From the earliest times in history artists and thinkers have strived to identify the essential motives behind humans’ urge to make art. One such motivating force is
mimesis. Long before it became a central category of the modern discipline of aesthetics, the category of mimesis was widely used for understanding musical, verbal or visual representation. Aristotle famously declared in the first pages of the Poetics that it is the need to imitate, mimic, copy, or depict “men in action” that constitutes the major impetus for composing songs, prose, and poetry, or for staging drama. With the rise of modern subjectivity, the notion of
expression grew in popularity, and was used to explain the modern individual’s unique and private inner world, which had not only to be externalized and made objective, but communicated to others. This modern individual, pressed by the need to form or “create,” believed himself totally self-contained and fully autonomous, a demigod forging his heroic destiny. Accordingly works of art were regarded as objectified spirit, as feelings and emotions, repressed animalic instincts turned into artifacts by means of earthly materials such as paint, canvas, language, and the human body. The concept of aesthetic
construction rose to the fore when the self-sufficiency of the modern subject was put into question. Construction has been considered a category of late or “mature” art, at a time when visionary philosophers and artists saw the “end of art,” or when art’s self-evidence seemed undermined. Construction conveys the modern artist’s refusal to imitate a reality now perceived as alienated, or to express a Self that is itself a constructed product of a ruling class ideology. The paradigmatic twentieth century modernist artist, then, ceases to mimic or express, and devotes him or herself instead (as Karl Marx suggests is the task of the modern philosopher) to acting upon the unjust world, by continually striving to “make it new,” hoping to break free of the vicious circle of modernist alienation. Often armed with materialist convictions about history, the artist assembled splinters and fragments of the world into collages, decoupages, bricolages, assemblages, cinematic and photographic montages— that is, into absolute totalities impregnated with the promise of a better future.
This exhibition uses the aesthetic categories of mimesis, expression and construction for both expository and didactic reasons. We invite our audience to explore artworks – traditional paintings of different genres and styles, modernist compositions, objects and constructions, as well as works of contemporary art – through these aesthetic categories. For example, the mimetic aspect most clearly prevails in the works of early Arab painters. Khalil Saleeby’s series of portraits of late 19th and early 20th-century Beirutis (from ordinary people to local luminaries) are a perfect example of depicting “men in action,” just as Aristotle believed was the task and essence of
poesis. But already in Saleeby’s last painting (the 1928
Self-Portrait) we see a more individualized and expressive brushstroke, as if the painter were seeking a more personal pictorial language, a unique signature of that presumably autonomous individual dreamed of by the champions of the
Arab nahda. Artworks dominated by expressionistic tendencies reveal the rise of a modern subjectivity appearing in the aftermath of World War II in the works of Saliba Douaihy, Vera Eramian, Shafic Abboud, Yvette Achkar, or the early Helen Khal. It is around the same time that constructivist aesthetic impulses are made manifest in the cubist paintings of Georges Cyr, in Saloua Raouda Choucair’s modules, in the mimetic constructivism of Hussein Madi, or in the Bauhaus-inspired work of John Carswell and the more recent geometrical structures of Gebran Tarazi. We must emphasize that we do not encourage using these aesthetic categories in discrete isolation. The case of Saliba Douaihy (as with that of many other Arab artists) is illustrative and instructive for our project, as mimetic, expressive and constructive representational impulses tend to establish their supremacy at various stages of his artistic career: from the mimetic representations of the Levantine landscapes painted in his youth, to the expressionistic rendering of the same landscapes, and finally to the complete renouncement of any recognizable empirical reality in favor of a vocabulary constructed of lines and planes.
Even though artworks have been selected in accordance with the predominant aesthetic category at work, we encourage the viewer to look at artworks dialectically. A dialectical aesthetic theory resists the temptation of applying these categories selectively or in separation from each other. Instead, we seek to inspire viewers to pursue the interplay of various (mimetic, expressive, or constructive) impetuses within one and the same artwork, determining the principle of representation that establishes its authority within the work of art. In order to do so we must think historically, in terms of the mode of production, or the sociopolitical context, in which the particular artwork was made. In other words, rather than suggest that each artwork in this exhibition is a singular instance of mimetic, expressive or constructive representation, we encourage an interpretation that aims at discovering within the same work mimetic expressions, expressive constructions, constructive mimesis, and so on.
The mimetic-expressive-constructive triad remains useful in discussing works of fine art. However, we also take a further step, asking ourselves: what about contemporary art? Works of contemporary art in this exhibition do not only stand apart from the traditional fine arts in their distinct post-media theatricality, but also in that they pose the urgent question of what categories of representation we could or should use to discuss them. Can we still analyze the contemporary artworks of Joe Namy, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Daniele Genadry, Rania Stephan, Hiba Kalache or Miha Vipotnik by referring to the traditional categories of mimesis, expression or construction? If so, how? If not, then what other category, or categories – aesthetic or otherwise – are most suitable for interpreting these works? Or should we leave the categories of mimesis, expression or construction to the art historians of classical, modern and modernist art? Critics have suggested that a “pure” aesthetics of contemporary art – in the modern or modernist sense of the word – is not possible anymore, due mainly but not only to nominalist tendencies and the disappearance of universals (art genres, styles, categories). Contemporary art ostensibly does not operate within an aesthetic universe laid out in accordance with distinct and easily recognizable categories of representation. Instead, each contemporary work puts forward its own singular aesthetic theory. In this respect a work of contemporary art is a singularity, and to speak of an aesthetics of contemporary art is to speak of a multitude of aesthetic singularities.
We decided to include works of contemporary art in this exhibition not merely as instances of aesthetic singularities (or to intimidate older canvases brought to the light of day from various storage facilities) but as a way to help us better understand where we stand today. Should we, in other words, ultimately renounce the established modes of interpretation that reach to us from the past, or give them another chance? These are some of the main questions raised in this exhibition, accompanied by a series of screenings and debates. Moreover,
Mimesis, Expression, Construction is intended as a dialogue, a dialogue between artists of different epochs working across multiple media, a dialogue between the “contemporaries” and the “pre-contemporaries.” In this encounter between the art of the past and present – Arab art of the past and present to be more precise – the art of the past asks contemporary art what its aesthetic rationale might be, as contemporary art gazes forgetfully toward the future.
Curator AUB Art Galleries