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The Most Dangerous Thing in Culture Right Now is Beauty
You think I’m crazy, but just wait and see....
Back in the early 1990s, renegade critic Dave Hickey left an audience in bewilderment and silence. And it only took a single word.
He was participating in a panel discussion, when a gangly grad student stood up, and demanded that Hickey identify the big issue of the decade. The famous critic seemed lost in reverie, and it wasn’t even clear whether he had heard or understood the question.
But then he offered a one word response that was as shocking as anything a critic could say back then:
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There was dead silence.
But Hickey wanted to make sure everybody had heard and understood, so he spelled it out: “The issue of the Nineties will be beauty,” he announced.
The questioner was dismayed, as was everyone else. Nobody knew what to say. Hickey expected pushback, or maybe an argument. But what he had said was so embarrassing, people just pretended it hadn’t happened. It was almost as if he had done something too intimate in their midst—which, oddly enough, is what the embrace of beauty always risks in a public place.
To make it worse, Hickey kept saying it again and again at subsequent events. And he always got the same response—silence. “I had discovered something,” he later admitted. “Or rather, I had put my hand out and discovered nothing.”
In fact, Hickey had touched something huge.
He had identified the one thing that possesses the most potential for disruption and transgression in the whole cultural hierarchy.
The funny thing is that many people assumed that Hickey’s defense of beauty was reactionary—or sentimental or nostalgic or some other backward-looking thing. But if they paid any attention to him, they knew that he consistently celebrated the most shocking and controversial works of art.
In Hickey’s worldview, beautiful art was actually the most likely to get censored and attacked. So clearly he wasn’t talking about beauty in any narrow sense of prettiness. He wasn’t like an interior decorator filling a home with lovely objects.
Well, that’s not entirely true. He was like that interior decorator in one big way—he celebrated the intense possessiveness and desire aroused by beautiful things. But he was like an interior decorator on steroids, filled with a supersized passion for his chosen objects. He was charged with obsessions, burning with intensity and eroticism.
Art can do that. Beauty makes it happen.
“This helps us understand a curious situation in modern society. People are devoting half of their waking hours to the consumption of culture….Yet the cultural institutions are all in crisis.”
I refuse to give you a definition of the beautiful, and for very good reasons. Dave Hickey’s definition of beauty is different from mine—each of us would point to conflicting examples of it. My brother Dana (who is probably doing more right now to champion beauty than any living critic/practitioner of art) would fill his museum up with still different objects.
You, the reader, also have your very personal love relationships with specific cultural artifacts. You look at them with bedroom eyes.
The only common denominator is the passion we bring to them. It’s like marriage—the institution is the same in every instance, yet as soon as we get to specifics, each one (despite what Tolstoy suggested) is completely different.
As I’ll try to show below, that flexibility and fluidity—allowing for a personal engagement with beauty that is not monolithic or constrained from above—is the very source of its power. Your beloved is not the same as your neighbor’s beloved, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
But right now I want to tell you what beauty is NOT.
It doesn’t require validation by an institution.
It can’t be manipulated by a corporation.
It doesn’t need or want theory or interpretation.
It’s not mediated through a critic.
Now you can begin to understand why beauty is dangerous. It’s the closest thing to anarchy and liberation in our public lives.
In other words, the future of aesthetics looks more like Tumblr than MOMA.
Nothing gets the rulers of institutional culture more worried than an intense passion beyond their control—that’s why they never even say the word beauty. That’s why they pretend it doesn’t exist. They have no authority over it, and never will. Their dominion ends at precisely the point where beauty begins.
It really is in the eye of the beholder. Like falling in love, your attachment to the desired object requires no reasons or arguments. So it seems almost like a personal eccentricity or quirk.
Eye of the beholder—isn’t that just poppycock? But this is the aesthetic force Kant described in his Critique of Judgment, where the locus of power in determining beauty really did reside in the onlooker. And though armies of later theorists have worked tirelessly at wresting this Kantian judgment away from the individual, and placing it in a higher power (usually that means the administrator of a non-profit or head of a Hollywood studio nowadays), the direct unmediated pleasure of the individual in the face of the beloved can never really be displaced.
The critics who grasp this end up turning into anti-critics. That’s how I read works such as Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, Roland Barthes The Pleasure of the Text, and Dave Hickey’s The Invisible Dragon. They are the critics who subvert criticism. My allegiances are the same—I resist theory, and prefer seeing myself as a matchmaker (or honest broker) connecting individuals with the artistic beloved.
It’s more like Tindr here than you realized. We just swipe more slowly.
