Sunday, November 25, 2007

Liberal Aesthetics

[Hi all — I found this draft of an essay in an old notebook from last year, typed it up, and am wondering now how I feel about it. Basically it's about why I feel uncomfortable with the usual liberal defenses of art in general, and "morally objectionable" (or "amoral") art in particular, and how I think we need better ways of defining the relationship between art and morality (not that I have any positive proposals on that score myself). If anyone feels like wading through it at any point I'd appreciate your thoughts. I'm not really thinking about publishing it or anything, it's more like a working-through-thoughts sort of a piece.]


Definition of Terms

By "liberals" here I mean a set of people whose subsets include: (a) people with liberal political views, (b) people who attended “liberal arts colleges” or have aesthetic and ideological dispositions represented by same (which includes many of the faculty and graduate students in the humanities at big research institutions with all kinds of political affiliations), and (c) people who do much of the work of appreciating and encouraging aesthetic culture on its own terms, who are interested in whatever the arts present us with to be interested in, and thus have a liberal attitude toward the field of art itself. Of course not everyone in the set meets every one of the qualifications listed above, but for the purposes of my argument here two out of three — or even a particularly strongly held version of any one — are good enough. (I should also maybe point out that I consider myself covered by all three.)

I take it that a main tenet of the “liberal” attitude toward art is that we should treat art-works as we would treat people: with tolerance, faith, respect, etc. (Both approaches, which were developed in the nineteenth century and refined in the twentieth, are responses to increasing cultural diversity, in the interpersonal and in the aesthetic spheres simultaneously.) In practice, this means that we allow art-works to represent people in ways we disagree with — ways we would not treat people or would not like to be treated.

For the liberal, then, we have a kind of moral responsibility toward art-works, but those works have no moral responsibility themselves: what they depict can be the worst of human behavior, or be unrecognizable as human behavior, and still be great art. Examples of this abound: books by the Marquis de Sade or Vladimir Nabokov, films by Pier Paolo Pasolini, paintings by Kara Walker, songs by Notorious B.I.G. or 50 Cent.

So, we treat art-objects as we would treat people insofar as we respect them, protect them, attempt to understand them on their own terms, and believe they have some value in themselves which is not merely the human use we want to put them to. But we treat them differently in not holding them morally responsible — not because they contain no moral content or have no moral agency (as is the case with a non-artistic object like a cup or a stapler) but because the moral contet is not strictly traceable back to a human subject. If Picasso were to say, “I hate women,” we could hold him morally responsible; if his art says it, or seems to imply it, we could still take offense, but to denounce it on those grounds alone — or even to argue with it — we would be accused of “missing the point.” Or speaking the wrong language.

Excursus on Entertainment

Entertainment is a little different, because it is assumed to have a more direct relation to sociology, and to “the culture.” Thus, if a Hollywood movie contains what seems to be a racist idea, we not only feel no compunction about saying so and objecting, but we treat it like an empirical datum in a larger investigation: one more piece of evidence that our society is (or can be) deeply racist. When we do this we are not treating the entertainment-object like a person in one way (i.e. we don’t respect its intelligence enough to seek a more complicated explanation of its utterances than “it’s a product of its culture”) — but we are treating it very much like a person in another, by holding it morally responsible.

A puzzle arises here: art, which is largely assumed to be of importance for its humanistic value, is in important ways less available to human understanding than so-called “entertainment,” which in being aesthetically debased, commercially compromised and thus subhuman(istic), becomes the true reservoir for human values and emotions.

It’s good that we allow ourselves to get angry at the television: but bad that, in the productions of mass entertainment culture, there’s no one specific individual subject to hold morally responsible. Who exactly are we angry at, when an idea we don’t like appears in a movie? The actor who says the line? The writer? The director? The audience, who tacitly accepts it, especially if they laugh or cheer? The distributor? All of these people share in a mass moral failing: which means, every moral failure in a piece of mass entertainment has the character of a conspiracy, or a systemic injustice. I had this feeling watching the scene in Saving Private Ryan in which Jeremy Davies’ previously pacifistic character finally shoots and kills a Nazi, for example, upon which the audience cheered. I felt disgusted, but I wasn’t sure who to be angry at — Spielberg? Davies? The audience? WWII? This is the sort of moral omnidirectionality that deranges activists and revolutionaries, turning them into paranoiacs; it's what makes cynics and nihilists (and certain types of art-lovers). It's also the play-form of our liberal sense of helplessness to many gross injustices and social problems even in the "real world."

