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  • Ihor Biloushchenko

Unheimlich. Why Weird is Beautiful?

“Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all.”

Andre Breton


“Beautiful” is probably the most convenient and the worst word to describe an artwork. Synthesis with the word “aesthetic” through the ages made it even more difficult. In this text I focus on the complexities of beauty, culture, and the transformative power of art. What exactly triggers our fascination with art?


Personal beauty

Searching for beauty we could classically start with Greeks or Romans but I want to look at it even broader. The concept of “beauty” can be, surprisingly for some, found across different species. Especially mesmerising is how the tropical birds apply it. While male birds perform and make installations the female birds play the role of an art critics and select their personal preferences for the future generations. Does it mean there is a universal standard of beauty, or does it remain subjective, dependent on individual perspectives?


Does art have to be beautiful?

From classical ideals to abstract expressions, each era has introduced new ways to define beauty, challenging traditional norms and aesthetics. Comparing the works of Johannes Vermeer (e.g. Girl with a Pearl Earring) with Francis Bacon (e.g. Study of Henrietta Moraes) we see clearly how beauty standards went through transformative phases, mirroring the evolution of our perception. Classical ideals that once dominated gave way to abstract expressions that challenged traditional norms. The consequences of World War II forced the rise of anti-aesthetic art, an attempt to confront the inhumanity that had marked our existence by showing bare and unfiltered truth, with its blend of melancholy and hope. Transforming the words of Theodor Adorno, artists could not find the way to create “beautiful” art anymore.

The paradoxical nature of art becomes a mirror to our intricate minds, reflecting both vulnerability and resilience, tradition and innovation, unity and discord bringing the unheimlich to the foreground.

Why unheimlich?


The concept of “the unheimlich” (uncanny, unfamiliar) was extensively explored by Sigmund Freud, the Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis. The concept of the uncanny was described in "Das Unheimliche," which was first published in 1919. In this essay, Freud investigates the psychological complexities behind feelings of eeriness, familiarity, and discomfort in various aspects of human experience, including literature, art, and daily life. Freud's analysis reveals the uncanny's connection to the repressed aspects of the human psyche, lurking beneath the surface of our consciousness. As we ponder the essence of the unheimlich, Freud's insights invite us to consider the complexities of human perception and the hidden layers that contribute to finding beauty in the weird and the unsettling.


Susan Sontag focused on the concept of unheimlich to explore the paradoxical allure of human suffering captured through war photography in her book "Regarding the Pain of Others”, published in 2003. She delves into the impact of visual representation on our perception, raising questions about the strange and unsettling images that can evoke both fascination and discomfort. Sontag's work highlights the ethical considerations in depicting suffering and challenges our emotional responses to the unheimlich. The book's exploration of the complexities of human perception and the subjectivity of beauty invites readers to reflect on the power of unconventional aesthetics and their connection to the concept of weird beauty in art.


The unheimlich carries an emotional impact that triggers profound reactions, challenging our beliefs and perceptions of beauty. It reshapes the very essence of aesthetics, inviting us to question and redefine the conventional norms that have long guided our artistic sensibilities.

The oscillation between the old and the new, the familiar and the unfamiliar, creates a new aesthetics that transcends boundaries, inviting introspection and metamorphosis. The art confronts us with reality constantly hoping for fairy tales.



 

References:

Attenborough, D., (2009, 2019) BBC One Life / The Vogelkop Bowerbird: Nature's Great Seducer; Netflix / Our Planet / Birds Of Paradise.

Adorno, T. W. (1967). Cultural Criticism and Society. In S. Weber & S. Weber (Eds. and Trans.), Prisms (pp. 34-47). MIT Press.

Breton, A. (1928). Nadja. Paris, France: Éditions Gallimard.

Freud, S. (1919). Das Unheimliche. Imago: Zeitschrift für Anwendung der Psychoanalyse auf die Geisteswissenschaften, 9(1), 27-66.

Peskisheva, C., Aesthetics / Anti-aesthetics (in Russian) https://www.instagram.com/p/CuoNAP0gqHD/

Sontag, S. (2003). Regarding the Pain of Others. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.



More questions to think about:

Is there a universal standard for beauty, or is it subjective?

How anti-aesthetic art evokes deeper emotions?

How does new aesthetics in art mirror our changing society?


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