Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Big Man: Competing Theories or Assesing the Real

Robert Mueck’s Big Man is –upon first viewing – really quite repulsive. This meticulously rendered seven-foot high, fiberglass sculpture, of an overweight and completely exposed man does not readily lend itself or, more accurately, himself to our scrutiny. In fact he sullenly looks away as if to say, “Leave me to my indignity!” Thus, upon entering the room the viewer is immediately aware that she is not welcome. Big Man is not open to her. Yet, here we face a paradox, the harsh hyperreality of this Man makes us immediately aware that we should look away; but this Man, and this private scene is also not. Big Man is a work of art in a public space, in an art museum no less, and is therefore inviting us to look, to survey the room and gaze upon his nakedness. The voyeuristic pleasure produced by this paradox is similar to, and reciprocally enhanced by, the disinterested Kantian pleasure in the universal and non-conceptual, aesthetic contemplation of purposiveness without purpose by a mind in free play. The possibility present in the form of Big Man for pure aesthetic pleasure in the pure Kantian sense is intriguing; however the true import of big man may only be realized in relation to the work of contemporary philosophers such as Jean Baudrillard and Jean-Luc Marion. First though, is Big Man an appropriate object for aesthetic contemplation? To find out, let us turn to the work of Immanuel Kant.

Kant is credited with a “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy for discovering that subjectivity makes all judgment (including aesthetic judgments) problematic (p. 64). In order to resolve this tension Kant developed four necessary conditions under which aesthetic appreciation is possible.

The first is that aesthetic judgment must be disinterested. There is for Kant a difference between the pleasure based solely on the representation (which relates to aesthetic judgment and taste), and pleasure based on the existence of the object (which relates to rational/utilitarian judgment ) (p. 281). Utility, or satisfaction derived from an interest, has nothing to do with aesthetics (p. 281-282). True aesthetic judgment is non-objective in this sense, as it will be completely disinterested as to the actual existence of the object of representation. Rather it is the “mere appearance” of the object – i.e. the representation – which concerns aesthetic judgment (p. 285). This criterion ensures that when we talk about beauty we really are talking about the appearance of the thing – and not some other concept or interest related to the appearance. Big Man does not clearly fit the requirements for beauty that Kant lays out for us. In fact, the mere appearance of this swollen mass does not inspire an immediate impression of pleasure at all, but instead creates discomfort – pain. Yet this feeling of discomfort is not necessarily determinative. For Beauty was not the only aesthetic experience Kant recognized.

Kant actually struggled somewhat reconciling another kind of aesthetic experience which seemed to contradict his theory of aesthetics. The sublime experience – i.e. an overwhelming experience of a powerful force that inspires both fear and awe – causes an admixture of both pain and pleasure. Applying his theory to the sublime, Kant is willing to puts aside the initial impression of pain (which for him did not truly characterize the aesthetic experience) in order to discuss the strange pleasure of sublimity. Kant ultimately concludes that the sublime is wrought in the mind of a person who’s faculties are unable comprehend the vastness of infinity in a given representation and therefore begin to oscillate between the “violent” and purposeless failure of the senses, and the “purposive” resignation to the limits of her perception[1]. Kant admits that the sublime experience is not wholly pleasant, and may even be a critical juncture which opens up space for us to have access to the true underlying aesthetic experience. As Kant did in explaining his explanation of the sublime we will assume that aesthetic pleasure – even though an á priori sensation based on the form of representation (p. 286) – may yet be somewhat slow acting.

Furthermore, this perspective may help solve an interesting problem which Kant’s theory creates for gallery enthusiasts. You see, there is an inherent interest in viewing things – such as Big Man – in a museum. Viewers expect art to make them cultured and educated and possibly to help them experience something transcendent. These interests immediately negate any possibility of a pure aesthetic experience in the Kantian sense. Big Man, however, undoes all this interest entailed in viewership.

