BY Jan Verwoert in Frieze | 11 NOV 02
Featured in
Issue 71

Strange Fascination

Pleasure and Criticism

BY Jan Verwoert in Frieze | 11 NOV 02

Why does art matter? Why should anyone bother to engage with it? Because art affects our thoughts and emotions. That is the simple answer our tradition holds in stock. But how should one respond to being affected by art? How should one display this strange affection without falling prey to affectation? These questions are less easy to answer. In fact, from the birth of modern art criticism in the 18th century up to the present day the 'affective' dimension of aesthetic judgement has continued to stoke controversies over the proper attitude of the critic. These debates usually revolve around a distinction between the 'hot' and the 'cool': between criticism that articulates pleasures, fascination and obsession and criticism that foregrounds rational evaluation and analysis. What is at stake is the credibility of the critic. Emotional criticism may be applauded as authentic, but at the same time it is easily dismissed as naive, 'affirmative' or corruptible. The 'cool' critic is more likely to be approved as respectable; a stance of pronounced critical distance remains a seal of integrity and sophistication.

Reflections on the bases for aesthetic judgements thus routinely face a contradiction: we would not engage with art if we were not affected by it, yet the articulation of this affection diminishes our respectability as critics. To take sides either for 'hot' or 'cool' criticism offers no satisfactory solution. It seems more productive to understand this conflict as a structural problem and to explore its origins. Modern art criticism evolved within the context of bourgeois culture. It was in relation to art, literature, theatre and music that the emerging class of the bourgeoisie began (in its newly acquired free time) to experiment with the cultivation of sentiments and interests. Art criticism thus grew out of a culture of emotion. It is a social technique developed to enable and regulate the display of affects. Many of its inherent contradictions can be seen as symptomatic of the technical problem of how to stimulate and simultaneously to control the affects that the new culture of emotions produced.

Jean Baptiste Dubos (1670-1742) is generally acknowledged as a godfather of modern art criticism. The publication of his book Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture (Critical Reflections on Poetry and Painting, 1719) marks an important transition in the reception of art. It was around this time that art was taken out of the court and the academy and made accessible to a wider public in salons. 1 The bourgeois audience discovered the joys of looking at and talking about art, and flooded exhibitions in growing numbers. This change of audience entailed a change in the principles of criticism. The critics of the academy had held the view that art was to be rationally evaluated in relation to pre-established standards deduced from the Antique. The amateur critic of the salons, however, judged art primarily on the basis of their encounter with it. For this audience Dubos announced a new principle of taste with ground-breaking simplicity: 'Since the chief end of poetry and painting is to touch us, poems and paintings are good only in proportion to their power to move and engage us.' 2

This definition, however, also produced a new theoretical problem, namely the need to distinguish the pleasures of art from those of popular culture - which at the time meant the theatre, bullfights or public executions. For a sensualist such as Dubos art and entertainment basically have the same end: they please by affecting the senses and offer a cure against boredom (a new epidemic). The difference between them, Dubos argues, can only be measured in terms of diet and dose. Popular pleasures tend to be excessive - if you go to see an execution or go out drinking and gambling all night, it will make you feel bad the following day. Art, on the other hand, offers you a moderate dose of the same joys without the after-effects, because art, in Dubos' words, 'only touches the surface of the heart'. In a significant way Dubos' theory links a diet of affect-control to a rationale of social functionality: the controlled pleasures of art are compatible with the schedule of the working day; excessive popular pleasures are not.

Contemporary moralists shared Dubos' concerns. And indeed, the fear that an overdose of popular culture might make people unfit to work seemed to be confirmed by the outbreak of the Lesesucht (reading addiction) in the 18th century. 3 The opening of libraries and an increase in the production and distribution of cheap books made novels accessible to a wide audience. In reaction to this the pages of the 'moral journals' of the bourgeoisie were filled with complaints that the mass pathology of reading was having disastrous effects on work practices: workers and domestic servants were reported to be neglecting their duties as a result of addictive reading during working hours. Moreover, reading was made suspicious by the fact that it meant idle time spent on your own, possibly also in bed at night. So scholars worried that too much reading could cause not only social but also sexual dysfunctionality. Moral warnings against the reading mania were thus often accompanied by appeals against masturbation - or by caricatures of women rejecting their lovers in order to continue their nightly reading undisturbed.

