Friday, March 16, 2012

Individualism and Ethics

Dürer's Melancholia, an example of decadent capitalist individualist unethical art?
Continuing my rather annoying confrontation with the critique of  this something called "Modernism," I have been reading Suzi Gaplik's interesting book Has Modernism Failed in order to, in a way, figure out what is making these criticisms tick. What is motivating them? What do they want and why? It seems that Gaplik wants to bring spirit back into art, even spirituality, and above all a communal spirituality in response to the commodification of the art world. She is largely writing about visual art and when she says "Modernism" her conception of it travels much further into the present than where I would imagine it in literary (high) Modernism to go. But anyway, while I share her concern about what Thoreau called bringing one's God to market (see post below on the transcendentalists and the continental philosophers), I simply do not understand the total attack on individualism that exorcises her and many other critics of aesthetics. It feels to me that they have the wrong enemy in their hands. Is culture really the enemy? Beauty? Song? Art? the Individual?

 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.


  1. Another question I would ask: how is it recognized that Modernist art, particularly from Impressionism on to Abstract Expressionism has over the years become less of the social revolt against capitalism and has become codified with institutionalization of museums and the linked inextricably with art dealers such as Sothebys, who sell these "autonomous" paintings at exorbitant prices to the rich elite? Art history taught by art colleges ends with Modernism, at least in my BFA days. Why is that? It seems that Modernist art started off as a social revolt but like many motifs and styles gets sucked up by trends and fads of the day. One day it's subversive to paint "expressively" or to paint color fields then tomorrow it is considered a trope. Assimilation of culture tends to run through the mill of capital exchange. How do we make art that cannot be captured and traded? What is the economy of art in this economy of life? And if we go this route, how do we feed ourselves so we can continue to speak in this language?

  2. Gaplik's book is aimed at addressing these issues and I think the question can be raised without a polarization between political and supposedly non-political or disengaged art. For, as her epigraph from Lewis Hyde's The Gift reads:
    "A work of art is a gift, not a commodity...Every modern artist who has chosen to labor with a gift must sooner or later wonder how he or she is to survive in a society dominated by market exchange. And if the fruits of a gift are gifts themselves, how is the artist to nourish himself, spiritually as well as materially, in an age whose values and whose commerce consists almost exclusively in the purchase and sale of commodities?"
    I think her answer to the problem of commodification is to recuse one's self from the corrupt art world and to quietly, humbly, modestly go about one's business of community-engaged art. There might be an answer in there about how one is to go about supporting one's self in this. Probably not like Thoreau, who would be far too individualistic, but perhaps through a shared community of living, of materials, of space. I think that my friend Stella Marrs suggested as much in her preface to a forthcoming book on the "Love Rock" movement of Olympia, Washington. A form of dropping in, rather than out, in to small, decentralized self-sufficient communities?

  3. Herbert Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man warns us of the overwhelming power of capitalism to suck in forms of dissent, artistic and otherwise, and render them ineffective. When, say, a Pollack painting becomes a beach towel, the context is altered. Or when a (sometimes) subversive T.V. show like The Simpsons has its characters promoted by Burger King, the cultural and political critiques offered on the show lose their oomph.

    I recently re-taught John Berger's Ways of Seeing and was reinvigorated by Berger's discussion of the mystification of fine art, as well as the connections he makes between fine art and present day advertising. Perhaps a rereading of Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" is in order!

    What interests me especially as of late is in particular the question, How Should Literature Be Taught? Because I'm teaching a survey course, I'm up against students who do not necessarily read, who do not find reading essential to a life, nevermind art! So I find myself emphasizing the human elements, and isn't that what art is about anyway? What does it mean to be human? What unanswerable questions are raised as we fumble about in such an anchor-less life? What is gained when the writer suspends judgement of his characters and lets us get down deep into experience?

  4. I think I need to read that book sometime soon, especially in light of our recurring discussions and also for my artistic soul which is starting to feel tired, jaded, and cynical in the art world, again, even with the community of artists in graduate school.

    Thank you for your comments, and Kenneth's as well...