“The happy man suddenly felt deeply, deeply unhappy …”— Adolf Loos
lives in Vienna. He holds an M.A. in Aesthetic and Theory of Contemporary Art, Philosophy of Art and Political Science. He is DJ, music producer and editor of Entkunstung Journal.
To be beautiful, to impress, to show oneself through appearance is something that every culture has practiced throughout history. Clothes, temples, everyday life artefacts are some examples of objects that were meant to have at the moment of their production – especially the ones related to rituals and power – a certain kind of what we now call aesthetic value in order to catch the gaze and the attention of its recipients in order to impress them. Our contemporary time is no less concerned with beauty and how to impress. In a self-design society like ours, the construction of appearance goes beyond the mere act of showing how we look, our façade, actually, it reveals what we would like to become.
“You don’t have to be filthy rich to be projected not only as a designer but as designed – whether the product in question is your home or your business, your sagging face (designer surgery) or your lagging personality (designer drugs), your historical memory (designer museums), or your DNA future (designer children).”
It is not enough to feel the pressure of being forced to self-design oneself. The façade has to be constituted with at least some sort of aesthetic quality, and since design replaced art as the exclusive container of beauty and art + aesthetics is no longer a happy equation, we ended up adding designed values to the construction of our image-self. Friedrich Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin claimed that it is better to be an artwork rather than to be an artist, and as we know, contemporary art practices have shown us some exceptions of individuals that projected and sold themselves in the artworld as a work of art. However, this attitude carries some risks that sometimes we are not conscious of, and one of them is the need of constantly adapting oneself to new paradigms of beauty. In our self-design society the idea that everyone is an artist has been conquered and surpassed by the possibility of being our own self-production in order to become a designer-product. We are reaching new territories, and our time, in fact, is forcing us to become a transactional-self.
One can only expect that this exposure will catch the gaze, the pleasure, the critique and the suspicion of the beholder, since design, just like art, is perceived as artificial, something you have to distrust: art and high-end design hide something behind the surface. “Today, everyone is subjected to an aesthetic evaluation – everyone is required to take aesthetic responsibility for his or her appearance in the world, for his or her self-design. Where it was once a privilege and a burden for the chosen few, in our time self-design has come to be the mass cultural practice par excellence.”
The consequence of living a life as a territory of total design, or like Hal Foster perfectly stated: from jeans to genes – is that my image, my façade, becomes the embodiment of my taste, my ethics, my political and moral values. “Not to mention that the “individuality expressed in every nail” leaves no spielraum – as Adolf Loos and Karl Kraus claimed in their critique to Art Nouveau’s total design project – for the development of the subjectivity and culture.”
Something with aesthetic qualities means something that has the power to seduce. It is the sensuous form that creates the perceptive pleasure which leads to the aesthetic experience. Aesthetics, following Kant, focuses on the notion of beauty and resides in the realm of sensitivity. Aesthetics is, let’s not forget, about perception. Beauty, on the other hand, is a universal and transcendental category shared by a society via sensus communis that should be experienced through disinterested pleasure in the act of judging.
It is important to remember that many contemporary artistic expressions firstly are not conceived as a field in which the aesthetic experience is plausible, and secondly sometimes want to distance themselves from being called art. Nevertheless, we continue to make judgements about art – and definitely all kinds of design – based on categories such as beauty, even though the divorce art-aesthetics can not possibly be reconciliated unless we stand on the side of a modern – and most of the time formalist – conception of art. Despite the constant negation of aesthetic values such as the sublime, which in Kantian terms signifies the potential of the sensitive abilities that come to assist the mind in the comprehension of the unknown, these concepts are still a valid vehicle for comprehending contemporary art practices. However, there should be a way to make them work without falling in anachronisms.
This is how we enter new territories such as the acknowledgement of the difference between high-end and low quality design. The “lost souls of design” or what can be named “cheap aesthetics”, clearly shows that the easy access to tools of production for making art doesn’t necessarily denote its immediate and/or qualitative achievement. The artworld progressively unveils the fallacy of its pseudo-democracy. The fusion art-life definitely enables people, anyone and everyone, to make art, but not because there is a certain kind of democratization in the access to art – in its consumption, production, reception, acceptance and understanding – if we understand democratic as for everyone.
