Critical reflection of contemporary artworks can be often found in the company of moral judgments, whose main purpose is to form a personal canon, a set of positive or negative evaluated artworks, formed not so much in accordance with the Kantian judgment of taste (nor the value of beauty that it entails), but rather with the individual’s world view, understood as a set of personal stances and/or beliefs by which one economically solves everyday political or ethical issues (preserving the energy and time that would otherwise be spent on conscious or maybe even critical valuation).
The problem with this occurrence is not so much in the fact that the described moral apparatus is in close relation with the aesthetic judgment, but more so that it is covered with an apparent a-moral valuation, to which one usually prescribes the status of being progressive.
To figure out the precise workings of this ‘loaded’ valuation and the consequences that it holds for the evaluated artworks and their creators, the artists, a case study is in order. In this regard, I would like to start with an art project of a young Slovene artist Iza Pavlina that due to its specific structure offers itself almost as a paradigmatic example.
The artwork in question is a spatial installation exhibited at the artist’s solo exhibition titled Talk to Strangers! (1), which sets the scene for a sensual dialectics between a frail teenage girl and ‘too curious’ or even straightly perverse old men. The installation consists of two rooms: a reconstructed teenager’s room, full of ‘girly’ decorations such as posters of various pop stars, forming an atmosphere of childhood safety and intimacy, and a room filled with printed online chat conversations that the artist had with the anonymous men.
As it is suggested by the title of the exhibition ‘Talk to Strangers!’ these conversations are key. In them the artist performs a carefree and naive teenage girl, whose youth is the object of lust of various anonymous conversation partners; subjecting herself to fictional danger as she adjusts her appearance and mannerisms to achieve the semblance of naive and youthful conversing on the subject of love, kissing, various body parts etc.; all in order for the enacted nature of the situation, the deceiving of the ones who themselves deceive, to dialectically flip the implicit power relations.
One could thus make out that the artwork expresses a gesture of empowerment, a surpassing of the sexual difference and its symbolic tyranny. But the latter quickly turns out to be problematic, as the artist seemingly makes two mistakes.
The first is the erroneous implication that the sexual difference can be in any way affected by the ‘truth’ of the situation; that the act of deceiving old men would somehow turn the power relations and make the slave out of the master and the master out of the slave. The artist disregards that the act of conversing in online chat rooms does not depend on the authenticity or the factual availability of the desired object, but is instead — due to the virtual character of the exchange — intertwined with the object of desire, which is the game of conversing itself: the act of leading on the girl and tempering with her presupposed naïveté and innocence, and not the physical possession of her. This means that although the situation is indeed fictitious and fake, the enjoyment of her conversation partners is already actual and there. Making the reversal of the implicit power relations in the context of the described artwork unattainable.
The other mistake sneaks into the conversations themselves — or is, in other words, the problem of their execution. In various parts of her conversations, the artist fails to fully deceive her conversation partners. Her speech gets caught up in moral tendencies as she asks them about the meaning of their perverse inclinations – something that is not in accordance with the role of a naive girl, oblivious of the situation in which she has found herself. Questions in the manner of ‘why don’t these people rather go out of the house and find appropriate partners’, ‘why can’t they, therefore, not fulfill their heteronormative destinies’, are already subjugated to and conditioned by the generally accepted moral presupposition in the sense of ‘pedophilia is bad’, ‘online deceiving is bad’, etc.
They point towards already formed opinions (towards the stance of ‘knowledge” and not “ignorance” or naivety) and are as such rather the result of the commonsensical pathos that usually surrounds the subject of pedophilia than of youthful and childish curiosity.
While the first mistake, therefore, shows that the artwork is not related to empowerment as the power relations remain unscathed or unaffected, the other disbands the semblance that the artwork is in any way an intimate dialectics (possibly understood as an expression of the artists personal artistic poetics) as it is riddled by moral presuppositions that incorporate a wider social aspect, which itself remains unaddressed and consequentially displaced.
But contrary to how it might first appear, these mistakes are not imperfections that make the artwork weak. What is interesting and why we should consider it as a paradigmatic case, is the fact that due to the two mistakes the artwork is even stronger or even more persuasive. Indeed the two mistakes undo its only intelligible narrative (as said before the artwork does not concern the act of empowerment nor any particular artistic poetics); they undo the only aspect that connects the elements of the spatial installation into a conceptually rounded unit beyond a simple illustration of a chosen hypothetic situation (i.e. the online chat conversation between a minor and a pedophile), but the artwork still functions, despite this void it does still persuade us.
The moral presuppositions take the place of its driving force, which is something that they can inconspicuously do only if the actual valuation that they relate to is already on its ‘home ground’: totally fused with the act of aesthetic judgment. Meaning, that all the indignation that we as a society hold towards pedophilia serves as the actual moment of judgment that consciously or unconsciously makes the mentioned artwork not only good but functioning – it is its primary animistic driving force.
