The Role of Art

I found this on the web today. It’s about an artist who’s put up a sculpture in front of the Milan stock exchange.

Milan city council has extended the display of a controversial new sculpture by Italy’s most famous living artist, Maurizio Cattelan.

The sculpture – officially titled L.O.V.E. but popularly known as The Middle Finger – will now remain in the Piazza d’Affari outside the Milan stock exchange until the end of a retrospective of Cattelan’s work in the city on 24 October.

Now admirers of the artist’s work are pressing for the piazza to become its permanent home.

Here is a view of the sculpture:

Middle Finger

You may be able to see why some would claim that the sculpture is ‘anti-capitalist.’

My Not-Surprising Conclusion

Regular readers of my blog will not be surprised that I have no problem with this as artistic expression, both of the personal expression of the artist nor of the public expression of dissatisfaction with the rich men and women who run the finance industry. That’s what art does: it finds a seam in an otherwise perfect world; exploits the seam, filling the world with all the possibilities that the artist can think of; and then closes the open seam with a fuller image that is now more complete for having engaged the world.

In this case, the artist has opened up a seam in the world and has inserted a finger into the open seam. He has, moreover, relied on the tradition of sculpture to reinforce his case. The L.O.V.E. sculpture is clearly and deliberately reminiscent of Renaissance sculpture (think of Michelangelo’s David).

Roger Scruton’s Why Beauty Matters

Roger Scruton, whose Short History of Modern Philosophy I listed as #7 on my list of my 15 Favorite Books of All Time, would say that what has been lost in the modern world is the sense of beauty, and (I don’t know him but I am nevertheless sure) that he would say that this is one of the most disturbing images in a world of debased art.

He has made his case in his documentary, Why Beauty Matters. It is actually 6 ten minute segments long, but I give you the first only:

His most persistent argument grows perhaps from his premise:

In the 20th century, beauty stopped being important. Art increasingly aimed to disturb and to break moral taboos. It was not beauty, but originality, and at whatever moral cost, that won the prizes.

He, being a conservative who’s actually written my favorite book on conservative values, Meaning Of Conservatism, thinks this is wrong. In my opinion, he is still a bit too stuck in the past for my taste.

I want to be clear, here. I believe that it’s okay that he and I disagree. He has his opinion, and I have mine. And I respect his deep knowledge of philosophical issues, without which I could never have arrived at my own (surely shallower) position on the role of art in human life. But the question is what are we to do in the public sphere when I have my opinion and he has his. It is there, in the public space, that reason comes into the picture.

Reasoning about Art

Alexander Pope had said in his Essay on Man that it is by ascending the scale of reason that man found his place in the universe above all other animals. This was a long-standing argument which followed Aristotle’s (2000 year old) decision about man being separated from animals by the specific difference of his having reason. It became one of those moments that extends beyond an individual expression to become a general expression of a ‘universal’ truth.

Unfortunately, Johann Gottfried von Herder (and plenty of others) disagreed. Herder specifically found that reason put barriers on individual expression. This, too, was an old case, going back to Aristotle. Aristotle, as you know, was able to situate things in the world of nature by citing its place on the tree of knowledge. Its similarity to other things was a matter of genera, while its difference from other things was a matter of species. By traveling up to the world through successively broader genera, the philosopher was able to reconnect with the mystical one word through which the creator created the universe.

For Herder, the use of species (specific difference) meant that to so conceive art was to limit its effectiveness as far its ability to assess the ‘whole’ was concerned. And ever since Herder, reason has had no place in art. Art tells a ‘higher’ truth by forgoing reason for a process that artists are proud to call ‘lying.’

After Herder, people decided that the problems of art were aligned with the problems of metaphysics, and not with reason. And Roger Scruton believes that Herder was right to align art and artistic expression with sublimer metaphysics, rather than lowly science. I take the position that art stands on the more prosaic side of lowly science.

What Does That Mean For Roger And Me?

This means that Roger Scruton and I have two differing points of view on art. My position is to be open to all ideas, even those like Carolee Schneemann’s ideas on the role of the body in art. His is a slightly alarmist call for reaffirming the more sublime values of art. In the case of L.O.V.E., I am going to assume he has a problem with it. I’m much more comfortable with art as lying and deception than he is. To fully understand my point of view, see my essay on ‘Why Fido Can’t Drive’ in my Writing for People Who Hate Writing, but let me see if I can briefly explain my view of the role of art.

Digression on the Role of Art

Art may be remembered as an expression of the permanent values of human life. But the artist who creates a work of art is employing what I term Freytag’s Butte (it’s an inside joke based on my modification of Freytag’s Pyramid, which everyone knows but which no one uses to order their life). The artist finds a seam in the world of art, exploits that seam, and sews it back up with more stuff that it had in it before. In my probably-never-to-be-completed work Writing About Literature for People Who Hate Writing about Literature, I maintain that this model applies to the ‘high’ art of the Renaissance, as well as television episodes like Seinfeld, which once exploited the unlikely scenario of waiting in a Chinese restaurant.

