Jean Clair, director of the Musée Picasso in Paris and widely respected both as scholar and art critic, has for some years been out of sympathy with contemporary art. When he and I shared a platform in the Netherlands a year ago, he spoke of a new aesthetic marked, in his view, by repulsion, abjection, horror and disgust. I have been brooding on this ever since, and particularly on disgust as an aesthetic category. For disgust, in Jean Clair’s view, is a common trait, a family resemblance of the art produced today not only in America and Western Europe but even in the countries of Central Europe recently thrown open to Western modernity. We do not have in English the convenient antonymy between goût (taste) and dégoût (disgust) that licenses his neat aphoristic representation of what has happened in art over the past some decades: From taste…we have passed on to disgust. But inasmuch as taste was the pivotal concept when aesthetics was first systematized in the eighteenth century, it would be a conceptual revolution if it had been replaced by disgust. I have never, I think, heard “disgusting!” used as an idiom of aesthetic approbation, but it would perhaps be enough if art were in general admired when commonly acknowledged to be disgusting. It is certainly the case that beauty has become a ground for critical suspicion, when its production was widely regarded as the point and purpose of art until well into the twentieth century.
Though “disgusting” has a fairly broad use as an all-around pejorative, it also refers to a specific feeling, noticed by Darwin in his masterpiece, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, as excited by anything unusual in the appearance, odor or nature of our food. It has little to do with literal taste. Most of us find the idea of eating cockroaches disgusting, but for just that reason few really know how cockroaches taste. The yogurt that sports a mantle of green fuzz–to cite an example recently mentioned in a New Yorker story–may be delicious and even salubrious if eaten, but it elicits shrieks of disgust when seen. A smear of soup in a man’s beard looks disgusting, though there is of course nothing disgusting in the soup itself, to use one of Darwin’s examples. There is nothing disgusting in the sight of a baby with food all over its face, though, depending on circumstances, we may find it disgusting that a grown man’s face should be smeared with marinara sauce.
Like beauty, disgust is in the mind of the beholder, but it is one of the mechanisms of acculturation, and there is remarkably little variation in our schedules of what disgusts. So disgust is an objective component in the forms of life that people actually live. The baby is very quickly taught to wipe its face lest others find it disgusting, and we hardly can forbear reaching across the table to remove a spot of chocolate from someone’s face–not for their sake but for our own. What he speaks of as “core disgust” has become a field of investigation for Jon Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. He and his associates set out to determine the kinds or domains of experience in which Americans experience disgust. Foods, body products and sex, not unexpectedly, got high scores when people were queried on their most disgusting experiences. Subjects also registered disgust in situations in which the normal exterior envelope of the body is breached or altered. I was philosophically illuminated to learn that of fifty authenticated feral children, none evinced disgust at all. But I am also instructed by the fact that my cultural counterparts are disgusted by what disgusts me, more or less.
This overall consensus encourages me to speculate that most of us would unhesitatingly find the characteristic work of the artist Paul McCarthy, largely live and video performance, disgusting. There may be–there doubtless is–more to McCarthy’s art than this, but whatever further it is or does depends, it seems to me, on the fact that it elicits disgust. It may, for example, debunk a false idealism McCarthy regards as rampant in Hollywood films, advertising and folklore, as one commentator writes. But it achieves this just so far as it is disgusting. It may relentlessly and rigorously probe the airbrushed innocence of family entertainment to reveal its seamy psychic underpinnings, to cite another critic. So it may show what really underlies it all, the way the worm-riddled backside of certain Gothic sculptures whose front sides were of attractive men and women were intended to underscore our common mortality. But that does not erase the fact that maggots count as disgusting. So possibly McCarthy is a kind of moralist, and his works are meant to awaken us to awful truths and their disgustingness as a means to edificatory ends. That still leaves intact the revulsion their contemplation evokes. Disgust is not something that can easily be disguised. Beautiful art, Kant wrote, can represent as “beautiful things which may be in nature ugly or displeasing.” But the disgusting is the only “kind of ugliness which cannot be represented in accordance with its nature without destroying all aesthetic satisfaction.”