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“If beauty has to be soft and smooth, greatness is rough and neglected”; and by all means, Edmund Burke was right when he explained the importance of negativity in the definition of magnificence. A controversy that has produced different points of view throughout the last century. Spacing from Byung-Chul Han’s philosophical doctrine to Jeff Koons’ artistic expression, a journey into the land of the secular dispute between beautiful and sublime. 

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There were times when the aesthetic scenery saw sublime as the expression of greatness and fascination, times when expressive pleasure was produced by the dialectical encounter of charm and uneasiness. Nowadays smoothness finds itself undisputed in a society based on transparency and compliance. The “Veil of Maya” has gone missing, completely exposing its bearer, leaving nothing for the observer to interpret and giving no chance to recollect or meditate. Likeness is being worshipped and has, in fact, become a true religion, creating a world filled with positiveness, where the definition of beauty is being undermined by the absence of its negative counterpart. Therefore, Byung-Chul Han depicts a scenario in which the artistic production has completely bent towards the acceptance of it’s only conceived role: the employment of positivity. In this so-called "Transparency Society" there is no place for any type of veil, for any distance between an object and it’s observer, making it difficult to induce any form of contemplation and placing the viewer in front of an aesthetic characterized by explicitness and pornography


Jeff Koons, "Balloon Dog (Blue)" (1994-2000), mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent colour coating. Courtesy of The Broad Museum, Los Angeles.


It’s in this especially atypical environment that a fine mind like the one of Jeff Koons understands the importance of creating artefacts realized to activate the observer’s urge to get closer and touch or feel, these simple and smooth surfaces that are placed before him. Sculptures like “Balloon Dog (Blue)” (1994-2000) aim to make the viewer feel good about himself, using extreme positiveness to induce happiness and trigger what Koons defines as the “WOW” effect. A moment in which the observant is committed only to pleasure and forgets about anything that can be defined as negative. This specific process embodies perfectly the so-called “like society”, where everything is forced to be positive and of immediate consumption, making Jeff Koons’ artistic production one of the highest and finest representations of the environment that we are subject to nowadays. 


Jeff Koons, "Tulips" (1995-2004). Courtesy of Fondazione Prada, Milano.


If we take a closer look to some of the artist’s main works, like the world-famous “Tulips” (1995-2004), now on show at Fondazione Prada in Milan, we can truly dive into an ecstatic feeling which brings us back to our childhood and to those memories that we love to remember the most. When glancing at Jeff Koons’ sculptures, we are subject to a throwback that puts us in touch with the time when being naive was still allowed, putting any type of negativity aside while we sink in a mellow and dreamy state of pleasure. As Byung-Chul Han underlines, in order to truly understand our contemporary “likeness society” and be conscious about it’s frivolous and superficial definition of beauty, we must regain a contemplative gaze, giving back to time it’s “perfume”, which is slow and permanent, which smells of reminiscence and memory. 

Written by Mario Rodolfo Silva

Cover image: Byung-Chul Han, South Korean contemporary philosopher and lecturer at Universität der Künste, Berlin. 


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