Abject Beauty & the Sullied Sacred: On Bed by Robert Rauschenberg
Sarah Rodriguez | 20 February 2023
“Modern man can't see God because he doesn't look low enough.” ~Carl Jung “The imperfect is our paradise. Note that, in this bitterness, delight” ~Wallace Stevens
One hot morning, in the summer of 1955, Robert Rauschenberg awoke, eager to mine his mundane life for materials on which to paint. Looking about, his eye honed on a quilt gifted to him years prior by a peer who studied at Black Mountain College—one Dorothea Rockburne. Rauschenberg stapled the quilt to a stretcher and began applying paint to the square-sequenced patchwork. He tried to “turn the quilted pattern into an abstraction”; this, though, did not seem to work. And so, he plopped a pillow to the top and threw on a sheet fragment. With these additions, a quilt became a bed. The sheet and pillow: ready surfaces to paint on. Up, then, it went on the wall.
Rauschenberg, Robert. 1955. Bed. Oil and pencil on pillow, quilt, and sheet on wood supports, 75 1/4 x 31 1/2 x 8" (191.1 x 80 x 20.3 cm). MoMA, Floor 4, 408, New York.
Bed sags. Scrunches. Drips. Drops. It is quilted on the bottom, with a pillow on top. Here we are born, dream, die, have sex. A womb-like enclosure. A post-fetal amnion. Baby blue, clover yellow, dark red, vomit brown. In 1955, Bed was crafted, smeared, dripped. Bursts with riches, bursts with significance. Here urine, blood, sometimes shit—meet something exalted… ~ At Bed’s first showing, in 1955, a reviewer claimed it “recalls a police photo of the murder bed after a corpse has been removed.” And in 1968, when Bed was included in a MoMA exhibition, it was described, in the catalogue, as the “Sex-Murder Cave, which contained a red-stained broken plaster cast of a female nude.” Yet Rauschenberg himself wrote, in 1959, to clarify his intent with the piece: “I think of Bed as one of the friendliest pictures I’ve ever painted. My fear,” he goes on, “has always been that someone would want to crawl into it.” There is a dissonance, then, between the revulsion articulated by these early reviewers and Rauschenberg’s own cheery opinion. Rife with latent meaning, Rauschenberg’s work seems to suggest itself as if a “rather large Freudian slip.” I propose that Bed embodies an apparent tension between the profane and the sacred. Bed teaches us, too, that the sacred can exist as sullied, and alongside—indeed tucked in with—that which seems profane: “the abject.” Thinkers and writers from an array of disciplines will help me to demonstrate as much. Stemming from the Latin word sacer, “sacred” suggests “restriction pertaining to the gods”; sacred things and places tend to be “separated” off from the everyday; in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, they are importantly “protected from defilement.” “The sacred” is often synonymous with the “holy,” “clean,” and “consecrated.” The profane, meanwhile, in this same monotheistic context, suggests things and places protected from “the dangerous intrusion of divinity.” Stemming from the Latin profanus, meaning “outside the temple, not sacred.” Its denotation—in contrast with that of the sacred—is often bound up with the “impure,” “unclean,” and “dirty.” While recognition of the sacred can entail a reaction of awe and reverence, often considered spiritual in essence, recognition of the profane can entail a reaction the likes of disgust and fear. Rauschenberg’s process of painting amounted, in a certain light, to a process of dirtying—an action laden with a symbolic dimension, and suggesting of the profane. To physically “dirty” a surface can, according to anthropologist Mary Douglas, offend the orderliness of established systems and categories. Underlying this logic, I take it, is a leap from a physical sense of uncleanliness, of dirt, to a symbolic sense of disorder. This symbolism facilitates the artwork’s presentation of the “abject.” Three things constituting Bed strike the viewer as potentially “dirty”: the dripping paint, the fingernail polish and striped toothpaste. That the bed is not totally made contributes, further, to a certain level of messiness. Together, the paint, nail polish, and toothpaste are evocative of an assortment of seemingly profane, perhaps threatening things. They evoke the site of violence, ejaculation, menstruation, secretion, defloration. The mid-side left and right red stains, which in places are coagulated, particularly suggest blood. The smeared, middle brown stain suggests faeces or vomit, and the white stains throughout—the most pervasive paint colour—suggest, perhaps, semen. The features of Bed that seem to render it profane align remarkably well with Julia Kristeva’s conception of “the abject.” The paint, nail polish, and toothpaste evoke fluids which—especially when decontextualized—prompt disgust, loathing, or repulsion. They challenge the purported boundedness of human beings, each disturbing the idea of a tidy, non-porous self. “Abjection” is a slippery, capacious concept—a concept that defies the very existence of