Ministers of Culture – When Is Art A Problem?

Posted: February 12, 2018 in Uncategorized

  1. Natalie Van Orden says:

    This past weekend I watched the first episode of the tv show Black Mirror, and I ultimately ended up being both disturbed by what I watched and reminded of Rosenberg’s idea that in order to escape conformity an artist must complete an act so repulsive that no one else would want to buy it or claim ownership of it. What makes the paintings of certain American abstract painters great to Rosenberg is that their work “amounts to a scandal.”

    Without getting into too many spoiling details, in this episode the Prime Minister of England is blackmailed into completing a morally dehumanizing act on live television in order to save the life of a kidnapped princess. The act he is asked to complete is so universally disgusting that people both nationally and internationally are intrigued and want to watch the act on television. After trying every possible way to get the princess back without making the Prime Minister complete the act, the Prime Minister has no choice, and everyone has their eyes glued to the television as he humiliates himself.
    After the fact, it is discovered that the princess was released sedated onto the streets a half hour before the Prime Minister went in to complete the act, and no one even noticed because they were all so caught up in the coverage of the act on the television. It is discovered that it was an artist who had blackmailed the Prime Minister, and the artist hanged himself. In the end, this statement and blackmailing the artist created has been called “the first great artwork of the 21st century.” I was initially shocked that something so disgusting could be considered artwork, let alone “the first great artwork of the 21st century,” but maybe this is just Steinberg’s “plight” I’m experiencing.

    I’m still deliberating in my mind what makes art into a problem. It’s hard to distinguish between just feeling a plight that will wear off, or encountering a work that is more harmful than it is revolutionary. In the case of the Black Mirror “artwork,” the artist went too far in my mind by opening up a new form of terrorism and by ruining the personal life of the Prime Minister. At the same time, I also think that part of art’s important power is its ability to disturb people and provoke controversial discussion, which is also what the artwork in Black Mirror did. Jeff Koons’ Monument doesn’t come across as reverent or respectful to victims of the attack, yet he certainly is provoking some controversial discussion. Where do we draw the line between rebelling against conformity and negatively hurting individuals? And what do you think Rosenberg would say about this?

  2. I may have mislead students if I suggested that Rosenberg believes a work of art must be repusive to qualify as genuine art. What wanted to suggest is that he believes a work of art must appear absurd an unlawful, so that it can register as genuinely autonomous. Rosenberg uses crime as a striking example. But not all crimes must involve humiliating and degrading another person. Indeed, if humiliation for political motives is a predetermined intention of the artist, the act of it’s production can hardly be considered free. This is hardly to say there are not those who might consider political acts to be art. But Rosenberg is not one of them.

    • Natalie Van Orden says:

      Okay, that helps to clarify Rosenberg’s position for me. I was thinking that while art doesn’t necessarily have to be repulsive to be considered free, an artwork having that qualification would register in Rosenberg’s mind as an autonomous work. Our example from The Stranger of Meursault shooting and killing a man doesn’t involve any long-term pain or humiliation for the man he shot. His murder wasn’t in any way premeditated, and wasn’t used to serve a political purpose or to cause pain to anyone. I agree that basing an act on political motives, or even motivations to purposely degrade others, shows an attachment to society that can’t be considered genuinely autonomous.

      • We could say a lot here on this topic. I can’t offer a definitive answer with regard to Rosenberg’s opinion, especially on current politics and safety in America. I can offer my own opinion. It seems clear that Rosenberg’s interest in an radical anti-academism and anti-conformism. While I hardly imagine who would advise any individual to go out and commit a murder, he does take crime – especially unpremeditated crime – as an example of radical freedom. I imagine, then, we might see this as an instance of strategic, rhetorical hyperbole. Kierkegaard being his inspiration, we might note that Kierkegaard himself never commits a murder, but only uses the biblical story of Abraham as an example to make a point about rejecting, in a leap of faith, the norms and expectations of bourgeois society. Most persons have assumed Kierkegaard was motivated by his adverse response to the philosophy of Hegel, under whom he studies. Hegel believed that even the most oppositional acts would somehow, through the “cunning of reason,” be assimilated back into the larger narrative of progress. These readers figure that Kierkegaard, by dumping Regina Olsen, set out to do something so radical nothing could recuperate it. Consequently, it would have to be a authentic free act. This all makes sense to me. But I also imagine Kierkegaard had in mind the work of mathematician Adolphe Quételet, whose book Treatise on Man, argues demographics can show us human nature as represented by the statistically average man. This came to be considered the new ‘natural norm’, one which, for mathematically demonstrable reasons, it was impossible to escapes. It strikes me that Kierkegaard want to prove (to himself and the world) that he could never be so tightly objectified, that there remains at least an ounce of subjective autonomy in him which allowed him to commit an act which was completely beyond calculation, and seemingly without any discernable motive. Camus’s novel follows in suit. I suspect that Rosenberg is thinking along these same lines when discussing American Action painters. It’s not so much that he condones genuine violence. But spontaneous and inexplicable violence seems to be the most powerful way to illustrate a general point about moral autonomy.

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