Anti-Aesthetic: Definition & Art

Instructor: Benjamin Truitt

Benjamin has a Bachelors in philosophy and a Master's in humanities.

The Anti-Aesthetic movement rejected the role of beauty in art, stating it was a distraction from truth and more serious issues. Anti-Aesthetic artists share a common disdain for the idea that art has an obligation to be visually pleasing in order to be appreciated.

The Anti-Aesthetic Rebellion

'It is the opium of the people' - Karl Marx on religion

The quote above could easily be appropriated by the Anti-Aesthetic movement, which rejected and grew increasingly hostile to the idea that aesthetics were a necessary or relevant aspect of art. The Anti-Aesthetic movement grew out of the anger at a public that was unaware of problems, and unwilling to face the harsh truths or realities of life. The Anti-Aesthetics were defined not by the way in which they chose to portray a subject or issue, but the way in which they specifically denounced the idea that art should strive to be beautiful.

Jean Francois Millet, The Gleaners, 1857
Jean Francois Millet The Gleaners


Around the time that Karl Marx wrote his critique of society and stated that religion was the opiate of the people, artists were also rebelling against conventional forms in a movement known as Realism (1850-1940). Realism rejected the idea that art should try to find beauty in this world or the next. Jean-Francois Millet's famous portrait The Gleaners (1857) did not focus on the beauty of the immediate world in the same way as the Impressionists, but more on the harshness of the life of the working class. The figures in the painting are not idealized; the use of muted tones shows the artist is more concerned with capturing the reality of their plight, than with the beauty of the setting or the subjects. In this way, Realism marks the beginning of the Anti-Aesthetic movement.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917
Marcel Duchamp Fountain


The next stage in the Anti-Aesthetic movement is found in Dadaism (1915-Present). It rejected the idea that art should have a serious subject, and criticized aesthetics and beauty by using parody or irony. In the most famous example, Marcel Duchamp entered an upside-down urinal and titled it Fountain (1917) in an art competition, signing it 'R. Mutt'. The piece ridiculed the seriousness of modern art, while at the same time becoming a symbol of the Anti-Aesthetic movement. The urinal symbolized the aspects of aesthetics (balance, color, focus, composition) which were embodied in its less glamorous utility. In this way, the anti-aesthetic ideals moved from an issue of truth for the Realists, to one of ridicule for the Dadaists.

Piero Manzoni
Piero Manzoni Portrait

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