Brutal Aesthetics by Hal Foster

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

We, who did not live through the disruption and devastation of the early part of the twentieth century, can only imagine man’s image of himself as one crisis followed another. As Walter Benjamin states (cited in Foster, 2), “Many people returned from the Front [World War I] in silence”, harbouring a stunned muteness. Then came a devastating influenza epidemic, a brief period in which to begin to make sense of a life before economic depression and the evils of Fascism once more plunged the world into war. With Nazism and its attendant obscenities defeated, art communities found themselves asking where the work of so many years stood now? Where to from here? Or the less common, why persist in the face of such destruction?

The response of one group of artists is detailed in a book derived from an A W Mellon Lecture in Fine Arts delivered by Hal Foster and subsequently published as Brutal Aesthetics. It is a fine production, a beautiful publication, that honours the exceptionally high quality of the lectures contained within.

Foster’s Introduction, quoting Benjamin, reports that certain artists after the war came to believe that moral experience lies undermined by corruption, economic experience undercut by inflation, and physical experience undone by hunger. Walter Benjamin argues that the artists he identifies responded to these experiences by turning about and embracing them. He sees the art of the forties to the sixties seeking to undo proper forms and release libidinal energies (16); to reject the traditional, solemn, noble image of man (2); to reject an earlier civilization with its disruptiveness, and make a new beginning, one in which “mankind makes preparations to survive civilization” (4). This is Benjamin’s positive barbarism, which gives rise to art brut (“art that does not know its name” (8)) which, sharing a commonality, proposes a distinctly different ground for brutal aesthetics.

The artists – Dubuffet, Jorn, Paolozzi and Oldenburg – are best seen as scavengers rather than constructors. They raided such places as car wrecking yards to find source materials. They began from scratch, made what little they had go a long way i.e. they began again with the already given. Foster writes that Oldenburg suggests that to annihilate is only the first step to illuminate i.e. we see, we connect, we transform, and then we re-animate (15). In the post-war period the image of the first man is shadowed by the spectre of the last, and the central persona of the socially-acceptable engineer is replaced by that of the bricoleur.

Foster raises a number of questions (which are answered):”how to square…disruptive bricolage with painting on the part of Dubuffet and Jorn and to sculpture on the part of Paolozzi and Oldenburg?…Given the equivocal relation of positive barbarism to the human figure, what is its view of humanism at large” (10)?

Foster’s Introduction devotes twenty-four pages to explicating the myriad faces of brutal aesthetics. I must confess to wondering what the author’s purpose was in writing his book. He holds expert knowledge and knows what he means when he asks questions such as, “If the equivocal positions of my figures are post-dialectical, might they also be proto-deconstructive” (18)? The book reveals the expectation of a learned audience. Few readers with a general interest in art, unless they wear the equivalent of a hairshirt (or are reviewers), would have held the line and met the challenge Foster throws out. Those who persevere, find out that “the book is part of my larger project to re-think the twentieth-century avant-garde at times of political emergency” (19). My comments are not meant to denigrate the book in any way. It is a masterpiece, – but is not intended for the casual reader.

Foster’s Introduction is a very necessary chapter, given that the world has moved on and is not as aware of what is surely an esoteric art movement. Awareness breeds fascination, however, and the author’s detailed explanations of the work of each artist, no matter how unknown, is important to the success of the book. Hence, following the Introduction, Foster discusses the work of each artist identified to this point. He shows that Dubuffet’s approach to brut art was through drawing, in order over time, children, the graffiti of the common man and finally the art of the insane. “Indeed he deemed the child prior to culture, the common man hostile to it, and the mad oblivious of it” (27). By the late 1950s he had modified his intellectual stance to produce brut that was less of source and subject and more of material and process. The ground beneath his feet became unstable.

Georges Bataille sees the ground projected, not as an outside to artistic culture, as in art brut, but at its origin, in the caves of prehistoric man. In Lascaux Bataille appears to have reached the conclusion that prehistoric art has “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 post-war man to cope with his ‘passion for destruction,’ that is, ‘to live on a par with death’…Such is his version of positive barbarism” (Foster, 75). Man is an outcome of art. There is much, much more. For Bataille, Foster writes, “The way to stave off the imminent end of man was to turn to his putative origin” (102). This is his positive barbarism.

Asger Jorn was a member of a group known as Cobra, an acronym for the names of the members’ cities of origin. One distinctive attribute of this group was “its special penchant for the … creaturely” (106). If two figures painted in faecal browns and commingled sexually is your sort of painting, Jorn’s eroticism is for you. It does not strike a note for me. But Foster’s chapter on Jorn concludes with a significant statement:

Neither an utter outside, as with the Dubuffetian proposal of the brut, nor an absolute origin, as with the Bataillean exploration of the prehistoric, the creatures in Jorn point to cracks in the law here and now, cracks that art might reveal, even open up, gaps in the symbolic order that, again, might be turned into points of purchase where power can be resisted, or at least rethought, where new social links might be imagined and old displaced ones recovered. Such was his positive barbarism, which remained… an insight cast forward to the future because it could not be enacted in the present (137).

Eduardo Paolozzi is as significant a sculptor as Jorn was a painter, but space considerations dictate that Foster’s comment will suffice. “In short, natural history has become a creaturely thing, a world of decreation…a scrapheap of words and symbols beyond salvage” (151). The sculptor set out to conceive a form of artistic construction that keeps faith with the fact of historical destruction – in ideology, and in actuality as instanced in the war, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb. For Foster, real contradictions can be registered as fragments, rearrangements, breakdowns or gaps. It is positive barbarism in Paolozzi – “it is not everything, but it is not nothing” (193).

Foster theorizes that Claes Oldenburg took up the theme of turning the forces of death towards the ends of life as his means of expressing his form of positive barbarism. In his work, The Street (1960), Oldenburg aimed for a simultaneous presentation of contrary ideas or symbols. This work staged an urban world of destitution and death whereas in The Store he explored the opposing themes of abundance and eros where “comestibles and commodities were reshaped as though by bodily drives” (195).

There is no doubting the love and expense that characterizes the production of Brutal Aesthetics. It is a beautiful book, the visible incarnation of the mind of Hal Foster. It is a disturbing read, a vision for experts to consider, reflect upon, accept and, I suspect, admire. Foster makes no judgment on the contribution of these artists to the world of art. He describes, proposes a thesis or two, but makes no value judgments. I suspect, and hope, that art turned to more palatable areas after the 1960s.

Brutal Aesthetics


By Hal Foster

Princeton UP

ISBN: 978-0-691-20260-0

$US39.95; 296 pp

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