“The smooth is the signature of the present time,” writes philosopher Byung-Chul Han in Saving beauty. This kind of smoothness, he continues, “connects the sculptures of Jeff Koons, iPhones and Brazilian waxing.”
Han claims that today smoothness is the same as beauty, and this concept embodies today’s society of positivity. We live in a society that offers no resistance; we simply look for others to like us or like what we have posted. Smooth, smoother, smoothest = good, better, best.
Another way of saying this is that a lot of contemporary art works in concert with neoliberal capitalism, instead of resisting or working against it. For instance, Han contends that Koons is, “arguably the most successful living artist at the present is a master of smooth surfaces.” In other words, Koons is playing the capitalistic game. What determines success is the ability to sell your art. Success is here being defined as being known and admired. Koons’ version of art does not require the artist to open an “echo chamber, in which I assure myself of my own existence,” as Han writes. “The alterity or negativity of the other and the alien is eliminated altogether.”
Koons is about as progressive as a Brazilian waxing.
For readers, who are familiar with Han’s work, Saving Beauty unfolds the same arguments against today’s achievement society. Han discusses the transparent, porno, and burnt-out society we have become. What is sad, of course, is that art, apparently, has also been reduced to something kitsch: shiny tulips, balloons, and smoothness.
This book is full of startling, precise statements. For example, he says, “A selfie is precisely such, an empty, expressionless face.” The addiction that our current society seems to have with taking selfies only illustrates an actual emptiness of the ego. It lacks character, and instead, it is smooth and easily likeable.
The core argument in Savage beauty is that today, beautiful equals smooth, clean, and transparent. In contrast, in earlier times, like during the era of Plato, Kant, and Hegel, there was no distinction between beauty and the sublime. Experiencing sublime beauty is not supposed to be pleasurable; rather, it hurts. It makes you fall and stumble. It is similar to falling in love because you can lose yourself and act rather stupid.
“The sight of beauty does not cause pleasure, but shocks,” Han stresses. I must admit that although I attend exhibitions monthly, I rarely am affected. Visiting the Guggenheim in Bilbao earlier this year, I had a chance to experience Koons’ tulips, which was a pleasurable experience. However, they did not affect me like Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time did. With Serra’s work, I found that his huge iron sculptures opened for me an encounter where I interrelated with the work in a way that affected my equilibrium. The viewing his work made me become someone else. That is the beauty of experiencing your own fragility.
“Instead of opposing the sublime to the beautiful, one should return to beauty a sublimity that cannot be subjected to inwardness,” writes Han. Art can shake us, make us see the world differently, and make us perceive our own limitedness and flaws. “The longing for beauty,” Han says, “is ultimately the longing for a different mode of being, for another, altogether non-violent form of life.” Unfortunately, the digital nature of beauty in our current age has removed all negativity or otherness that might have existed. All there is left is something likeable. Yet, following Heidegger, Han suggests that concealment is essential to beauty since “transparency and beauty do not go together.”
This reflects how information cannot be veiled, whereas knowledge can retreat into secrecy. Art is related to the secret story as Roberto Bolaño once said. It conceals something for us, but it often does so in a way that it painful and not pleasurable. Art requires hard work. “Without injury, there is not truth,” Han claims. The smiles and likes of today, “lacks any intensity, any quality of a shock.”
Beauty is located, somewhere “between disaster and depression,” according to Han, “… inherent to beauty is a weakness, a fragility, and a brokenness.” I have experienced that feeling with the artwork created by Serra, not with Koons’ work.
In today’s transparent consumeristic society, art is rarely contemplative. The ideal consumer, Han argues, is a person without character. The ideal worker or citizen in today’s neoliberal and capitalistic society tolerates everything as long as it sells. Nothing is avoided because there might exist a market somewhere for it. “Facebook is a characterless market,” Han writes. Art, when it is made smoother, is characterless as well.
Still, why all the fuss about saving beauty? Why must we fight to save it?
“Beauty promises freedom and reconciliation,” and “truth is freedom,” as Han writes. In other words, a world of smoothness is false; it’s a world of “post-truth.”
For Han, the beautiful is both true and good, it’s almost like the Korean-German philosopher is turning Platonic.
Han is a strong critic of contemporary society. He elegantly hides his own moralism (most of the time). When “beauty frees me from myself,” Han points out, then saving beauty is also a way to rescue the other. It represents an opportunity to save the negative and that which constitutes me as another.
Han ultimately ends up embracing the philosophy of Alain Badiou, especially, his idea that the task of philosophy is to be loyal or faithful towards whatever binds us together. (Han also ended up with Badiou in his essay, The Agony of Eros).
If there is a morale, it is that we have to show fidelity to what takes place. Fidelity is unconditional in that it presupposes commitment. That means, that we once again should try to become capable of matching all parts of life, not just when life is pleasurable and smooth. We must do so even when life is a shockingly hairy crotch or chest. To do so is to save democracy. Or as Han finishes his essay: “The saving of beauty is the saving of that which commits us.”
I recommend the book.
See also my review of Buyng-Chul Han’s In The Swarm.