Last year, I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and I left with Josiah McElheny’s name ringing in my ears after seeing his piece “Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism” in the Lubin Gallery. My experience with the piece was one of hypnosis and awe. I was in bewilderment of how it was possible for a sculptural piece to be so endlessly reflective, yet not incorporate the image of the viewer herself, yet be completely dependent on her position and interaction with the piece as in a “viewer shuttle,” as I read once described in a piece by Svetlana Alpers; but more than this articulation of disbelief, what I was experiencing was a combined sense of pleasure and discomfort. The image itself was aesthetically beautiful and extremely pleasing for me to encounter, yet I was viewing a space implausibly devoid of any and all images of human life, yet then again the pristine condition of it necessitated human intervention.
It is this experience that I now believe, having listened to his lecture last week, McElheny intended the viewer to enjoy and squirm at. In fact, a dominating theme in his discussion was his intention of obscuring the seemingly definitive lines between a sense of enjoying beauty and feeling disturbed. What the lecture informed me a great deal about in this respect was the cause for his obsession, which is rooted in the intellectual discourse of modernism. He began his lecture by introducing the underlying concept that troubled him: the concept of “ornamentation and crime.” He spoke of how it is seemingly a human instinct to ornament, yet in some modernist literature, the mere act of it is considered a crime and “should be abolished from the human psyche,” as McElheny said. The philosophy was overarching, but it manifested itself in modernist artwork of the twentieth century quite ostensibly. Using this as his starting point — yet constantly referring back to historical references in the time period as his research and inspiration — McElheny spoke in chronological (and developmental) order about the projects he undertook in order to address this philosophy and all its problems. The trajectory of his work dealing directly with this idea of “new modernisms” starts with seemingly unremarkable objects or landmarked images (i.e. the American flag, bottles inspired from a bar in Vienna, etc.) that are whitewashed and framed impeccably, providing an intensely beautiful, monochromatic object; through these works, McElheny explained that he intended to question the influence of utopian thinking that so heavily prevailed in modernism (as well as in the political and cultural happenings in the early 20th century) in creating a totalizing aesthetic. There is a clear course that McElheny’s work in this realm follows: from first expressing this concept of totalitarianism in aesthetics on conceptually aggrandized or unfathomable scales — speaking specifically of his piece Island Universe (2008) — towards a focus on the role of self-perception of the human body, ultimately as a means towards addressing the universal aesthetic pleasure of eliminating any visceral qualities of human biology.
Ultimately, the most powerful message that McElheny’s lecture provided for me was the idea that aesthetics can be a dangerous thing. As a psychology major, it has been engrained in my education that this is entirely true. McElheny left us with a startling but important question that relates perfectly with our human history and future: Can we think utopian thoughts without realizing them?