This relation and difference between high-end design and cheap-aesthetics reminds us of the notion of pharmakon in the Derridean sense: the poorly designed objects representing the “différance of [the] difference”, they show the cure and the illness by suggesting what can be perceived as ugly within the absence-presence of beauty, “it reverses them or makes one side cross over into the other”.
Design overcame art as the field where our society expresses its artistic skills, especially when it is about showing beauty, however, most of the times design falls into mannerisms: decorating, adding as many details as possible to every layer. Moreover, it also represents an ideal of beauty and aesthetics that resides in the ornamentation of the image/product to be shown. Therefore, this can be seen as the feeling people have in perceiving themselves free to create art and design by altering the reality of things.
The project of integrating art into life brought art practices and artistic expressions to a situation, where the artwork became indiscernible from the real, and design took advantage of this blurriness in order to conquer the realm of beauty, truth, utility and reality for its own purposes. Though it is not the topic of this text, one could argue that today the opposite has come true, that is, life is integrated into art, instead of art being integrated into life.
Avant-garde design – and, by extension, art practices such as minimalism and conceptualism – attempts to eliminate any kind of decoration or unnecessary addition. It is reductionist and seeks to present things as they are, without ornament, in order to manifest the essence, the real, the soul of worldly objects and individuals. It pursues the achievement of purity for the object as much as for the one who stares at it. Therefore, since the recipient isn’t disturbed with the illusionary ornament that doesn’t allow him or her to see things as they are, he or she is finally able to confront the-truth-of-things, Donald Judd‘s “what you see is what you see”. The project of modern design developed by Adolf Loos has increasingly achieved its utopian ambitions, but in a different way. Immersed into the capitalist system, design operates within its rules, but is still carrying an aura of avant-garde. The possibility that high-end design functions just like art is imminent: it shares a world within the public, however, speaks a private and suspicious language because of its simplicity and clear aesthetics. Design may have revived the antagonism high art/folklore, avant-garde/kitsch, but in this case in the form of high-end design/low-cheap-ugly aesthetics. This differentiation shows, again, an economical and educational gap, but sadly enough, contemporary aesthetics are also a tool of exclusion for unprivileged sectors of our society.
Différance here means celebrating the status quo by offering a placebo to the ill in order to postpone equality for a further time and space. Design, on the one hand, moves freely in every sector of our society by not having to deal with social and political issues and, in addition, is able to sell – literally – the illusion of achieving freedom, if you can afford the product in question. Art, on the other hand, if it is to be considered opposite to design, carries the weight of also having to deal with social and political issues, and it is still really complicated to comprehend for most socio-economical sectors of our society.
“Complex art is considered bourgeois. It needs skills, connoisseurship, and culture that can only belong to the socially privileged. Therefore, when dealing with zones of the socially unprivileged, art should reject its artistic features: complexities, paradoxes, involvement. But it is here that the argument lies. If art is about refined aesthetic difference and taste, if it is reduced to skills needed for its perception, or skills acquired by long-term education to produce it, then such an argument has reasons. But if art is seen via existential, evental, and ethical dimensions, then it is not coincident with education, or dependent on social advantages or taste. Art’s complexity turns out to be about those issues that are embedded in anyone’s personal or social life, in acting in it or reflecting on it. So when participatory or socially engaged projects denigrate art in the name of non-art – yet are looked upon as democratic art practice – they often ignore that those whom they integrate into education or participation might be able to think and act in terms of ethical, artistic, and general dimensions no less than any artist or thinker. Ignoring this point, they underestimate many capacities of human life that are not reduced to skills and education. Hence the paradox: the more democratic art tends to be, the less open it is to those who constitute the demos.”
It is important to consider that aesthetic gratification in art is no longer important, or at least not exclusively. After Duchamp’s critique of the institution art, there is the possibility of having an intellectual fulfillment and pleasure, where taste and skills can be ignored.