But the sole mention of indignation also implies that we are not dealing with mere moral judgment. The artwork does not enact a reflection of hypothetic acts in relation to some pre-established notions of good and bad. Moral tendencies exhibited in the described artwork take place as aliens, as moments of disturbance, which surprisingly leave the artwork (at least in the eyes of the spectator) undisturbed. This means that despite the failed attempt to enact the role of the innocent girl (i.e. the artist breaks character and speaks as herself) she is still ascribed with the figure of the innocent girl, similarly as her conversation partners, whose photos are exhibited along with the printed online chats, are still ascribed with the figure of a perverse delinquent.
More than as a judgment of hypothetical acts the situation of the artwork thus functions as the creation of moralistic figures. Which means that the final narrative, as much the result of the artwork itself as of its reception, is heavily conditioned by the beforehand functioning of the moral imaginary. And as this imaginary is both the product of the working of the artwork itself as of its corresponding reception, as the latter is even prone to actively fill in the lack of the artist’s execution, it is also conditioned by the need for these subjective figures to have a status of objectivity and general recognition. Or in other words, with the spectators need for others to share his imposed subjective figures, to affirm him in his own subjectivity. It thus affirms the power of communal bond and consequentially produces the feeling of rightness, homeliness, and security that replace the pleasure of beauty as part of the Kantian judgment of taste and animate the actual artwork.
The previous statement that the moral presuppositions can take the role of the artwork’s driving force only if the actual valuation that they relate to is already fused with the aesthetic judgment, is, therefore, not completely accurate. It is not so much the case of moral presuppositions, but of figures that are at best moralistic. As much as it is not the case of moral valuation that would coincide with the act of aesthetic judgment, but the case of aestheticisation of moral valuation or the reduction of the latter to the level of moralistic imaginary and its correlating relish. The aesthetic judgment is thus not straightforwardly moral – although it is still full of implicit moralistic notions, which fail to form actual judgments and create a moralistic logic of sensation instead.
But before we continue with the exposition of this logic, it is perhaps important to note that while the artwork of Iza Pavlina is indeed an evident example of something that we could call the aestheticisation of moral valuation in aesthetic judgment or the judgment of contemporary artworks, the actual role of this aestheticisation in the conception and reception of artworks is usually considerably less evident or cloaked in a seemingly ‘leftist’ social critique or line of questioning.
An example of this sort of less evident functioning of aestheticisation of moral valuation can be found in the example used by Jacques Ranciere in his book The Emancipated Spectator (2). There he talks about the installation The Eyes of Guetete Emerita, dedicated by Alfredo Jaar to the Rwandan massacre. The installation was “ […] organized around a single photograph showing the eyes of a woman who has seen the massacre of her family: hence effect for cause, but also two eyes for a million massacred bodies.” (3)
From this Ranciere derives that the “[…] metonymy that puts this woman’s gaze in place of the spectacle of horror […] disrupts the counting of the individual and the multiple. [That i]t revolves around the construction of the victim as an element in a certain distribution of the visible. [Or in other words,] belongs to a system of visibility that governs the status of the bodies represented and the kind of attention they merit.” (4)
The crucial question at this point is, what “[…] kind of attention [is] prompted by [this] particular system.” (5) To which the chosen example offers an answer in the form of a turn from the ‘incapable’ victim to a ‘capable’ (6) or empowered one – to a figure of a victim, whose image would disrupt our perception and its correspondent thought. This leads Ranciere to comment: “[…] for all that they have seen, these eyes do not tell us what Gutete Emerita thinks and feels. They are the eyes of someone endowed with the same power as those who view them, but also with the same power that her brothers and sisters have been deprived of by the murderers — that of speaking or remaining silent, of showing one’s feelings or hiding them.” (7)
However, what Ranciere fails to ask himself in this regard, is, what instance or mechanism gives the eyes the described power, or in other words, whose gaze do they actually materialize. The victims of the Rwandan massacre are indeed reduced to the eyes of Gutete Emerita and her story, something that is already implied by the title of the installation and the exhibited short description of her story, but as long as they are presented through the photograph, which isolates and ‘under-lits’ them, they are also reduced to an icon: to an icon of godship through which the story of a woman that saw the massacre of her family passes an already established moral judgment.
The isolation of the eyes can be perceived as a gesture of disembodiment, a reduction to a partial object, through which the represented woman is dehumanized and her tie with the massacred people abolished. Leaving only the abstract figure of a ‘morning mother of a nation’, an usurped story, that serves as a phantasmatic projection plane for the spectator’s very own moralistic apparatus, emphasizing: ‘this is unacceptable!’
