Desensitized – Arguing the case for the abolition of aesthetics

In 2018 I held an exhibition at SLOE gallery in Manchester called “Synaesthesia” the exhibition was intended to be an exploration beyond the boundaries of photography. The exhibition featured several works, one of which was Entitled “Digital Photograph 1- 5”

The work consisted of 5 scrolls each roughly 12 feet in length, on them was typed the entire binary code used to build and display a digital photograph on a computer screen, what’s more, each of the scrolls were hand typed on a Contessa manual type writer.


The delivered piece aimed to show a next step within photographic practice, a possible glint and where this medium could next move, although it appeared to move backwards with its execution, the manual relation of the typewriter, the work was actually routed within the presence through its representation as a digital image, this paradoxical relationship between manual and analogue showed a disregard for the methods of production within photography, which as of the last few decades has become paramount discussion with the rise of digital technologies and editing software’s.

Aside from its main aim as an exploratory and Avant - Garde piece of photography, I feel 2 years later that this piece is the catalyst for further thought regarding the nature of photography and art and its relationship with aesthetics. “Digital photographs 1-5” was presented as an “action piece” of art, it held no grandeur in its way of presentation, it was very simply suspended upon hooks from the ceiling and was typewritten on receipt paper, due to it lightweight trait and its availability to be purchased in exceptionally long rolls, this piece had one aim and that was to deliver its message as quickly and as clearly as possible, it was a literal piece.

Let us head back to Arthur Danto’s explanation of what he believes a piece of art to be, Danto stated that “The artist finds a way to embody an idea within a sensory medium” within the same chapter, Danto reminds us of the early philosophical belief, that knowledge was obtained by turning away from the senses, by not acknowledging the wants and needs of the human body, this belief is evident still within certain religious movements, such as Buddhism and Taoism, where Wu Wei (The path of inexertion) is a principle teaching in some branches, the wants and needs of the human body, more than often asks that the visual stimuli presented before it, be of a high standard In regards to its aesthetic qualities, people will in general prefer to look at a bright landscape complete with colourful flowers and trees, rather than look at the industrial zones on the fringes of cities, covered in smoke and dirt, inhabited not by flowers and trees, but tired and stressed workers, and large fuel burning machines etc. people don’t go out for trips away at the local dump.

Now, I am not here to advocate one aesthetic over another and I do not wish to go down that route, so we will leave this part here, with the general understanding that people prefer “pretty” objects over “Ugly” ones, what we see as ugly or pretty is generally subjective but we can come to conclusion that the prior statement is pretty much “How the world works”. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp, gave what is possibly the first shake up of these conventions, with his work “Fountain”, the work presented was a urinal, removed from the wall and set upon its back within a gallery setting, R.Mutt scrawled across what is now the pieces front.

With “Fountain” I don’t believe that Duchamp intended to directly challenge the notion of aesthetics within the art world, after all if we take a step back, the urinal is actually quite “Pretty” sleek curves run around its contours, the main shape looks like that of a sitting buddha, the R.Mutt is written stylistically, at some point regarding the inception of this idea, Marcel Duchamp must have considered this objects overall appearance, and most likely came to the same conclusion as me, “Yes, it looks pretty good like that”. We now accept that Duchamp’s actual intention was to challenge the idea of what could qualify as an art object or a piece of art, by doing this he opened up an entire new school of art thinking, objects such as “the readymade” became commonplace with exhibition’s and people began seriously discussing what exactly art could be.

We flash forward from this period and land upon the “Fluxus” art group, which is thought to have started around 1930, by the musician John Cage, Cage is of course well known for his work entitled 4’33” which is performed as 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, the Fluxus group were driven by an idea which they entitled “Social Sculpture”, championed and brought to public attention by their poster boy Joseph Beuys, Beuys believed and reiterated his famous line “Everyone is an artist” which he felt encapsulated the philosophy. Fluxus art is characterised by its performance pieces or “Happenings” as they referred to them, not dissimilar from DaDa before it, its performances were grandiose, brash statements, one involving driving Beuys to the scene of the happening in an ambulance, sirens blaring, another involving a silver face painted Beuys talking and walking around with a dead hare.

Fluxus is a fascinating and game changing art movement for sure, but I don’t believe it entirely did away with its consideration for aesthetics, Beuys explanation of his “Everyone is an artist” statement was simple, anything that was a social act was to be considered art, he stated that even the act of peeling a potato “if it is consciously done” could be an artistic act, but his performances were not this clear, as I listed before, his happenings were dressy, he actively used strong symbolism and showy scenes to deliver his messages, he likened himself to a shaman, shamanism is routed in strong symbolic performances, Beuys very much considered the appearances of his happenings, his aesthetic was considered.

