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The Aesthetics of Disengagement : Contemporary Art and Depression

by Christine Ross
The University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2006
244 pp., illus. 67 b/w. Trade, $75.00 ; paper, $25.00
ISBN: 0-8166-4538-8 ; ISBN : 0-8166-4539-6.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens
KU Leuven
Faculty of Arts, Blijde Inkomststraat 21, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium


The Aesthetics of Disengagement is an innovative and challenging, yet not totally unproblematic, book, that raises important questions on contemporary art and aesthetics as well as on the relationships between art and science. It claims, first, that contemporary art displays a specific regime of attention and perception and, thus, of the aesthetic interaction with the object and the world, and, second, that it intervenes in a very active way in the ongoing scientific debate on the nature of depression. More specifically, the book argues that, in the field of aesthetics, contemporary art’s fascination with depression introduces a dramatic modification of what happens between the audience and the world, bringing to the fore a characteristic lack or incapability of interacting with the other. In the scientific discussions on depression, Ross makes a plea against the currently prevailing dementalization of depression and the accompanying marginalization of psychoanalysis.

The relationships between art as a symbolic production and melancholia as a particular mental and physical state have always been a key issue in Western thought, and for most thinkers and practitioners these links have been kept in high esteem. Melancholia was considered not an obstacle, but an opportunity. It was seen as a condition to artistic innovation, for it stimulated a critical distance that fostered the artist’s imagination and creative powers. Yet one of the specific features of post World War II art is the shift from melancholia to depression or, to put it more clearly, the loss of melancholia as a creative state of mind the simultaneous rise of a new kind of depressive non-relationship with the word defined by deficiency and the impossibility to ‘cope’——with the world, with the others, with oneself. Depression, hence, means the impossibility to establish any traditional aesthetic relationship whatsoever, since such a relationship is characterized by exactly that what is missing in depression: the orientation toward the outside and the building of oneself through perception of the other, dialogue with the other, critique of the other. Disengagement, it should be clear, is the opposite of absorption, i.e. the aesthetic state of mind imposed by modern art, to follow the famous analysis by Michael Fried.

In a series of well documented close reading, Ross demonstrates how contemporary artists, such as Ugo Rondinone, Vanessa Beecroft, Douglas Gordon, and Liza May Post, enact what is going on in depression. This enactment, moreover, is not just descriptive but performative (in the sense used by Judith Butler) and forces the audience to experience what resides in the heart of the depressive state of mind. Yet this is only half of the story, for Ross argues that the aesthetic of disengagement is also critical, both of traditional aesthetics and of society. Disengagement is critical of aesthetics, for it denounces the latter’s incapacity of dealing with the contemporary social problem of depression (according to the most recent statistics, half of the world’s population will suffer some depressive disorder at some point in their lifetimes). But it is even more critical of contemporary medical science, which refuses to take into account the mental and psychological dimension of depression. For Christine Ross, the contemporary medical doxa on depression is characterized by two axioms: a) physicians apply a "summary semiology" (a term coined by French psychoanalyst Pierre Fédida), i.e. a mere description of symptoms without any interpretation, b) they defend a strictly biological and pharmaceutical treatment of the illness that refuses to make room for mental, psychological, and psychoanalytical aspects of the patient’s symptoms. In these debates contemporary art’s enactment of depression plays a key role, for it intervenes in each of the two questions (the aesthetic one, the medical one) put forward by Ross. The art of disengagement proposes ‘thick’ images that cannot be reduced to mere symptoms but have to be experienced in a subjective and mental way, even if this experience emphasizes the very difficulties of establishing a satisfying relationship with a work of art. On the one hand, the artistic symptom resists any "summary semiology". On the other hand, it reintroduces also the mental and psychological dimension of the depressive experience.

The Aesthetics of Disengagement raises fundamental questions, which are a welcome contribution to basic discussions on aesthetics (attention, absorption, the role of the self, the relationships between art and science, the place of melancholia today, etc.), and Ross’s demonstration is, globally speaking, quite convincing. But in some other respects the books falls prey to a certain instrumentalization of art. Throughout the different chapters, one has the impression that what is at stake for Ross is in the very first place a critique of contemporary medicalization of depression, and the role of art is merely to produce arguments for those who, like Ross and many others in the field, attempt to save psychoanalysis from the attacks of the biomedical lobby of Prozac & Cy. This stance——which is, of course, legitimate in itself——may explain why the author is not always very critical of the artists and works she is discussing here. One may wonder if it suffices to be critical of modernist ideals of absorption, melancholia, distance, self-construction, etc., to produce interesting art. To say that contemporary depressive art aims at criticizing this type of aesthetics may not be enough to take away all scepticism. Or to put it in other words: Isn’t it too easy to discuss depressive boredom in works that are very boring themselves, for instance? Is it really impossible to articulate the art of depression with traditional aesthetics or is art relational to such an extent that it cannot, by definition, really enact the loss of relationships meant by depression?

In her book Ross discusses with much sympathy the ideas of Jean-Marie Schaeffer and Richard Shusterman on art as relationship. Yet she also seems to suggest that the positions of these two "relationists", although a very necessary critique of modernist abstraction and idealist hermeneutics, are not a viable road for the art of the depression. One may close this book with the idea that the major challenge of tomorrow’s art of depression (for depression is here to stay) lies not in the enactment of the new "negative" aesthetics of disengagement, but in a new "constructive" confrontation with the traditional aesthetics of perception, self, objecthood, and distance.




Updated 1st June 2006

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