Brutal Aesthetics: Dubuffet, Bataille, Jorn, Paolozzi, Oldenburg

Brutal Aesthetics: Dubuffet, Bataille, Jorn, Paolozzi, Oldenburg
Hal Foster

Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2020
296 pp. $39.95
ISBN: 9780691202600.

Reviewed by: 
Stephen Petersen
May 2021

This book is full of contradictions, paradoxes, and ambiguous oppositions, starting with its title, which suggests at once the uncivilized and the cultured, the destructive and the creative. Originally a series of lectures delivered in lofty circumstances (the 2018 A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, given at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.), the subject of these chapters is the act of art making taken to its base level. The broad question throughout concerns what it means to be human, which is to say to create, in dehumanizing, destructive times. Following an introduction, each of five chapters explores the work of a single figure for whom art offers a means of cultural survival, analyzing them in relation to one another and in light of a range of contemporary theorists.

Linking Foster’s chapters is Walter Benjamin’s concept of “positive barbarism,” articulated in 1933 in the lead-up to World War II, and here applied to postwar art. In essence, “positive barbarism” is an artistic answer to the brutality of advanced Western civilization. It is starting “from scratch” in the face of a malevolent modernism. In Benjamin’s analysis, modern technology unleashes destructive torrents but also opens up what Foster calls a “fantastic array of creative possibilities,” characterized by “transformative imagination” (p. 4). This is exemplified nowhere more than in the early Mickey Mouse animations of Walt Disney, where human-animal creatures morph into things, things into creatures, sounds into music and back. Writes Foster, “each movie is a symphony of onomatopoeic barbarisms in which almost everything becomes an object or an instrument of magical transformation” (p. 4). This malleability bespeaks a dialectic of sign and substance where neither remains stable. Such creative instability corresponds with an era of destructive instability.

In Foster’s view, Benjamin’s positive barbarism, although conceived in response to the ravages of the first World War and the dire years that followed, did not fully apply until after “the mass deaths of World War II, the Holocaust, and the hydrogen bomb.” “Only then” he writes, quoting Benjamin’s earlier definition of positive barbarism, “were artists and writers truly forced ‘to start from scratch, to make a new start, to make a little go a long way’” (p. 4). Yet this new start is hardly a fresh one. As Foster notes, “‘To begin again’ is an oxymoron” (p. 5)—starting from scratch is also always starting over, literally reinscribing. The ground is never pure, and brute origins are, ironically, something artists return to as a sort of last resort. Each of the figures in Foster’s study “proposes a different version of brutal aesthetics, one that pares art down or reveals it to be already bare, so that they might begin again after the compound devastations of the time” (p. 6).

The five postwar figures represent a range of nationalities and artistic movements. What links them is their investigation of “a beyond or a before to official culture” (p. 6)—animal, outsider, marginal, illicit. Stylistically they tend toward disfigured and decomposed imagery, while methodically they manipulate brute materials and reclaim debased remnants of culture. Despite this focus on destruction as a motif and a strategy, however, Foster’s brutal aesthetics is not, he says, nihilistic. Rather, as Claes Oldenburg put it, the task of the artist is not only to annihilate but also to illuminate. The shared aim of the figures, working in the wake of devastation and atrocity, is “to re-deify the world and reanimate life” (p. 17).

Embracing the idea of the “anti-cultural” as an antidote to the ills of modern civilization, the French painter Jean Dubuffet looked to successive types of art brut—art of children, of the street, of the insane—as resource and models for his own paintings starting in the 1940s. In both their crude imagery and brute materiality Dubuffet’s figures and landscapes subverted aesthetic norms. Above all for Foster they achieved a kind of destabilization of form as well as meaning: “neither literal nor metaphorical, neither figurative nor abstract, the brut is pledged to keep not only material and process but also value and meaning unfixed” (p. 58). Dubuffet’s paintings equivocate between figure and ground, vertical and horizontal, form and unformed, cooked and raw, inside and outside of culture. For Foster these contradictions animate, as well as problematize, Dubuffet’s art.

In search of artistic origins as the end of human culture loomed, the French author and philosopher Georges Bataille turned to the newly discovered Lascaux caves, presumed to be the birthplace of art. Prehistoric images of wild animals and violent encounters cover the walls, suggesting a ritual function (known as a dissident Surrealist, Bataille employed both psychoanalytic and sociological methods). As Foster explains it, “Prehistoric art suggested to Bataille an origin that both repositions the role of the ritualistic in art and recovers the importance of the sacred in society, an origin story that, if reclaimed, might help postwar man to cope with his ‘passion for destruction’…” (p. 75). At Lascaux the “birth of art,” conceived as the emergence of the human spirit, was notably focused not on humans but on animals—in other words, the moment of differentiation of human from animal is ironically a moment of identification of human with animal. This play of differentiation and de-differentiation characterizes brutal aesthetics broadly. In the case of Bataille, the symbolic threshold between human and animal is crossed in both directions, again and again, offering a source of perennial rejuvenation: “For Bataille all society was in need of barbarization, by which he meant a fundamental recovery of sacred experience” (p. 21).

