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How artists created an aesthetic of "positive barbarism" in a world devastated by World War II, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb

In Brutal Aesthetics, leading art historian Hal Foster explores how postwar artists and writers searched for a new foundation of culture after the massive devastation of World War II, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb. Inspired by the notion that modernist art can teach us how to survive a civilization become barbaric, Foster examines the various ways that key figures from the early 1940s to the early 1960s sought to develop a "brutal aesthetics" adequate to the destruction around them.

With a focus on the philosopher Georges Bataille, the painters Jean Dubuffet and Asger Jorn, and the sculptors Eduardo Paolozzi and Claes Oldenburg, Foster investigates a manifold move to strip art down, or to reveal it as already bare, in order to begin again. What does Bataille seek in the prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux? How does Dubuffet imagine an art brut, an art unscathed by culture? Why does Jorn populate his paintings with "human animals"? What does Paolozzi see in his monstrous figures assembled from industrial debris? And why does Oldenburg remake everyday products from urban scrap?

A study of artistic practices made desperate by a world in crisis, Brutal Aesthetics is an intriguing account of a difficult era in twentieth-century culture, one that has important implications for our own.

Published in association with the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.


Hal Foster is the Townsend Martin, Class of 1917, Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University and the author of many books, including The First Pop Age (Princeton). A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he writes regularly for October, the London Review of Books, and Artforum.

Robert Slifkin is associate professor of fine arts at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. He is the author of Out of Time: Philip Guston and the Refiguration of Postwar American Art. He lives in New York City.

Event date: 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020 - 7:00pm to 8:00pm

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Brutal Aesthetics: Dubuffet, Bataille, Jorn, Paolozzi, Oldenburg Cover Image
ISBN: 9780691202600
Availability: On Our Shelves
Published: Princeton University Press - November 17th, 2020

The New Monuments and the End of Man: U.S. Sculpture Between War and Peace, 1945-1975 Cover Image
ISBN: 9780691192529
Availability: On Our Shelves
Published: Princeton University Press - November 5th, 2019