Ben Lau's name stamp in Chinese Calligraphic writing originally means "The Great Wall of Han Dynasty"

About Fetish

Ben Lau's name stamp in Chinese Calligraphic writing originally means "The Great Wall of Han Dynasty"


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Does Fetish Point To The Aesthetic Of The Ugly?                    

             Charles de Brosses thought that fetish is the worship of material objects originated from the primordial psyche for the individual to derive an inexplicable comfort or pleasure for such a fixation. Accordingly, that worship is primitive, proto-religious, uncivilized, and unenlightened. How fetish has arisen in man’s psyche is an issue that has been thoroughly discussed and theorized especially in Sigmund Freud’s “General Psychoanalysis” and in Jacques Lacan’s “The Signification of the Phallus.” Many authors since then such as Jacques Derrida, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva and Sarah Kofman, have commented on this topic of fetishism. Each looks at it from the view points dictated by the individual’s own cultural leaning and beliefs. For example, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva held feminist views and their reading of fetishism cannot depart from their own aversion against a phallo-centric, patriarchal construction. Derrida in Glas (1974) pointed out that the indecision characterized in the fetishist reflects the instability of signification and hence it is an example appropriately “showing deconstruction in action.”

       Louis Althusser appropriated the Lacanian theory, claiming that because of the split ego, an alleged development in the infant’s mirror stage, the fetishist misrecognizes his socially- constructed persona as his true self. Bataille and Lukacs relentlessly exposed the commoditization of art, declaring that such an act is tantamount to a fetishing of culture. Greenberg’s theories in modern art were vilified as an apotheosis of fetishism in the visual arts while Walter Benjamin was criticized as having out-fetished the fetishist in his developing of a materialistic method to approach cultural artifacts.

       Without exception, all of the above thinkers, including Benjamin and Greenberg, have found fetish to be an extremely undesirable thing-something that confuses the split ego to fix on as a kind of comfort-yielding substitute, psychologically speaking. Hence fetish is not simply a word that connotes guilt in a Christian, “phallo-centric” culture but also something to be actively avoided to make way for an enlightened setting for the re-development of culture in a society.

      The Enlightenment theory of fetishism decries fetish as an idiosyncratic worship that cannot distinguish between subjective desire and objective causality. In this light, one may expect Immanuel Kant’s observation to provide a clear solution to the problem of fetishism. In his essay, Critique of Judgment (1790), Kant noted that the aesthetic faculty of a self-critical mind is one that is capable of distinguishing within sensuous experience between the purposive-ness of its own subjectivity and the objective purpose found in teleological systems such as biological organisms. In other words, Kant was saying that because of the debased quality of fetishism, i.e. one that is not worthy of a critical mind- an enlightened person must be able to distinguish the aesthetics of the beautiful from that of the ugly. The aesthetics of the ugly, implied by Kant, points to fetishism since it is merely about “objective purpose found in teleological systems such as biological organisms. Such a primordial overvaluing of materialistic object-hood is thus not conducive to the consummation of a moral autonomy in an individual. The fact of the matter is, even if I have slightly erred in that reading of Kant, the privileging of aesthetic over fetishism by the combined mentality of all of the above thinkers would still come to my rescue as it inevitably leads to the conclusion that fetishism is the aesthetics of the ugly.

       Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to apply Kant’s solution to the domain of painting, partly because none of the aforesaid people are artistic geniuses, but mainly because an aesthetic for the genuinely beautiful is border-blind. All borders, be they temporal, geographical, ideological or cultural, have no relationship with beauty whatsoever. The Yin and Yang are the elements that reality is made out of, according to Lao Tzu, a sage living in China 3000 years ago. But there is no such thing as a European Yin and Yang. Nor is there such a thing as Chinese beauty. To recognize the universality of this implication is the first step towards wisdom.

       If anything, a simple example given by Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon will fully illustrate the inconsistency of Kant’s so-called solution. So let us now turn our gaze on what the artistic geniuses would have said about fetish. 

       We may still recall the uproar created over this work by Picasso in his time. That uproar was essentially rooted in the very mentality of treating fetishism as an aesthetic of the ugly.


Figure 1: Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

       In Figure 1, the faces of the Demoiselles, who are in fact women that Picasso found in a brothel in Avignon, are being depicted in a primitive style strongly suggestive of the African mask. Even though Dr.Frenchy Lunning, Ph.D. has pointed out to her friend that in art there is nothing original under the sun, correctly implying that even with artistic geniuses like Picasso or our nameless African master shown below (Fig. 2), the so-called originality in art has never truly existed, it would still be grossly unfair to say that people like Picasso , Cezanne, or Matisse, have appropriated African Art, or any other art for that matter. However, while it is true that Picasso had adopted an African approach in this painting’s aesthetics rather than one that is reflective of “critical” beauty peculiar to the Christian culture around the Mediterranean Sea, one cannot say that the border has been crossed or the sanctity of classical beauty violated.

