Brutal Aesthetics: Dubuffet, Bataille, Jorn, Paolozzi, Oldenburg
(Princeton University Press, 2020)
An ample aim: Hal Foster’s eloquent book Brutal Aesthetics: Dubuffet, Bataille, Jorn, Paolozzi, Oldenburg attempts to inaugurate a positive appraisal of what the author identifies as “positive barbarism” through the work of two philosophers: Georges Bataille and Walter Benjamin (from whom Foster adopts the adage); two painters: Jean Dubuffet and Asger Jorn; and two sculptors: Eduardo Paolozzi and Claes Oldenburg. This erudite, nearly coffee table-sized book—substantially rewarding both in historical detail and theoretical reference, with copious footnotes and voluminous glossy color plates—is fascinatingly factual and beautiful to peruse. Ironically, these very attractive qualities operate to undercut Brutal Aesthetics’s accolade to obtuse uncivil ugliness: the conceptual-ocular heart of its positive barbarism.
Artistic deviance is usually defined and responded to in terms of gendered symbolic criteria of legitimacy or illegitimacy, so it is unavoidable to observe that the subjects picked to demonstrate Foster’s thesis of brutal aesthetics, published in association with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, are all white males working during the demonstrably systematically sexist period in European-American cultural production between the mid-1940s and the mid-1960s. Granted, in the introduction, Foster (in passing) mentions this prickly discernable detail, so to excuse it and plow on—as if any other chosen subjects would have been irrelevant to illustrating his acclaim of modernist brutal aesthetics. Foster’s concern here is with placing Dubuffet’s avuncular construction of Art Brut and Bataille’s musings on the phantasmagoric animalist energy painted on Lascaux Cave (the best chapter) within the context of Hitleresque historical conditions—a world devastated by World War II, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb. Actually that context covers a vast range of diverse artists, but Foster chooses to study the “extreme ugliness’’ of Jorn’s “materialist vitality;” the “brute materiality” of Paolozzi’s slap-dash lost wax sculptural figures; and Oldenburg’s droopy commodified Pop Neo-Dadaism.
More importantly, however interesting the brutal aesthetics of sloppiness might be to a modern art historical exegesis, Brutal Aesthetics arrives at the grim doorstep of an offended world in the wake of endless uncouth brutalizations made by a mendacious macho American president and those who took his lapidary lies for reality. Trump, who, by falsely proclaiming a stolen election, has refused gentlemanly presidential transition despite his decisive electoral and popular defeat. Thus our current brutalized milieu presents relevancy questions for claims made for Foster’s brutalist theme—having the possible effect of aestheticizing social-political brutishness and its adjacent symbolic violence. Because the potent premise pushed in Brutal Aesthetics is that these men’s messy modernism shows us how to survive a civilization become barbaric. Unfortunately, this cisgender aesthetic misses the point that all effective art images pulverize past presentational modes in order to release latent “becomings” within them, making them not only sign-objects, but also flows of intersubjective communication.
Advertised as an art historical book with important implications for our time, Foster admits that brutalist aesthetics are no match for a society of the spectacle—something he knows well as the editor of The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (1983), a seminal text of postmodernism. Praising as relevant masculine historical precedents for the utilization of brutal aesthetics seems, to me, the way to make our current problem of barbaric civilization worse. Certainly I was not convinced by Foster’s argument on its behalf (as a form of magical transformational metamorphosis) as I already have been thinking about which artistic styles will be important amid defeated-but-unvanquished Trumpism, and I anticipate they must soften harsh barbarisms with a more nuanced, delicate, intimate art that returns you to your pacifist self. Presumably, an elegant, inter-gendered figurative aesthetic rebuttal to Trump-time toxic expressionist-brutalism is the effective common-sense riposte, as pure abstraction has proven itself to be a form of permissive pastoralism.
Regretfully, Brutal Aesthetics plows over the entire Brutalist Architecture movement with only a mere mention, and omits Brutalist Noise Music. More the pity when you consider all the astonishing audio produced between the mid-1940s and mid-1960s by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry’s Musique Concrète movement, by Dieter Roth, Group Ongaku, Nam June Paik, Jean Tinguely, and Fluxus-period La Monte Young, such as his extraordinary Poem For Tables Chairs Etc. Part 1 (1960). Foster’s lack of brut musical appreciation is painfully apparent—and a severely limiting omission—when one considers that his most important artist-subject, the shaper of the Art Brut category, Jean Dubuffet, himself created a Brutalist Noise masterpiece called Musical Experiences in 1961.
As for Foster’s argument, the aesthetic connections between his subjects seem forced, and interweaving detailed references within the chapters are rare. Each chapter was first delivered as an isolated lecture within the National Gallery of Art’s A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts series, so it seems likely the positive barbarism theme outlined in the introduction may have come later. There is no containing, connective conclusion. These features lead me to consider Brutal Aesthetics as enervated when compared to one of Foster’s greatest books—Compulsive Beauty (1993)—in which he plunged me into the dark side of Surrealism, finding there the repetitious uncanny death drive.
Questions of brutality and tenderness in art are absolutely important considerations for today’s cultural producers and critics of straight white male art. But Brutal Aesthetics fails in provoking the imagination into considering ourselves and every human alive as a pansexual other (through that which is characterized in French as caprice) attuned to a more just, queerer, trans, and multi-racial world of tolerant playful pleasure engaged in pushing past toxic pestilences.