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Gender Categories of Beauty?

Heie Treier (2/2016)

Heie Treier writes on the deeper currents in the history of beauty and ugliness.

Jaanus Samma's solo show "NSFW. A Chairman's Tale" has been a frequent talking point lately – in connection with its success at the 56th International Art Exhibition in Venice in 2015 and its reappearance at the Museum of Occupations in Tallinn in 2016. In the latter format, the show tied in with broader discussions about the concept of occupation and the function of the museum hosting the show in Estonia.1 Is the persecution of a homosexual chairman of a Soviet collective farm by the occupation regime the same thing as mass deportations and other such injustices perpetrated by the same regime, which are the intended focus of the museum?



Jaanus Samma
NSFW. A Chairman's Tale (Estonian pavillion
at the 56th Venice Biennale)
Exhibition view at the Museum of Occupations
Courtesy of the artist
Photo by Anna-Stina Treumund



Social resonance

In his "NSFW. A Chairman's Tale", Samma fused together the starting points from two previous exhibitions. The idea of the harsh content, message and connection with authentic historical research comes from his "Untold Stories" at Tallinn Art Hall in 2011.2 The chic glamour and poetic aspect come from his winning project for the 2013 Köler Prize nominees show at the Contemporary Art Museum Estonia. In fact, a very clever accentuation of glamour or kitsch (in terms of materials, motifs and references) has been characteristic of Samma's work from the very beginning.

The show is intended to address a contemporary audience in connection with the heavily politicised issue of minority rights. It is, then, yet another case of post-structuralist theory making its way from university auditoriums to the mainstream media and the everyday level, where practical application may turn a seemingly innocuous theory into a virtual mine field. What is at issue is the definition of minorities and their social position; these grassroots discussions are in turn related to the prescriptions and legislative changes introduced by Estonia as a European Union Member State.

As the show centres on communicating a very strong message, which is also the focus of the texts and reviews accompanying it, KUNST.EE in fact commissioned this article with a completely different point of view in mind. That is to say, the current topicality of gay rights is already causing a sort of memory loss within the art world itself, in respect to the art of the recent past in particular. More specifically, while Samma's investigation is based on the case of a specific homosexual individual who was active in the Soviet era, would it be possible to retrospectively trace a certain difficult-to-define gay aesthetic or sensibility or something of the sort in the art of that era?


The category of beauty – gender-based?

I myself relate to the issue as an art historian who lectures to university students on Western art of the 20th and 21st centuries, discussing the fundamental changes occurring in art amidst industrialisation and modernisation. One milestone among many is Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic interpretation of art history in texts such as "Eine Kindheitserinnerung des Leonardo da Vinci" (Leonardo da Vinci: A Memory of his Childhood, 1910) and his interpretation (1914) of Michelangelo's "Moses" (c. 1513–1515), which took a step further from Nietzsche's statement that God was dead. To offer a psychoanalytic interpretation of noble Renaissance art based on biblical storylines and draw conclusions about the sexual orientation of a 15th/16th-century artist must have been a very audacious move in its time. Hermeneutically speaking one could say that the elimination of the Bible as an introducer of taboos is precisely what is of key importance at the level of human relationships. The Bible also stood in the way of modernisation when the individual with a living mind and soul was to be redefined as a labour robot (in Charlie Chaplin's "Modern times", 1936) or a cog in an anonymous mass (in Marxist-Leninist ideology).

Interestingly, the Soviet Union as a strictly atheist, or Bible-free, progress-orientated state, of which Estonia was a part, also defined homosexuality as a taboo of which there was zero tolerance. If one gets the impression that this criminalised theme was absent from Estonian art during the Soviet period; this is probably because that is how it was. In Polish art of the socialist period, on the other hand, something was being made: at "Gender Check", a gigantic exhibition of Eastern European art curated by Bojana Pejić at the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig (MUMOK) in Vienna in 2009, an oil painting by Łukasz Korolkiewicz, "Miłość" (Love, 1977) was shown depicting two men in a natural setting in the countryside, although decently. One cannot imagine something like that having been painted in Soviet Estonia.


The question of beauty: Wilde, Kant, Marx

Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) was much more than just a poet or writer; he was a cult figure. His tomb at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris attests to this. The monumental tombstone, which can be seen not far from the grave of the classic Estonian artist Eduard Wiiralt (1898–1954), speaks of the fact that ever new generations visit it as if on a pilgrimage, leaving behind flowers and letters and other signs of their presence. The famous novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde was translated into Estonian in 1929 by our own literary figure Anton Hansen Tammsaare (1878–1940). A reprint came out in 1972, deep in the Soviet era.

