|Dürer's Melancholia, an example of decadent capitalist individualist unethical art?|
Why would individualism be less ethical than collectivism? Sure, I can see the value of community. I even feel it as a New Yorker living in Vermont. I understand that it is beneficial to work together and to be altruistic. But these values were not born with collectivism and the critique of capitalism. Spinoza specifically enjoins people to be other-regarding, for example, as does most of the philosophy and art of the Western canon. Kant is famous for suggesting that we should not use people as means, but to see human relation as an end in itself. Certainly one could argue that the spirit of capitalism and its dog-eat-dog laissez faire attitude is the result (or cause) of the kind of selfishness, greed, and xenophobia that characterize a certain species of individualistic thinking (every man for himself). But collectivism doesn't really have clean hands either.
Allen Tiher, in his Understanding Robert Musil, writes that ethics for Musil, was differentiated from morals by its "personal and almost unsocial" character (194). Morality, which Musil equated with rationality and systematic thinking in his essay "Der 'Untergang' des Theaters" (The 'Fall' of the Theater, 1924) demanded a:
"univocal thinking with concepts whose purchase on meaning demands that they can be repeatedly used. This kind of moral thinking is analogous to scientific discourse in that it proposes recurrence as part of its criteria for verification and hence is a product of the understanding (8:1093). However, for Musil real ethical thinking does not share these properties since it is in part of the 'non-ratioid' domain of knowledge" (194).
Tiher continues, noting that "like Wittgenstein Musil came to believe that true ethical thinking or feeling is scarcely amenable of the kind of rational demonstration that philosophers often undertake when systematically setting out the principles of morality. A system of ethics is impossible". Ethical experience then, far from being limited to the communal realm is considered to be only possible on an individual basis. Ethical experience is "a kind of unique experience in which one individual encounters an individual moment that cannot be directly mediated simply by abstract concepts....and presumably it can be found in art"," and in the realm Musil designates as the "Other Condition," a "unique domain in which the aesthetic experience of the ethical occurs" (196). Morality has ever been a system of control, while ethics is personal, an existential self-responsibility, choice, conscience, which is born within the individual in relation to others rather than imposed upon him by force or punishment or censure.
While Suzi Gaplik describes early Modernism as being motivated by a "double process of aesthetic innovation and social revolt" in response to "the artists' spiritual discomfort in capitalistic and totalitarian societies alike" (31), she goes on to malign this "inward turn" as the art world of the 1960's and 70's "began to cast up increasing instances of self-referring formalism which denies to abstract art any kind of dissident role or meaning within the social framework"...(32). This decline in social commitment or ethical consciousness, however, seems impugned by her from the start, despite the distinction made between early and late Modernism, by the dangerous idea of individualism. "The overarching principle of modernity has been autonomy. Its touchstone is individual freedom, not social authority" (34).
She then rather outrageously suggests that capitalism "cannot hope to produce art equal to that of certain earlier forms of society---since capitalistic production, because it stresses the profit-making value of art and turns it into a form of merchandise, is hostile to the spiritual production of art"(39). It is unclear to me here which art is being compared to which art. If she marks the beginning of capitalism in the 1600's, or from the protestant reformation and the "spirit of capitalism" as many do, she is claiming that any art created before this time of "decadence" is of greater spiritual value than what was created after and that, after the fall of capitalism, art will be better. Capitalism, however, and its insidious individualism may be dated to the earliest instance of land or business ownership. I think she does mean to date capitalism from the Renaissance however, since she compares the Holy Grail with the stock exchange and further argues that medieval art was more spiritual than capitalist art, ignoring completely the economic aspects of religious patronage and power. If individualism, as is argued in Ernst Cassirer's Individualism and Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, was born in the Renaissance, then Gaplik would have to argue that Renaissance art and philosophy marked the beginning of a decline in the spiritual dimensions of art and the ethical concerns of mankind. An obviously absurd conclusion, unless one is a reactionary Catholic. I'm sure she does not mean to argue this, but one must take the unexamined assumptions to their conclusions to see how faulty they are.
Gaplik laments that "not only have we been living for some time without any shared ideal, we have largely been living without any ideals at all...our common belief at this point seems to be that no one can be made accountable: any form of limitation is experienced as a prison"(40). I quote this line because I agree heartily with Gaplik that this is a serious problem. But I do not think that individualism or aestheticism are the culprits in this "void of ethics". Certainly, modernism has been a grappling with the loss of communal values and, yes, a return to community and a retreat from the marketplace of art makes a lot of good sense as a response to this widespread crisis of meaning and the pervasive simulacrum of the mall and its constant projections of hollow images. But with Musil in mind, I would insist that it is not individual intellect and culture that is the enemy, but rather the drive toward collective conformity and sameness inherent in the strange mixture of democracy and capitalism. Why should the individual be suspect? Why should the individual be unethical? Why should beauty be an escape from reality and responsibility? Perhaps these are consciously naive or disingenuous questions, but I think that someone needs to ask them.