Some Notes on Beauty

Laura Paolini

Ed. Peter Lewis

The ground upon which cybernetic practices and the visual arts' canon meet is more fluid than one might think. The material manifestation of digital information can be hardware based from the computer screen to the paper being read. The 'immaterial' exists in the privileged of art history. Making digital interfaces to extend human sensory perception to achieve a post human interface might be construed as the sentimental pursuit of the 'sublime'. This is especially the case with animal/machine hybrids, in which the animal is the surrogate for the human, and quite literally, the guinea pig. Traditions of the sublime as the recognition of mortality and beauty survive in the works of Damien Hirst. What is more interesting, from the synchronic perspective, in for example Hirst's intention to work with animals, is the anthropomorphizing process and how these animals would reappear as objects in their diachronic negotiations with any projected viewer. Mother and Child, away from the flock, in his infinite wisdom, and the impossibility of death in the eyes of someone living wishfully encodes a sympathising, correlative mechanism. Hirst provokes his viewers to think of his dead animals not simply as dead animals but as a potential route to deeper, if suspect, universal understanding, to be located in the forensic process of rationalization represented by taxidermy, as a scientific method itself. Do these animals act as classical paradigms that reflect the innate desires of the 'human condition' that might include asking metaphysical questions? And does this provoke the action of the sublime, designated by Immanuel Kant? The logic of an unknowable experience, sutured to a practice of looking, to divulge an innate, universal truth, wholly to be the goal of a complete human experience, persists as deeply problematic. As retold by Arthur C. Danto, 'Beauty was a source of pleasure -but sublimity in art and especially in nature, produced what [Kant and] Burke called 'the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.''1 What is important to note from the perspective of a contemporary possibility of sublime experience in art, since Kant's dialogue on the aesthetic sublime of Nature, is the incommensurability of a de-sublimation provoked when the subject is confronted by her own contingency and the limits of the human being.

Originally an aesthetic judgment (based on the origin of the word from the Greek "aisthétikós; known via the senses) was based empirically and had little to do with intuition, but it was developed as a philosophy by thinkers such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant. While Kant was not terribly confident that an artwork (and for our purposes, a machine) as an object that is beautiful could provoke sublime affects, it would remind the viewer of where the sublime might be located. For Kant, art and beauty were representable and realistic. (For Lyotard the sublime represents what is unrepresentable). The pursuit of the sublime as an aesthetic and privileged experience continued to be championed, in an apologist modification to certain artworks, by Clement Greenberg. In his 1939 essay Avant-garde and Kitsch, Greenberg attempted to justify and

reexamine how individuals arrive at aesthetic meaning. In his judgement, the avant-garde's attempt to separate from bourgeois society in search for the absolute found inspiration exclusively in the mediums they worked in, by rejecting old vocabularies of representation vis a vis taste of the bourgeoisie class. Here Greenberg references kitsch and the avant-garde as two polar socio-political tendencies, but also foreshadows his later writings that indicated how the sublime was achievable in art, particularly in Abstract Expressionism. Something Kant and Greenberg might agree on is that scale helps to provoke the sublime; when the viewer is coerced by sheer magnitude, the object not only provides a frame of reference to the viewer's own mortality but points to something divine beyond her, mimetic by 'shock and awe'. In 'Anything that moves: Armed Vision,' Jordan Crandall discusses the omnipresent militarisation and how the principle of reality is affected. Technologies (militaristically based or otherwise) augment our reality and change the means of perception. This must pass by Lacanian ideas of self-perception via 'place'; someone looking at a map on Google Earth after typing in their coordinates affirms, but in dissociation, 'This is 'I''. This increasingly abstracted notion of self and dislocation of body is subtly linked to ideas of the posthuman technological interface.

The relationship between art and kitsch is problematised in terms of art's inauthentic mode, qua the notion of a sublime as an artifice, as it refers to an argument concerning the universality of taste or the discernment of 'quality' that art's sincerity deposits kitsch as superficial, and situates the senses hierarchically in art's place, distinguished from 'bad' or common, popular, proletarian pleasures and subjectivist, sensual particularities; to assert the subjectivity of taste would be, for Kant, to convict oneself of tastelessness. To argue that kitsch simply mimics or copies the superficial (and not innately good) qualities of art is to argue for a morality that art works are original and not a copy to begin with. This argument disaffirms the Platonic derogation of mimesis as socially disruptive (and the later writings of Baudrillard, via Benjamin on the aura and mechanical reproduction) and functions to reinforce a notion of authenticity perpetuated, among others, by Greenberg's theory of avant-gardism. If, say, Rococo, as an arch example of a 'movement', was a form of art that 'copied' neoclassical tropes (and ostensibly was a 'genre' the merchant class could afford) then what kitsch does in a contemporary art and its market constituency is to foil more deeply rooted questions concerning aesthetics, use, exchange and sign values. The paradox of art today is its counter-mimetic strategy, in the simulation of morality. Damien Hirst's The Impossibility of Death in the Eyes of Someone Living, mentioned at the beginning of this discussion as a means of addressing how the sublime intrinsically harnesses fear (of death) is a simulacrum of 19th Century values, capitalising on the signified of the museum vitrine as object of knowledge, and the moral humanism of the museum as representing values of Enlightenment, Reason and Progress. A staged-managed prop stakes its claim of authenticity in the sign of the physical real as scene of cultural and scientific value (not in the more narrowly defined aesthetic value), but as the trophy of self-interest. Hirst's 'Natural History' is branded by simulation of the Big Other, in the authorising voice of market, auction-house and collection, rather than being aesthetically 'genuine'- the shark encapsulated is neither art nor science in these Kantian terms, of a subject's affectivity and catalysis to an enactment of sublimity though beauty, but a dead metaphor for money. For Hirst 'value' inspires relational inequalities in the genealogy of morals, and therefore, the 'moral man' being inferior, that power and fear exercise best through 'inexistence'. These death objects are really simulative, mirrors of self-interest, not conduits to disinterest.

