Exhibition text
Michael Bracewell

This exhibition started life two years ago, prompted by a series of conversations between Alex Sainsbury and myself about the etymologies of pop-cultural, artistic and literary style, aspects of which I had explored in my writings.


In subsequent discussions we extended our terrain; and I returned to a long-standing interest in the British poet W.H. Auden’s engagement with the alternately agonised, wilfully obscure and richly romantic writings of Søren Kierkegaard. Both writers confront the point at which the entrenched romantic impulse, whether given voice by artistic creation or not, must rise above the seductiveness, and in their opinion ultimate despair, of endlessly refining aesthetic choice.


Following the Danish philosopher’s lead, Auden, in his long poem ‘New Year Letter’ (written on his arrival in New York in 1939, on the brink of his reconversion to Anglicanism) relates how the devout romantic – you could see this type, for example, in Proust’s character Charles Swann – may reject and transcend the ‘aesthetic’ life, and accept first an ‘ethical’ and finally, although not always, a ‘religious’ consciousness.


For Auden, however, these paradigmatic stages represent less an excursion into devout religiosity than a struggle for self-knowledge at an existential level. It was likewise a process that presents challenges and snares – very real enemies of promise. Kierkegaard’s ‘I resemble that chessman of which the player says, “That piece cannot be moved”’ or Ovid’s ‘I see the good and value it; I follow the bad’ address the dynamics of the conflict, where romanticism squares up to a form of spiritual self-questioning. Such, too, are the stages on life’s way described by the parallel destinies of Levin and Vronsky in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877), and by Kierkegaard’s text Repetition (1843), one in a series of densely interconnected, pseudonymous volumes that can be seen to describe the romantic relationship to the ethical in terms of motion, repetition and reflection.


How the Auden-Kierkegaard position might relate to modern and more recent art is addressed in Robert Motherwell’s prefatory essay to Pierre Cabanne’s Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp (1967). In this, and with direct reference to Kierkegaard, Motherwell – correctly or not – cites Duchamp as an artist who managed to transcend what he defines as ‘the despair of the aesthetic’. And while this transcendence is not cast in religious terms, it shares a philosophical intention to explore territories that lie beyond the evocation or sole pursuit of aesthetic resolution:


‘If all colors or nudes are equally pleasing to the eye,’ asks Motherwell, ‘why does the artist choose one color or figure rather than another? If he does not make a purely aesthetic choice, then he must look for further criteria on which to base his value judgments.’ For Motherwell, the art of Duchamp at its most successful takes on – paradoxically, as he notes – ‘that indirect beauty achieved only by those artists who have been concerned with more than the merely sensuous.’


This paradox became a tenet for our exhibition: that point at which the confirmed and virtuosic romantic (or romantic artist) first confronts and then transcends ‘the despair of the aesthetic’ – at times with violence, at times with a form of incantation, or equally with the conversion of aphoristic elegance into a personally or spiritually transformative utterance or gesture. An effect of this transcendence is the invocation of invisibility: that the presence of the artist, when wholly translated into the autonomous and living existence of the created artwork, simultaneously disappears and, paradoxically, becomes its iconic avatar.


Ultimately the sacrifice of the beauties of consummate style and aesthetic poise grant the artist access to a further and greater reality, in both philosophical and spiritual terms. Hence, for Miles Davis, the exhortation to his musicians to ‘play what’s not there’, exchanging the academic finesse of jazz harmonies for a reconnection with the soul; hence, in the theology of dandyism, the paradox which decrees that the true dandy’s ambition would be to achieve invisibility. It is only at this point, elusive and hard-won, that the artist-aesthete of high romanticism can survey and enter the territories of a consciousness reborn – and bring reports of those territories, in the form of truths, to those of us who remain outside their borders.