When I was in college, I learned a particular story about the concept of the aesthetic. It was a drama that featured a lot of now-familiar players: Kant, Hegel, and Marx; Nietzsche and Heidegger; Benjamin and Adorno; Jameson and Eagleton; Kristeva and Derrida. Despite the myriad ups and downs of the very concept of art, its relative or absolute autonomy, or its capacity or incapacity for social critique, there remained a general set of constants. One of them was the idea that art, as a space somewhat set apart from the needful things of daily life and especially the instrumentalist thinking of the marketplace, might offer, if not a possible glimpse of a future utopia, at least a clearing for contemplation.
Today, an aesthetician is not necessarily a theorist. He or she is also someone who specializes in the treatment of skin. This may seem somehow frivolous, but the connection is real, as real as paint on canvas. The aesthetic has become embodied, a possible matter of how one moves through the world in one’s own skin. Older models of the aesthetic, of course, presumed a fundamental homogeneity of subject position—the white, Western, cis-heterosexual male—whose embodiment was a kind of default setting, such that it slid through its environment aerodynamically, without any notable resistance.
We are now finding ourselves in a historical moment characterized by those very same white people feeling the resistance, the mis-fit, that so many others have felt in their own society for centuries. They are feeling the friction of unbelonging, the chafe of decentered suppositions. They are reflecting on their own bodies, but so many of them are doing so not critically but aggressively, empowered by a resurgent ideology of white supremacy that did not begin in the White House but now emanates from it like a 24-hour homing beacon. White supremacy and Fascism, as we know from history, are very invested in aesthetics. These ideologies must work overtime to impose the abnormal concept of whiteness and masculinity as natural states. They want their bodies to become hyper-visible so that they can disappear once again into a default existence.
For the rest of us, an embodied aesthetic can serve as a different kind of resistance. Not only does radical art from diverse subject positions offer the possibility—needed, as they say, now more than ever—for a contemplative zone where we can take momentary mental respite from the hate and violence of the news cycle. (This is less “escape” than self-preservation.) It also reminds us that seeing and hearing in the world are thick, physical processes, recorded and shared by embodied subjects. When we experience a film that demands a new engagement with the landscape or confronts us with a new, more inclusive form of portraiture, we are feeling ideas brush against us. We are experiencing the palpable resistance of the new against ourselves. And it can change us.
One aesthetician I did not mention above is Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In a way, his phenomenology also dealt with the skin of things. He argued that the objects that we see and hear touch us, envelop us, that we are palpated by the sensual world. This is a basic fact of being alive, but how do we respond to it? Do we seek to domesticate that world by putting it in order, classifying it according to sex, gender, and skin color? Or do we allow ourselves to experience the sometimes-frightening joy of unexpected touch, the resistance that slides along our skin and makes our hair stand on end?
In times like these, such gestures may seem trivial. But if you have the chance to see these deeply resistant films, I guarantee that the wretched world will still be there when you are done. You, however, might not be the same.
Some Great Films from This Year
LANDSCAPES: Altiplano (Malena Szlam), ante mis ojos (Lina Rodriguez), Atomic Garden (Ana Vaz), Colophon (Nathaniel Dorsky), Commute (Vincent Grenier), Entry Note (Saul Levine), French Exit (Oliver Husain), Lang (Lichun Tseng), Lines of Force (Dan Browne), Marking Time (Robert Todd), Polly One (Kevin Jerome Everson), A Return (James Edmonds), Saint Bathans Repetitions (Alexandre Larose), Trees Down Here (Ben Rivers)
PORTRAITS: Amazing Fantasy (Ana Vaz), Black Mother (Khalik Allah), Cover Girl (Sara Cwynar), Fountains of Paris (Stephen Broomer), Goddess (Kevin Jerome Everson), Harry Smith at the Breslin Hotel (Robert Frank), Jean-Luc Nancy (Antoinette Zwirchmayr), jeny303 (Laura Huertas Millán), Lucha Libre (Manuel de Landa), Mahogany Too (Akosua Adoma Owusu), naissance des étoiles (#2) (John Price), Now, At Last (Ben Rivers)
HISTORIES: Bisbee ’17 (Robert Greene), Eye of a Needle (Katherin McInnis), Fainting Spells (Sky Hopinka), Fausto (Andrea Bussmann), Gens du lac (Jean-Marie Straub), Giverny I: Négresse Impériale (Ja’Tovia Gary), Hoarders Without Borders (Jodie Mack), Labyrinth (Laura Huertas Millán), Light Lick: Love Stain (Saul Levine), Second Time Around (Dora García), Sketches and Portraits for Jean Michel (Ephraim Asili), Veslemøy’s Song (Sofia Bohdanowicz)
MEMORIES: Between Relating and Use (Nazlī Dinçel), Blue (Apichatpong Weerasethakul), The Boy Who Chose Earth (Lav Diaz), Drift (Helena Wittmann), Fallen Arches (Simon Liu), The Green Fog (Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson), A Leaf is the Sea is a Theater (Jonathan Schwartz), Man in the Well (Hu Bo), The Rider (Chloé Zhao), The Tale (Jennifer Fox), Words, Planets (Laida Lertxundi)
ACTIONS: 3 peonies (Stephanie Barber), Arena (Björn Kämmerer), Candle (Neil Henderson), Drag (Bea Haut), Love and the Epiphanists (Part One) (Scott Stark), mumok kino (Philipp Fleischmann), please step out of the frame (Karissa Hahn)
EXPLORATIONS: Binary Stars (Andrew Busti), Diamantino (Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt), Edge of the Knife (Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown), Fatal Pulse (Damon Packard), The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack), Life After Love (Zachary Epcar), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan), Mixed Signals (Courtney Stephens), The Task (Leigh Ledare)
PROTESTS: The Falling Sky (Peggy Ahwesh), I Can See Forever (Jeremy Shaw), I Hope I’m Loud When I’m Dead (Beatrice Gibson), The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard), Junkanoo Talk (Rhea Storr), me and my army (Sair Goetz), Norman Norman (Sophy Romvari), The Spell Reel (Filipa César, et al), The Sun Quartet (Colectivo Los ingravídos), Walled Unwalled (Lawrence Abu Hamdan)