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On the Non-aesthetic Content of Art
Part I

by Miles Mathis

The appropriate non-aesthetic content of art was probably the central issue of late 19th century art. No other topic caused as much division among artists. By non-aesthetic, these artists would have meant any content that was not defined by formal aspects of the art. The formal aspects of art are just things like composition, color, paint quality, line quality, and so on. To these would probably be added the inherent beauty of the model or the landscape. A painting that was concerned mainly with natural beauty (like a Constable, say, or an Albert Moore), or with color and effect (like a Monet), or with line and composition (like a Whistler), would be said to have little non-aesthetic content.

In the 20th century, this argument became passé. The answer was given by critics in the first half of the century, and the discussion pretty much died out. Art was expected to have either no content, aesthetic or otherwise, or it was expected to have political content. Some have said that the "no content" group was a natural progression from the aestheticists of the 19th century, like Whistler. But notice that Whistler argued against non-aesthetic content, whereas 20th century critics jettisoned aesthetic content as well. Abstract painters, backed by critics like Clement Greenberg, were disallowed subject matter—which did away with the model or the landscape—as well as any non-formal use of form. That is to say, neither composition, color or line quality were allowed to be in the service of anything but themselves, not even beauty. A form existed only to call attention to itself, as an idea. For example, the color blue did not say, "Look at me, I am a pretty color!", it said, "Look at me, I am another color, alone in the universe, alienated, an idea without assignment, a peg in the void." Whistler wanted his forms to make you feel emotions directly. Greenberg wanted his artists to make you think deep philosophical thoughts, thoughts mainly along the lines of, "what is a line?, what is a color?, what does it mean to draw a line on a canvas?, isn't it mainly an empty gesture?, why am I in this museum?"

If you weren't asking these thrilling questions, then you should certainly be contemplating the exigencies of socio-politics. This was the other possibility of modern art. Forget that you had just come from being forced to consider those exigencies by the newspaper over your morning coffee, or by the million magazines and pamphlets on your doorstep, or by the screaming people on every corner, or by the grand gestures of Hollywood. No, we were told, the highest duty of art is to restate today's headlines in even more stentorian tones and more hysterical hand-wringing. This will make us better people. A small dose of beauty would spoil us for life, making us into little pathetic lapdogs of the current administration and the dupes of all corporations. But a quart of blood and piss squirted directly into our eyes will make us righteous and pure.

Well, some of us have come out beyond this dichotomy in the 21st century. And as we do, we may find that we return to the questions of the 19th. Specifically, should art have non-aesthetic content, and if so, what should it be? We do not ask these questions in order to force them upon others: we ask for ourselves. What should we do? What would be best to do? If we judge some art to be greater, how do we make that judgment? If we dismiss some art as bad or phony, why do we think that?

With a hundred-years hindsight, I think it is clear that both sides were right in the 19th century, and that both sides were wrong in the 20th. Art is not politics or stripped down form. But it is both aesthetic content and non-aesthetic content. It may have very little non-aesthetic content, like Whistler, or very much, like Michelangelo. The difference being that Michelangelo must also have beautiful forms, whereas Whistler need not have Michelangelo's biblical content. Aesthetic content is a requirement. Non-aesthetic content is not. If that is so, the next question becomes, what sort of non-aesthetic content is best suited to art? Is some content unsuitable? If so, on what grounds? Moral, logical, what?

This is where we hit the tough stretch, the stretch where the artists in the 19th century got drunk and threw glasses of wine at each other and sometimes drew knives. We don't do stuff like that anymore, since we are too civilized. We avoid such conversations as being impolite. Any answer would be intolerant. But if you have read any of my other articles, you know that will not stop me from typing. I simply sharpen my fingernails and let them click on the keys.

"What is wrong," I have been asked, "with morbid or gory subjects? The history of art is filled with St. Sebastians full of arrows and the lopped heads of St. John and Holophernes and Christs nailed to the cross dripping blood and various doctors opening up grisly corpses. Why can't modern artists paint corpses and blood and guts? Isn't there some kind of double standard going on here?"

It is a good question, and I think we are required to have an answer. If we find Nerdrum or Freud or Bacon more repellent than Ribera or Artemesia or Matthias Grünewald, we should say precisely why. In the case of Nerdrum, anyway, we cannot be taking exception to his aesthetic content, which most agree is of high merit. His compositions, paint quality, color, line quality: all world class. If he were painting something else, most of us would be thrilled by his technique. Some of us are thrilled by it anyway. So what is the problem? How are his paintings any worse than Goya's or Bosch's apocalyptic images? Why do we cringe and dismiss, rather than just cringe?

Perhaps it is because it is difficult to connect most of Nerdrum's subject matter to real and meaningful crises. All of the examples from history that I have chosen, and I think any that you could choose, depict what one could call universal subjects. Most are religious or mythic. Even the medical examples are universal, in that the connection of medicine to the central concerns of history is clear. But a highway accident victim seems gratuitous, as do various people defecating, one-armed people, and erect people. In some possible painting, an erection may be meaningful content, I just don't think it is with Nerdrum. Frida Kahlo often had graphic content, but it was never gratuitous. In every example I can think of it was religious or medical, and hauntingly universal. It was a blisteringly ingenuous depiction of her life and her dreamlife. With Nerdrum the dreamlife is manufactured. It simply fails to resonate.

What this tells me is that manufactured content is something to avoid, whether it is the sort of sappy sentimentalism that we have been warned against for a hundred years, or the fake grotesquery of late figuration. "Difficult" subject matter, from sharks in tanks to corpses, from deviants to roadkill, is implied to have a depth that it just doesn't have.

go to Part II
return to 2004

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