Saturday, December 12, 2009

Art and Morals

I have not posted for a while. I wanted to write something about Goethe's essay on Winckelmann, but that led me back to Winckelmann's own essays as well, and then it was necessary to read some of Gottsched, Lessing, and Herder, too. For about a week now I have been trying to wrap my mind around the literary criticism of "Classical Weimar," i.e., the writings of Schiller and Goethe.

I "get" Gottsched, Lessing, and Herder: they were men of the Enlightenment who believed that critics could help form the tastes of the reading and theater-going public. In other words, tell people why they liked what they liked, or why they should like it. And, conversely, why they should dislike a work of art or literature. "Taste" is about subjective pleasure and displeasure. There is no arguing with taste, as someone said. At the same time, we all want to feel that there is some basis for our subjective evaluation. Thus the job of critics, contemporary or in the 18th century: they tell us what to think about aesthetic objects. People read the book or movie reviews, and decide on the basis of what the critic says whether to read the book or see the movie. No doubt reviews even allow people to talk about books as if they had read them. A year or so ago some French psychiatrist wrote a book on how to talk about things one hadn't read at, say, cocktail parties or other sociable occasions.

The Classical Weimar literary criticism is different. Schiller and Goethe basically gave up on trying to form public taste. Schiller, in a number of essays and reviews, laments what might be called the lack of "ideological uniformity" of modern society. Like many Germans, he looked back to ancient Greece as the ideal of social unity where citizens, from high to low, were of "one mind" regarding the spiritual or non-material side of life. I guess you could say the same thing about, say, American Indians four centuries ago. Thus, they all shared the same religion, artists produced for all the people, etc.

Schiller would like for all members of a nation to share the same way of feeling about these essential things of life. In the modern world, however, with changes in labor, society has become fragmented and more differentiated, with a variety of tastes, most of which (according to Schiller) are bad: people like to be entertained, and not by the "highest" art. Schiller approved of attaining pleasure from art, but not the kind of pleasure that merely fulfills the sensual side of our nature.

The true "aesthetic condition" could only be fulfilled by art that restores the "unity of human nature," a unity disturbed by the contemporary laboring life. Obviously, someone working on a production line would prefer, after a day of work, some easy relaxation of his faculties. Schiller, however, made high demands on artists and on the reception of art. Both he and Goethe believed that a literary and artistic market that catered to the public was bad for art and for the intellectual culture of the nation.

The above was on my mind as I visited the Bauhaus exhibition at MOMA. The occasion was the visit of our friend Philippe (pictured above), who travels from Germany at this time of year to stay with his aunt (my friend Gigi) in Connecticut. After Thanksgiving, he comes to New York. He was greatly interested in the Bauhaus, because his brother is an architect.

The Bauhaus experiment is in a long line of prescriptions for restoring that "lost unity" that Schiller imagined existed in ancient Greece. The Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, for instance, issued a call for artists in all media (according to the wall label) "to rally around a new constructive purpose, at once aesthetic and social. 'The arts have become isolated in the modern age,' he wrote in 1919, and the school must forge a 'new unity.'" Later László Moholy-Nagy called for "the creation of a new vision for the modern age."
A prospectus for a series of books begins: "Proceeding from the recognition that all branches for the fashioning of life [Gestaltungsgebiete] are connected with one another, the Bauhaus is publishing a series of book that will occupy itself with the problems of contemporary life."

It is interesting how many artists and artistic types, especially since we live at a time of comfort produced by the division of labor lamented by Schiller, are in favor of fashioning a society in which everyone is on the same page. I think this is a European tendency, the inheritance of an intellectual tradition reaching back to the Enlightenment.

It was the crucial innovation of Swiss-born Benjamin Constant to argue that it was not the role of government or elites to mold opinion through education or "to direct, improve, or enlighten" the lives of citizens. Rousseau, unhappy with dissent and diversity, advocated for the General Will, which was to emerge from "the voice of duty," not from the opinions of individuals. Constant argued for a collision of opinions. The U.S. seems to have been founded on the basis of Constant's insights.

The Old World seems to be continuing in the same path of enforcing uniformity, through the instruments of the E.U. Just two recent examples. The former Beatle Paul McCartney spoke before the E.U. advocating "meat-free Mondays" to save the planet. In a similar vein, a Canadian journalist has advocated a Chinese-like policy of one child per couple -- even though she has two children herself. There is a great discomfort, mostly among people of talent and even genius, with the messy differences of individuals. And I wonder if McCartney or the Canadian journalist have gone so far in their thinking as to calculate the bureaucratic costs or the unintended consequences of their ideas. Probably not, since they are not "thinking," but responding aesthetically to the world.

The worst part of such high-mindedness is the power it cedes to functionaries to control all aspects of our lives. Aesthetic criticism is implicitly moral advice, not simply about what one should think of a movie or a novel but about how one should live. And this advice is "regulative": if we don't follow it we are an uncouth person or worse. The Nazis had the same idea, as did the Soviets. The Europeans seem on the path of asserting a softer despotism, but a despotism nevertheless.

Despite the above, I enjoyed many aspects of the Bauhaus exhibit, especially among the early generation, for instance, this playful color grid by Josef Albers. I also understand the desire of intellectuals and artists to be "relevant" to the society in which they live, but I have learned to live with the fact that most people are not interested in Goethe. "Most people," however, also produce the things that make my life easier and more comfortable, unlike myself, who works for my own pleasure and profit.

Picture credits: Alvise Cosma; Civitas '99; Ecorazzi;


Eduardo said...

As a child I watched a U.S. television show called "lost in space. It was a typical American family picnic was on other planets. Supreme expansion of the American way life. The illusion is over, our planet is fed up that lifestyle and the third world begins to wake up to the exploitation of its resources. A new Bauhaus is necessary to build the new world where human, technical and nature are reconciled. No more American way life and its bad e pop culture.

Goethe Girl said...

I agree with Eduardo that much about American pop culture is bad, but one doesn't have to participate in it. It is necessary, however, to develop inner resources and the strength to resist it. That is empowerment, freedom and enlightenment. Besides, the third world wants to live as well as we Americans. We shouldn't deny them the opportunity. And they may also offer us values that will resist the horrible effects of contemporary Hollywood etc.