For the Danish artist Asger Jorn as well, the animal loomed as both image and force. As part of the northern European Cobra movement, Jorn saw “irrational spontaneity” as a way to “get closer to the vital source of life” (p. 105). His paintings feature fantastic creatures that combine animal and human attributes, crudely rendered in a fierce expressionist style. Not only a celebration of the primal energy of nature, Foster notes, “this creatureliness … also attests to the denaturing caused by the world war, the Holocaust, and the Bomb” (p. 110). Distortion and mutation signal at once the unleashed imagination, and the damage wrought by the unleashed forces of human destruction. Working mostly within the traditional medium of oil on canvas, Jorn pushes against both classical and modern aesthetics. For Foster Jorn’s work is characterized by sheer ugliness and by pictorial decomposition and disruption, paralleling in form the monstrousness of his imagery. The brutal here signals a failed humanism. Citing theorist Eric Santner, Foster argues that “the eruption of the creaturely in art or literature signals a decreation in the human order …” (p. 131).

Decreation conceived as an undoing similarly characterizes the art of British sculptor and collagist Eduardo Paolozzi, for whom “mid-twentieth-century modernity had denatured the human being in a creaturely way” (p. 167). Paolozzi’s “New Brutalist” aesthetic was marked by a disregard for traditional concepts of beauty, an embrace of ugliness and realism, and a collage aesthetic that combined fragments of nature and technology. The artist’s recurring theme, inflected by science fiction, is humans under the stress of mechanization. His damaged-looking bronze figures have a post-apocalyptic sense of hollowness and abandonment, somewhere between carcasses and rusted-out machines. “He used ambiguous traces of readymade fragments in order to compose misshapen creatures that partake of both the organic and the mechanical but lack the coherence of either the body or the machine” (p. 155). With his hybrid creatures, Paolozzi achieved “a form of artistic construction that keeps faith with the fact of historical destruction, not only the ideological ruin of humanist conceptions of man and sculpture, but also the actual devastation wrought by the world war, the Holocaust, and the Bomb” (p. 157). Like the other figures in this study, Paolozzi is concerned with redefining humanism after the demise of humanism.

The American artist Claes Oldenburg launched his career in 1956 declaring “I like beaten, battered things” (p. 196). For Oldenburg, that which is damaged is also ripe for reimagining. His first major work, the funky installation entitled The Street (1960), took both its material, corrugated cardboard, and its subject, everyday urban reality, from the run-down Bowery district. Formally it offered crude, cartoon-like renderings of figures and especially objects, a strategy Oldenburg follows through his famous Store (1961-62) and into his soft sculptures. Echoing Dubuffet, Oldenburg cited his preference for “Present-day primitives: children, madmen, the American cultureless” (p. 196). The mundane stuff of urban life becomes, in his hands, re-animated. Oldenburg adopted the open-ended symbol of the “Ray Gun” to epitomize his process whereby objects come to life and, as Foster sees it, become ambiguously thing and being at the same time. In his soft sculptures of ordinary objects, “Oldenburg used softening not only to deform things but also to de-define them …” (p. 237). This de-definition opens the door to the possibility of endless transformation. The Ray Gun, in Oldenburg’s formulation, is “both destructive and creative” (p. 240).

If the principal target of positive barbarism in the postwar era was initially mass destruction, with Oldenburg it becomes the perhaps more insidious barbarity of consumer culture. Brutal Aesthetics is bookended by references to Mickey Mouse. The first, from Benjamin in the 1930s, spoke to the playful transgression and imaginative metamorphosis that Mickey Mouse cartoons offered in a time of looming disaster. The second, Oldenburg’s “geometric mouse” from the late1960s and early 1970s, represents a different cultural message, keyed to the postmodern era of multinational capitalism. Rather than promising transformation, Oldenburg’s schematic Mickey now epitomized corporate branding. “No longer a quixotic knight errant against the dark forces of capitalism, Mickey was now its mascot,” writes Foster, concluding that “the historical conditions that prompted positive barbarism had changed” and that “brutal aesthetics was no match for the society of the spectacle” (p. 247). And yet, Brutal Aesthetics seems rather timely. In both its realism and its spirit of resistance in the face of destruction, disaster, and dehumanization, positive barbarism as an artistic strategy may hold relevance still.