The discomfort induced by Big Man subverts our intention, by immediately shifting our expectations. Big Man is not here for us to view him, he does not look at us, but this only enhances the sense of irritation at our presence. In a sense the viewer is no longer in the space of the museum, he is in Big Man’s space. The paradoxical nature of Big Man (both inviting and eschewing the gaze) thus makes a true Kantian judgment possible. Therefore, the pain at the first appearance of Big Man makes disinterested evaluation at his mere appearance possible. However, this still begs the question: Even if our judgment of Big Man is disinterested, doesn’t our repulsion prove that the form of big man – his mere appearance – is not pleasurable and therefore a poor choice for aesthetic contemplation? Can the form of Big Man ever be considered pleasurable?

Before answering this question, let’s first get through Kant’s Second Moment: aesthetic judgments must be “universal without concept (p. 286).” For aesthetic judgment to be possible it must be universal. If it is not true for everyone then aesthetics is impossible, because otherwise all pleasure derived from the appearance of bodies would always be based on a personal interest (p. 287). “We cannot say that each man has his own particular taste. For this would be as much to say that there is no taste whatever (p. 287).” Therefore, we must assume aesthetic judgments to be universally valid. However, the universality of the judgment also can’t be concept based – because that too would introduce an interest thereby destroying the validity of the aesthetic judgment.

For the purpose of this paper the universality of the aesthetic pleasure inherent in the representation of Big Man must be assumed, in that, this paper can never adequately (re)create the experience of viewing it in your mind by way of language – which is concept based. In fact one can never prove the universality of aesthetic judgments because of their non-conceptual character. This requirement can thus be bypassed for our purposes on the assumption that to the extent that the form of Big Man is pleasurable – which shall be argued later in this paper – this feeling is universal.

On the other hand, Kant admits that the non-conceptual requirement of aesthetic judgment is difficult for plastic arts – e.g. statues of overweight men – because these arts are almost always merely “ornamental” or symbolic/representational, and therefore don’t lend themselves to formal aesthetic judgment (p. 326-327). Despite this difficulty, Big Man manages to avoid being consigned to simple conceptualization due to his massive scale and hyperreality. The incredibly realistic representation of his nude form prevents us from easily cataloging it as sculpture. Conversely, his massive scale pushes us away from treating it as we would an actual person. Statements from Mueck, the artist, support this point. He has said that part of the reasoning for Big Man’s monumental scale was to ensure that people didn’t mistake him for a real person.[2] Big Man escapes conceptualization, despite – and ultimately because of – his representation in a mode which creates a heightened sense of reality, which is not real. This creates another paradox which again forces our minds to contemplate the mere appearance of Big Man, rather than his place in reference to known concepts.

In Kant’s Third Moment we finally begin to see why it is possible for the representation of Big Man to induce a pleasurable experience despite the cursory impression of pain he begets. Kant requires aesthetic judgment to have “purposiveness without purpose (p. 294).” By this Kant means that the representation of aesthetic judgment must demonstrate intentionality in design and execution – it must exhibit purposiveness. However, this purpose cannot be readily available to the viewer; thereby, making the representation simultaneously purposeless. This paradox puts the mind to work at a puzzle which it can never solve. Referring to what he considers a particularly beautiful poem Kant says, “[It] diffuses in the mind a multitude of sublime and restful feelings… to which no expression that is measured by a definite concept completely attains (p. 320).” This mysterious and stimulating experience of purposiveness without purpose is that which constitutes the pleasure of aesthetic experience (p.296).

