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Warstat, A., 2010.

Violence, Aesthetics and Ugly Revolutions

Output Type:Presentation
Presented at:Historical Materialism 7th Annual Conference: Crisis and Critique
Venue:School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
Dates:11-14 November 2010

This paper considers the work of the Situationist artist Asger Jorn in relation to Theodor Adorno’s account of ugliness and ‘aesthetic comportment’. The paper proposes that the work of art, in its aesthetic comportment, is a social place – the location of a critical encounter between the self and its other. What this actually means, for Adorno, is that the modern work of art, in its refusal to be beautiful, has the capacity to unsettle the rationalised, ‘hermetically sealed’ individual subject. More specifically, Adorno’s proposal, in Aesthetic Theory, is that the critical tension between the beautiful and the ugly is the tension between freedom and servitude. Of course, for Adorno, the ugly is not simply overcome (or reintroduced) in modernism as a formal category. Rather, it is a form that indicates the limits of any aesthetic programme formulated around harmonious balance and classical idealism. As such, the vulgarity of ugliness reinstates the unruliness of materiality into art and aesthetic thinking. This vulgar ugliness belongs to death (in Ruskin’s sense of vulgarity, in volume 5, part 9 of Modern Painters): dead labour and the ‘dead’ past. This dead history and dead labour ‘appear’ in Jorn’s détourned work. The displacement of the painter’s (terminal, dead) gesture by the mass-produced image shows the deathly contradictions within modernity: its irreconcilable histories and possibilities. Jorn’s work can therefore be seen as the endless end point of a critical practice that indicates, but will not reconcile itself to, the potentials and horrors of late-modernity. Via the simultaneously feeble and angry marks on the canvas, the repressed, dead and ugly materiality of the present is given presence, and might yet produce ‘revolutionary’ tensions. The work of art’s aesthetic comportment therefore shows us, in Adorno’s words, “The repressed who sides with […] revolution”.