Objective sensibility

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Torben Sangild’s PhD dissertation is written in Danish, 2001-04. Its complete title would translate to ”Objective Sensibility - On Objectification in Contemporary Art and Music with Reflections on the Decisive Role of Sensibility in Artistic Expression, Experience and Critical Potential”

English Summary

The Neo-Avant-Garde has objectified the artistic gesture and, in various ways, stressed its mediated, coded, conceptual, technological and institutions character. This was a decisive step away from a mythical cherishing of subjectivity and spontaneity in a romantic and expressionistic idiom. Through analyses of works of art and music and through reflections of aesthetic expression, experience and autonomy, I suggest a theory of “objective sensibility.” My point is that the sensuous and emotional aspects of art do not become irrelevant because of this objective turn; sensibility is still decisive in the expression and experience of art. This argument is informed by an unorthodox reading of Theodor Adorno’s aesthetics with contemporary perspectives. In my analysis of Andy Warhol’s disaster paintings, I emphasize the way the indifferent, cool gesture is itself expressive. The expressivity and the cynical gesture work together dialectically. The repetition of the tragic motif, the muddy surface, the printing technology and the titles synthesize a complex signification between mediated superficiality and profane praying. In the “Sparagmos” essay I analyze four electroacoustic works (by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Herbert Eimert, Luigi Nono and Steve Reich) all employing electronically fragmented human voices. They treat highly traumatic events – the holocaust and the Bikini nuclear testings - with depersonalized expressions. The objectifying, technological employment of the voices places itself between speech and muteness, between therapeutic recollection and precaution against the violence of language. Technology and the human merge and the sound objects are subjected to serial systems in an objectified sensibility. The third close analysis, “Glitch – the Beauty of Malfunction” (written and published in English, see above) treats a new genre in electronica. Glitch music incorporates the sounds of technological malfunctions, expressing a peculiarly fragile sensibility and at the same time a self-critique of technology. Apart from these close readings, I examine more briefly Iannis Xenakis, Gerhard Richter, Jenny Holzer, Gordon Matta-Clark, John Klima and several movements in art and music. In “Crying without tears” I reflect on the aesthetic concept of “expression” in Adorno with reference to the objectifying development mentioned above. I argue that objects are able to express emotions and that an emphatically indifferent gesture relates to an emotional sensibility. Aesthetic experience is the topic of the next chapter, unfolding a dialectic of subject and object centered on the object. In the experience, the subject employs the sensory apparatus in order to register the expression of the artwork. This experience cannot simply be called communication. Furthermore, I emphasize the intimate relations between thought, sensation and emotion. Finally, I topicalize Adorno’s concept of autonomy, aiming at a pertinent contemporary definition. Art is autonomous when choosing its own rules, be they contextual or determined. Moreover, a minimal autonomy is found in the inevitable aesthetic gaze. I argue that autonomy in Adorno is more avant-gardistic, political and self-critical than commonly read. In the epilogue, I suggest further perspectives related to other arts and theories aiming at a contemporary aesthetics of sensibility.


About Torben Sangild