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Ovi Symposium; Seventh Meeting
by The Ovi Symposium
2013-08-29 11:11:34
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Ovi Symposium:

“A Philosophical Conversation on the Nature of Art within Modernity
and the Envisioning of a New Humanism”

between Drs. Nannery, Paolozzi and Paparella
Seventh Meeting: 29 August 2013




Dr. Lawrence Nannery has studied at Boston College, Columbia University and at The New School for Social Research where he obtained his Ph.D. He founded The Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal and authored The Esoteric Composition of Kafka’s Corpus. Devising Nihilistic Literature, 2 vols. Mellen Press.

Dr.Ernesto Paolozzi teaches history of contemporary philosophy at the University Suor Orsola Benincasa of Naples. A Croce scholar and an expert on historicism, he has written widely and published several books, especially on aesthetics and liberalism vis a vis science. His book Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom was printed as an e-book in Ovi magazine in June 2013.

Dr. Emanuel Paparella has a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism with a dissertation on Giambattista Vico from Yale University. He currently teaches philosophy at Barry University and Broward College in Florida, USA. One of his books is titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of G. Vico, Mellen Press. His latest e-book Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers was printed in Ovi magazine in June 2013.


Table of Content for the Ovi Symposium’s 7th Meeting (August 29th 2013)

Section 1: A Response to Dr. Nannery’s Presentation on “Cinema as a Work of Art” by Dr. Paolozzi
Section 2: A presentation by Dr. Paolozzi on “Literary Genres” as translated from his book L’Estetica  
                  di Benedetto Croce
Section 3: A presentation by Dr. Paparella on “Vico and the Modern Idea of History—part 2”
Section 4: A Brief Addendum and invitation by Dr. Paparella to a discussion on Theodor Adorno’s  
                  concept of art.



A Response by Ernesto Paolozzi to Larry Nannery’s Past Presentation on Cinema as a Work of Art
L'intervento di Nannery sul cinema è illuminante. Nel passato volevo proporre una riflessione sull'arte del nostro secolo  (il Novecento), il cinema intitolandola: "l'opera senza autore.” Poi non sono riuscito ad approfondire la questione molto complessa. Ciò che scrive acutamente Nannery mi fa pensare che qualcosa di vero in quella mia prima intuizione c'era. Certo, il regista in qualche modo è il centro psicologico e pratico attorno al quale ruota l'opera complessa descritta da Nannery. Ma a me sembra che il film viva, ad un certo punto di vita propria. Un'opera di tutti e di nessuno. Riflettendo meglio, questo concetto si potrebbe estendere all'intera estetica: ogni opera finisce con l'essere indipendente dall'autore e diventa un'opera del mondo che l'accoglie o la rinnega. In questo senso si può anche superare la questione posta da Benjamin della perdita dell'aura. Ogni opera, anche quella riprodotta, può rappresentare un orizzonte di senso, uno stato d'animo. Non è una soluzione, come dimostra Paparella, tornare ad un'arte politico-pedagogica: sarebbe solo uno snaturamento della poesia. Tornando al punto iniziale, mio zio Gaetano di Maio, noto scrittore di teatro, diceva delle commedie: "Sulla scrivania sono dell'autore, alle prove del regista, in teatro degli attori e del pubblico".

Translation in English by Emanuel Paparella: Nannery’s contribution on cinema is quite insightful. Some time ago I had envisioned a reflection on cinema as the art of our century (the 20th) to be titled “the work of art without author.” However, I was not able to deepen the issue which happens to be quite complex. What Nannery writes about so perceptively makes me think that there was something valid in such an intuition of mine. Undoubtedly, the director in some way remains the psychological and practical fulcrum around which rotates the complex work, as well described by Nannery. However, it seems to me that at a certain point the film begins to live its own life. It becomes a work which belongs to everybody and nobody, at the same time. Upon reflection, it could be asserted that this concept may be extended to the entire aesthetic opus: every artwork ends up being independent of the author and becomes part of a world which either accepts it or rejects it. Thus we can even transcend the issue posited by Benjamin on the loss of aura. Every artwork, even the reproduced work, can become an horizon of senses or of the emotions. As Paparella points out, it would be no solution to return to an art that is political-pedagogical; that would only be a distortion of the poetical. To return to the initial point, my uncle Gaetano di Maio, a famous play-writer had this to say about comedies: “At the desk they belong to the author, at the rehearsals they belong to the director, at the theater they belong to the actors and the public.”


