goto Appendx main menu
Sights of Contention :
Mark Jarzombek
text | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | notes
previous page 

But if the museum directors failed to go beyond identifying Mapplethorpe's work as "difficult art," Danto did not. The Mapplethorpe photographs, he claimed, were part of a "sexual revolution . . . and an increasingly explicit homosexual consciousness" that, once marginal, is "now aesthetically mainstream."43 Furthermore, "art provides the highest values that secular existence acknowledges, except for love . . . We have an obligation to support art in the interest of meaningful lives for our citizens, we have an obligation to allow that things that define human meaning can—when we think about them, or when we are made to feel them, as through works of art—be pretty scary things" [my emphasis].44  Danto thus has not abandoned the humanist mission of formalism that equates an intense aesthetic experience with higher social understanding. 

That Danto was a true formalist, more so than the late formalist Kardon, can be substantiated when we look more closely at the argument that we feel art. As opposed to the augment of the prosecution that we feel art in order to erase the aesthetic, Danto demands that we enter into the aesthetic in a direct and simple way. Heinrich Wölfflin, considered by many as the father of art historical formalism, argued at the turn of the century that we should not look to scholarship or professional discourse, but rather rely on our own feelings and experiences when judging art. His critique of society's alienation from art was an important aspect of the early formalist argument that challenged nineteenth-century normative aesthetics, scholarly abstractions, and high-minded art historical erudition. Art was centered not in aesthetic abstractions, but in the aesthetic experience. Hans-Georg Gadamer laid out the parameters of this experientialism when he claimed that "we can experience every work of plastic art 'immediately' as itself, i.e. without its needing further mediation to us."45 Appendx 2 page break 72 | 73 

    Of all the things that confront us in nature and history, it is the work of art that speaks to us most directly. It possesses a mysterious intimacy that grips our entire being, as if there were no distance at all and every encounter with it were an encounter with ourselves.46 
In the words of Heinrich Wölfflin: 
    In a natural way [the art object] intensifies itself so that it elevates (emporreisst) man to experiences of form in which the narrowness of his existence is forgotten. All "form" is life-enhancing.47 
As a demonstration, when Wölfflin gave his first visual example in his Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe (The Principles of Art History, 1915), he chose a naked woman: the Venus in Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. He did not elaborate on questions of patronage or context, but looked at the image itself. 
    The sharpness of the elbow, the spirited line of the forearm, and then, how the fingers radiate out over the breast, every line steeped with energy, that is Botticelli.48 
The theoretical justification of intense aesthetic observation came, from among other places, Theodor Lipps, the late nineteenth-century father of aesthetic psychology. Lipps argued that when looking at a naked woman, one should ignore sexual feelings and see not, however, passive material, but aspects of size, form, and shape that inspire one to act. In other words, the forms are not dead, but are the source of life, excitement, and creativity. Lipps then explained what he meant in what was for him the paradigmatic aesthetic experience. 
    I experience in the beautiful womanly form an unusual sensation of life that is powerful, healthy, uplifting and growing. I experience a sense of physical well-being that is nowhere else localized than in the experiences of the forms . . . an expansion of the feeling of life over and beyond the real me . . . . not a sensation felt by my real body, but a feeling for life itself.49[my emphasis] 
One of the more important American representatives of  this experiential criticism was Robert Morris Ogden, the first American art psychologist and Gestalt theorist. In Appendx 2 page break 73 | 74his Psychology and Education from 1926, he argued that "our ability to empathize our situation by projecting into its rhythms, affords means of insight far more direct and more real than any reasoning and deliberation can supply . . . . The aesthetic object, appealing through the senses as definite composition, by virtue of its own internal structure, is capable of arousing in others something of the same sense of fulfillment enjoyed by the artist."50 DeWitt Parker provided one of the first handbooks for American experientialists in his Principles of Aesthetics (1920). "We enter the aesthetic experience through the sensuous medium . . . We discover a unity in the material. . . [which] enables us to linger longer and more happily . . . . The purpose of art is sympathetic vision."51  This celebration of "aliveness" was the first step in affirming the importance of art in society. "A work of art," Susanne Langer tried to explain, shows us not the abstraction of life, but its very centrality via its appearance, an appearance "that make us experience aliveness within ourselves."52 Our thoughts can thus focus on the "living form," which is "the most indubitable product of all good art, be it painting, architecture, or pottery." 

The notion of "living form" generated from an argument that held the corporeal analogy in high esteem. As Wölfflin wrote, "We judge every object by analogy with our own bodies."53 What might Wölfflin have written had he lived to see a Mapplethorpe nude? 

    We feel the skin of the torso stretched as the figure turns toward the viewer, and then, the pressure of the whip jammed into his anus, the lines of his muscles, the expression on his face—that is Mapplethorpe. 
But why should I make something up when Danto has demonstrated what formalism—in its earlier days—intended? 
    The photograph was a greatly enlarged image of the male nipple and of the pores and cracks of the surrounding skin and the hairs growing out of it. This photograph conveyed a particularly desolate feeling; . . . It was a lesson in erotic optics. The dead artist, the vulnerable buttocks, the leathery button of sensitive flesh formed a kind of rebus, I thought, a moral puzzle to be solved.54 
Danto's wonderful example of early formalist corporeal analysis involved an important shift of optic, however, from male-female to male-male. The particularly "enlightened" male view of the world that has posited the naked woman as a paraAppendx 2 page break 74 | 75digm of art appreciation is obviously problematized when the aesthetic object is a naked male (even if one pretends that there is no problem). Ignoring its sexual content is not any better than admitting it, for we have a curious historical situation in which the theoretical demand that aesthetic experiences be intense required an ever greater search for intensity, and once the male-female relationship had fallen by the wayside, the male-male relationship entered the scene to reestablish the importance of formal immediacy. The theory of aesthetic intensity, running its course through time, can be seen as demanding a male-male eroticism to recapture the true intensity that supposedly makes art relevant to a larger civilizational purpose. 

Danto's privileging of his "experiences" as a well-meaning, empathetic (but cleverly distanced) response to Mapplethorpe's art thus returns the discourse to the very origins of early twentieth-century formalism. In a male-male format that is just as inauthentic in its unrecognized maleness, however, as the late formalist jargon of the museum directors:  not only is it an artificial theoretical postulate that claims that it lacks artifice (which was "fine" as long as the male discourse felt that it could dominate the male-female relationship), but it fits so well (but in an upside-down way) to the original demand of aesthetic intensity. In the male-male relationship between aesthetic experience and art object, who is controlling the discourse? Mapplethorpe's works (if we accept them as works in a museum) force us in a brilliant move of their seduction to become a dispassionate formalist or an impassioned formalist; two sides of the same coin, for both enhance and magnify Mapplethorpe's magnificent play of men.55 next page

text | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | notes
appendx inc.©1997