Against Likable Art

by Nicholas Diaz

In Aesthetic Theory (written between 1956 and 1959 and published posthumously in 1970), sociologist and philosopher Theodor Adorno, wrote “Foreignness [Fremdheit] to the world is an element of art.” However, such a statement is no longer true when considering contemporary artistic trends. In contemporary society, we have witnessed an expulsion of otherness, as philosopher and cultural theorist Byung-Chul Han’s book The Expulsion of the Other suggests. This attitude toward foreignness or alterity has extended to various spheres of society from politics to psychiatry to culture and art. It is largely based on what Han calls likability, a cultural phenomenon that developed recently in today’s society of positivity.

In his 2020 publication, The Palliative Society, Han claims that our society is “increasingly a society characterized by a mania for liking. Everything is smoothed out until it becomes agreeable and well-liked.…. Nothing is meant to cause pain. Not just art but life itself should be instagrammable, that is, free of rough edges, of conflicts or contradictions that could cause pain. Contemporary society, Han argues, is one that is excessively algophobic. He writes, “Today, a universal algophobia rules: a generalized fear of pain. The ability to tolerate pain is rapidly diminishing. The consequence is a permanent anesthesia. All painful conditions are avoided.” The culture of likability follows this algophobic societal trend, as artistic forms are anesthetized. They are forced to become agreeable and well-liked, which implies both a removal of pain and an adaptation to prevailing tastes. This phenomenon assimilates art and homogenizes it into a cultural form of positivity and sameness, leaving no space for alterity or foreignness, for metaphysical forces of negativity. 

The revolutionary, life-altering potential of art, then, its core of negativity, has been stripped from it by likability. “Art,” Han states, “must be able to alienate, irritate, disturb, and, yes, even to be painful. It dwells somewhere else. It is at home in what is foreign. It is just this foreignness that accounts for the aura of the artwork. Pain is the tear through which the wholly other can enter. It is precisely negativity that enables art to provide a counter-narrative to the dominant order.” Art’s creative and revolutionary potential relies on negativity. The true purpose of art is not to be free of rough edges and be likable; it is to disrupt and cause pain to the audience. This art provides counter-narratives to the dominant order and exposes the issues of society. It does not adapt to likability and assimilate into a homogenous cultural mass of sameness; rather, it diversifies since it introduces a perspective that is wholly other or foreign into the world.

However, the status quo of positivity and algophobia anesthetizes art, which causes us to miss out on art’s purifying potential. “What has been forgotten is that pain purifies,” Han writes. “It has a cathartic effect. The culture of the likeable and the agreeable lacks any opportunities for catharsis.” Likability represses what is painful and excludes any other perspectives on life, resulting in harm from avoiding society’s problems. Painful art, on the contrary, embraces otherness; it possesses the element of foreignness Adorno speaks of. This negativity cathartically purifies and improves the social order. This form of art, which offers a different perspective on life, exposes the problems of society and works towards change. That is why the culture of likeability is so dangerous to contemporary society. 

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