In the early 1980s, Oscar Wilde and all that he stood for, that is, dandyism and aestheticism, was also held in high esteem among some Estonian artists, especially graphic artists. This remained merely a brief episode and the open society of the 1990s saw many artists change direction. For example, Ly Lestberg and Liina Siib moved to photography; Mall Nukke started making pop art collages. During this transition period, the artists Raoul Kurvitz and Urmas Muru of the Rühm T group, who made a series of extravagant performances, were the ones to continue to emphasize the image of a dandy and an aesthete the longest. One could say, however, that in this 1980s fascination with decadence, people tended to think in terms of universalist categories; although Wilde's biographical facts and persecution were acknowledged, it all remained merely theoretical information remote in time and place. Wilde was admired as an aesthete and that helped artists to oppose the ugliness of Soviet everyday life.

While Oscar Wilde remained an introverted hero in Estonia, mainly in the 1980s, and perhaps to an extent in the early 1990s, the New Academy aesthetes of Saint Petersburg manifested Wilde's person very forcefully in the 1990s in particular. For them, Wilde and his aestheticism and dandy culture were a battle flag – a counterweight to the spiritual coldness and early-capitalist garishness of postmodernist art. Timur Novikov (1958–2002) dedicated more than one book to Wilde and as a theorist spoke about the need for a very conscious cultivation of beauty in art. At the side-lines of Eastern European art conferences in the 1990s, there were general whispers to the effect that Novikov was supposedly very ill, although the specifics were omitted out of tactfulness. In fact, AIDS reached Estonia at around the same time. The first to depart, in November 1992, was the extremely talented glass artist Vello Soa (1955–1992); it was only later that fellow artists found out about the cause of his death.

Analysing the phenomenon in retrospect, one could say this: Oscar Wilde represented the gay aesthetic of the aristocratic dandy culture of an art nouveau-era elite, but underlying the aestheticism and decadence of his era was a more general cultural current, one related to Lebensphilosophie. Estonian artists, though, probably looked at the beauty of that era with much more innocent eyes, through the filter of Immanuel Kant's (1724–1802) aesthetics.

The then fascination with Wilde can also be explained in the context of the curricula at the Estonian State Institute of Art. Any official course on art history in a Soviet institution of higher education in art was only permitted to reach as far as the Russian equivalent of art nouveau, or Mir iskusstva. On the other hand, the Institute of Art had very good lectures in the history of philosophy and aesthetics in the 1980s, delivered by the renowned art historian Jaak Kangilaski. Having listened to these lectures as a young art historian myself, I can confirm that the course included an in-depth discussion of Kantian aesthetics – that is, the category of the sublime, the category of taste, aesthetics-cum-ethics, art as something sacred, the absence of base personal interests and urges in art and the freedom of interest related to art as the measure of its goodness. Kant's own very complicated texts were not read at the Institute, neither in German nor Estonian, although the Estonian translation of his "Prolegomena zu einer jeden künftigen Metaphysik, die als Wissenschaft wird auftreten können" (Prolegomena to any future metaphysics that will be able to present itself as a science, 1783) appeared in 1982.3

There clearly was a political idea behind the adoption of Kantian aesthetics in Soviet Estonia of the time. Under a political regime that mainly operated in terms of a binary system – materialist versus idealist philosophy or Marx versus Kant – it was natural for artists to be drawn primarily to the side that was not favoured by the state, and therefore, allowed them to oppose the official state ideology implicitly. Kant put a lot of thought into his theory of aesthetics, in contrast to Karl Marx (1818–1883), whose views on aesthetics were largely developed by his numerous followers. Marx's social and economic theory enjoyed a monopolistic status in the Soviet Union and Kantian aesthetics therefore in a way helped art students to escape from the tedious Marxist-Leninist theory, which came close to brainwashing in the Soviet Union.


The history of beauty and ugliness

When there is a disagreement between two Estonian artists or theorists, it is always useful to see whether it is a simple clash of egos or whether, channelled through them, the two giants of German philosophy mentioned above are having it out among themselves. The Estonian art world did in fact reverberate in a quite unexpected way with the struggle between these giants in 1995, a year whose significance as a milestone of artistic development has been analysed previously.4

In 1995, the Saaremaa Biennale, an influential event in the Estonian context, was titled "Fabrique d'Histoire" in French. The word "factory" or "fabric" in the title was a clear reference to the idea of history being produced and to contemporary critical theory, having its basis, of course, in Marxism influenced by the Frankfurt School. The works exhibited were investigative and conceptual, appealing to reason rather than visual pleasure. In Estonia, all this was attacked in a surprisingly uncompromising manner by Linnar Priimägi, a theorist known as a German philologist, who used the (Kantian? Wildean?) category of beauty as a weapon with which he contrasted "ugly people" (referring to the art related to the Saaremaa Biennale in this context) and "beautiful people". Let us quote here from his manifest "Ilu on" (Beauty Is) with its almost biblical rhetoric, published in the weekly newspaper Kultuurileht:


"Beauty is immortal; someone always has it! The narrow and discerning path of beauty leads to but a few. A person may be of the greatest beauty. That indeed is canonical beauty. [---]

And beauty radiates light. Where a beautiful person smiles, there will be more light. [---]

Beauty holds itself together. A beautiful person is a monad. A beautiful person holds the world around him. He is the centre of the world. [---]"5


In the theory of postmodernist art, the question of beauty is generally subsumed under a strain of social criticism dominated by outlooks based on Western Marxism6, where the sincere admiration of beauty is not a value. What is of interest is either the social analysis of beauty, the critique of the capitalist beauty industry, or a critical approach to the politics of aesthetics. A good example is a recent exhibition curated by Rebeka Põldsam, "Ära ole see, kes sa oled, ole ilus / I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" at Vaal Gallery (8. IV–7. V 2016). The exhibition aimed to oppose the beauty fascism in the capitalist beauty industry and media, which harass young women in particular.7

Postmodernist beauty in its sincere form, as it were, is instead represented by kitsch, or the parody of beauty. This kind of camp aesthetic defined by Susan Sontag in 1960s New York and the visual language developed powerfully by Jeff Koons in 1980s New York is particularly typical of the photo-based art of the artist duos of Pierre and Gilles and Gilbert and George. In 1980s Estonia, the main representatives of kitsch were, instead, designers – Toivo Raidmets and Tea Tammelaan. In the early 1990s, kitsch became characteristic of the work of Andro Kööp, Sergei Isupov, Inessa Josing, Laurentsius and others, which was also spiced up with a specific kind of humour. In these cases, however, the aesthetic alone does not form a sufficient basis for making any predictions about the sexual orientation of the artist. While a certain movement in photo art chose Robert Mapplethorpe as their point of departure, this too did not necessarily say anything about the orientation of the artists themselves.

Although in visual terms there exists such a thing as religious kitsch, this should be distinguished from approaches that have a basis in religion and according to which beauty in art should in a sense be "sacred", albeit not as a unique and independent category. Therefore, Oscar Wilde's concept of beauty is in turn different from the biblical, and also Kantian, universalist concept of beauty in the sense that while a follower of aestheticism makes beauty as such God, in biblical terms this would be an idol, or the opposite of the living God. For according to the Bible, the creator and creation are positioned hierarchically in relation to one another and mankind must not worship creation.

A good example of a postmodernist (and heterosexual) artist who belongs in the wave of the conscious denial of beauty is the YBA painter Jenny Saville. In a recent feature in the Guardian titled "I used to be anti-beauty"8, the artist confirms that as a young woman she was protesting against the perfect female bodies painted by male artists who dominate the history of art (i.e. heterosexual artists). Saville admits to discovering beauty at a personal level only after becoming a mother.

And now, once more on the relationship between history and beauty, the edition of Kultuurileht from 1995 in fact also offers another manifest opposing "Fabrique d'Histoire"; its rhetoric approaches the point of view of the universe. Let us quote:


"Beauty has no history – only the historical consciousness of beauty has one. Beauty is pure hic et nunc, God's immediate presence in the concrete. [---]

As the beautiful have chosen eternity while the ugly chose history, each dimension has its own character. [---]

Ugliness is a social and sociological rather than an artistic or aesthetic phenomenon. The "aesthetic of beauty-less-ness" belongs to the domain of the social sciences rather than the sciences of art."9


This latter claim appears not to be accepted by Umberto Eco (1932–2006), whose "Storia della bellezza" (History of Beauty/On Beauty, 2004) and "Storia della bruttezza" (History of Ugliness/On Ugliness, 2007) were published in Estonian in 2006 and 2008, respectively. However, Eco too seems to find himself in a predicament when defining universal beauty and instead explains it in terms of its opposite, the concept of ugliness. The predicament, then, remains unresolved. At the same time, both beauty and ugliness are, as we know, relative and contextual phenomena. Perhaps the only way of defining the universality of beauty is through mathematics – the golden ratio expresses mathematical proportions that are beautiful independent of epoch and gender and also describe the human body.

It is probably nevertheless safe to say that in Estonian postmodernist art, with time the sincere question of beauty became more and more a thing of the "minorities". By the way, the term "beauty" was also present in the vocabulary of graffiti artists. And this was during a period when it completely disappeared from mainstream art and criticism as a word devoid of meaning.