The majority of people are frightened by sharks despite never seeing one [or 'experiencing'] an encounter outside the safe artifice of an aquarium. For almost a year, experiments have been taking place to harness the stealth and predatory nature of sharks in order use them for military purposes. 'In the United States a team funded by the military has created a neural probe that can manipulate a shark's brain signals or decode them. More controversially, the Pentagon hopes to use remote-controlled sharks as spies.'2 Both The Nation and ABC covered the original story, and the Guardian newspaper soon began reporting on the antics of the shark's more friendly sea neighbour, the dolphin. There was fear after Hurricane Katrina that several dolphins armed with toxic darts escaped from a marina and could potentially shoot anyone they mistook for a terrorist. So drivers and wind surfers enamored by Flipper's cute exterior could be in for a bit of a shock.

A concept of 'cute' goes beyond that of aesthetic taste but also to a matter of survival. Babies and their mothers go through different phases of mimicry and signals to indicate each other's needs. 'Progressive juvenilisation as an evolutionary phenomenon is called neoteny,'3 and this would appear to be what has happened to Mickey Mouse over the last 50 years. This evolution, or degradation perhaps, is less a random mutation than a response to human evolutionary qualities. Gould's article "A biological homage to Mickey Mouse" also quotes the research of Konrad Lorenz, a scientist who argues that features of junvenility "trigger 'innate releasing mechanisms' for affection and nurturing in adult humans."4 Gould argues that our own biological mechanisms provoke us into sympathizing with Mickey Mouse and other cartoon animals the way we would sympathize and nurture our own children. We can define our own aesthetic tastes in other human beings as biologically driven. Potential mates are most attractive if they are least resembling our Neanderthal ancestors. In many respects this gesture and others mimic the qualities of animals and reveal all that is left of a biologically driven identity.

However, to reduce our familiarity with aesthetics to strictly biological means reduces why such a reaction is provoked to the unnatural. What biology does help do is streamline these ideas of beauty, the cute, and the sublime, to potentially correlate a similar chemical reaction. The discussions above, persistently examining the historical ideas about "real art verses kitsch" indicate the political and economic pretenses and failures of this discussion, through evincing its circumscriptions. They remain however, part of cranial, biological process. While traditional notions of beauty and the sublime had thought themselves opposed to the 'murderous' dissecting operations of science, technologies and scientific pursuits have aided a better understanding of how we react aesthetically, and set intriguing questions through art /science projects. Like Eduardo Kac's GFP Bunny (2000), a genetically modified rabbit that glows fluorescent green due to jellyfish cells in its DNA, science has attempted to 'assist' artworks 'as they pursue aesthetic ends.'5 Beauty, according to Alexander Alberro, knows no pain. Beauty is utopian and incoherent, and despite being grounded in concepts of enlightenment and reason, it never is haptic reality. Trying to lasso new possibilities into what can be deemed beautiful is the agenda of an anti-aesthetic that still has to work towards a modernist definition of beauty. To expand on what was continually thought of as beautiful was part of the goals of the avant-garde. This sentiment is all too present in animal-cyborg experiments, and echoes Francois Lyotard proposal of the sublime experience as "an admixture of fear and exhalation."6

At the opening of the show Zoo, at InterAccess Media Arts Centre in Toronto, Canada, Garnet Hertz was present to maintain his artwork, _Cockroach Controlled Mobile Robot #3. _Hertz created a three legged wheeled robot that is controlled by a giant Madagascar hissing cockroach. The use of such an animal instead of a CPU or a micro controller, according to Hertz, creates the potential for more random variables and emotional responses. Watching the little guy push the robot around is reminiscent of dolphins and otters that are apparently being trained by the US Military to track submarines, and detonate underwater explosions in case said submarines are enemies. This is not entirely new, as dolphins have been active soldiers since the cold war. If technology is the space in which humans mourn the loss of their animalism, as Akira Lippit suggests than, the sentiment behind this particular hybrid is quite apparent.7 Both the cyborg and the cockroach are part of a certain desire for immunity to the human condition. It is poignant that these ideas emerge during war times when a desire exists to be emotionally detached from harsh realities. Really, this work echoes some paranoia from cold war frenzy. The roach is apparently the only animal that can survive a nuclear explosion. If animal/technology interfaces were not being created for artistic purposes (which seemingly 'benefits no one') a more heavily militarized ('how will this benefit us?') dialogue would be occurring. Yet, this artwork would not exist without a more sinister agenda at the other end of the scale and this influence cannot be overlooked.

