Despite its depiction of a grisly execution, an act of terror committed against the man considered to be the Messiah by one of the world’s great religions, Matthias Grunewald’s tritych showing the Crucifixion of Christ unquestionably has real visual impact. wikimedia.org photo
An appalling aesthetic
Art, terrorism and the negative sublime
By Arnold Berleant
1. Terrorism and aesthetics
It has become increasingly clear that the arts, and the aesthetic, more generally, occupy no hallowed ground but live on the everyday earth of our lives. Recognition is growing that the aesthetic is a pervasive dimension of the objects and activities of daily life. Perceptual experiences that possess the characteristics of aesthetic appreciation are marked by an intense, focused sensibility we enjoy for its intrinsic perceptual satisfaction. We typically have such experiences with works of art and with nature, but they are equally possible in other occasions and with other kinds of objects. Such experiences engage us in an intensely sensory field in which we participate wholly and without reservation, as we customarily do with works of art. The objects and occasions, however, may be ordinary ones, such as eating, hanging laundry, engaging in social relations, or operating a perfectly functioning automobile or other mechanism. The range of such occasions is limitless, and this adds to the significance of the aesthetics of the everyday.
Such an expansion of the aesthetic has important consequences. Perhaps the most striking is the need to acknowledge that the range of aesthetic experience includes more than the appreciative engagement with art and nature. Not only does the aesthetic extend to the uncustomary, but it also encompasses the full range of human normative experience. Experiences of the aesthetic include not only the elevated and noble but the reprehensible, degrading and destructive. This is so, not as the result of an arbitrary decision to include them, but from actual experience and practice. The aesthetic offers a full and direct grasp of the human world. That it may include violence and depravity is not the fault of aesthetics, but of that world.
A salient symptom of that world is terrorism. Its wanton violence and uncontrolled destruction are appalling. But easy moral outrage offers no understanding, and only by grasping the meanings and significance of terrorism can we hope to deal with it effectively. Let me begin with the Happening, for the Happening can provide a forceful illumination of the aesthetic of terrorism.
Not that Happenings took negative form. A syncretic, visual-theatrical artistic development of the 1960s, Happenings were a deliberate artistic innovation intent on transgressing all the hard boundaries that protected the arts and made them safe. In Happenings, audiences became the performers, no clearly circumscribed object could be identified as the work of art, aesthetic distance was relinquished to the active engagement of the audience, artistic genres were fused into unrecognizable combinations and, most significantly, the boundary between art and life disappeared. Happenings were often playful, even festive occasions that danced over the pieties of conventional artistic axioms.
Some commentators quickly recognized that the importance of the Happening lay beyond its iconoclasm and entertainment value. One of them was Regis Debray, a young French radical intellectual, who “regarded a revolution as a coordinated series of guerrilla Happenings. Some of his admirers, in fact, took part in Happenings as training for future Happenings when they would use guns and grenades.” What many had considered a bizarre exaggeration following the dismissal of traditional artistic forms turns out to have been an uncanny pre-vision of the world half a century later. The net of terrorism in which the world is now enmeshed is all-encompassing. But how can terrorism be considered in the same sense as art? The question itself seems outrageous.
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