Context-Expansion and Moral Conversation

The easy way out of this problem of assigning moral responsibility is to shift our contempt towards “the culture,” whatever that culture may be in any given case. It’s as if we were saying “the thing that really bothers me about this racist idea is not that it was expressed (that it exists) in the mind of an individual fellow human, but that it was found acceptable, both by the artists that produced it and the audiences that responded to it.”

Problems with this reaction:

1. It assumes that we have knowledge of the multiplicity of “cultural” responses — whether articulated or not — to a given moral lapse. Just because a statement or action has been allowed to pass does not mean that it has been “accepted.” This is exactly where the accounts of sociology can help, in showing how response to statements are determined by a variety of facts.

2. It lets the moral actor(s) off the hook, in ways that both deepen their crime (by making it symptomatic of a widespread societal sickness) and trivialize it (by taking it out of their hands and finding the true meaning of the action in a framework for which neither he nor anyone else can be held morally responsible). This is a signal problem with the logic of political correctness: as a moral reproof, it’s fairly light, since it basically amounts to saying: “You are using words that, in a context larger than the one you have in mind, are offensive.” This move of expansion of context is also a hallmark of deconstruction, and has roots in Freudian discourse I think.) But it’s also unusually enraging, both because it can be seen as condescending (“you don’t know enough to know what you’re saying”) and because it’s essentially unanswerable (except if you deny that any such larger context exists, i.e. that anyone could conceivably be offended). Most moral reproofs admit of objections on their own terms (???) but accusations of political incorrectness rarely do.)

For moral conversation, we need to conceive that both parties are sensible of the meaning and likely repercussions of their statements and actions, or at least that the meaning of one’s statement can be redescribed by the other with a minimum of context-expansion. But the corollary to this is that we cannot dismiss the other’s points by supplying a context — most often a “cultural context” — which explains or excuses them in ways the other would object to. (How do we know if they object? We ask them.) This is the rhetorical move common to liberals and conservatives, continental and analytic philosophers, etc.: filling in the story to help make sense of what seems like an unreasonable (or sometimes, too reasonable) point of view.

This “filling in the story” is also what we do with entertainment — fairly, I think. It’s a coping mechanism that helps us filter the extraordinary amount of media material we receive daily: we fit it into fixed ideas we have about “our culture.” But we act a little differently towards art. Perhaps because there is so much less of it in our lives (a situation that is entirely deliberate — most people intentionally limit their encounters with art, and this is by no means a bad thing), our concern is not to place it in the story of ordinary culture but to hold it apart — at first, at least. (The art-historicizing impulse, if it occurs, should kick in later, once the object has been humanly appreciated.) We want to see what this, just this, will tell us about our lives (I might add “just our lives”). We open it up not to a story about “culture” but a story about “life” (and yes, they’re really the same thing; but not in our minds they’re not).

This leads naturally to the auteur theory/glorification of the author in the liberal arts: for if experience of art is first and foremost a “human” (not a “cultural”) encounter, then we need a person on the other end. And understanding about ourselves will be a function of understanding about her or him. No such reciprocity is needed for the experience of entertainment (or popular culture, which I might redefine here as “art understood culturally”). (Of course, one could change one’s relationship to a work of entertainment simply by looking into it a little more deeply. This is what the Cahiers du Cinèma crowd did with Western directors like John Ford, for instance; and in doing so they made movies which perhaps were interesting to intellectuals (such as Adorno) for what they revealed about American cultural codes into works of art which were interesting for what they revealed about John Ford, and his artistic decisions. They changed the viewing of these films from a form of surveillance into a form of conversation.)

A conversation has a moral basis: we speak expecting to be evaluated, and listen expecting to evaluate. But it also, necessarily, suspends evaluation: I’m going to wait to judge what you say until I’ve given you the chance to explain it to me (or I’ve had the chance to explain it myself). Capital-A Art is like this kind of conversation in that we imagine it to be an encounter with another person who gets the benefit of the doubt; but it is unlike it in that we will happily suspend moral evaluation forever, as we will not in interpersonal situations. We respect the piece of art (or, if you like, the artist) enough to let it speak, and to give it time to justify itself; but we are satisfied (perhaps even more satisfied) if the justification never comes. Hence the contemporary approbation for art that is undecidable, ambiguous, that can be “read” and approved more than one way — and the ensuing tendency to theorize that all art is like this.

