Broaden the Gaze: Grotesque as Aesthetic Category

In the seminar we have mainly discussed the ‘grotesque body’ based on the theory of Mikhail Bakhtin, which is a quite narrow approach to the theory of the grotesque in general. We have focused on bodily transgressions and the “act of becoming”, where the human body is seen as something malleable, opposing the common notion that the body is something closed up from the world (‘the individual’) and something fixed and unchangeable. The theory of transgression we looked at mentioned that the ‘grotesque body’ oversteps the boundaries and borders of the ‘normal body’ and grows into the world or lets the world stretch into it through openings like the mouth, the anus or the genitalia. This all is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the word grotesque, its origin and meaning. There is much more to it than just a body getting out of control. The grotesque is a broad (semantic) field, and I would like to point out some further meanings and possibilities, starting with the origin of the word ‘grotesque’. I am sure that nearly everyone has an idea of what the word means and I apologise beforehand that many things in this post will be like stating the obvious and telling things many already know.

The word grotesque has its origins in the Italian of the 15th century where, during excavations, a forgotten style of ornamental painting from the antiquity was rediscovered and was named grottesco (grotto-like), a derivation of grotta (grotto), after the places where it was found. This specific style of ornamental painting had some peculiar qualities like mixing together visual elements of humans, plants and animals that merged into each other, creating fantastical images that inspired the artists of the upcoming renaissance. It can be assumed that ‘the Grotesque’ was developed parallel to the Moresque and Arabesque which used mainly floral patterns. The special quality of the Grotesque – the mixture of parts of nature that were considered to be separate – made it possible for certain figures to become (nearly) monstrous in their contortion what influenced many artists. The popularity of the Grotesque lead to a broadening of the adjective ‘grotesque’ in the 18th century which by then not only meant that something was similar to the Grotesque, but rather that it used similar mechanisms of mixture and contortion. Since then, the semantic field of the word ‘grotesque’ grows steadily.

If ‘grotesque’ (adj.) is being looked up nowadays the dictionary the entry could say the following: 1) strange in a way that is unpleasant or offensive, 2) extremely ugly in a strange way that is often frightening or amusing (OALD). It is quite evident that there have happened many changes in meaning in the time since the Grotesque was rediscovered and nowadays. Furthermore, it can be assumed that the meanings listed by the dictionary represent only a limited view on possibilities. We see that the mechanisms of mixture and contortions are not included in the entry, but instead there are two meanings listed that are used more commonly. Some theorists on the grotesque claim that these certain meanings are due to the conflict of emotions within the recipient of grotesque arts or bodies (or what else there is to find that can be labelled ‘grotesque’). Wolfgang Kayser summarises that conflict of emotions within the following sentence: “As long as we are unknowing, we are free to apply the (label/) word ‘grotesque.” Thus, he claims that things that are strange or foreign to us automatically create the already mentioned emotional conflict which is similar to what grotesque things do to us. Some exemplary emotions that can be in conflict while perceiving something grotesque are disgust, ridicule, morbidity, curiosity, amusement, laughter, disdain and many others. Michael Steig claims that grotesque objects often make the perceiver want to laugh in the face of dread or induce a feeling of horror through an unbearable amount of humour. There are certain forms of humour which make use of these mechanisms, and one of them is the caricature, which is made to criticise the existing world and its current order. This is exactly what grotesqueness does: it is a counter movement that questions the established norm.
Now, we have reached a stage where some might ask, if everything can be seen as grotesque depending on the point of view and the answer is: yes, indeed. The little, ornamental child has grown quite big and the word now carries a vast amount of different meanings.
To make things a little bit easier again, I would like to briefly explain a model by Peter Fuß which helped me to keep track on grotesqueness so I do not label everything I see as ‘grotesque’: He claims that there are three main mechanisms of anamorphosis, two of which I have already mentioned, which, when they can be applied, are proof that the object in question (be it a text, a picture, a film, a person…) is grotesque: The first mechanism of anamorphosis is reversal (things become turned upside-down etc.) which changes the object the least and is the least alienating. A simple example for this mechanism would be turning around a symbol (the cross) to reverse its meaning. Another example for this mechanism would be degradation, where something that has a superior position is being put into an inferior position (king being put into a pigsty, human attributes being replaced by animal attributes, a god being made profane). In general one could speak of a reversal of hierarchy. The second anamorphic mechanism is contortion/distortion, where things remain basically the same, but their form is being distorted. Examples for this mechanism would be to cripple something and monstrosity. The third mechanism of anamorphosis would be mixture, where things that usually are separate become merged together. Examples for this mechanism are chimaeras and other composite beings ( a tree that grows human eyes instead of apples…).

I think this shows how many possibilities there are in the category of grotesque and I hope that at least something of what I have written is helpful to at least someone. I would be glad to answer any questions that might come up, so feel free to unleash a bombardment of them on me.

• Fuß, Peter. Das Groteske: ein Medium des kulturellen Wandels. Köln: Böhlau Verlag GmbH & Cie, 2001
• Kayser, Wolfgang. Das Groteske – Seine Gestaltung in Malerei und Dichtung (1957). Tübingen: Stauffenberg Verlag Brigitte Narr GmbH, 2004.
• Steig, Michael. „Zur Definition des Grotesken: Versuch einer Synthese (1970).“ in: Otto F. Best (Hrsg.). Das Groteske in der Dichtung. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1980

One Response to Broaden the Gaze: Grotesque as Aesthetic Category

  1. I enjoyed reading the many articles on this site. This is a useful resource for students and for the general reader. Thanks for the work that you’ve put in to making it.

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