Another epidemic identified among young people who read too much was Schwärmerei (romantic zeal). The sentimental effect of romantic novels was thought to lead unstable youths to abandon themselves to their emotions, confuse fact and fiction, and become incapable of performing their role in society. (Some scholars explained this pathology in medical terms by proposing that the confusion of bodily fluids caused by the unhealthy position of squashing the stomach while leaning over a book produced melancholia.) One of the most notorious books reputed to pass on the disease of Schwärmerei was Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1774). 4 The epistolary novel presents the confessions of the eponymous hero (himself a victim of romantic zeal), who under the influence of too much literature becomes a social misfit, falls unhappily in love and, overwhelmed by his emotions, commits suicide.

The cult generated by the novel anticipated the rites of contemporary fandom down to the last detail. The commercial success of the book led to the production of fan memorabilia: Werther motifs were printed on anything from bread bin covers to porcelain. Moreover, the novel spurred a fashion trend, the Werthertracht (Werther costume), as the young and wild at heart uniformly copied the outfit Werther was described as wearing: blue overcoat, yellow jerkin, leather trousers and long boots. The look was inspired by British tradesmen's attire and signified a boldness that was meant as a riposte to the courtly mannerisms of French fashion. Goethe himself had sported this outfit when he made his début on the Weimar scene. Finally, hordes of youths went on pilgrimages to a village near Braunschweig, to have nocturnal candle-lit ceremonies at the grave of the poor civil servant whose suicide had allegedly inspired Goethe to write his novel. The general disapproval of this cult was only surpassed by the moral outcry that followed the discovery of a copy of Werther in the pockets of a young cobbler who had hanged himself in Halle in 1790.

The reason why these outbursts of emotionality caused such a rumpus was that they touched the very principle on which the social hierarchy of the bourgeoisie was built. This principle (spelt out in Plato's Republic) was that only those who can control themselves are fit to control others. Self-control was thus regarded as the badge of the ruling elite. Conversely, emotional instability and the incapacity for affect control were considered to mark out those who were to be ruled over: adolescents, women and the working classes. The new culture of emotions was to be mapped according to the co-ordinates of this hierarchy. In some cases this was easy: during the Lesesucht debates the distinction between 'high' and 'low' culture was introduced, allowing the educated classes to condemn as vulgar those cultural products thought to arouse uncontrollable emotions. This limited the group affected by the problem to the socially deprived. Popular novels could then either be censored or tolerated as the 'opium of the people'. Other cases, however, turned out to be much harder to handle. The Werther cult demonstrated that culturally induced emotional excess occurred even in the best families, a problem that continues to be a source of social drama to this day.

In this drama gender roles play an important part. Commentaries of bourgeois social life in the 19th century, for instance, reveal that the reputation of an upper-class woman depended on her proficiency in matters of culture. At dinner parties the hostess was expected to entertain the guests with witty conversation. To perform this role required an impossible balancing act: over-restrained manners were seen as puritanical, while a display of too much character was dismissed as 'hysterical'. 5 Characters such as Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary or Theodor Fontane's Effi Briest exemplify how easy it was for a woman to become ostracized when she tried to live out what she was expected to have read about. Interestingly, 20th-century phenomena such as Beatlemania have been analysed as resulting from the very same double standards. Like the bourgeois wife, the teenage girl of the 1960s was supposed 'to be universally attractive and still have an unblemished reputation'. 6 And just like the romantic novel, the music of the Beatles may have worked as a release for the intense emotional stress caused by the pressure to reconcile the conflicting demands of self-projection and self-control.