Celebrated Neapolitan dramatist Gaetano di Maio
(1927-1991), uncle of  Professor Paolozzi

“Teatro Grande” in Ancient Pompei

In 1983 Gaetano Di Maio staged in this ancient amphitheater an adaptation, in
Neapolitan dialect, of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata ( first performed in 411 BC at the
Dioniso Theater in Athens). Di Maio titled it “O sciopero de mugliere”

Lysistrata and the other striking women of       Lysistrata as a 2002 Spanish film comedy
Atthens (sculpture dating back to 350 B.C.)                                                                     

              “Make love, not war.” Lysistrata as performed at the Seattle Intiman Theater in 2002


On Literary Genres
A presentation by Ernesto Paolozzi
Translated from his book: L’estetica di Croce

enAs a brief synthesis we can affirm that Croce denies the possibility of formulating aesthetic judgments based on the literary genres since he considers them abstractions vis a vis the concrete artistic products which are constituted by the particular works of art. As Croce puts it: “This mistakes begins with the deduction of the expression from the concept and in attempting to find the laws of this substitution in what has been substituted, when the difference between the first and the second step is not perceived thus ending up asserting that one is on the first step when in reality one is on the second. This mistake can be dubbed the theorizing of artistic and literary genres.” (Estetica come scienza dell’espressione e linguistic generale, 1902, p. 41).

This mistake on which Croce focuses is not irrelevant and has often contributed to the destruction of the moral life of artists and poets who, unable to place their works into the boxes of the popular categories at the time, painfully felt the delusion of the incomprehension of their epoch. Again Croce puts it best: “From the theorizing of literary genres we arrive at those false paradigm of judgment and critique which, confronted with a work of art, instead of determining if it is expressive…one asks if it is in conformity to the laws of the epic poem, of that of tragedy; to the laws of historical painting of that of the landscape. Indeed artists have faked obedience and have feigned to accept those laws of the genre, but have always ignored them. Every work of art has violated the established genre, thus causing confusion in the ideas of the critics who in turn have felt compelled to widen the definition of a genre until, that is, this enlarged definition becomes too narrow with the appearance of other works of art, always followed naturally by new scandals, new muddlings and new enlargements.” (ibid. p. 44).

Thus this second look at the genres, is a liberating theory on artistic activity such as the attempt to confer to artists and their activities full expressive autonomy. It remains to be determined what are the practical limits of this constant enlargement of the genres, something that Croce has never denied. The genres, which from a logical standpoint are abstract concepts, belonging to the Hegelian Verstand, fulfill the important function, as Croce writes in his Logica referring to this type of formalization (some authors use the word form in this sense rather than the Kantian or Crocean sense) “to reawake or call to attendance many representations.”  They fulfill therefore the necessary function of orientation for both action and knowledge. In fact the historian as well as the scientist have necessarily to use abstractions. This clarification can be useful for banishing other equivocations, such as that of gravitates around the conceptions of the sciences understood as part of practical activity and not for the knowledge of man’s identity. In fact those abstractions and generalizations rather than the particular scientific theories contain aspects of truth, of historical knowledge just as on the other side of the coin one can individuate within concrete works of history abstractions and generalizations. So, keeping in mind the particular products (i.e., the concrete theories) and not the categorizing activity which ideally presides over them, the only distinction possible is one of quantity and not of quality as would be the case within a rigorously philosophical argument. This clarification frees us, in my opinion, from many equivocations and helps us to better understand the terms of the issue of genres.