Big Man is clearly satisfies the first condition of Kant’s Third Moment. Mueck is part of a movement in art called hyperrealism. Hyperrealist sculpture, such as Big Man, is meticulously detailed in order to create the impression of something “more real than the real itself”(Baudrillard, p. 1). So we know, as we sense intuitively, that Big Man was created with purposiveness. The problem then, as with most art, is that the purpose of the purposiveness is too obvious: the art was made to be viewed. The purpose of the object doesn’t have enough mystery to set the mind into a “multiplicity of partial representation… that for it no expression marking a definite concept can be found (p. 320).” This is of course why Kant found nature to be a particularly good muse for aesthetic appreciation (p. 313-314). We can only guess at why the trees grow the way they do or why bees fly in such erratic patterns. The purpose in their design is a mystery to us. However, true aesthetic judgment in the context of the gallery is more problematic. How can art be purposive without purpose when the purpose is so obvious to us?

Big Man is again able to negate this problem somewhat by creating his own space: the first viewing of Big Man catches the viewer off-guard. The viewer is made immediately aware that he has invaded Big Man’s space. Big Man resists the purpose for which he was made. In a sense the viewer is no longer in the space of the gallery, but in limbo between the private world of Big Man and the public world of the museum. By negating its own purpose, Big Man makes possible true aesthetic contemplation. Big Man attains purposiveness without purpose in the paradoxical play between the public and the private components of Big Man, and also between the real and the hyperreal Big Man’s true purpose hides from. The necessary “representation of the imagination” (p. 294) is herein found which is what allows the artist to induce a pleasurable aesthetic experience in the viewer. This spurs the oscillation between partial concepts which we are never fully conceptualized and creates a feeling of pleasure.

Kant’s Fourth, and final, Moment is the requirement for “common sense” in order for aesthetic judgment to be valid (p. 301). The only way aesthetic judgment can be universal, yet not be conceptual, is for everyone to have a common sensual perception. This common sense constitutes what Kant calls the “transcendental conditions of subjectivity” (McCormick, p. 68). As discussed, Big Man places us squarely in the position of the free play of the imagination with respect to cognition. Our toolkit of concepts cannot fully reconcile the contradiction inherent in viewing him. We are therefore forced to perceive him with only the “common sense” which is the universal condition of our subjectivity. Anyone in this state of free play with respect to cognition should have the same experience. Thereby, aesthetic judgment is made possible, even in the context of plastic arts within a gallery – i.e. the unlikely Big Man.

The discussion of the significance of Mueck’s work in light of post-modern philosophy has in a way already begun. The contradictions inherent in the representation of Big Man (his public and private nature, the loss of meaning between real and hyperreal) all relate to discussions that have taken place in the broad post-modern project. In fact, Mueck and other hyperrealist artists are thoroughly indebted to contemporary philosophy for their theoretical underpinning. For instance, the philosopher Baudrillard originally coined the phrase “hyperreality,” defining it as “the simulation of something which never really existed.” [3] Hyperrealist artist are very much playing with Baudrillard’s ideas of simulation and simulacrum. A simulacrum is a sign of a sign of a sign, ad infinitum. Big Man does not represent any particular person – Mueck does not use human models for his work (footnote 2) – yet the meticulous rendering of Big Man convinces us that he must be real (that somewhere this surly man exists in the real). The sign signifies a sign which itself points to a sign. “The simulacrum” – this infinite exchange of signs and countersigns – “is the truth that hides the fact that there is none (p.1).” There is nothing but signs and no underlying reality.

Furthermore, there is no real in modern life, there is only simulation. For instance, McDonald’s does not have an infinite supply of food which is always identical. Yet to the consumer this is exactly what the golden arches signify, and the reality of this hyperreal McDonald’s must persist in order for the fast food chain to be successful. Thus reality is perpetually negated. Only the hyperreal persists. This, and other examples offered by Baudrillard illustrate the fact that as a result of modern media and consumerism, hyperreality has replaced reality.

The violence of imagery and sign to the real is further elaborated in Baudrillard’s analysis of Byzantine art:

“Western good faith became engaged in this wager on representation: that a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could be exchanged for meaning and that something could guarantee this exchange – God of course. But what if God himself can be simulated, that is to say can be reduced to the signs that constitute faith? Then the whole system becomes weightless, it is no longer itself anything but a gigantic simulacrum… (p. 6)”

The iconoclasm was a reaction to the “murderous power of images” which tended to replace and ultimately kill God. This power of images to kill the original referent is magnified to the nth degree in the modern museum.

