites us to remember a time when human beings wanted only superiority over death … not” utilitarian mastery ” [that is] peculiar to our time (100). He considered Lascaux as the “birth of art” (75).
Asger Jorn (1914-1973) was a Danish artist; his parents were teachers. At the end of the forties, he founded the COBRA group (Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam) which is interested in “the arts of tribes, children and madmen”. Jorn was fascinated by “Norse myths, Viking monuments, medieval frescoes, rural churches, as well as flea market paintings (105 106)”. Foster writes: “his entire Cobra production is a concerted attack on the classic aesthetic, which for Jorn is also [attacking] classified aesthetic (112). Jorn poses: “The truth of the human animal is a continuous movement from state to state, from good to bad and vice versa (125). Foster concludes: “Jorn sought to overturn the old (hierarchical) order of art, but only so that a new (egalitarian) could be put in place. “The painting is finished,” said Jorn (134).
Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) was born in Leith, Scotland, to Italian immigrant parents. He, too, “came out of the Second World War disillusioned with the humanist tradition in art”. Paolozzi was a member of the neo-brutalist wing of the “Independent Group (IG), a motley team of artists, architects, curators and critics forged in the melting pot of post-war Britain”. Paolozzi writes: “We were concerned with seeing the materials for what they were: wood of wood, sand of sand…. New brutalism [became a] materialistic realism versus the mock order of an emerging American advertising culture (139). In truth, opposing the post-war New York art scene has become a losing battle. In particular, IG member Richard Hamilton (1922-2011) was a leader of the British Pop Art movement, as evidenced by the fact that I lived / worked in a community center in the East End of London, in the summer of 1968 (140).
Claus Oldenburg (born 1929) was born in Stockholm but grew up in Chicago when his diplomatic father was appointed consul general. Everyone loves his outdoor sculptures, supposedly Pop Art. Foster deepens his discovery: “the environment of production, consumption and industrial waste included the world of Oldenburg”. He continues: “Note how this heist is different from the product-scape of Pop-art, to which Oldenburg is too quickly assimilated (196). ”
Many Oldenburg indoor sculptures are constructed from vinyl fabric. Foster writes: “Oldenburg envisioned its softening as a ‘death blow’ to the ‘functionality’ of the object as well as to the ‘classicism’ of the sculpture (225).” Oldenburg’s work, “Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks, 1969”, has become one of the strongest anti-Vietnam symbols. The fake tank was parked outside of Yale Commons (dining room). Yale alumni disapproved of the anti-Vietnam protests and had the art withdrawn at least once. The sculpture points to the American military-industrial complex, while the semi-puffy phallic vinyl lipstick on top not only coaxes the Pentagon weakling, but hints at Yale’s reluctance to allow female students, which s ‘was finally produced in the fall of 1969. However, in the spring of 1969 when “Lipstick” was posted, this author could only date / marry a man from Yale.
“Brutal Aesthetics” is not an easy reading, as many art philosophers dot the pages of their theories. Don’t back down! – Foster pushes an understandable narrative cover to cover. Looking at what Dubuffet, Bataille, Jorn, Paolozzi, and Oldenburg accomplished, reveals that all the hype around America winning the war, had much undisclosed under currents that still persist. In his essay, “Critical Criticism and Society (1949)”, theorist Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) wrote: “Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric (10)”. Artists are responding to the social and environmental ills that continue to plague us.
Mini Sleuth: Quotes were used in “Brutal Aesthetics” by Hal Foster, available on Amazon. Special thanks to Jodi Price of Princeton U. Press.
Jean Bundy is a writer / painter in Anchorage. She sits on the board of directors of AICA-International.