The Argentinean poet Borges, after quoting a passage from Croce declares that: “I would add a personal observation: literary genres depend less from texts than from the way those texts are read. The aesthetic fact requires a conjunction of reader and text which only then exists. It is absurd to assume that a book is much more than a book. It begins to exist only when a reader opens it. Then the aesthetic phenomenon manifests itself resembling the very moment when the book was conceived.” (Oral, 1981, pp. 48-50).

That having been said, we perhaps need to reflect on the fact that literary genres fulfill a mission which is greater than that of mere content holders. Mario Fubini has clarified this issue with great competence; therefore let me end this piece with his words: “Those generic definitions are useful to us even when we grasp their inadequacy. It is enough to think about political history where we survey feudal States, absolute States, liberal States: think of the local little history, if we may call it that, which we ourselves make with our judgments and the things we talk about, pervaded by similar classifications and definitions…so that for every judgment we came face to face with a new reality, but the judgment we must render has of course been preceded by innumerable other judgments which are useful for orientation, so much easier to do in as much as we have gathered the multitudinous conclusions reordering them in classifications which in our memory fulfill the function of symbols of the most complex historical reality.”(Critica e poesia, 1966, p. 140).

Benedetto Croce (1866-1952)


Vico and the Modern Idea of History—part 2
A Presentation by Emanuel L. Paparella

papVico insists throughout his opus that in order for Man to understand himself and avoid the danger of scientific objectification, he needs to attempt a re-creation of the origins of humanity. This is possible in as much as it was Man himself who created his own origins, and therefore he can return to them. In the beginning there is the end. Thus he can hope to understand the destiny and meaning of his striving in space and time, which is to say, within history.

This kind of hermeneutical operation is possible but cannot be carried out by means of scientific archeological tools but by an act of the imagination, that most human of faculties which Vico calls fantasia. It is through imagination that Man may recreate mytho-poetic mentality. While the modes of thought of primitive Man were different from ours, the mind which created them is the same. Imagination may be impoverished in rational Man of the third Vichian historical cycle but it remains one of those modes of perceiving reality and remaining human. It is a sine qua non for the discovery of his human nature. Let us briefly explore how Vico explains the process.

Vico points out that primitive Man could not have been a creature of the intellect. He was steeped in the senses and the imagination. This gave his language, religion and other institutions a peculiar character, which is to say that the character of primitive Man’s institutions reflected the character of his mind, especially those pertaining to language. He identified three stages of human development: (1) the poetic or divine age: the age of the gods wherein imagination is strongest and reasoning is weakest. The mind of this era ascribes to physical things the being of substances animated by gods. (2) The heroic age: the age when heroes believed themselves to be of divine origin. This is the mind that creates Homer’s or Dante’s heroes. (3) The age of men: the age when reason and intellect reign supreme. This is the mind that produces the age of Enlightenment, so called. To these stages of development accrue thee different kinds of natural law: (1) divine laws, dictated by the gods, (2) heroic laws, dictated by the strength of the heroes but curbed by religion, (3) human laws, dictated by developed and autonomous reason.

The human mind not being static develops slowly over time and Vico, in the light of those three stages of natural law, says that it is a mistake (dubbed by him as boria dei dotti or “the arrogance of scholars”) to claim as universal features of all societies a law based on fully developed reason belonging to the third stage of development. This conceptual mistake is the result of a mistaken assumption, namely that the ideas and institutions of all historical ages are the product of a human mind whose character is fixed. The mistake explains in turn the inability on the part of philosophers and historians, who are the product of the third rational age of men, to recreate and understand fully mytho-poetic mentality, a sine qua non for the recreation of origins.