concepts. For, the abject has to do with "what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules." It refers neither to subject nor object, but rather to a primal place where the distinction between subject and object blurs. Where identity breaks down, preserving “what existed in the archaism of the pre-objectal relationship, in the immemorial violence with which a body becomes separated from another body in order to be.” Blood, faeces, vomit, and semen each traverse the boundary of the subject, exist at once outside of the body and subject and properly inside, and of, it. Nail polish, furthermore is a decorative makeup for nails which grow, die, fall off. And toothpaste is something partly ingested, then spit out. The fluids evoked as well as two of the materials employed hover about, then, in a liminal state. So much, once more, is cause for a certain sense of horror, one symptomatic of our resistance to accept “the body’s materiality, its limits, its ‘natural’ cycles”—a visceral denial of death. While Rauschenberg’s process of crafting Bed is, on the one hand one of dirtying, on the other hand, it is a process of artmaking—of glorifying, making beautiful, even consecrating. Helen Molesworth argues that Rauschenberg simply “desublimates the hand of the artist,” with both the predecessors of Bed and Bed proper. For, he allows artmaking to involve “smear[ing] and rub[ing], press[ing] and glu[ing], [a] privileging [of] tactility.” While it is true that, from one view, Rauschenberg dirties the hand of the artist, something is lost when we reject the fact that Rauschenberg’s process bifurcates—that it at once sullies and consecrates. One may protest that it is an exaggeration to say artmaking is ever analogous to making sacred—that art objects amount to sacred ones themselves. Yet Rauschenberg’s art and process seem at least to ride the asymptote toward the sacred—this, for two reasons. First, he renders Bed such that, to some extent, it evokes sacred elements, associated with the object of the bed, simultaneously everyday and extraordinary. Second, and more critically, artmaking in and of itself, for Rauschenberg, aspires toward something separated off from everyday life, no matter how much built of it—something, indeed, of transformational power. To the extent that Rauschenberg’s artwork is sacred, it teaches us to reconceptualise the sacred, to exit the monotheistic context in which the sacrosanct and dirty are opposed, and enter one in which the sacred can be sullied, and beauty: abject. Two particular elements of Bed suggest an air of the sacred—so too, the fact that Bed indicates the object of the bed, in its entirety. First, the pillow, plopped on the top fifth of the artwork, suggests such a separated off space: soft and plump, inviting one to lay their head down, relax or float away into a dreamland—a space of renewal, protection, secrecy. While traditionally the bed is seen as a grounded place of bodily function, in fact the untouched quilt, with its power to comfort and warmly envelop, points to an ethereal realm, as well. The object of the bed as such is where intimacy may manifest, where dreams play out, or where fertility—by way of female menstruation—may be registered. It is where one may enter into the humming frenzy of existence, or get swallowed into the dark oblivion of death. ~ As critic Louis Menand writes in The New Yorker, “Rauschenberg was not anti-art; on the contrary, he believed in the transformative power of the aesthetic experience [...] Art is supposed to change your life.” Bed takes an otherwise private and personal object, and turns it into something more transcendent. Rauschenberg’s artwork satisfies his own, sacred-striving definition of art—and of beauty, too. What, in Bed, goes beyond its mere standing as a banal, unkempt bed? The ‘purposive purposeless’ way in which the quilt and sheet are ruffled. The way the paint, nail polish, and toothpaste are not just evocative of threatening bodily fluids, but double as embellishment, weighted down by gravity. The way the colours complement one another. That it is made vertical and put on a wooden stretcher may even assist in Bed’s being an artwork; an overall gestalt of beauty—even if, and while, abject. Both art and beauty, for Rasuchenberg, aspire toward something beyond. It is interesting to platform Rauschenberg’s own voice in this instance. “My art,” Rauschenberg stated, “is based on hope and aims to inspire spirituality and life.” Beauty, he said elsewhere, is something that “appear[ed] as a fact, or an inevitability, as opposed to a souvenir or arrangement.” “Good art” is something, he thought, that “can never be understood.” In the mesh of sacred things, something unknowable ever lingers. “I feel strong in my beliefs,” Rauschenberg once stated, in addition, “[...] that a one-to-one contact through art contains potent peaceful powers.” Elsewhere, he went on: “I know that art has the energy to change minds and hearts…” If we grant these stipulations on what art and beauty amount to, and that