Monday, August 03, 2009

Aesthetic offenses

Nearly everybody understands a legal offense (breaking a law) or a moral wrong (irresponsibility toward another), but what is an aesthetic offense, a crime against art?

Daniel Green is pretty sure it is not the same thing as a moral wrong. Recoiling from the conservatism of Roger Scruton’s essay “Beauty and Desecration” in the spring issue of the City Journal, Green tries to distinguish between moral objections on one hand to slicing off a prostitute’s nipples and presenting them to the lead soprano in Mozart’s light-hearted opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail, or littering the stage with rutting couples, including urination as foreplay and forced oral sex, and on the other hand a careful account of an operatic production’s “aesthetic flaws”:

I am quite willing to believe that those responsible for it thought it a clever idea to “set the opera in a Berlin brothel, with Selim as pimp and Konstanze one of the prostitutes,” but ultimately this is just an aesthetically vacuous attempt to “update” Mozart, to run roughshod over Mozart’s original vision of his opera and establish their own overwhelmingly lame one in its place. It is a practice to be found not only in opera but in theater in general, whereby directors and producers with the aesthetic sensibilities of lizards attempt to keep the great works “relevant.” One could, I suppose, call this artistic cluelessness a “moral” problem, but most of what Scruton sees as the unleashing of “moral chaos” is finally just the consequence of the aesthetic incompetence of some those entrused with the job of re-presenting the theatrical art of the past.Green uses the words aesthetic or artistic four times in this passage, but I am no closer to understanding what he means by them.

Scruton is much clearer. Art is the discovery and representation of beauty, and beauty is the affirmation and truth to life. On Scruton’s showing, director Calixto Bieito’s production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Komische Oper Berlin in 2004 was an artistic failure, because it was ugly and false to life.

Green uses the concept of the aesthetic in so many different ways he only ends up confusing the issue. Thus Bieito’s production was “aesthetically vacuous.” (Proposition 1: Art must have a meaning or purpose.) Bieito resembles other champions of Regietheater (German for “director’s theater”): all of them have “the aesthetic sensibilities of lizards.” (Proposition 2: Art requires a warm-blooded—presumably, a human—capacity for perception and feeling.) They exhibit “artistic cluelessness.” (Proposition 3: Art is a knowledge.) Their efforts are examples of “aesthetic incompetence.” (Proposition 4: Art is an ability.)

Set aside his obvious misreading of Scruton. I still don’t see how this is an improvement, how it eliminates the virus of morality to produce a healthy conception of art. Indeed, Green’s principal objection is that Bieito is irresponsible to “Mozart’s original vision,” and this, as I argued yesterday, is a moral failing. Upon closer examination, Green’s understanding of aesthetics turns out to be deeply conventional, and thoroughly confused.

A ramshackle dwelling, with materials borrowed from classical antiquity (art is an ability), the Renaissance (art is a knowledge), the Romantics (art requires a capacity for perception and feeling), and the Victorians (art must have a purpose), it does not provide the secure blockhouse for artistic autonomy that Green hopes it will. All it succeeds in doing is to recapitulate the history of aesthetics without reconciling the various doctrines that have been advanced at various times for various reasons.

More to the point, it leaves the question of aesthetic offense entirely up in the air. Is it an aesthetic affront to violate just one of Green’s implicit propositions, or is it necessary to infringe all four? Ronald Firbank’s fiction is nonsense, but it displays a genius for prose and literary form. And to read it is to acquire a workable knowledge of how fiction goes about achieving its effects. Aesthetic offense, then, or not? Or take the fiction of Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It has a clear purpose (among other things, to call into question the reality of love and to spread hatred of the Jews); it is competently made; its knowledge of a world without love and the fine details of antisemitism is unshakable. But Céline has the aesthetic sensibility of a lizard. Aesthetic offense or not?

I don’t particularly like Scruton’s conception of art either, but the trouble with it is the same as the trouble with Green’s. It conceives art as a category of value, and serves then as a scepter for knighting some works for their great value in order to distinguish them from other works of lesser value or none. But to call something art is to say nothing unless it is immediately clear what standards of artistic acceptibility are being invoked. “Beauty” will not do, because it begs the question. Green’s four-part answer simply multiples the confusion.

The whole conception of art is of limited utility in the study of literature, but in as far as a conception is demanded, what needs to happen is a shift from conceiving art as works of value to thinking of it as a specific kind of mental activity, or what Oakeshott calls a mode of experience. Art is what invites contemplation, whether it is the Rothko Chapel here in Houston or a 1961 Jaguar E Type, and an offense against art is to do something other than contemplate it. If I use the Rothko Chapel to host my son’s bar mitsvah, I am treating it other than aesthetically, and if I drive a Jaguar to class in College Station, I may be using it for the purpose for which it was intended, but I am hardly driving a work of art.


R. T. said...

From your posting:

"Art is the discovery and representation of beauty, and beauty is the affirmation and truth to life."

Keats would agree.

D. G. Myers said...

Yes, Scruton’s is a frankly romantic conception of art.

R. T. said...

My point of view with respect to aesthetics is heavily influenced by Romanticism; a professor with whom I studied in graduate school was very much taken with William Blake and the Romantic movement (as am I), and I was quite influenced by the professor's treatment of aesthetics. Isn't it interesting the ways students are influenced by teachers? And that phenomenon has influenced me to tread carefully when undergraduates so eagerly ask me my opinion about this or that text; I try to avoid "my opinion" and point them in the direction of arriving at their own conclusions that are built upon their understandings of the basics. However, when they get me started on Keats, Blake, and Wordsworth (for example), then I am sorely tempted to say more than I should.