While this kind of misconception abounds in academia, it can also be easily found in popular culture. Let us take an example from the film medium. The movie Quest for Fire was inspired by the book The Naked Ape. Both book and movie purport to show primitive man’s first tentative steps toward his own humanity and toward civilized life. However, I would submit, that far from getting a recreation of origins, the reader and viewer is served with an image of primitive man as seen through a Cartesian paradigm. Both narrator and director bring to the recreation of primitive mentality all their rationalistic premises and assumptions. The most egregious and erroneous is the assumption that primitive man’s mind functions as a sort of lower underdeveloped rational mind. Corollary to this assumption is the one which holds that man’s origins can best be understood rationally, for the vantage point of the third cycle of history, that of full-fledged rationality.

That this is so is apparent from the very outset of the movie. Nowhere are the gods, issuing from primitive man’s fertile imagination, to be seen or heard. As Vico has pointed out, without a recreation of early man’s religious impulse, without the fear and the wonder inherent in this primordial religion, no beginning of man’s humanity and of his civilization can be recreated. And in fact, nowhere in the book and the movie is an act of “piety” to be discerned. I mean acts such as the burial of the dead, ritual dancing, marriage and sacrifice to the gods, cave painting. What we are treated to instead is strife and violence, indiscriminate mating and a thinly veiled competition for primitive technology, fire. The message is clear: the fit and the winners deserve to survive. This is not the primitive mind-set but pure social Darwinism.

All this is presented, mind you, despite the latest archeological findings of eminent archeologists, such as Leaky, suggesting that there might have been much more cooperation among early men than has been surmised; that what in fact assured their survival was less competition for natural resources and more of a common concern for the common good of the tribe and that religion was essential for conceiving the common good. And that explains why the book and the movie lack social phenomena such as ritual dancing and singing, initiation, the telling of fables or myths by which primitive man attempts to create order out of the surrounding natural flux continually assaulting his senses.

What gets most glaringly ignored is the most important institution of early man, namely language. Language is understood rationalistically as a mere utilitarian means of communication and an instrument of social control. What is accorded a privileged position is the incessant anxious search for fire and the constant struggle with other men that such a search and possession entails. The premise seems to be that the tribe who controls fire wins the technological competition and earns the privilege of carrying on the evolutionary process. The unfit simply perish.

Within a Vichian paradigm, this is an obvious distortion. It is nothing less than a portrayal of modern rational man fighting for oil in Kuwait, and measuring his humanity and civilization by mere economic standards. This rationalistic premise even assumes the character of a dangerous myth devoid of its logos when it takes on racial overtones. At the conclusion of the movie we are treated to the contemplation of the “naked ape,” the blue eyed, successful conqueror of the primeval forest (the Anglo Saxon?) washing himself under a water fall while his dark swarthy, less successful colleagues (the minorities) grove in filth in a cave. Paradoxically the ancient Romans also thought of the Anglo Saxon as a dirty primitive man who did not know how to wash himself. But whether ancient or modern, this is practically a Madison Avenue advertisement: technological control of resources (fire) and hygienic living (water and soap for one’s body) leads to “enlightenment” and civilization. Indeed the ape is naked in more ways than one. The nakedness is primarily one of spirit and intellect. That kind of impoverishment leads right back to the cave, albeit one endowed with a cellular phone and a fax.

Vico, on the other hand, defines primitive man’s mode of thinking as “poetic wisdom” and considers it nothing less than the master key to the understanding of his thought. As already seen, in the first two stages of development, imagination prevails over reason, and myth (the image) prevails over logos, i.e., the rationally explained meaning of those myths. In those two first stages, imaginative universals are preeminent over any, if indeed there are any, intelligible universals derived from abstract thought.

To understand the imaginative universal one has to begin with myth which for Vico is the primordial spiritual movement of primitive man, the mediator between nature and spirit, between what is useful and what is moral, between natural necessity and law. Vico is the first thinker to be aware that indeed myth is truth that incarnates itself in images, a symbol of truth, as it were. Myth is a very concrete image of the world expressing in very rudimentary fashion the ethico-religious experience of primitive man; an experience rooted in fear and wonder and which is always at the origins of religion. For Vico, myth rather than logical thinking is the first form through which truth reveals itself. In other words, myth is the primordial historicization of the eternal and mytho-poetic mentality is always related to religion even when it appears in adversary relationship to it. It is the first indication of the passage from the bestial to the rational, but even more importantly, it is the veil of transcendence hiding under the particular and the finite—the concrete historical moment of Being.