Its very easy for me to sit here and begin to look for and poke holes in other practitioners and their consideration for all things aesthetic, but what would an art movement hell bent on the abolition of aesthetics look like? I can list off those that I feel are closest to this idea, and then why they just don’t tick the box… Abstract expressionism, consideration of colour and gesture, Fluxus, consideration of symbols and large public displays, Pop Art is a tricky one, especially Warhol and his replica boxes, I know that Danto has discussed these pieces in depth in “What art is” which is worth the read for sure, so I will just glide my opinion over them for a second.

Warhol’s boxes throw me off, these are aesthetically considered pieces but not directly… mimetic in nature they perfectly mirror the Brillo boxes used to transport goods from the warehouse to the store, if the aesthetic attributed to these boxes is not its own aesthetic but in fact a borrowed aesthetic can it truly be aesthetically considered? Is it aesthetic if its aesthetic is not its own?... you cannot consider the aesthetic if the aesthetic is already considered, right….? For this case with Warhol though and to save any further distractions I am going to say that, due to the level of care he put into constructing his boxes, that these are aesthetically considered, Warhol would put great care into the construction of his boxes, they were made from wood, not the cheap cardboard of the real things, the paint used was acrylic, moved through screen printing, not cheap industrial printing inks, Warhol for all his wants dressed up these boxes, he made them more glorious, like an oil painting of cheap simple fruit, he attempted to elevate the objects above their simple nature through the application of more aesthetically pleasing materials, why not just present the original box Andy?

Now don’t get me wrong, I have made my own fair share of aesthetically considered work, I have sold paintings made with only the aesthetic interest in mind, I have held photography exhibitions where the sole interest in the pieces is their presentation, it is only recently that I have become aware of the limiting nature of this form of production, its dependency on the senses to deliver ‘meaning’ its potential to get in the way of free expression, Wu Wei, and the path of least resistance, however I am yet to make what I think is a piece of art devoid of any aesthetic consideration yet, (31 years at the time of writing) I am hoping to have that moment like the cubists when they turn around one afternoon and was all like “Lets just drop perspective today… its limiting” to create a free piece of emotional or mental expression that is not dependent on the senses, which as we know are so easily deceived, and not to be trusted, Rene Magritte, I’m looking at you.

Aesthetics are intrinsically linked to art, when discussing art, audiences will discuss a pieces sensory qualities first, a paintings colour palette, the key a piece of music is written in, a sculptors rendering skills, and I think this is where the difficulty will lie in the advocation for the abolition of aesthetics, art is stuck in its ways, so much so, that our understanding and complete idea of art is built with aesthetics in mind, the two idea’s are conjoined, and inseparable, I have no idea what art without aesthetics would look like, but I believe it is worth the investigation and the time, to tread down this otherwise unexplored area of art, I feel desensitised to the understanding and purpose of art, due to unwavering loyalty to aesthetics, and I feel with the growing digital age, that our easy exposure to high quality on tap imagery, is also desensitizing us to capabilities of creativity outside the realms of the aesthetic.

For 2 years I have organised and ran a tuition project in Hyde, just outside of Greater Manchester called PEA Smart. PEA Smart focuses on photography, Art and creative writing, delivering workshops group sessions in these areas, we have worked with the home educated community, SEN young people and local referral services, the main aim of our project is to in still and develop a creative practice and way of thinking within our students, removing the emphasis placed on developing skills, such as drawing fundamentals, and photographic and paintings techniques, that many schools seem to base their art curriculums on.

In the years working with PEA Smart, what I have found most difficult is leading my students away from the aesthetic expectations that they bring to their work, a lot of the students are highly fed their creative influences through media such as Instagram, and Facebook, and although I advocate these websites for their research purposes, I am also aware of their superficiality, there’s very little to no discourse with the artists on the art pieces, captions are often short and non - comprehensive, the work is taken at its aesthetical value, at its sensory value, almost on the level of instant gratification, “it looks nice, I like it, lets move on”, or even worse, “I want my work to look like that”.

It has been said that although artistic skills can be learnt and applied, it has also been said that creativity cannot be taught, it is seen as an inherent trait that some people posses and others do not, I don’t believe this, I feel that everyone human has the ability to be as creative as they need or want to be, but humans are naturally lazy and they will take the easiest route if possible, and sensory gratification seems to be the route that it is most likely to seek out, aesthetics are more than easy to help with this, telling my students to focus more on what they are trying to say rather than how they plan on saying it, is often met with resistance, “but It won’t look good, It needs to be perfect” this isn’t the student self - doubting, but the result of conditioning based on Aesthetics = Art.

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