Triptych image by Alfredo Jaar
IN HIS 1913 ESSAY, “Art and Significant Form,” the art critic and Bloomsbury Group affiliate Clive Bell sought to identify a common feature of all art and how one might recognize it. In the clear, methodological language favored by the analytic aesthetics of his Cambridge background, Bell writes:
That there is a particular kind of emotion provoked by works of visual art […] by pictures, sculptures, buildings, pots, carvings, textiles, etc., etc., is not disputed, I think, by anyone capable of feeling it. This emotion is called the aesthetic emotion; and if we can discover some quality common and peculiar to all the objects that provoke it, we shall have solved what I take to be the central problem of aesthetics.
An authoritative voice in London’s art world, Bell was trying to make a case for controversial trends in art outside the vaguely Christian realism then endorsed by Victorian audiences and critics. At the time, post-Impressionism, and its unconventional modes of pictorial perception, was divisively received in England, and the imported material spoils of colonialism filled collections were seen more so as decorative curios than art proper. Faced with an increasingly culturally diverse set of circulating visual objects, Bell identified a new imperative to get at whatever could be eliciting the elusive “aesthetic emotion,” “that infinitely sublime state of mind to which pure visual form transports me.”
“What quality,” asks Bell, “is shared by all objects that provoke our aesthetic emotions?” The answer, he identified, was “significant form,” an artwork’s ideal combination of form, shape, line, space, and color. As Bell continues, “to appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its emotions.” No matter if pointillist or “primitivist,” as long as a given object showed significant form, it deserved the status of art. This optic ostensibly removed the criteria of expertise or knowledge when accessing visual art, and a new democratic playing field for aesthetic pleasure emerged.
Accordingly, what an artwork might represent became less important than how. If significant form could be felt, its narrative, representational content took a secondary role. Even if rich in figurative depiction, a painting, for example, could fail to provoke emotion and thus lack artistic merit. Of a bustling, large-scale 1862 cityscape by William Powell Frith, Bell writes: “Paddington Station is not a work of art; it is an interesting and amusing document.” Worse opinion was saved for those works trying to drum up sentimental pathos, like Luke Fildes’s 1891 portrayal of a physician deep in thought, eyes straight ahead toward a suffering, half-conscious and bedridden child: “[The Doctor] is worse than nugatory because the emotion it suggests is false.” Without the formal work to back it up, Bell intoned, an artwork’s emotion was at best forgettable and at worst manipulative.
Jump forward a century, and the attachment to feeling and form has become an anchor of both contemporary criticism and everyday opinion — the focus on “aesthetic emotion” in the Tumblr Age. In the hopes of no longer seeing art as “texts” ready to be decoded and explained, formalism — the methodology concerned primarily with art’s sensuous properties — now perhaps carries the explanatory weight to get at art’s impact, its status as an experience first and foremost. Should one still primarily consider what kind of emotional, visceral interaction a piece of art incites? What are the sociopolitical consequences of examining aesthetic emotion (or rather, “affect”) before anything else? And if Bell wanted to examine a culturally incommensurable set of objects under a (literally) global rubric of “significant form,” what would its analogue be in a cultural period we conventionally consider to be full of, if not overloaded with, “artistic” production? What could it mean to revisit these premises in a time not of explicit colonialism, but of still dubiously similar globalization? These questions motivate Jill Bennett’s Practical Aesthetics: Events, Affects, and Art after 9/11, a book focused on the aesthetic processes of visual experience and their corollary feelings, and how these might function in contemporary visual culture.
As Bennett offers in her opening pages, formulating a “practical” aesthetics speaks to the contested value of aesthetics within standard art history. Per the conventional narrative of academic art history after roughly the 1970s, aesthetics — classically, the philosophical study of artistic beauty — had come to represent a blindsided advocacy for art’s autonomous quality and, accordingly, a disavowal of art’s inextricable connection to politics. The Kantian tradition adopted by Bell’s always-positive aesthetic emotion, and later represented by New York critic-cum-critical-boogeyman Clement Greenberg, needed to be considered as the pleasurable domain of the privileged, complete with its host of exclusions for what counted as art and who counted as artists.
Bennett is, however, not out simply to resuscitate aesthetics and formalism, but rather to expand how we might engage with them. Instead of aesthetics, she offers critical approaches oriented toward aisthesis, the term for sensory perception in general, popularized by the work of philosopher Jacques Rancière. Art occurs on an “aesthetic continuum” for Bennett, “connect[ed] to the practices of everyday life.” An applied neoformalism might be able to shed light on the rhythms or textures governing how we perceive cultural surroundings more broadly speaking: “Practical aesthetics is the study of (art as a) means of apprehending the world via sense-based and affective processes — processes that touch bodies intimately and directly but that also underpin the emotions, sentiments and passions of public life.” Bell’s “aesthetic emotion” is thus no longer a privileged byproduct of art, but the inevitable condition of cultural life, the energy of being a body engaged in the world.
