Unreal Nature

July 13, 2016

Dirty Subject Matter

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:37 am

… for him, dirt is “matter out of place,” unpleasant, unsuitable, a taboo.

This is from the essay ‘An Obscene Aesthetic: From the Grand Facade to the Sublime Dirt’ by Susanne Figner found in Lewis Baltz (2013):

… The concept of the industrial or technological sublime first emerged in the 1960s, in Leo Marx’s popular book, The Machine in the Garden among other places. Marx explained how the mixture of attraction and repulsion that is characteristic of the sublime had been transferred from natural to industrial objects in the service of an American ideology.

[line break added] Originally derived from the Romantic era in Europe, the concept of the sublime describes aesthetic experiences in nature that are simultaneously perceived as monstrous and fascinating. This combination of contradictory emotions is found with landscapes of immense dimensions (the Alps, for example) or events with potentially catastrophic consequences (avalanches, volcano eruptions).

[line break added] In the United States during the same period, the sublime was applied to industrial developments such as canals, bridges, and steam-driven locomotives. This transfer was a consequence of American settlement policies and the discovery of gold on the West Coast, in the wake of which businessmen, politicians, and journalists began to glorify the American machine as an instrument of freedom and democracy.

[line break added] The rhetoric was at once utopian and ideological: industrial inventions were considered signs of a progressive spirit, while landscapes left to grow wild were equated with a backward intellect. The authors of progress — engineers — were celebrated as the new heroes who generated prosperity for all at home and demonstrated America’s superiority abroad.

… For many artists who participated in the protests against the Vietnam War, the industrial rhetoric had an insipid aftertaste, and they began to address the negative consequences of the technological sublime. Robert Smithson photographed sewer pipes and heaps of earth in New Jersey, calling them the new monuments.

[ … ]

baltz_lewis_ParkCity_interior3_1980
Lewis Baltz, Park City, interior, 3, 1980

Lewis Baltz has himself used the word “obscene” for his visual presentation of social dirt: for him, dirt is “matter out of place,” unpleasant, unsuitable, a taboo. Applying a sublime vocabulary to dirty subject matter means referring to an aesthetic otherwise used for the sale of a product or the dissemination of an ideology. Baltz layers this universally understood visual language with antisublime subject matter to make a contrary statement.

[line break added] Although he does not refer explicitly to Smithson, when using the term obscenity he also seems to allude to the anthropomorphic and sexualized language with which Smithson described his own industrial objects and the sculptures of Robert Morris and Claes Oldenburg. The dialectic of a monstrous object that should not be shown but is shown anyway describes the combination of horror and fascination inherent in the dynamic of the sublime.

… For Baltz, the postmodern sublime is a means to point to an ideological aesthetic and to infiltrate it with dystopian motifs. The sublime is thus subjected to a dual demystification: the continuity of ideological patterns is reinforced, while the inevitability of its failure is revealed.

-Julie

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