In “Objectionable Objects,” Douglas Mao asks what we can learn from modernist encounters with objects, or aspects of the object world, that inspire negative emotions. Focusing on a chapter in Wyndham Lewis’s 1932 novel Snooty Baronet, a pair of scenes in Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée of 1938, and Michael Fried’s seminal 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood,” Mao observes that all three stage an opposition between the work of art or artist and mere objects—and that in all three cases, the former proves to be associated with the figure of the highly individuated, self-possessed, and coolly independent aristocrat while the latter, clamoring for the viewer to bestow significance upon them, evoke the needy masses, the importunate mob. This correlation makes a kind of sense: in a world where there is a distinction between hereditary aristocrats and other people, aristocrats have a claim to significance simply by being who they are, just as in a world where there is such a thing as art, works of art claim significance in their very existence, apart from productivity or use. But what, then, of the existential horror implied by a world of mostly meaningless things—the anxiety generated by mere objects?
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