I have previously spoken about the experience of art as a return to surface: the experience of art is the experience of pure perception. Indeed, the experience of aesthetic arrest I think perfectly illuminates my conception. Aesthetic arrest is typically used to describe the apprehension of beauty, which is itself a tangled and complex word, but I would argue that beauty, in the traditional sense of the word is unnecessary and vague. What we are struck by, in moments of aesthetic arrest, is not pure beauty, but pure perception. What, for example, significantly differentiates perceptual the apprehension of striking beauty from the apprehension of striking ugliness? Both captivate and bewitch us. Marina Abramovic’s frightening performance piece, Art Must be Beautiful, defies beauty. The performance is stark, obsessive, and disturbing. There is little within it that one would actually call beautiful. Yet, one is brought up short, arrested, by the experience of the piece.
I turn here to Merleau-Ponty who, in his mammoth work, The Phenomenology of Perception, describes moments when perception fails to align with the expectations of the analytical mind. He calls these moments queer. Queer perceptions turn the entirety of our world, they stop us and demand attention. These queer moments are not in themselves beautiful or ugly, those terms come after. Beauty and ugliness are characteristics applied by analysis, they do not spring forth from the experience itself, but arise from reflection. The maxim, the mantra which Marina Abramovic repeats only flourishes into meaning once the experience of the art itself has moved through perception into thought. The beauty of art exists only in as much art stops thought for perception itself to exist authentically, so that thought may return and bear judgement.
Beauty and ugliness exist in equal measure in aesthetic arrest. One is captivated by beauty and ugliness only in as much as they defy one’s expectations of the world. Andy Warhol’s Disaster Series directly address this concern. Horror is rendered into beauty through an analytic interpretation of the mode of representation. The images themselves shock through their disregard of the expectation of beauty in art, and then proceed through to beauty again from the analysis brought to bear on the formal qualities of the work (the repetition, the use of color…). Warhol’s Disaster Series emphatically queers the expectations of the viewer (especially at the time of their production) and achieve their effect by return the viewer to act of pure perception. The image must be understood, brought back into line with the world itself. That action complete, the beauty or ugliness of the image can then be ascertained. Art queers is such a way that the queerness of the interaction of perception and judgement is itself illuminated.
When art is beautiful, it is in as much as it disregards beauty. Beauty emerges from shock, from arrest. Art functions as the skillful manipulation of formal elements to achieve this return to perception, to enable the viewer to look without judgement.