Though we are provoked biologically into sympathy with animals and other cute things, a very small gesture can also provoke us into disgust and appall. Japanese scientist Masahiro Mori once measured how the uncanny provokes the reactions first observed by Lorenz, and at what threshold we become disgusted. The important element of this also is our own realization that the uncanny is still mimetic, and in effect not real. It is this distance to the real that causes unease. It also notes that beauty, aesthetics and the sublime are not diametrically opposed, but are part of a symbiotic relationship, and perhaps what is most compelling about this discussion of beauty is to note how quickly the same thing a person finds attractive or cute can quickly become grotesque. The Uncanny as a theory was first introduced in Sigmund Freud's Das Unheimlich, which explored how an object can be familiar yet foreign at the same time. This can cause anxiety and a general psychological dissonance in the beholder. Mori produced a theory called 'the uncanny valley' in which he mapped the points at which a person will sympathise with the object and then be thrown into disgust. This theory was published in 1970 and ties closely with the conclusions of Gould and Lorenz. Evolutionary philosophy suggests human beings can relate to something insofar as it remains cute and familiar and not zombie like.8 So, arguably, the uncanny in a Damien Hirst work might be caused by the viewer's recognition of the animals and their authoritative presentation, but the evocation through titles of the animal's zombie state has the potential to provoke awe. Fear is a necessary part of the sublime, as Lyotard articulated, as it creates the realisation of one's own mortality and the possibility of something greater.

Animal/machine research today almost poignantly reflects animals as a symbol of mortality and something that can be related to. Negotiating anthropomorphobia and the sublime reflect a heightened awareness of mortality and what it means to be human. By adding the influence of the avant-garde and kitsch, this discussion concerning biological arts provokes further reflection on the intentions of art and technological progress. What the critique of originality does in this context is acknowledge that originality only exists if the existence of copies is acknowledged. Therefore embracing the mimetic tendencies of artwork and human beings acknowledges a desire for a reference. The attempts to harness animals for humanistic gains not only stretch the capabilities of man in a McLuhanistic fashion, but also reflect archaic desires to achieve a sublime experience through nature. The sublime is useful only in this discussion to set up a relationship between what we can relate to and what we can fear, and this brief discussion on aesthetics and the mechanical animal has revealed that more often than not the things we want to sympathise with also provoke the most fear.

Works Referenced

Brower, Matthew. "Seeing animals at the zoo"__ exhibition essay for Zoo, Interaccess Media Arts Centre, Toronto. Feb 2nd to March 17th 2007.

Danto, Arthur. The abuse of Beauty, aesthetics and the concept of art. "Beauty and Sublimity" Open court publishing Chicago and La Salle Illinois. 2003

Gould, Stephen Jay. "A biological homage to Mickey Mouse." The Pandas thumb: More reflections on natural history. WW Norton and Company. New York. 1980

ed. John O'Brian. Clement Greenberg: The collected essays and criticism. Volume I: Perceptions and Judgments 1939-1944. The University of Chicago Press. 1986.

Eduardo Kac's homepage.

Stallabrass, Julian. Art Incorporated: The story of Contemporary Art. Oxford University Press. 2004.

GNU free documents:\_Valley


  1. Danto, Arthur. The abuse of Beauty, aesthetics and the concept of art. 'Beauty and Sublimity' Open court publishing Chicago and La Salle Illinois. 2003. 148.


  3. Gould, Stephen Jay. 'A biological homage to Mickey Mouse.' The Pandas thumb: reflections on natural history. WW Norton and Company. New York. 1980. 97.

  4. Gould, Stephen Jay. 'A biological homage to Mickey Mouse.' The Pandas thumb: reflections on natural history. WW Norton and Company. New York. 1980. 101.

  5. [Sic] Stallabrass, Julian. Art Incorporated The story of contemporary art. 'The rules of art now'

  6. Danto, Arthur. The abuse of Beauty, aesthetics and the concept of art. 'Beauty and Sublimity' Open court publishing Chicago and La Salle Illinois. 2003. 148

  7. 'Seeing animals at the zoo' Matthew Brower exhibition essay for Zoo, Interaccess Media Arts Centre, Toronto. Feb 2nd to March 17th 2007.

  8. Please see