"Disturbing aesthetics : rhetorics of authenticity in contemporary visual and literary cultures"

  • Alisha Dietzman

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


This thesis considers the condition of the contemporary art-object—particularly the contemporarily transgressive art-object—by interrogating popular phenomenological assumptions and broader cultural fictions that artists who produce art-objects “authentic” to their positionality necessarily produce ethically and aesthetically superior art. Authenticity, for the purposes of this project, does not indicate provenance, rather, authenticity describes a discourse wherein an artist’s perceived relationship to their work determines the success, or failure, of that work (what I posit as the “authenticity-metric”). By collapsing the artist and the art-object, this framework suggests artists ideally represent and engage with subjects intimately known and understood by the artist. This thesis interrogates the malleability of these rhetorics of authenticity, and the myriad ways authenticity polices the bounds of acceptable representation within contemporary art. Ultimately, I posit rhetorics of authenticity as acting as arbiters of what art is permitted to be made public. In response, this thesis seeks to provide a restorative way of thinking about transgressively “inauthentic” art-objects as engaged in provocative—and productive—acts of disturbance. As documented within this thesis, the censure faced by artists who resist authenticity-metrics either in the form of experimentation with content “inauthentic” to their experience or by representational “inauthenticity” suggests that “inauthentic” art-objects act as contemporary sites of disturbance. Despite the potential for disturbing art-objects to cause harm, this thesis explores and ultimately embraces the possibility of salutary forms of disturbance. From the aggressive horror of William Christenberry’s recusant Ku Klux Klan Dolls and Marlene Dumas’ violently disempowered female subject(s), to the more subtle disturbance of Jeff Koons’ eerily giddy, plasticine oeuvre, and Svetlana Alexievich’s often morally-repugnant witnesses, the case studies I examine each invest in distinct forms of disturbance, all with the potential to unsettle audiences, but in valuable ways, by encouraging viewers to question the currently dominant regime of authenticity.
Date of Award28 Nov 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorGavin Richard Hopps (Supervisor)


  • Contemporary art
  • Disturbance
  • Authenticity
  • Ethics of representation

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  • Full text embargoed until
  • 11 May 2028

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