This disciplinary attention on aesthetics must, for Bennett, find its object in affect — the undetermined, embodied energy governing the workings of aisthesis, and the explanatory mainstay of much cultural criticism since the 1990s. Brought to attention by figures such as philosopher Gilles Deleuze, midcentury psychologist Silvan Tomkins, and queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, affect denotes, roughly speaking (has there been any other way to speak of affect?), the intensity of aliveness, the feeling that precedes cognition. In Practical Aesthetics, Bennett limits her definition of affect to that relationality holding together sensory perception, and thus the process of experiencing art: “The prism of practical aesthetics enables us to move from the notion that some art ‘deals with’ affect as subject matter to the concept of affective process, expressed in art and aesthetic relationships.” Affect is the elastic object of investigation most over-determinedly manipulated in art and, equally important, in the cultural media–sphere at large in post-9/11 existence.
For Bennett, 9/11 carries a privileged connection to the so-called “affective turn,” and functions as the historical and theoretical prompt for the rise of practical aesthetics. Encountered in criticism primarily as a “phenomenological shift” outside immediate comprehension and exacerbated by its convulsive repetition in medialized images, 9/11 proved the inadequacy of conventional visual studies approaches. Looking at visual culture as a discursive problem or series of problems to be solved was too rigid to tackle 9/11’s endlessly mobile affective fallout — political denunciations, for example, failed to account for the attacks’ emotionalism (Bennett is eager to stress 9/11’s complete, almost transcendent, incomprehensibility). What was required, Bennett argues, was a critical approach that had to take on how affect moves, the way it’s shaped in media structures and modes of perception — how aisthesis happens. This optic becomes the book’s clarion call, to attend to the dynamics of sensory intake in a cultural-political climate now irrevocably attuned to affect as such.
Bennett covered similar terrain in her first book, Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art (2006). There, she sought to suss out the ethical consequences of affectively attending to art depicting traumatic events and histories, arguing for a “direct engagement with sensation” rather than the viewer’s emotional identification with the traumatized. The form and flow of a violent memory or painful testimony, and how one sensed it, took precedence over its sheer narrative content. These investigations return in segments like that covering the well-known journalistic photography of the Sudanese famine, but in Practical Aesthetics Bennett is more interested in looking for scenes in visual culture more broadly: she considers Tony Blair’s BBC interviews and Thomas Demand’s quasi-realist photography in equal measure.
A strong example of Bennett’s disciplinary perspective emerges in her analysis of foundational prewar art historian Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne project from the 1920s. Consisting of more than 2,000 photographs, Warburg grouped images of antiquity sculpture with their references and repetitions in popular media such as newspapers, stamps, and amateur snapshots. For Bennett, in its tracing of the relational “life” of images, Mnemosyne makes a strong case for approaching networks of visual culture on the level of affect and form:
The precise terms of analysis emerge in the execution as sets of relations cohere around the dynamics of gesture, and affect. These terms arise from the recombination and reframing of pictorial elements, not by virtue of their iconographic significance, but through the dynamics of interaction.
The act of “recombination” then for Bennett takes precedence over what the images represent, that is, their cultural meaning. Comparing Mnemosyne to contemporary art dealing with the media treatment of the 2004 World Cup, Bennett speaks of the image as an “interface,” a receptor and generator of forms whose trajectories become the foci of practical aesthetics. The “practicality” of practical aesthetics is not a consideration of an image’s historical context or meaning (what we popularly consider to be the “point” of art), but a more instinctual engagement with its formal and affective movements — how we might feel prior to understanding an artwork. In 1913, Clive Bell caricatured the academic philosopher “apt to rear up a pyramid of irrefutable argument on the hypothesis that a handsaw is a work of art,” saving respect (albeit paternalistic) for the savant more attuned to aesthetic emotion, “leaving him in full enjoyment of his masterly dialectic.” Bennett here repeats a similarly intuitionist approach toward art, practical in its applicability and accessibility. Yet this seems to highlight an unsettled ambiguity in more formalist perspectives — how to take seriously the myriad of perceptual experiences of art without tossing away its contextual labor as so much background info.
For Bennett, this tension is exemplified in installation video work detailing histories of violence, displacement, and disaster. By virtue of their immersive qualities and attention to “modes of perception,” works by artists such as Shona Illingworth, Susan Norrie, and Alfredo Jaar thematize alternate modes of sensing traumatic memory. In their focus on atmosphere rather than narrative, these works carry the capacity not simply to replicate a position of power between the artwork’s viewer and its depicted sufferer, but to intone something of a felt, haptic interaction. As Bennett argues, focusing on the play of affect in these works suggests the sticky quality of particularly intense memory, occurring in the past yet felt in the present. Affect does the ethical work of getting at this involved, politically resonant interaction between viewer and subject, whereas a more historical approach might falter.
