Babette Babich: “The Aesthetics of the Between: On Beauty and the Museum”

Babette Babich
Babette Babich

On May 21st, ECLA students had the honor of having Professor Babette Babich for a guest lecture titled “The Aesthetics of the Between: On Beauty and the Museum”.

Babette Babich is Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University in New York and her works have covered studies of Nietzsche and Heidegger, as well as theories in philosophies of science, technology, music and aesthetics.

Professor Babich began the lecture with a spirited description of phenomenological aesthetics. She explained the “between” in her lecture title as “between subject and object” where the “I” is privileged and maintains a perspectival nature that shifts depending on the encounter.

She gave the example of online social activity as simultaneously perceiving “nowhere” and sustaining a relational rather than a locative stance with regard to the artefacts of the World Wide Web.

In connection to painting, she gave an account of the complex process of a viewer’s perception, the one who beholds the image and the latter’s constituent space, while also comprehending the distance between himself as viewer and the painting as an object.

This between, which perhaps people might label as confusion, is the site where the ‘I’ negotiates its aesthetic experience, where one might say the painting really is. However, this between is not always apparent to the consciousness of the viewer, and even a trained eye is liable to negate this aspect.

As Professor Babich quoted Nietzsche, “expert eyes” are “ruined by habit”, hence the need for a phenomenological approach to aesthetics. From this account, she moved to a discussion of art and the museum through different ages and of what phenomenological aesthetics can unravel from conventional readings of past art.

She brought up the notion of museums as temples (to the religion of art), a reference which abounds in the discourses of nineteenth-century Romanticism. Museums construct the space for the viewing of art, thereby having great influence on the viewer’s perspective.

Professor Babich looks at sculpture as frameless art which she described as phenomenal beauty incarnated as an image of some invisible beauty. She points out a curious historical perspective on classicism that art enthusiasts of past centuries had bought into—the smooth, white facade of classical works.

Technological innovations have proven that these sculptures from ancient Greece were in fact painted with bright colors and were made to look textured. Nonetheless, this mistaken view that smooth, light-colored marble constitutes classicism’s archetypal beauty persists even today.

Having consumed this myth of beauty for many centuries, we have now internalized this “mistake” as an ideal, which in turn informs the modern viewer’s aesthetic experience by projecting such lingering expectations on to more contemporary works.

If there is one thing that modern cultural theories have brought to the consciousness of viewers, it is the notion of objectification of women. The erotic part of art had largely been deemed inappropriate and was therefore sidelined from discourse to make way for art’s more transcendent aspects.

Professor Babich, turning her attention to the contemporary art of Jeff Koons, identifies how this relationship of subject and object is brought to the surface more lucidly through the sexual dimension that appears in his work.

Looking at Koons’ Made in Heaven series, it fits perfectly with the pervading notion and practice of objectifying women—how their bodies are meant to be seen, and are present in the image to serve the (male) gaze with the assumption that this very presence implies their complicity, that these women want to be seen.

Though arguments can be made for women’s ability to appreciate these images, Professor Babich juxtaposes these artworks with images of male models. She points out that in these images the man does not give himself to be an object for women. The male image adheres to codes of masculinity, strength and authority.

Professor Babich concluded with a proposal for a thought experiment: to imagine living in a world without mirrors. It does seem that, just as interpretation seems inseparable from the experience of art, our generation’s mode of artistic consumption reflects a cardinal relation to one’s self, performed by everyone in his or her waking hours—stepping in front of a looking glass and instinctively thinking “that’s me.”

by April Matias (2nd year BA, Philippines)

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