Based on this speculation on myth Vico can confidently assert that the first science to be mastered in recapturing human origins is the interpretation of myths (SN, 51). Myth is primitive man’s answer to questions he cannot answer conceptually but which demand a prompt answer on which may hang the very future of civilization, even the very meaning of life. It is the instrument of imagination for making sense of the surrounding world and gives it some kind of shape and meaning. The first of these meanings is identifiable for Vico in thundering Jupiter, father of the gods. This is a god that provokes fear, an emotion on which, as pointed out by Lucretius, primitive religion is based. But this fear is positive: it orders the bodily activity of primitive man and is the foundation of human thought and human society. To understand human origins, it is necessary to somehow recapture that primordial fear.

As the Vico scholar Donald Phillip Verene has well rendered it: “Any genuine beginning in thought requires the power of fantasia to produce true speech. The reflective mind is not the support of itself, any more than reflective society is the support of itself, but develops and always has beneath its activity the imaginative forms of early life.” (Vico’s Science of Imagination, p.18). This is the crisis of any beginning placated by the expression of the myth, a sort of faith in the myth. Great poets like Dante are able to re-create this fear of beginnings as they begin their work. Because of that first myth of thundering Jupiter Vico could confidently declare that primitive man’s life is “poetic.” He could moreover declare that the most difficult and yet most necessary task of the reflective mind of modern man is that of pondering the origins of human existence, but not in an abstract way but concretely, paying attention to particulars, and then showing how providence unfolds its plan.

Vico is also the first thinker to point to a development in man’s spiritual life: at the beginning man is all sense, then he is fantasia, and finally he is intellect. To those three stages correspond the three forms of language: sign, images, concepts. Thus the “poets,” as myth makers turn out to be the first historians of primitive humanity. The universal incarnated itself in the image and becomes a fantastic universal which presents itself as a “poetic character.” Hence, properly understood, the gods and the heroes of antiquity represent aspects of life and moments of history. Here are a few representative examples: Hercules: the founding of the institution of the family through the twelve enterprises needed to safeguard it. Medusa: the victory of Man over the primeval forest. Venus: sacred and profane love. Mercury: commerce. Neptune: navigation. Cibele: the earth’s fertility. Flora: springtime. Pomona: autumn, and so on down a list of thirty thousand gods enumerated by Varro, ushering from the fertile imagination of primitive man who, spurred by emotions of fear or wonder, created a separate divinity for just about every natural phenomenon he observed.

Here it bears repeating that Vico is also the first to point out that Homer could not exist as an actual individual poet: the Iliad and the Odyssey have different poetic styles. Homer is a poetic character to be interpreted as an image of primitive man who was a “poet” and made history by narrating it in the imaginative language and mode consonant with the particular era in which he lived. As Vico himself renders it: “The mother of wonder is ignorance of reasons and scarcity of abstraction.”

Vico’s thought has ethico-religious dimensions. The Vichian particular moves the imagination and is aesthetically beautiful, but it does more than that, for “poetic wisdom” is a movement of the divine (the transcendent) descending into the human and conversely, of the human (the immanent) reaching for the divine. These two complementary poles, human free will and divine providential order, appear contradictory and mutually exclusive to the reflective mind. They are however paradoxically related and inseparable. The particular of primitive mytho-poetic mind and the universal of abstracting “pure” mind capable of reflecting upon itself may be distinguished but may not be separated: they remain complementary to each other.

Croce erred in trying to downplay one pole (the transcendent) in favor of the other (the immanent). The Vichian mind-set, on the contrary, has little in common with a Cartesian mode of thinking. This is so because it is so immersed in life and history that its clarifying processes coincide with the clarification of life and history. That kind of clarification is never as neat as abstract thought but it is certainly less sterile.

