Theses on the Art/Ethics Problem

In response to Teju Cole and Helen Rittelmeyer.

1. Cole’s piece is indeed naive.  Surprisingly so from the author of Open City, the famous late plot twist of which I thought was meant specifically to contradict the art/ethics equation. 

2. But Rittelmeyer cheats in her rebuttal when she suggests that Obama isn’t really literate, as if a man who were really literate and not just posturing might be incapable of brutality.  It reminds me–Rittelmeyer may be amused by the comparison–of a passage in an Edward Said essay in which he recalls a well-connected friend who told him that, at the height of the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara had a copy of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet on his desk.  Said of course mocks the notion that McNamara’s appreciating advanced literature could make his Vietnam policies more acceptable, but the radical critic also hedges his bets by referring to Durrell’s work as “of questionable worth.”  Said here implies, contradicting his major premise, that the quality of the novel truly makes a difference.  If only McNamara had read a really good book–Beckett, say, or Nabokov–then Said might have supported the war or McNamara opposed it…

3. Here is my homespun anthropology.  I am not a reductionist.  I think an aesthetic drive operates in humans (and likely in other animals too) that is not reducible to any other drive, that could never be satisfied by food or sex or power alone, but can only be appeased by the creation and appreciation of aesthetic objects (defined as broadly as you like).  I believe that because this drive exists, its satisfaction and its cultivation require no apology and no defense.  We will make art and we will attend to art no matter what.  For this reason, it seems self-evident to me that an education in the arts is as necessary to individual and collective human flourishing as an education in the attainment of any other necessity.

4. But it does not follow that the cultivation of the aesthetic drive will by itself also cultivate the ethical drive.  It can help, of course, because all these things are obviously connected (food and sex have an aesthetic dimension, aesthetic objects circulate within systems of power, as well as treating ethical concepts, etc.), but it can’t do it alone.  Art by itself won’t make you a better person, any more than being an ethical person alone can make you a good artist.  These are separate disciplines.

(Aside: I ask your indulgence for perhaps hypocritically discussing ethics and politics as interchangeable.  The relevant sense of politics as I use it here is “applied ethics.”  I accept that there may be other senses that would trouble my thesis.)

5. You may ask, But doesn’t art make you more empathetic?  Yes, of course, how can spending a lot of time contemplating the subjectivity and sensibility of others not make you more empathetic?  Empathy, though, is ethically inert.  Who is more empathetic than Iago?     

6. Seeking to practice as best you can, whether as reader or writer, the art of literature is a positive good in its own right, needing no justification and no excuse.  We can’t do without the arts, including literature where relevant, even for a minute.  They also probably do offer assistance to the ethical imagination.  But these two things–art and ethics–are not identical, and it disorders both to collapse them into one another, lending an unearned glamor to bad art and an undeserved decoration to unethical behavior.  (In this sense, conflating art and ethics is a crime against both.)

7. What about the Nazis reading Goethe, the point that supposedly clinches the argument that art per se has something to apologize for if it does not improve its audience?  I think it supports my aesthete’s case, because the Nazis were certainly not aesthetes.  They were great and terrible confusers of aesthetics and ethics, introducing such of their “ethical” concepts as national strength and racial hygiene into aesthetic considerations.  Their Goethe was a German first and an artist second.  They were the ones who believed that art made people more ethical (according to their own grievously, viciously disordered ethical system, I mean).  How can their brutality be used as an argument against aestheticism?  They were anti-aesthetes of the first order.  

8. The problem with being an anti-reductionist is that it bars the way to utopia.  A utopian imagines that satisfying one underlying drive will therefore satisfy all the ontologically subsequent drives.  This is a very seductive thought; it has seduced much better minds than mine.  But I think we’ve got to get over it.  You may object, But if all the drives are autonomous, then life is forbiddingly complex.  Yeah, well.

9. I have said elsewhere, quoting Plato, that art is the result of a divine frenzy.  How can the above be reconciled with that?  Perhaps only by positing many divinities.  In conflict?  Look around–what do you think?