       Borrowing from Foucault, may I suggest that in our case at hand, aesthetics itself can be a social construction! Whatever is exulted in a culture originates from a power-structured relationship in which the suppression of the other is in full force. In this case, in our Western culture in which otherness, African Art, is considered alien. Needless to say, Greek Art was privileged over African Art prior to the emergence of Picasso. The Classical has always been upheld as the epitome of reason; the classical principles of design thus ensued are the legitimate product of “an enlightened and sensible mind.” African Art was denigrated as ugly, fetishist, primitive, raw and uncivilized. It is, like Kant has said, a “mystifying of the physical world by attributing to it a human-oriented teleology and reified the social world by subjecting all capacity for moral autonomy to mechanical rituals and dogmatic beliefs.                                             

 Figure 2: Zaire wood carving

       Were one to believe Kant, then one would have failed to see the artistic rationales of Picasso, who, as an artistic genius, doubtlessly has a higher stake in art, and therefore a better understanding in the technical and compositional problems of painting than Kant, who is simply theorizing about art up to that point. It is fair to say, then, that Picasso understands better than Kant in both the aesthetic and the fetish, as the vast and brilliant oeuvre of this master has attested.

In Figure 2 we see a chieftain’s wooden stool from Zaire in the form of a female slave. The prominent breast; the pedantic pose; the elephantine ear; the drooping inner labia and the impossible anatomy of the feet suggest that this figure is fetishist by nature. For a culturally  thoroughbred European viewer to admire it, he must first remove the taboo and the curse of an aesthetic of the ugly as a transitional stage, so the guilt of fetish worship is eliminated of its psychological baggage.


Figure 3: Ben Lau Erotica Francais Figure 4: Knox Martin: Woman           

       Figure 3. shows my painting of Erotica Francais and Figure 4 is by the contemporary master, Knox Martin (an artistic genius with an astonishing I.Q. of 196) These pictures shows the coupling act in which a man and a woman are engaged in an erotic embrace (Fig. 3) and the painterly manipulation of the body shape of a woman (Fig. 4) indicates a perfectly powerful and vivid wildness and primitiveness. Not only have their limbs the appearance of having been "truncated" or "anatomically displaced," they also appear to indicate a fetish suggestive of "kinky

sex" or "formal perversion"- in other words, formal constitution unacceptable in the classical sense denoting beauty. The enjoyment of that fetish naturally fills such a viewer with guilt echoing back and forth in the deep corridor of his own ego.

       In my MFA Graduate Thesis paper proper, I have attributed all of my works to a design principle grounded in artistic excellence and timeless beauty with the intent of calligraphic mark- makings. My aesthetic is, therefore, one that dismisses the cultural border in art and diminishes the effect of existential relativity. Hence there is to be neither a European, an African, nor a Chinese styled beauty in an art that treads on the water of timelessness. There is only beauty. Neither a temporal nor a cultural border exists for an art that is beholden only to beauty. Just as we cannot describe mathematics as hermeneutical or elitist, neither can we say the same about an art that is based on the supreme mathematical relationship as a ground-work for the expression of beauty. A careful visual examination of these arts (from Fig. 1 through Fig. 4) would probably prepare one for the revelation of that mathematical truth- or perhaps not. But whatever the outcome, it is self- evident that, not unlike classical art, these arts are similarly grounded in a precise geometrical structural matrix. The kinship offered by mathematics ties them in and rejects the claim that fetish is ugliness incarnate.   

        I have defined beauty in the same vein as the supreme mathematical relationship arrived at by a genius, one that invokes the notion of the sublime. The art thus conceived serves the dual functions of transcending the spirit as well as provoking the sensual. The work of Picasso, that of the anonymous Zaire master, Knox Martin’s work and my own work here all carry that supreme mathematical relationship. In addition, these works are fully capable of awakening the sensual. The answer to the question posed by the heading of this paper, “Does fetish point to an aesthetic of the ugly?” is therefore a flat and resounding NO!” 

       While these artists are not exactly saying that a good fetish is beauty incarnate itself, the next logical step for the viewer is to examine art at its root and ask the question why fetish has been heavily relied on as a device for the painters to bring out the sensual in their visual metaphors. From the Egyptians and the Greek, through the Oriental, the Medieval and the Islamic up to the present, this strategy of fetish adoption has never changed. Why have the African, the Spanish (Martin is part Spanish and part Indian), or the Chinese artists reached the implied consensus that Kant is truly mistaken in treating the fetish as the other in a cultural context with regard to aesthetics? The rest of the thinkers mentioned above, by the same token, have similarly erred in making the suggestion that fetish points to an aesthetic of the ugly.

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