The 19th-century 'man of wealth and taste' certainly enjoyed more liberties. A few eccentricities were always tolerated. Moreover, he could overcome moral double standards by leading a double life. There are many examples in literature of decadent dandies whose financial means allow them to pursue their socially unacceptable obsessions without endangering their integrity: in J.-K. Huysmans' A Rebours (Against Nature, 1884) des Esseintes admits to having spent his adolescence in expensive brothels, while in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) Oscar Wilde describes Gray sneaking off at night to the opium dens of London's docklands. One of the most vivid allegories of the double life in 19th-century literature is the 'dandy vampire'. Here the powerful aristocrat with decadent tastes is transfigured into an undead hedonist, who literally lives from the visceral kicks he draws from his secret nightlife. 7 These escapades, however, rarely remain unpunished: stories of decadent dandies usually end with their social downfall or tragic death. Typically enough, Gustav von Aschenbach in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice (1912) dies of a syphilitic fever that destroys his overwrought nerves.

Even if these historical conflicts appear remote and stylized, the question remains whether the discourse on aesthetic experience has ever truly escaped from the bourgeois Bermuda triangle of the need for social distinction, the cultivation of taste and the control of affects. Moral terms still play their role in art-critical debates - all the more so since, after the critique of Modernism, values such as 'truthfulness' or 'autonomy' are no longer ascribed to the artwork itself but to the attitude of the producer or critic, making 'integrity' the zenith of social and artistic approval (as opposed to the stigma of having 'sold out'). The category of the emotional also continues to tip the scales. Echoes of 18th-century discourse can be found at play in contemporary writing. Take, for instance, James Meyer's recent rejection of romantic Conceptualism: 'What has become of criticality in current practice? "Visual pleasure" is preferred to clear-minded reflection. Critique has come to seem stodgy, the emotive (once the object of Postmodern scorn) has come to seem serious. Displays of sentiment and kindness supplant "cold" Conceptual, or anti-aesthetic strategies: hard Minimal and Neo-Geo forms are suffused with metaphor and feeling.' 8 The terms sound familiar; they continue to work well.

As history repeats itself, it seems all the more appropriate to remember that concepts such as 'rational distance' and 'emotional engagement' are not just abstract theoretical categories but reflect on a troublesome history of social practices determined by class and gender hierarchies. And that, finally, the 'hot' and the 'cool' do not form polar opposites, as the release and restraint of emotions are complementary aspects of one and the same cultural performance. Even if we may not be able to do without these terms, we can at least be sensitive to their resonances and think twice before invoking them - along with their accompanying cultural and historical baggage - in a cursory manner.

1. This development and the influence of Dubos' writing is described at length in Albert Dresdner, Die Enstehung der Kunstkritik, Bruckmann Verlag, Munich, 1915.
2. J. B. Dubos, Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture, Paris, 1719, p. 305. English translation from Francis X. J. Coleman, The Aesthetic Thought of the French Enlightenment, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 1971, p. 22.
3. On 'Lesesucht', see Erich Schöne, Der Verlust der Sinnlichkeit, Klett Cotta, Stuttgart, 1987, p. 49.
4. On the 'Wertherkult', see Horst Flascka, Goethes 'Werther', Fink Verlag, Munich, 1987.
5. See Martina Kessel, 'Das Trauma der Affektkontrolle: Zur Sehnsucht nach Gefühlen im 19. Jahrhundert', in Claudia Benthien, Anne Fleig and Ingrid Kasten (eds.), Emotionalität: Zur Geschichte der Gefühle, Böhlau Verlag, Cologne, Weimar and Vienna, 2000.
6. Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs: 'Beatlemania: Girls Just Want to Have Fun', in Lisa A. Lewis (ed.), The Adoring Audience, Routledge, London and New York, 1992, p. 91.
7. Dandy vampires engage in a peculiar form of 'slumming' by feasting on the necks of farmers' daughters or proletarian prostitutes. The first novel to introduce the dandy vampire is The Vampyr (1819), by John William Polidori. See Kirstine Fratz, Dandy und Vampir: Die Sehnsucht nach Ungewöhnlichkeit, Gardez! Verlag, Sankt Augustin, 2001.
8. James Meyer, 'Nomads: Figures of Travel in Contemporary Art', in Alex Coles (ed.), Site-Specificity: The Ethnographic Turn, Black Dog Publishing, London, 2000, p. 15.

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo, Norway. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his writings, is published by Sternberg Press.