The chosen example, therefore, does not represent a capable and empowered victim, whose gaze would challenge us and furthermore disrupt our perception, but instead reduces it to a figure of a passive, incapable victim and the impersonal moralistic gaze, which uses it as its own moralistic fiction.
Here again, the spectator holds an active stance in relation to the artwork, but only so far as she tests her own moralistic imaginary. Or in other words, only so far as her personal canon of preceding moralistic judgments matches the ascribed moralistic fiction of the artwork. It is exactly this aspect that distances our short analysis of the two cases from the problem of representation (at least as it is most often perceived).
The problem of the two mentioned artworks is not that of appropriately representing its referents (the subjectivities that find their way into their narratives). As it is shown, we can not talk so much about concrete subjectivities, but more about moralistic figures – products of fiction, or more concretely, results of moralistic imaginary. Which means that the function of the artworks is not to represent, but to create. To create in twofold: first the fictitious figures that are not so much subjectivities, but more an imagery of thought (part of the moralistic logic of sensation); and second the actual subjectivities, which are not part of the fiction or the narrative of the artwork (are not represented by the artwork), but are instead the ones who (through the parallel process of self-constitution) actually create it. This means that the driving force of the artwork (set behind these moralistic figures) is inscribed by the actual spectatorship (stripping the artist of his active role in the creative process and reducing him to the level of her spectators). Although not in the mere sense of hermeneutic meaning construction and inscription into the artwork (the artwork is not simply the ‘text’ and the spectator its ‘reader’ — which would still imply a subject in a direct relation to the art work, free of any out of context (i.e. out of art-context) residue). But rather in the wider sense of an a-personal or a-indvidual creation of the societal sense and societal awareness, making the artwork not only an object of thought, perception, or aesthetic valuation, but also a constituting platform of its correlating subjects’ own subjectivity.
The artwork is, therefore, a societal tool. Or even better, is itself sociality (as its constitutive relationship with its spectatorship presents its existential condition), a process of subjectification, leaving any critical reflection of the artwork forced to face its own implication in the wider process of constituting the subject of its own reflection.
Possible further continuation:
However, one could quickly notice that to list the figures of an innocent girl, a deviant devil and a morning mother of a nation is not enough to fully expose the complexity of the moral imaginary that drives the before mentioned artworks. What is present, are also figures that don’t attach to concrete narrative points and are not consequentially as evident, but nevertheless still present.
One of the basic figures in both analyzed cases could, therefore, be determined as the figure of evil, for which one could easily use Badiou’s words and say, it is something, that is “[…] presented, not as a fanatical non-opinion undermining being-together, but on the contrary as a politics aiming to ground authentic being-together. No ‘common sense’ can counter it; only another politics can do so.” (8)
In this sense, the moralistic judgment implied by the before mentioned narrative points of the artworks (i.e. the conviction of the figure of the deviant devil and the figure of the culprit of the Rwandan massacre) would not be positioned simply to derive an unquestionable field of otherness and exclusion, an universalistic evil, whose function would be to ensure the unimpeded constitution of the societal subject in general, but instead to set in motion a specific politics, whose output would again not be a subject in general, but instead a specific type of subject, regarding to a specific type of societal sense, and furthermore, to a specific notion of society.
The aestheticisation of moral valuation as part of a wider functioning of the moral imaginary would, therefore, lead to the implementation of a specific form of moralistic logic of sensation (sensual functioning of art as creation of moralistic figures or images) that can not be reduced to a mere codification of concepts and ideological notions: it bears no depth or mystery, no hidden agenda, it is nothing but a surface of sense – which reinstates and at the same time surpasses the well-known idea of the ideological nature of art. It would present a process of politicization of art. But as long as it would lead to a specific moralistic logic of sensation, a process of specific politicization. Meaning, that the actual process of politicization would not necessarily lead to the ideal democratization of the social imaginary and consequentially the social body, nor it would present an abstract possibility of the latter (not stating the way it could actually be achieved) – something that is usually implied by the sole mentioning of the notion of politicization.
Aesthetisation of moral valuation would entail a process of making and implementation of specific politics, and art intertwined with this process would be art as a specific political endeavor: not only disrupting the supposed apolitical slumber of the masses by means of neutrally representing important political and ethical issues, but as an endeavor already engulfed in the important political happening, inconspicuously contributing to the actual formation of various political bodies — regardless of how problematic they may actually be.
(1) Iza Pavlina, Talk to Strangers!, Erotic gallery Račka (2014).
(2) Ranciere, J., 2009. The Emancipated Spectator. London, New York: Verso.
(3) Ibid., p. 97.
(4) Ibid., pp. 98-99.
(6) See ibid., pp. 48-49.
(7) Ibid., pp. 97.-98.
(8) Badiou, A., 2005. Metapolitics. London, New York: Verso; p. 20.