If one goes back to Plato and examines what the Greek philosopher had to say about beauty and truth, one discovers the foundation of the transcendental spirit in the West. The Greek philosophers -- Socrates, Plato, Aristotle -- more or less set the philosophical guidelines for how to discuss the unum, bonum, verum -- the one, the good and the true. Beauty was viewed as part of that relationship -- another aspect of the transcendental quality of goodness and truth. Plato, through his Socratic discourse, sought a way to examine and explain the universal sense of beauty and truth -- a theme that Keats would echo centuries later when he stated that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" in his "Ode on a Grecian Urn," a Romantic Era poem. Thus, for centuries this has been a topic that philosophers and artists have explored. What does it mean to be true? What does it mean to be beautiful? And in the modern era, what does it mean to be grotesque?
In our own day and age, the grotesque has figured predominantly in art. Why is this? From the 20th century stories of Flannery O'Connor to the paintings of the Dutch Baroque masters (Bosch or Grunewald) or of the Spanish painter Goya to the Gothic literature of the 19th century to the street-realist photography of Nan Goldin, a fascination for the grotesque has emerged with a vengeance in the modern era. It is apparent in film -- the horror/slasher genre is replete with such visions; it is evident in literature and Gothic architectural works; it is even evident in the "culture industry" that Adorno criticizes in his assessment of modern culture.
The questions this colloquium aims to answer are these: Why are we interested in the grotesque? Why can't we look away? Is there something beautiful about the grotesque or does it fascinate us for a different reason? What, in other words, is its attraction? Do we have to consider the ethics of looking at these images? Photobooks? Is there a moral principle that the grotesque undermines -- a universal ideal that is shredded by its depiction -- a transcendental violation that occurs in its manifestation? Is viewing the grotesque akin to slowing down at a wreck on the side of the road so as to have a better look? Is there something in our nature that compels us to examine "the grotesque"?
In the Old World, death and death images had a significance that in the post-Christian era such figurations tend to lack -- simply because the allegorical significance or extension is depleted. Death was viewed as a portal to the next world -- the end of all human beings in this life, and the doorstep to eternity (which, according to the Old World doctrines, would be spent in either heaven with God or in Hell with suffering). Wakes were held for the sole purpose of allowing visitors to see "their end" up close -- i.e., what death looks like. It was meant to be a means of spiritual purifying -- a way to remind oneself of what the aim of life should be: not the pursuit of earthly or worldly pleasures or fortune but rather a spiritual aim, a laying up of one's treasure in heaven, so to speak. Death was a reminder of this latter purpose -- and the memento mori (reminder of death) was a typical medieval archetype found in the cells of monks (who would keep a skull or some such symbol of death) among their scant belongings) and in the paintings of Christian symbologists. Today, however, death takes on a macabre significance: death is not something one is supposed to dwell upon. The grotesque as an extension of death is a natural relation and raises the same question: is this something one should view?
The post-Christian world has little meaning to apply to death or to the grotesque. The Gothic gargoyles of cathedrals were grotesque for a reason: they depicted the demons and devils that medieval Christians believed prowled the world seeking the ruination of souls. Today's world is more materialistic and consumerist in its orientation, as Adorno points out in his works; the modern world, instead, seeks in a way to escape death -- to make it easier. Yet, at the same time it expresses a desire to view it, a fascination for it and for the grotesque. It is, as though, in our attempt to loosen our ties to death and ugliness, we have buried some psychological/spiritual need within ourselves that yearns to identify with these images. Freud called it the death instinct, but what he meant by it was that mankind has two instincts -- a life instinct and a death instinct and that his psychology compels him to pursue both alternately. Perhaps this is the reason we are drawn to images of the grotesque. The grotesque has been utilized by artists to represent something horrific -- something that is off or wrong. It symbolizes something ugly, something sinful (depending on the artist's view or conception of the human being and his place in the universe).
But if the grotesque is an exaggeration of character and forms that is meant to shock -- what is the purpose of this shock? Shakespeare viewed (in Hamlet) that art should hold the mirror up to nature, i.e., that art should show us who and what we are. Art tells us something about ourselves, our times, our society, our beliefs, and our culture. If the grotesque is used by artists in the modern era, perhaps there is a reason for this -- one that we should be compelled to evaluate.
However, one could argue that the grotesque has also been a part of the conception of Christian art from the beginning as well. The crucifixion images in Christian art are, for example, images of bloody and violent death -- the death of a God moreover -- and yet this is a common image and object of veneration and devotion even among Christian faithful throughout the history of that church. What is the meaning of this?
Thus, it could be argued that since the beginning of art, people have been interested in the grotesque. From images of the crucifixion to Diane Arbus's photography of freaks, there is a certain power an image can hold when the viewer can neither look nor look away. How do these images redefine beauty? How are they beautiful? How does photography as a medium more powerful in the sense of these images? What is the realness of photography in that sense? Is it ethical to call these images beautiful? Nan Goldin's self-portrait with the bruised eye, a representation of domestic violence, is shocking -- perhaps even more shocking than the image of the crucifixion of Christ -- but is this just because we in the modern era are unused to seeing images of domestic violence and are more stunted to the impact of the Christian image because of its repetition?
The overall question of the grotesque, therefore, is situated in the purpose and meaning behind the image. The Christian image of the crucified Jesus is one that meant to evoke sympathy, humility and devotion, as it is an image of the God of the Christians Who has sacrificed His life for sinners that they might be redeemed and share in everlasting happiness with Him in heaven so long as they confess themselves and have faith in Him. On the other hand, the image Piss Christ by Serrano -- a photograph of the same crucified Christ (a crucifix) in a jar of piss -- effects the opposite reaction: it creates revulsion, disdain and animosity. (The art image has been attacked when on display in museums). Yet, Michelangelo's Pieta has also been attacked: and this is an image in marble (a sculpture) of the Madonna holding her dead Son -- the Christ -- after He has been removed from the cross. It is another Christian image meant to evoke sympathy and remorse -- yet it too was attacked. Was it viewed as grotesque to the modern sensibilities of Laslo Toth (the man who attacked it with a hammer)?
It might be said that the grotesque is in the eye of the beholder, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But this would seem to go against the universal application of the ancient Greeks and their philosophical manner of extracting the one, the good, the true and the beautiful. They viewed these transcendental as real and the same for all people -- that people just needed to work to attain an understanding of them; they needed to apply their reason, as Socrates and Plato did.
But modern philosophy is more enamored of the words of subjectivist philosophers like Kant and Nietzsche. Nietzsche viewed tragedy (which can be viewed as grotesque by some -- Oedipus's plucking out his eyes, for example, after his wife/mother Jocasta hangs herself) as a means of validating…