What Vico is saying is basically this: the coming wisdom of the philosophers is already implied non-rationally in the “poetic wisdom” of primitive man. When Man begins to think humanly, he has already given birth to a rudimentary kind of metaphysics. As Ernesto Grassi has pointed out in his Rhetoric as Philosophy: the Humanist Tradition, within the human mind the cognition of things precedes judgment about them; hence a topic necessarily precedes critique. The faculty of topics makes the mind ingenious and ingenium is the source of the creative activity of topics; it is the ability to see and make connections between disparate and even contradictory notions. In other words, ingenium is a “grasping” rather than a deductive property. In as much as primitive mytho-poetic mind possesses ingenium, it has an unconscious metaphysics which becomes conscious later through reflection. The historical process, however, admits of no fractures between one moment and the next.

Man is continually moving between two complementary poles such as passion/virtue; barbarism/civilization; spontaneity/reflection; and intuition/reason. This complementation seems to be built in the very structure of reality. Later Heidegger, like Vico, will reach the conclusion that “…multiplicity of meaning is the element in which all thought must move in order to be strict thought…” (What is called thinking). This complementation and multiplicity is especially present in Vico’s concept of providence.

One caveat is in order. Throughout the New Science Vico remains aware that ethical action cannot be founded on purely imaginative truth but more properly on reflected truths (SN, 1106). Vico, after all, has not called his work a myth but a science. In order to alleviate the primordial fear, early man had a psychological need to grasp a global vision of reality through the myth and thus evaluate choices. However, the contradictions remained largely unresolved, and that is fine at the first stage of development. However, when it happens at a later stage, problems arise. When, within a fanatical organization such as the Nazi party, myth wants to guarantee its own irrefutability, it proceeds to suppress the logos, i.e., the content or rational meaning within it. Wagner’s German myths certainly were used in such a mode by the Nazis with some help from an equally misconceived Nietzschean philosophy emphasizing “the will to power.”

Guido De Ruggero in his Da Vico a Kant best explains the relationship of myth to reason in Vico by pointing out that within the “imaginative universal: the aesthetic element is expressed by the adjective (imaginative), while the intellectual rational element is expressed by the noun(universal). The proper function of imagination, therefore, remains that of a limiting adjective and neither adjective nor noun can be absolutized; they are complementary to each other.

Another way of explaining the relationship myth/reason is to think of the relationship form/content. Without content, form is meaningless. The form is myth, the content reason. An adjective is meaningless by itself when it is deprived of the noun it modifies. Similarly, mythic assertions self-destroy when they are separated from logos. On the other hand, the proper function of myth is never that of reducing the unknown and mysterious to rational clarity, rather it is that of integrating the unknown and the known together in a living whole wherein the limitations of the external self may be transcended. To use a metaphor adopted by Unamuno somewhere, myth is like a mountain on the small island of rationality and scientific knowledge, the more we climb the mountain the more vast the expansion of the sea of what is still unknown will appear to the climber.

So the search for the true meaning of myth becomes for Vico one of the essential tasks of literary interpretation. In that sense Vico is the grandfather of modern hermeneutics in vogue in today’s literary and philosophical circles.

Neapolitan Philosopher Giambattista Vico
Author of The New Science (1725)


A brief Addendum by Emanuel L. Paparella on Theodor Adorno's Concept of Art

Introductory note: considering that this symposium is dedicated to the exploration of a new humanism via aesthetics, we would be remissive if we did not at the very least briefly mention Theodor Adorno as one of the foremost modern exponent of art as a liberating experience. In this regard Adorno was largely in agreement with Benedetto Croce’s aesthetic theory. Thus I am adding to this meeting of the symposium a brief excerpt on Adorno from my Ovi e-book: Aesthetic Theories of the Great Western Philosophers.

“The art that moves ahead into the unknown, the only art now possible, is neither lighthearted nor serious; the third possibility, however, is cloaked in obscurity, as though embedded in a void the figures of which are traced by advanced works of art.”                                      
                                                                                    --Theodor Adorno (in “Is Art Lighthearted?”)