With my reintroduction of Freytag’s Butte, I can place art into a rational context. Seinfeld is funny. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is serious. Both have artistic value. And some people like Seinfeld, while others like Hamlet. The question that remains is who’s right? My students like Seinfeld, while I, their teacher, likes Hamlet. If we decide that I, as a teacher, am right, then my students should bow to my better trained taste.

But the reality is that they don’t.

Back to Roger and Me

And that, I think, is the rock that Roger Scruton founders upon. He knows a lot more than…well just about everybody (certainly more than me). And knowing more, he’s disinclined to grant authority over subjects which he has mastery of but which others don’t. But this is a problem with his configuration of his universe. He has things figured out in his brain (epistemology for the amateur who’s following along at home) but the actuality of the situation (ontology) is different. Rather than open up his mind to the possibility that others less educated than himself have grasped answers that elude him, the Master Philosopher retreats into his perfectly coordinated world intellectual world rather than the more messy real world, where things don’t fit together as well as they do in his own mind.

The reality is that Scruton’s Modern Philosophy is not wholly perfect, either. In fact, it has some seams in it that I have dedicated my life to solving. (No, Mom, I don’t feel that I’ve wasted my life.) One of these is the paradox that arises from his recognition of the irreconcilable contradictions between the first person perspective (founded in Descartes) and the person perspective (founded in Wittgenstein’s critique of Descartes) that he identifies in modern philosophy.

We can work this out in the province of reason by time-tested methods, not of metaphysics but of science. The first thing we need to do is to lay our cards on the table and agree on the rules. After that, (because I conceive of myself as the visiting team) I will through out a pitch (sorry to English Roger for using a baseball metaphor), and he will attempt to hit it.

But if Roger comes to play my game (maybe I am the home team; we’ll work it out if he comes to play), I will have to insist on using rules that are scientifically-based, because metaphysically-based rules, while supposing to be firm and unchangeable, are actually subject to the changing of scientific evidence. (I’ve written about this in my ‘Why Fido Can’t Drive’ in my Writing for People Who Hate Writing, but apparently I’ve not written about it on my blog).

Can We Come to Some Agreement?

So after we’ve agreed on the rules of debate, we may not get to the end of the debate (ever). But we can get closer to agreeing about the role of L.O.V.E. in the public square in Milan. And in the interest of fair play, I’ll tip my hand. As far as I’m concerned, Mr. Cattelan’s work is an old, worn out variety which has a few artists who know nothing about the world of finance get the upper hand by turning financial things over in a revolutionary gesture, rather than engaging the financial world on its own terms.

In other words, the game of art requires that those who play play by the rules that we must take an ironic position on the role of art in assessing the real world of finance. There are some troubling consequences to such a declaration, for it is only by not knowing anything about how finance works can an artist like Mr. Cattelan turn over the world of finance.

But within the world of finance, things look very different than they do to an observer who knows nothing. And as long as there are more people who know nothing about the world of finance (see my dissertation on Cramer v Stewart here), then we’re going to have people who continue to value those who have escaped specialized knowledge of the world for a more complete, more whole, and more secure knowledge of the world that doesn’t take into account the forward-looking values that the world has to offer. (This was my complaint about the Presidency of Barack Obama, as well).

But escaping to the known world of the past, as Scruton does (and I think I need to point out once again that he is one of my intellectual heroes) is not a viable option. Scruton’s solution, while giving elements of artistic expression which are sadly missing from the world of modern art, is not enough to satisfy me. It would lock us into a backward-looking view of the world as devastating as that which Obama is offering us.

What Cattelan’s L.O.V.E. statue does portend is that the world of modern art is long overdue for a makeover. The world of art, when seen as dedicated to creating art as soon as problems arise (seams, for those of you who have been following along), will constantly be looking for solutions to problems that have not been met with satisfactory answers yet. In the case of L.O.V.E., the world of art needs to pay attention to the ‘whole’ world,’ which includes the world of finance, rather than taking pride in an abstract and perfect solution in which those who run away from the world of profit take great pride in their positions, which are as unreal as they are abstract and perfect.

That was the complaint leveled at those who thought that Socrates, far from being the perfect expositor of timeless wisdom, had embraced in an uncertain death that which he had no control of in life. The pagan philosophers were looking at the past, but had no idea how to think about the future except to follow models made for them in the past. But it was Augustine (not Plato or Aristotle) who said ‘Sum Aeneas,’ rendering each of us fair expositors of timeless truths, which descend on us not from without, but rather from within the depths of our own minds. I think in the positions recently taken by Christopher Hitchens that we can see how much of a permanent and final solution that was, though it is still the best solution so far that humanity has yet offered.

What is left out of the world has as much (or more) to do with the construction of the world that we live in. It is by enveloping the as-yet-unassimilated areas of knowledge into our art works that we create the future through art, rather than being content to wallow in the known but incomplete past that sits in our memory.

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