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Wendy Steiner in The Scandal of Pleasure:

Art occupied a different moral space from that presented in identity politics, because art is virtual. We will not be led into fascism or rape or child abuse or racial oppression through aesthetic experience. Quite the contrary – the more practiced we are in fantasy the better we will master its difference from the real.

This sort of argument, one that we’re all familiar with and one – especially if we’re teachers – we find ourselves functionally endorsing from time to time or even often. For instance. when I teach Heart of Darkness, and we come to this –

“What saves us is efficiency–the devotion to efficiency. But these chaps were not much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force–nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind–as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea–something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . . .”

– of course, in the back of my mind is a sense that perhaps if they could learn to see (upon first reading, not my retelling) the fact that the “idea” is unspecified, can’t be explained further (at least without complications), these students might turn a slightly more skeptical ear towards the empty ideological gestures of the guardians of “efficiency” today.

But this isn’t all that art does, is it? A dribble of pleasure, and a little education in the difference between artifice and reality? The forms of art only lessons in distortion, skips and static in the recording that we can listen for, so that we can know the difference between the song of the sparrow and the recording of the song of the sparrow? The represented content of the work only there to show us how easy it is to translate the things of the world, the recognizable, into the artificial and false?

This can’t be it…

On the other hand, and this is where things get a bit complicated, isn’t Steiner’s rather banal formulation simply the negative, pedagogical form of Adorno’s evocation of artistic autonomy in his Aesthetic Theory?

By virtue of its rejection of the empirical world – a rejection that inheres in art’s concept and thus is no mere escape, but a law immanent to it – art sanctions the primacy of reality.

More to come…

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 4, 2006 at 1:47 am

Posted in conrad, literature

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