The problem of the gallery again rears itself. Galleries are frozen spaces that catalogue the reality of the human experience. However, the museum system negates the real by enshrining forever signs that point to lost referents (p. 8). Western culture is the result of an accumulation of meaning. For instance in philosophy understanding Foucault requires an understanding of Nietzsche, whom he references, who in turn requires an understanding of Aristotle, who in turn requires an understanding of Plato, which requires an understanding of the multitude of Greeks whom he references. We are so far removed from the original referent that any connection to reality is completely lost. This means that “our entire linear culture collapses if we cannot stockpile the past in plain view (p. 10).” Without our histories books and our museums the entire culture collapses into nothing – which explains our obsession with archiving, ethnology, genealogy and museums, etc. We’re clinging to reality, even though it’s already lost. Without these ancient signs there is nothing for our culture to stand on – because it is ultimately completely devoid of meaning. All referents have been lost. This further suggests that our art will always be devoid of the real. The sign has replaced the signified and any referents once behind the art work will always be lost – killed by the very fact of its replication.

For Baudrillard then “no equivalence with the real is possible (p. 20).” Further attempting to find the real through images – full of signification that amounts to nothing – only entrenches the grasp of hyperreality on us. The alternative then is simulation, which is according to Baudrillard “the worst kind of subversion” possible in Western culture (p. 4). In other words, the best art can do is purposefully (re)present the banality of modern life. Mueck’s work accomplishes this goal. By using meticulous detail to convince the viewer of the reality of the nude man, Mueck simulates reality. Furthermore, since there is only the heightened sense of the real created by his (re)presentation, the viewer is forced to admit that there is no real. Big Man is only image – reality is only simulation. Mueck’s simulation of reality reveals the fact that there is no real.

The hyperrealist project explicitly implicates Baudrillard. However can Big Man be valued in light of other post-modern philosophers who, attempting to move beyond post-structuralism, are again trying to reclaim the transcendent in art? To answer this let’s proceed to the work of Jean-Luc Marion.

For Marion, there are two conflicting phenomenologies at the heart of artistic appreciation (p. 79). Marion explains these conflicting methods with the reference to the icon and the idol. Both the icon and idol are constituted in the mind (or soul) of the viewer. Iconic and the idolatry representations are not characteristics of objects, “since the same beings (statues, names, etc.) can pass from one rank to the other (p. 79).” Since the same being can be both idol and icon depending on the viewer, idolatry relates to the subjective being of beings. Marion says, “The manner of seeing decides what can be seen (p.79).” An idol (or an icon) only exists insofar as my interpretation creates it. Marion refers to this interpretative lens or paradigm as the gaze. The difference between the idol and the icon is that in the case of the idol “The gaze makes the idol, not the idol the gaze (p. 82).” Rather than adding something new – or transcending the limits of the viewers interpretative tool box – the idol is fully constituted by the gaze. For this reason Marion says that the idol is a mirror “that reflects the gaze's image (p. 84).” Idolatry is a mode of art appreciation in which the viewer is seeing only that which he expected in the piece of art. The artistic experience of the idol is limited; insofar, as there is no transcendence from that which the viewer knows, to that which she cannot. Thus, “when the idol appears, the gaze has just stopped (p. 83).” There is no movement in idolatry. Nothing is moved within the subject, but her mind is instead frozen in place. This is the experience of the art history student upon seeing the subject of her study for the first time. It becomes an idol, readily fit to the mold her mind has created for it during the course of her studies. To be sure this experience has deep personal significance, but as Marion says, it is only a “low-water mark of the divine (p. 81).” There is ultimately only the human mind and what the human mind makes of the divine – no true transcendence.

On the other hand “the icon does not result from a vision but provokes one (p. 90).” The icon pierces the viewers gaze and opens him to experience the invisible. The idol signifies nothing. The icon on the other hand is “the semblance of the divine.” However, this semblance is never fully apprehended by the gaze, for that would freeze it (p. 90). Instead the icon “teaches the gaze” by “never allowing it to rest or settle” on the visible (p. 90). By pointing to something invisible – which by definition can never be seen by the viewer – the icon creates a dialectic which ends in infinity. Thus, one reaches the divine. The gaze no longer belongs to the viewer but to the icon (p. 91). The icon has a face which “regards” us and “allows the intention of the invisible to occur visibly (p. 91).” Intentionality is a characteristic not of objects but of subjects – therefore the icon must have a face to communicate that which is not. Only by possessing this intentionality can the icon point to that which is invisible, and thereby, forcing us into a state of flux – one is never satisfied that as one has seen that which the work of art signifies as one does when gazing upon the idol. The same way that I can never see what lies behind the face of the Other, no matter how intently I gaze at them, we cannot see that which lies behind the idol as it recedes infinitely from our view.

Big Man may actually lend himself a great deal toward iconic appreciation. He has a face. Anyone who has seen him will admit that he has a powerful effect on the viewer which is not easily reconciled without admitting that he “regards” us, nor by given interpretation. You are disinvited to look at him, or for that matter to interpret him with your gaze. Thus, Big Man has an intention of his own. By consistently deflecting and negating the gaze, Big Man lends himself to becoming an icon.

Furthermore, Big Man is a simulation of reality. He points to that which he is not. But that reality is not real either, in fact the representation of Big Man is more real than the real. This “frisson of the real” created by his simulated hyperreality reveals the fact that there is nothing real. Thus Big Man as icon “can demand, patiently, that one receive its abandon (p.97).” Viewing Big Man in this light requires us to accept its abdication of this world. We must accept the mystery which Big Man leaves behind. Allowing us momentarily to give up all the answers we think we have and thereby allowing momentary transcendence.

Between Kant and the Post-Moderns’, the Post-Moderns’ interpretation of the haunting impression of Big Man seems to be the more impressive. The application of Big Man to the Four Movements serves primarily to prove that pure aesthetic contemplation is possible for representational art. However, since Kant leaves little room for discussion of why something is beautiful, the true import of the impression on the viewer is better explained by both Baudrillard and Marion. As we have seen, Big Man is a self-contradiction in more way than one. He seems to negate every sensical interpretation. While Kant did find the central contradiction of purposiveness without purpose essential to all beauty he did not fully articulate how this might manifest itself when we know the purpose of human art.

The negation of meaning fits very well with the post-modern perspective on aesthetics, and helps to explain what it is that is so compelling about the work of Ron Mueck. The excess of hyperreality become clear: The real is dead. We have killed it! Thus the negation of the real may free us from the gaze, by exploding the limits of interpretation. Relying on our interpretative powers, we are always stuck staring back at ourselves through the work of art as icon, seeing only ourselves through the simulacrum of signs that regress into infinity. Only by breaking free of signification – through the negation of all known referents – can art ever hope to be transcendent.


[1] Burnham, Douglas. “Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) Theory of Aesthetics and Teleology (The Critique of Judgment)”. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2006. Staffordshire University, UK. April 25, 2009.

[2] Mueck, Ron. Interview with Sarah Tanguy. The Progress Big Man A Conversation with Ron Mueck. International Sculpture Center. Sculpture Magazine. July/August 2003.

[3] Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. University of Michigan Press, 1994.

[4] Mueck, Ron. Big Man. 2000. Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC. April 22, 2009. http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_p_WCJeIhaVA/Rb02GahYxGI/AAAAAAAAAGM/EDdPkiOM5eM/s1600-h/Ron+Mueck.jpg.

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