The Humanities and Disciplinary Non-Reciprocity

What is still more symptomatic is the attendant rush to judgment on the entire context that surrounds the art: as if art were necessarily a mystery, but the apparatus of culture were plainly transparent. This if, of course, an abuse of techniques and theories developed by sociology and Marxism to explain cultural phenomena which once seemed baffling and unexplainable (e.g. alienation, reification, reproduction of the social order, false consciousness, etc.) but which now have the worthy obviousness of academic clichés. But it’s an amazingly widespread and firmly entrenched abuse: to the point that anyone who wants to care about art, and to hold it apart from what might be term more generally “entertainment,” almost has to insist on this transcendental quality of art to escape theory; and on the capability of theory to explain literally everything else.

This may be part of what is isolating the Humanities, and English in particular, from other academic, and especially scientific, discourses: its eagerness to steal concepts from all over the disciplinary map to frame its discussion of what is ostensibly its subject (literature), coupled with an extraordinary resistance to allowing that subject to be reappropriated “reductively” by other disciplines to their own ends. (Exhibit A: English professors’ frequent hostility to the sociology of literature, and to moral philosophers who make use of literary examples, like Richard Rorty and Martha Nussbaum.) In this way, the academic literary establishment is now more insular and quasi-religious than ever: it will absorb and scrutinize every datum the world throws up, while refusing scrutiny on other people’s terms.

Conversations with Conservatives

Such scrutiny might look like this: What is art good for? How does it benefit society? Do the assumptions that lie behind it make sense any more? Is it really worth devoting your life to? These are questions we as liberals are quite right to ask about the church or some particular political or social institution, but they now seem to us retrograde and unhelpful, even idiotic or philistine, when applied to art and literature. But they are, in fact, the very questions that will be asked, and answered, by conservatives who'd like to replace the kinds of "daring" or "avant-garde" art many liberals enjoy with something more morally responsible, and we are inclined to think, aesthetically debased.

There's a larger ideological issue here: have we, as liberals, since the sixties, invested more in people as they are (i.e. identity politics) and literature as it is (i.e. as it appeared as an institution in the postwar period) than in human possibility, or the possibilities of the human endeavor called literature? Ironically, perhaps, “progressive” politicians for the past twenty to thirty years have been more focused on safeguarding current freedoms (freedom of expression, the right to privacy, Roe v. Wade, affirmative action) than on advancing the liberal agenda any further. This is why the liberals sometimes appear today as the conservatives must have in the sixties: fearful, reactionary, pessimistic, unwilling to trust in the possibilities of the future.

And the liberal relation to art since that period shows some of the same tendencies: a burgeoning “avant-garde classicism” (comforting, in that it reiterates that sixties-era countercultural values are still a motivating force in art), a hardcore commitment to auteurism (in the form of ever more expansive and fulsome appreciations of “true artists,” retrospectives, etc.), and an accompanying skepticism toward all schools and movements trying to advance new aesthetics, which are all too often labeled "reactionary" or simply "retro." Presiding over it all is a sense that it’s not quite clear what art as a social practice is for — the inevitable outcome of a philosophy that strenuously maintains that it can be "anything" — but that it should nonetheless definitely be protected, at all costs.

This liberal attitude — of insisting on protecting what you refuse to define — is both sensible and kind of odd, if you think about it; and it must be particularly odd-sounding to people (let’s call them, paradoxically, conservatives) who find the overwhelming majority of this so-called art that is to be protected completely unpleasurable. And much of it, not to put too fine a point on it, immoral. Furthermore, how frustrating must it be, if you're a conservative who takes issue with a particular art-work, that not only don't liberal art-lovers share your feeling that this given piece of art is objectionable, but that they don’t even admit that morality comes into it — that art even can be considered objectionable? That these liberals will immediately launch into a defense of free speech, or condescend to you, or ridicule your response as unsophisticated? If they’re feeling particularly philosophical, they might explain that they just don’t see art in those terms — that, for them, art is valuable as an expression of human imagination (or maybe of the principled rage of the underclass) and, as ugly or repellent as it might initially seem, we art-lovers have a duty (they might not say “duty”) to try to understand it and see what it can tell us. To which you, if you’re feeling provocative, might ask: Well, why treat art this way and not people? Why spend a lot of time and energy trying to resolve why the word “CUNT” scrawled on a canvas is justifiable when you won’t look into my words (viz., that I find that canvas offensive) long enough to form a more coherent account than “he’s not used to it” or “she doesn’t understand”? Why does art get the benefit of the doubt and not audiences?

I would argue that we as liberals need to have a good answer to these questions — or a few good answers. We can’t just argue that they’re irrelevant. In trying to protect the aesthetic from the theoretical pressures of moral or political ideology, we risk perpetuating a more insidious ideology of practice. We need to find a way to defend art as art — that is, as a common human behavior fundamentally different from other kinds of human behavior, and learnable on its own terms — without recourse to any transcendental, uncriticizable category.