Monday, February 2, 2009

"The Pathological Sublime: Beauty and Horror in the Age of Terror," Mark Dery, SVA, Tuesday, February 3

Mark Dery, rare theorist of artworks inspired by medical museums (see the wonderful "Nature Morte: Formaldehyde Photography and the New Grotesque" in his book The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink) will be giving an illustrated lecture entitled "The Pathological Sublime: Beauty and Horror in the Age of Terror" tomorrow (Tuesday, February 3) at the School of Visual Arts in NYC AT 6:30 P.M. This promises to be good! Read the following description, from his website:

WHAT: Lecture at the School of Visual Arts, New York City.
WHEN: Tuesday, February 3, 6:30 PM.
WHERE: School of Visual Arts, Room 101C, 133 West 21st Street, Manhattan.
WHAT, EXACTLY: A 45-minute lecture, with visuals, followed by the usual bloody scrum, on:
"The Pathological Sublime: Beauty and Horror in the Age of Terror"

The eye is an erogenous zone; beauty and horror, aesthetic ecstasy and moral revulsion: philosophical binaries aren't always poles apart, in the aesthetic realm.

In the world after 9/11, the aesthetic eye is confronted---and the moral mind confounded---by images that are undeniably horrific yet in their own ineffable, ethically dissonant way, beautiful: blurry newswire images of jumpers leaping from the burning Trade Towers; the Towers themselves at the moment of impact, blossoming into terrible flowers of flame. The cognitive dissonance inspired by such images, and the outrage sparked by aesthetic responses to images so emblematic of horrific tragedy (Karlheinz Stockhausen, white courtesy phone...), opens the door to a contemplation of what Oliver Wendell Holmes called "the pathological sublime"---images or objects that confound the aesthetic gaze, flickering irresolvably between aesthetic seduction and moral revulsion.

That contemplation takes us far afield from 9/11, leading us to wonder about the awful, pitiable beauty of medical museum exhibits; the "installation art"-like crime scenes left behind by highly ritualistic killers such as the Black Dahlia murderer; the troubling persistence of Beautiful Dead Women---exquisite corpses?---in art and high fashion; and the Burkean sublimity of that 20th century icon, the nuclear mushroom cloud. And speaking of mushroom clouds, Walter Benjamin warned his readers, in 1936, that humanity's "self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic."

Do his words have special meaning for us, in the world after 9/11? Is the aestheticizing of the unspeakable the essence of the fascist imagination, which dreamed of a Nazi utopia consecrated to Aryan beauty and purified by "racial hygiene"? What are the limits of the aesthetic gaze?

Hope to see you there!

You can find more information about the event, as well as Dery and his work, on his website.

Image: Museum of Anatomical Waxes “Luigi Cattezneo” (Museo Delle Cere Anatomiche “Luigi Cattaneo”): Bologna, Italy "Iniope–conjoined twins"; Wax anatomical model; Cesare Bettini, Early 19th Century. From Anatomical Theatre.

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