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Caroline Heuer


Lansstraße 5-9
14195 Berlin

A Discourse on Aesthetics: Artworks and Aesthetic Experience in the Contemporary American Novel (2000-2015)

Dissertation in Literatur

Mentoring Team:
First supervisor: Prof. Winfried Fluck
Second supervisor: Prof. Frank Kelleter
Third supervisor: Prof. Laura Bieger

In my dissertation, I focus on literary representations of art and aesthetic experiences in the contemporary American novel. Video installations, conceptual artworks, paintings, sculptures, performances and photographs figure prominently in the works of Don DeLillo, Siri Hustvedt, Rachel Kushner, Ben Lerner, David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers, and Paul Auster. Alongside this diversity of artworks - sometimes real, sometimes fictitious, always fictionalized - we read about an equally great variety of aesthetic experiences these works elicit. Both the fictionalization of artworks and narrativization of aesthetic experiences, form a discourse on aesthetics that I set out to analyze.

The key concept to do so is ekphrasis, the “verbal representation of a visual representation”.[1] Through ekphrasis novelists negotiate aesthetic strategies, modalities and means. It is at once a critical commentary on an artwork’s aesthetics and a self-description of individual poetics. Thus, the concept designates more than just the text’s quality of vividness in the description of artifacts, its capacity to achieve vision and iconicity. In post-postmodern times, ekphrastic writing exceeds the narrow limits of representational adequacy and gains momentum as a specific variant of art criticism. It dramatizes “the moment of looking as practice of interpreting, of reading—a way of seeing meaning.”[2] This is especially the case when the works of art represented are known to a larger public and on display in museums and galleries, as for example in DeLillo’s Point Omega or Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. As an interpretation – or even evaluation – of media specific effects and aesthetic strategies, ekphrasis is a form of appropriation that is carried, to a lesser or stronger degree, by a paragonal impulse. The narrativization of the aesthetic experience is the terrain on which this competition between the arts is carried out since the emphasis in ekphrastic writing shifts from making us see a work of art to making us see an imaginary transfer, i.e. the imaginary elements the fictional reader/viewer endows the representation with.

My research objectives in studying the aesthetic discourse are threefold. Firstly, I will use this discourse as a gateway to analyze how the novel’s aesthetic strategies, modalities and means are defined in relation to the media represented. Secondly, I want to relate the results of my analysis of aesthetic strategies to the discourse on “aesthetics in the age of post-postmodernism” as it is defined in concepts like Metamodernism (Velmeulen/ van den Akker), Hypermodernism (Lipovetsky), Automodernism (Samuels), or Altermodernism (Bourriaud). Thirdly, I intend to focalize the political implications of the aesthetic discourse in order to better understand therelation between ethics and aesthetics, i.e. the dependence of ethics on aesthetics and the imaginary.

[1] Heffernan, James A. W.: “Entering the Museum of Words: Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ and Twentieth-Century Ekphrasis.” In: Peter Wagner (Ed.): Ekphrasis, Iconotexts, and Intermediality – the State(s) of the Art(s). Berlin, 1996, p. 262-280, p. 262.

[2] Goldhill, Simon: “What is Ekphrasis For?” In: Classical Philology, Vol. 102/1, 2007. p. 1-19, p. 2.




Dahlem Research School
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft