Chase Padusniak has written a thoughtful response to a series of Ethika Politika articles on art that do not directly respond to each other. He identifies three basic positions at Ethika Politika regarding art: Signorelli the declinist, Wolfe the contemporary, and me, the enfant terrible. Padusniak’s article defends Wolfe through a dialectical argument that is generous to declinists and malcontents, but urges a pragmatic caution and balance of parts in service to the whole.
I agree with, and admire, Padusniak and Wolfe’s careful aversion to definitions of art, favoring instead specific and particular descriptions of art. They are right: art describes; it does not define. Ironic as this insight may seem, the contemporary approach distinguishes itself most powerfully from the declinist in its insistence on discussing actual pieces of art and artists in concrete detail. The one who can speak of works of art in their givenness as subtle objects, moods, and modes of being will surely be the one who has something worthwhile to say, even if the descriptions are not as rangy and desperate as the declinist’s insecure definitions.
Whatever issue I may take with the exact sort of descriptions the contemporaries offer—most notably Wolfe’s Dostoevskian mantra—should not distract from how much more salutary and sane their descriptive approach is when compared to the sentimental and platitudinous definitions that depress and motivate the declinist. It is my view that contemporaries and declinists each suffer from their own brand of sentimentalism, but clearly the contemporary approach is better and sounder.
As far as I am concerned, we should take the declinist view at its word and ignore it altogether. After all, declinism is nothing particularly new or original when one considers the range of declinist critiques, from Burke to Fukuyama, and it allies itself too easily to ideology. The contemporary view, however, as Padusniak’s article shows, has a much more serious case to make. Nonetheless, the dialectical conception of art on Padusniak’s view is one to which I will object and propose no alternatives.
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The subtitle for this essay is stolen from the encounter between Slavoj Zizek and John Milbank, published by MIT Press in 2009 under the title The Monstrosity of Christ. The subtitle reveals the principle disagreement between Zizek and Milbank concerning how to understand the Passion. Zizek, predictably, sees Christ’s passion as an apophatic event, in which the Father and the Son, in a Divine psychoanalytic encounter, negate each other to produce the Spirit that becomes Christianity as a pure form of Hegelian atheism and Marxist communitarianism. Milbank, on the other hand, opposes the Zizekian via negativa by making a case for a suspension of dialectical (and Protestant) theology into the full enchantment of paradox. Milbank’s strategy is as predictable as Zizek’s when one is aware of each theorist’s intellectual biases; nonetheless, this distinction between dialectic and paradox is a useful prima facie way to consider my rejection of Padusniak’s dialectical aesthetics in favor of paradoxical art—art that kills.
Padusniak’s dialectical conception of art has no synthetic darkness, no negative route or sublimation, no eros. In other words, it is merely a distinction, not a dialectic. It serves to distinguish between parts of a whole, but it does nothing, really, to dissolve those parts into the wholly other. This may simply be a philosophical mistake, but it betrays and reverses all the worthy instincts of the rich descriptions offered in his essay.
The confusion of a dialectic for a simple distinction is noteworthy because it shows the contemporary position’s lack of aesthetic wit. These are not know-nothings. These are people who understand art and make it well. Wolfe alone is ten times the writer I will ever be and his editorial work at Image journal stands on its own terms. But the contemporary descriptive stance is the best and only move, and it is enough if left alone. The problem arises when more is added than description, when the descriptions redefine the situation and unwittingly become the mirror image of the declinist, with no dialectical synthesis.
It is precisely this double bind that I find so tedious and overcooked. Surely there is no rule that says that art should be understood through distinction, dialectic, or paradox. Of course there is something even more boring and self-defeating in processing art through the philosophical torture of aesthetics, but this is the only way out of the bind, unless the chosen route rejects the exercise entirely and goes back to art itself, in a more disciplined phenomenological spirit. At this point I should point out that my forthcoming book, Folk Phenomenology, tries to grapple with this question and has spurred along most of my ideas in these essays.
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This past week I performed an essay at an academic conference to upright bass accompaniment—“Lines of Tension, Rays of Light: An Autotheography.” It was a taxing rehearsal the night before and the execution felt a bit hasty and nervous. The reception was confused but polite; the room was tightly knotted. A woman who understood some part of the art spoke up during the discussion period and refused to beautify it; she objected to very idea that there was anything beautiful about it. She didn’t insult it, either, but she reserved her words for saying something that showed that there was a place for art in the room, and that place was enough.