Beauty and history as interpreted by Jaanus Samma

Circling back to "NSFW. A Chairman's Tale", I would suggest that in the context of Estonian art history one can see here the synthesis of two confrontations from 1995. Samma has combined, on the one hand, the investigation of a historian (the tragic fate of a gay man in Soviet Estonia) and, on the other, beauty, staging the story he is telling as a fictional opera.

At the level of fundamental theories, the exhibition however, manages to pile up quite a few jumbles, which shows how ambivalent the rhetoric of protecting groups that hold a weaker position in society can be in history and today. As an atheist state, the Soviet Union, whose Marxist-Leninist ideology was based on protecting the weaker, or the proletariat, in the context of a class society, at the same time excluded the Bible as a fundamental value the same way it did gender differences between people. It was prepared to sacrifice millions of human lives in the name of protecting its weak. While Soviet Estonian legislation prescribed that a gay man be repressed as an individual posing a social threat, the same man had, after all, worked in a position of power in the same state, serving the very same state and ideology that subsequently destroyed him. No one probably remembers his services during the Second World War; that is, his ties with the occupation regime. The current exhibition, however, in turn derives strength from critical theory influenced by (Western) Marxism, combining it with an elitist, aristocratic concept of beauty, which at the same time points to its contingency (the fictional opera). There are probably purely sociological, objective changes underlying these ideological combinations, but that is a different topic altogether.

The exhibition has an empathetic aspect, an attempt to evoke human compassion, but not pity. Indeed, if one eliminates all the ideologies and theories that come with the history, the Venice Biennale and the exhibition, one is left with a great, deep sense of helplessness, sadness and purely human compassion.


Heie Treier is an art historian and critic working as Associate Professor of Art History at the Baltic Film, Media, Arts and Communication School, University of Tallinn.


Quote corner:

"The person of the Chairman as revealed to us in the exhibition is controversial, to put it mildly. The lifestyle or moral rules of a specific person are not the point, however. After all, it is not as if we subject deportation or holocaust victims to this kind of logic and start rummaging around in their private lives claiming that perhaps this or that person had indeed brought their harsh (or karmic) fate upon themselves through greed or private behaviour diverging from the social norms of the time. The machinery of control and punishment of the totalitarian state rolled over everyone with the same kind of indifference once they had for some reason been caught between its wheels. The shocking effects of the visual solution of the exhibition can be disputed endlessly, but it is precisely the chill that the artist attempts to evoke in the viewer that stops us from reading heroism into the Chairman's person or his story. Violence is appalling and the artist made the choice of not poeticising it. I was nowhere left with the impression, fears of which have been expressed, as if the aim was to elevate the suffering of a previously undiscussed social group – homosexual men – to the same level with that of the victims of repression who are central in our historical narrative; investigating the history of homosexuality does, however, help better to reveal the multifariousness of the system of control and oppressive methods that spread its filaments, visible as well as invisible, throughout Soviet society."

Katrin Kivimaa, Okupatsiooni järelelu. – Sirp 29. IV 2016.



1 Katrin Kivimaa, Okupatsiooni järelelu. – Sirp 29. IV 2016.

2 Katrin Kivimaa, Untold Stories: Interview with Rebeka Põldsam and Airi Triisberg. – Working with Feminism: Curating and Exhibitions in Eastern Europe. Ed. Katrin Kivimaa. Tallinn: Acta Universitatis Tallinnensis, TLU Press, 2012, pp 202–223.

3 Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena igale tulevasele metafüüsikale, mis on võimeline esinema teadusena. Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1982.

4 The exhibition "1995" was open 8. VIII–6. IX 2015 at the Contemporary Art Museum Estonia, curated by Anders Härm and Hanno Soans. See: Heie Treier, 1995 in the Year 2015. – KUNST.EE 2015, no 3, pp 17–22.

5 Linnar Priimägi, Ilu on. – Kultuurileht 15. IX 1995.

6 Western Marxism (i.e. the Frankfurt School) is here distinguished from Soviet Marxism-Leninism. See: Jüri Lipping, Marxism. – 20. sajandi mõttevoolud. Ed. Epp Annus. Tallinn, Tartu: Tartu Ülikooli Kirjastus, 2009, p 537.

7 Mari Peegel, Rebeka Põldsam: peavool peaks kehtestama mitmekesisema näo. – Eesti Päevaleht 4. V 2016.

8 Emine Saner, Jenny Saville: "I used to be anti-beauty." – The Guardian, 25. IV 2016.

9 Linnar Priimägi, Oubrique d’Histoire. Rahu paleedele, sõda ubrikutele! – Kultuurileht 15. IX 1995.

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