“The future of aesthetics looks more like Tumblr than MOMA.”
And that’s why Dave Hickey encountered silence when he talked about beauty to any group of cultural elites. They will never have a response to hookup aesthtics. A lover’s relationship with the beautiful is direct and unmediated, requiring no institutional imprimatur.
Hickey was a fierce critic of the stodgy bureaucracies and institutions that try to control culture. He grasped how they turn everything into blandness. He called this power structure the therapeutic institution, and even compared it to the prisons described in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.
In both instances, the authorities believe their own rehabilitative jargon. They act the part of “benevolent wardens”—and that’s how they justify the constant expansion of their scope of control. Only the prisoners know otherwise.
Even more to the point, Hickey understood the inherent contradiction between these domineering theocracies of culture and the liberating power of art. You have to pick one side or the other—you can’t have both. Artistic redemption for him happened in the soul, not in response to a command-and-control ideology.
So he was clearly on the side of the prisoners. And he had found the perfect weapon to neutralize the therapeutic institution. He summed it up in that one word—beauty.
Hickey was right about beauty, as it turns out. He only got the decade wrong—his culture of individuals pursuing the objects of their desire is happening now.
At the current moment in history, charged desires of this sort—operating either in open or implicit defiance of the prison warden’s intentions—represent the most powerful force in culture. And the balance is tilting in their favor.
This helps us understand a curious situation in modern society. People are devoting half of their waking hours to the consumption of culture—an unprecedented level of desire for arts and creativity and entertainment.
Yet the cultural institutions are all in crisis.
These aren’t uniformly positive changes. Some of them are downright alarming. When prisoners rebel, ugly things often happen. But rebellion is inevitable when the weight of institutional theocracy becomes so burdensome.
There is no other option than de-institutionalization. Except perhaps a cleansing and renewal of the institutions themselves—but is anybody powerful enough to make that happen?
So beauty is the reality on the street. The rapidity with which people are bypassing legacy cultural institutions is striking. They want a direct, unmediated relationship with the creative work.
“A refusenik indie culture is returning, although it may look different from the bohemian micro-cultures of the past. Beauty wins out even when, like Lord Voldemort, it’s the name that cannot be mentioned. ”
You can analyze this trend in many ways. But beauty is the single best word to describe it. Beauty is always the goal of our obsessive, intimate relationship with a desired object. It can be a song or a movie or a book or a video game. But I’m sure you know the feeling—because you’ve experienced it yourself.
I find it highly ironic that institutions are undermined by the one thing they refuse to talk about it. And for a good reason—even mentioning how people enjoy those direct relationships with art reduces their authority and power.
The therapeutic institution is so pervasive today, that many people in positions of power can’t even imagine what an intimate relationship to arts and entertainment looks like. They think art only exists under the auspices of huge non-profits with large endowments, and that entertainment is content sold by multi-billion dollar globalized corporations.
But not long ago a whole culture ecosystem flourished outside these behemoth enterprises. You found it at
indie movie houses
jazz clubs, juke joints, coffee houses, and various other small venues for live performance
indie books from small publishers
video rental stores with fringe offerings
small literary magazines and reviews—the so-called “little magazines”
local art galleries
poetry readings, jam sessions, impromptu performances of all sorts
and various other places subsumed under the label counterculture.
These were locales where individuals experienced direct relationships of desire, pleasure, and intimacy with cultural objects of every persuasion. These were the places where beauty could be found, without corporate gatekeepers or institutional domination.
They have been mostly squeezed out of existence by large tech companies. But the desires they fulfilled are unsatiated by the ever present tentacles of Disney, Google, Amazon, etc.
The prison rebellion is already underway. A refusenik indie culture is returning, although it may look different from the bohemian micro-cultures of the past. Beauty wins out even when, like Lord Voldemort, it’s the name that cannot be mentioned.
People will still find it, embrace it, love it.
As you can see, the folks who told you that aesthetic beauty is shallow or vacuous or superficial have it all wrong. Beauty of this sort—like Helen of Troy’s—can sink ships and topple empires.
That’s what’s happening right now. In fact, it’s happening right here right now. And also in many other places where beauty flourishes outside the gaze of wardens. It’s certainly happening elsewhere at Substack—and at Bandcamp and DeviantArt and Flickr and Patreon and Tumblr, and a thousand other web micro-communities. And it’s even happening out in the world in offbeat venues that flourish in the face of so many forces that wants to marginalize them.
That’s our beautiful revolution.
And once this process starts, there’s no telling where it might end.