Bed satisfies their conditions, it follows that Bed gestures toward the sacred. A certain distant participation marks Rauschenberg’s personal relationship with spirituality. As an adult, Rauscheneberg himself was not formally religious. Raised by a “deeply religious mother,” however, his earliest ambition was to become a preacher. At the same time, one of his great passions was dancing. Interestingly, only when Rauschenberg realised that the fundamentalist Church of Christ, in which he was brought up, forbade dancing, did he decide against the profession of preaching. Statements by Rauschenberg throughout his life suggest he retained a certain spirituality. Precisely what sort of sacredness does Rauschenberg’s artwork gesture toward? Bed does not aspire toward something pristine, fitting a monotheistic definition of the sacred, as something “protected from defilement.” Rather, Bed proffers a conception of the sullied sacred, its beauty not independent from, but rather interlaced with, the abject. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the sacred and profane stand in opposition. In various pagan traditions, though, “sacred things could also be unspeakably foul.” Sacred things can, then, entail those which appear profane—extinguishing their very profanity, while maintaining their place as in some way “dirty,” “sullied,” “impure.” The idea of the sullied sacred is congenial, too, with the thought of philosopher Georges Bataille. According to Bataille, the sacred is, in fact, inextricably linked with abjection, defilement, and filth. Bataille’s view that “the sacred” contains both a left pole, bound up with “the impure,” and a right pole, bound up with “the pure” is at once compelling in and of itself and helpful in appreciating Bed’s exalted status. The impure and the pure poles are mutually dependent, forming a de facto dialectic. For Bataille, the repulsion generated by the “impure” sacred is, furthermore, what mediates and links all interactions and relations within a given society. Bed in its entirety can be sacred in the sense accommodated for by Bataille’s conception. Bed does not only suggest the sacred, it also radiates a distinctive kind of beauty. The kind of beauty that it radiates is not a corollary of a monotheistic conception of the sacred; rather, it is the corollary of a sacred which can be sullied. Poetry by Wallace Stevens substantiates the idea that beauty, like that of Rauschenberg’s Bed, can be shot through with the threat of death—in other words, for our purposes, with the abject. In “Sunday Morning,” Stevens writes: She says, “But in contentment I still feel The need of some imperishable bliss.” Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her, Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams And our desires. Although she strews the leaves Of sure obliteration on our paths [...] With these lines, Stevens anticipates our reluctance to accept and affirm a form of beauty associated with “obliteration,” with finitude. He writes, after all, that one may feel the need of complete satisfaction, of “some imperishable bliss”—these goods, though, are not on offer in our earthly world. To affirm that “Death is the mother of beauty” is to affirm the lingering incompleteness of our needs. Elsewhere in Stevens’ oeuvre, he writes that “The imperfect is our paradise./Note that, in this bitterness, delight”. There is indeed a bitterness—even revulsion—to the affirmation of a beauty infected with the imperfect—at its extreme, with death. Yet, “in this bitterness,” we must “delight.” To posit a conception of beauty that is abject, and relatedly, of the sacred that is sullied—in other words, to account for Bed by Rauschenberg—is to affirm the dual, textured nature of real life, life that comes with the necessary flipside of death. To affirm Bed as sacred is to address a distinctive challenge of modernity. A need for re-enchantment speaks to us today much as it did in the 1950s. In the words of sociologist Max Weber, the following belief reigns: that “there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play…”; in principle, one can “master all things by calculation.” This comes at the cost of a loss of a past divine radiance. Yet with the death of monotheism, need not come the death of meaning and enchantment writ large. So Rauschenberg’s work suggests. For, the modern viewer may indeed remain open to salvage and affirm sacredness, not of a singular source, namely God, but of spaces, people, things, art—including such tension-ridden works as Bed, an object which announces its own exalted status into the world. With each drip of paint, squeeze of toothpaste, and brush of nail polish, Rauschenberg consecrated as he dirtied—teaching us, with Bed, that the sacred can entail the sullied, that an overall artwork can still potentially be beautiful, if abject. Rauschenberg’s was and is an artwork distinctively life-affirming in its suggestion that the sacred and the beautiful can be found in the imperfect—that the imperfect, in turn, can be our paradise.