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.