This latest installment of Steiner's (The Scandal of Pleasure, 1995) distinguished work in aesthetics considers 20th-century art in light of its peculiar hostility to beauty. "Beauty," for our purposes, refers to that intersection of pleasure, empathy, and revelation that Western art since the Renaissance has embodied in the female nude. Steiner argues that the formalist aesthetics of modernism and the anti-aesthetic politics of modern feminism have both been intensely hostile to this principle, and that both reactions were fueled by the avant-garde's contempt for bourgeois domesticity. Beginning with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Steiner examines key works of art and literature to discern the outlines of the modernist tradition-in which femininity, ornament, passivity, intimacy, and communication are suppressed in favor of misogyny, formal purity, exploitation, impersonality, and obscurity. In the modernist imagination, beauty-as-woman must be sacrificed (rather than celebrated) in the name of a formal purity that insulates both art and artist from their audience. Feminism has demanded the same sacrifice, in the name of ideological purity. Later movements that attempt to retrieve lost notions of ornament and community (such as postmodernism) have fallen prey to the what the author calls the "cycle of the avant-garde," whereby an audience eventually expects and even demands art that is hostile, alien, and unsympathetic. Now, however, with the dawn of a new century, beauty's restoration is at last under way. In the final chapters, Steiner considers some recent works (many but not all by women) in which aesthetic delight is a source of community and nourishment, instead of transcendent isolation. Abstract expressionism, with Pollock as its poster-child, is indisputably the apotheosis of the modernist anti-beauty; at the opposite pole, she places Mark Morris, whose humane and humorous revision of classical ballet she finds the sturdiest vessel of Venus's return. Like most cultural critics, Steiner writes more persuasively and authoritatively about texts than about images, but the sensibility of her study is rich enough to move beyond literary concerns, its prose at once lucid and provocative, sophisticated and sincere. Striking, fresh, and convincing: Anyone who thinks hard about art and gender should read this.
Steiner recasts the thread of 20th century art as the search for the sublime gone wrong. The Kantian definition of the sublime as that which inspires awe and disinterested interest has lead to a dehumanization of art. According to her,this has come about because in the search for the eternal values that are associated with the sublime, the merely lovely has come to be associated with transience. Beauty has also been implicated, certainly as it applies to female subjects in art, since human beauty fades and turns to its opposite, it cannot be a fit subject for the search for the sublime. The process has led to a sterility driven by the replacement of life perpetuating emotions with formal issues. The course of art in the past century has thus followed a path through ever greater alienation. Artists have felt compelled to tackle ever more emotion laden and controversial subjects, confronting and challenging the public to see beyond the shock value to the formal issues that the artist purports to be elevating to the level of sublime.
As an artist who has been wrestling with these issues for over a quarter century, I really enjoyed Steiner's lucid exposition of the Zeitgeist which forms the backdrop for most thinking artist's work. Artist and public both, I believe dance rather unconsciously around the issues she is writing about. We know on an instinctual level what is going on, but it is really enlightening to read someone's thoughtful analysis. I found her writing enjoyable to read and quite accessible.
Her focus is primarily on the depiction of women in art as subjects for the contemplation of beauty. She shows how the images of women in the last 100 years or so have reflected the rejection of life perpetuating human emotions as unfit for high art. She sees signs of change. We are no longer requiring a sacrifice of what makes us human in the name of art. She sees a time "when beauty, pleasure, and freedom again become the domain of aesthetic experience and art offers a worthy ideal for life."
I highly recommend this book to artist and art appreciator alike, anyone who has wondered why avant garde art always seems so ugly.