Art and non-art practices that are conceived as exercises of democratic pedagogy and intellectual emancipation, following Jacques Rancière’s ideas, pursue the inclusion, empowerment and the emancipation of the demos. However, in this operation, the risk of falling into practices of power that reproduce hegemonic discourses is really high. Once again, the voice you can give to the unfortunate and oppressed remains under your lead. As a result, to narrate oneself through one’s own logic, history and tradition, is the task for those who want to assert themselves as part of the artworld and that have been excluded from big narratives and canons, including, definitely, the aesthetic one.
FROM TERRITORIALITIES TO TOTALITIES
If we take a walk through the city, we will confront ourselves with an incredible amount of visual pollution and most of it comes from low-end design products. However, this parade transcends the physical space of the city and goes to new territories, as for example the internet – showing, once more, something that design does perfectly: to conquer new territories.
When it’s about social media, there is a phenomenon that should not go unnoticed: the Meme trend. This practice and its production play with two significant categories related to aesthetics and hierarchy. The first one: the notion of authorship based on the idea of the author as a producer of critical content; and the second one, which is connected to the first one: the notion of the anonymity of the producer. Nobody is signing as the author of a meme; nobody is taking responsibility, or is responsible for its content.
Its composition is based on the happily synchronized act of overlapping mass and pop culture, it’s made up of images and every day life scenes with poor fonts that usually contain clear and simple statements pretending to expose a certain truth. A meme functions like propaganda because of its simplicity and by having a clear message that is easy to understand. These satiric compositions are powerful tools that can seduce the viewer, and they are ready to play as true and real facts, a capability that art and design are lacking. In addition to that, its cheap aesthetics can be perceived as ‘inclusive’ – since no special skills are needed to create the content, everybody is able to participate, especially if we consider the fact that its production and consumption take place on the Internet.
A meme goes beyond the mere exercise of pastiche, kitsch or camp, it is an act that can be considered as an example of pure accelerationism, and that is overcoming the notion of simulacrum, appropriation art and post-production. Its speed of production, reception and consumption is just as fast as the feed of social media, and the nature of its comments comes from, and goes back to every field of our daily and personal life. Important political, economical or natural events are as relevant as any other every situation of daily life; there are no distinctions at all. The meme lasts no more than a couple of days as “something new”, then it becomes a sample, a pattern, ready to be filled with any other comment.
As mentioned before: any topic is consumed by social media feeds extremely fast and its content is going beyond parody, progressively reaching absurdity, Because of that, memes are able to create a certain kind of awareness of how our time works – they show the reality and the truth of things. This is another example of différance, but in this case, reversed. It is possible that here, in this operation of speculation and speed – just like the market functions (the trade market to be more specific) – is where the critical power of memes resides.
The transactional-self paradigm can be considered as a move from territorialities to totalities, since the whole Internet, especially social media websites like Facebook, Instagram or Youtube, are also fields where we put our façade on constant parade, and by doing that we are clearly exposing ourselves to a total and public judgement and its consequences. Duchamp liked to say that “not everyone is an artist, but everyone is a fucking critic”. The course of history has altered this statement and nowadays everyone is an artist – or at least everyone has the right to feel him or herself as one (thank you Joseph Beuys!) – and yes, everyone still is a fucking critic, a beauty critic, however reducing aesthetic judgements to the power of a like. The right to be free to feel oneself as an artist, a critic and a piece of art has created even more pressure on each individual: it is almost an obligation to be productive – economically, artistically and aesthetically – and we are constantly liking and judging façades, “crossing over into the other”, and by doing that we are condemning ourselves to be-come beautiful, to show ourselves – étant donnés, no matter what the others say.
 Hal Foster | Design and Crime | Verso Books | 2003 Boris Groys | Self-Design and Aesthetic Responsibility | e-flux journal #07 | 2009 Hal Foster | Design and Crime | Verso Books | 2003 Keti Chukhrov | On the False Democracy of Contemporary Art | e-flux journal #57 | 2014