The most compelling case for such a framework is Bennett’s discussion of Susan Norrie’s 2007 multichannel video work Havoc, made in collaboration with David Mackenzie. The piece focuses on the events surrounding the sudden eruption of a mud volcano in Sidoarjo, Indonesia. Caused by the explosion of a natural gas well, the volcano spewed and continues to spew thousands of cubic meters of mud each day, displacing thousands of residents to refugee camps. In her work, Norrie collects an assemblage of moments, banal and extraordinary, and projects them simultaneously on grids of screens, leading to multiple, competing points of viewing. In the footage, psychics arrive to diagnose the spiritual wrath of the volcano, workers navigate the stream of liquid to dam a section, protestors demonstrate, and in one dramatized section an animal is nearly sacrificed. As Bennett writes, Havoc presents the virtuality of aesthetics, its attention to the construction of perception and experience, and its unreserved capacity to suggest a different kind of lived experience, here with the referent of a catastrophically precarious social world. Bennett writes:
Havoc is about the future event that is hoped for: the magic or the prayer that stops the flow, rather than the initial catastrophic eruption, which it does not directly investigate. It also acknowledges that the mud volcano is not something that one day became imaginable and changed the world, but something innately surreal, catastrophic and present, the daily reality of which is characterised by a series of surprises — new eruptions and developments — but equally by the energies of organisation of hope.
Havoc embodies Sidoarjo tourism; its magic realism — its coproduction of reality — is not just about the past event but an investment in the generative virtual event. If it evokes the forces that constitute the Sidoarjo mud volcano and events like this (future and past), it does so by extending and generalising the ground of this disaster, rather than its cultural properties. It moves this ground quite literally and technically, staging upon it vignettes that are in some part traces of actuality (the specifics of Sidoarjo life). This is the sense in which Havoc makes no pretence to ethnographic authority, instead working with collaborators to imagine a virtual event from one particular actuality.
Mirroring academic developments in visual anthropology, Bennett’s approach speaks to an alternative sense of knowledge not entirely compiled from factual, linear research, but sensed as immersion and connected to the possibility of a different kind of social world. The role of art is not to dutifully represent past experience, but to expand the set of possible occurrences. “Art, in other words, does not represent what has already occurred,” writes Bennett,
but generates a set of aesthetic possibilities, which may in turn inform political thinking in regard to particular circumstances. If art can in some way evoke the pure event as a virtuality, the test is whether the virtual event is then amenable to different actualities.
Art always hints at what could happen, opening a political channel ceaselessly looking for alternatives in sensing and feeling a potentially catastrophic present.
Yet throughout Bennett’s text, the challenge remains of how to connect this inherently hopeful or anticipative sense of aesthetics (building off what Rancière calls the “distribution of the sensible”) to a sociopolitical world, especially one outside the gallery. When affect or aesthetic emotion becomes its own methodological object, it runs the risk of repetitively imploring an aesthetic reimagining that is compelling in its political idealism, yet near toothless in its faithfulness — Hal Foster has recently labeled Rancière’s aesthetics “the new opiate of the art world Left.” Practical Aesthetics is unable to dislodge the now routine critique of affect theory, its utopian inability to account for power or structure. Bennett’s proclaimed political urging here is to trace the affective connections of media structures, both in art and broader visual culture, but it’s hard to follow that urge to someplace more productive than Clive Bell’s suggestion of enjoying aesthetic emotion. Affect for affect’s sake, in other words, begins to mimic formalism’s attachment to inherently good beauty.
Alongside this methodological insistence is Bennett’s attachment to the universality of form and aesthetic experience. Her invocation of aisthesis secures sensory intake as a stable category that, while hard to deny, not only on a basic level threatens to turn into an ableist reliance on the perfectly sensing art viewer, but also fails to consider how aesthetic experience is formed from circuits of power at the get-go. Bennett matches Bell eerily close here, who designed a democratic project that removed knowledge or intellect as a criteria for aesthetic enjoyment. But as art historian Caroline Jones points out, this art lover is already bourgeois, trained, and prepared for the so-called aesthetic emotion. If form is a point of access, what does it mean for “abstract art” to be the commonly more difficult, disengaging experience for a general art public? As Bell writes, “all sensitive people agree that there is a peculiar emotion provoked by works of art,” a nebulous qualification to say the least.
Bennett’s insistence on the experience of feeling art marks an opportunity to respond to art’s aesthetic valences and how they could combine with the social, but her disavowal of context begins to look something like “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, the Museum of Modern Art’s 1984 exhibition infamously insisting on the shared but not entirely equal aesthetic connection between Western modernism and non-Western ethnographic objects. Bennett’s analysis might stress the importance of affective and haptic readings, but what’s demanded in this consideration is how cultural signs and representations carry their own affective shock — that buzz of intensity in cultural recognition and identification. While Bell sought a way to consolidate the breadth of empire’s visual culture, Bennett’s eschewing of how aesthetic spectatorship is borne out of culture mirrors a globalized art market, finding solace in the immeasurable power of feeling.
If Practical Aesthetics relies on politically, and at times, critically shaky premises, this is not to entirely throw away Bennett’s critical offerings. Moments like her analysis of Havoc find the compelling balance between attention to form and the cultural baggage it carries, and there remains something to be said for a critique of overly deterministic contextualization. There is a viewing with and without (art) historical recognition, and attending to where they meet might be an entry point to considering how cultural channels already organize affect. The goal might not be to place affect or aesthetic emotion as the endpoint, but rather to consider the sociopolitical channels monitoring their very reception and conjunctive readings.