Simon Critchley, “Absolutely-Too-Much,” The Brooklyn Rail July-August 2012
[W]e might say that a certain dominant strain in the history of philosophical aesthetics might be seen as trying to contain a dimension of experience that we might call the uncontainable. This is the dimension of experience that Nietzsche names the Dionysian, Hölderlin calls the monstrous, Bataille calls the formless, and Lacan calls the real.
But what might art be when it exceeds the relative comfort of the almost-too-much of the sublime or the fearful and moves toward the absolutely-too-much of the monstrous? What happens when the uncontainable can’t be contained? When art bears at its core something unbearable? At this point, art becomes anti-art and we experience discomfort—the Naumanian blow to the back of the neck. I would argue that this is what has been happening for the past century or so in various arts and media as a way of dealing with our presentiment of the unbearable pressure of reality, however we want to capture that experience — the shocking trauma of the First World War, poetry after Auschwitz is barbarism, or whatever — has been the experimentation with what we might call an art of the monstrous. Examples proliferate here, from Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, to Bataille’s holy disgust, to Hermann Nitsch’s blood orgies and the theatre of Heiner Müller, even through to that most jaded and overworked of academic tropes: the abject.
It seems to me that if we look back at much of what is most radical and interesting in the art of the last century, we can see that we are no longer dealing with the sublime or indeed with art as the possibility of aesthetic sublimation, but with an art of de-sublimation that attempts to adumbrate the monstrous, the uncontainable, the unreconciled, that which is unbearable in our experience of reality.
Here is my modest proposal: beyond endless video montages and the cold mannerist obsessionality of the taste for appropriation and reenactment that has become hegemonic in the art world, the heart of any artistic response to the present should perhaps be the cultivation of the monstrous and its concomitant affect, namely disgust. Disgust here can be thought of as the visceral register of a monstrosity that can no longer be excluded from the realm of the aesthetic, as it was for Aristotle and Kant, but should be its arrhythmic heart, its hot and volatile core. It is important to keep in mind the link to aesthetic judgments of taste or gustus, which gives us the “gust” in dis-gust, the ill wind in the soft-flapping sails of revulsion. Dis-gust is an aesthetic judgement of dis-taste.
What I am calling for, then, is a new art of monstrosity which is able to occupy a certain semi-autonomous distance from the circuits of capture and commodification. Art now must fix its stare unblinkingly at the monstrous, the unbearable, the unreconciled, and the insanely troubling. The disgust that we feel might not simply repulse or repel us. It might also wake us up.
It is a question of how we think through and deploy the essential violence of art, and perhaps understand art as violence against the violence of reality, a violence that presses back against the violence of reality, which is perhaps the artistic task, thinking of Hamlet, in a state that is rotten and in a time that is out of joint.
[…] The problem here is that art, which is meant to enable or produce some kind of experience of the real in our pushing back against it, might finally be a protection against that experience and end up as a kind of decoration. Perhaps, then, art has to become the enemy of aesthetic experience. In which case, we should become the enemies of art in order to reclaim it. Here anti-art becomes true art in a constant war of position with the degeneration of art’s critical potential into the lethean waters of the contemporary.