As is well known, Theodore Adorno (1903-1969) was a member of the prestigious Frankfurt School, a group of Marxist philosophers which included Max Horkheimer, whom we have already met via the letter to Croce’s widow highlighting Croce’s philosophical merits, and Herbert Marcuse. All three were very concerned with the concept of liberation from oppressive social forces. Echoing Marx, they believed that capitalism is not a mere economic system largely based on the exploitation of the workers, but also a social and cultural system that usurps human freedom. Nowhere did Adorno elaborate this view more vehemently than in his wide ranging and subtle philosophy of art.

This philosophy of art proclaims that art is one of the few domains where the human being is able to attain “something like freedom in the midst of un-freedom.” In other words, art can bring to consciousness the aspiration for freedom even in those societies which systematically deny it. It takes place in the midst of totalitarian regimes, of both the right and the left, governed by an inflexible political ideology, in its very jails and chambers of torture. What Adorno emphasizes is art’s presentation of the contradiction between the possibility of reconciliation, that is to say, transcendence of conflict, and the society in which such reconciliation is not only absent but unattainable. He gives as an example (in section three of his brilliant essay “Is Art Lighthearted?”) the music of Mozart. When we listen to Mozart’s music we are not simply aware of its sublime harmonies or, as Adorno would put it, of its presentation of reconciliation, but we also compare this awareness with the social cacophonous blasphemous world in which we live, a world in which the bully rules by rhetorical or even physical intimidation and arrogance, wherein there isn’t even an attempt at the common good and the meeting of the needs of all. What art does is to let us see both what is possible and how far that possibility is at present.

Adorno is extremely conscious of the fact that art is not immune to the influence of the capitalist market economy, what he calls “the culture industry” which, in his opinion, subverts the liberatory possibilities of art in favor of entertainments aiming at merely assuaging the exhaustion of those who labor under capitalist exploitation. This is a far cry from Aristotle’s “art as catharsis” or Freud’s “art as sublimation” or Vico’s “art as transcendence.” It is the kind of perverted art which in no way honors the aspiration for freedom and reconciliation of the human heart. It portrays un-freedom as inevitable and determined, even desirable in a deterministic view of reality governed by an immanentistic science allowing no transcendence beyond the empirical and the material. Gone are in that kind of world the intimations of immortality and transcendence found in the poetry of a Coleridge or Wordsworth.

In the above mentioned essay Adorno structures the discussion of art through the opposition seriousness/lightheartedness. Because art arouses pleasure it is connected to the concept of the lighthearted. It is as if its very presence is a reproach to the seriousness and reality of the existential situation of man. It is almost a hint of something that transcends that situation. And yet, Adorno insists, paradoxically, art is also serious in as much as it attempts to represent the contradiction between reality and the desire for freedom. Art, in other words, has to be serious and lighthearted at the same time; it must embody both features to remain genuine art. This is the accusation that Adorno hurls against “the culture industry,” its failure to maintain seriousness. Under the domination of the culture industry the message of art becomes: enjoy and acquiesce, everything is art, all you need to do is to declare it so. Art has a value and that value is measured with money.

For Adorno, the need to challenge the culture industry’s domination of art is made all the more urgent and pressing by the Holocaust which threatens to make genuine art and its commitment to the incorporation of lightheartedness, a profanity of sort. How could one tolerate jesting on the graves of those millions of innocent victims? So Adorno calls for a new type of art one that transcends the lighthearted/serious dichotomy. He finds that kind of art exemplifies in the theater of Samuel Beckett. Beckett’s plays mark a form of art beyond the duality tragedy/comedy, thus allowing art to survive the cultural crassness, philistinism and devastations of the 20th century.

A leading post-script on Adorno’s cultural challenge by way of a query from Emanuel L. Paparella: Reacting to Adorno’s powerful cultural challenge to envision a new art still cloaked in obscurity, an art that synthesizes and transcends the dichotomy lighthearted/serious, comedy/tragedy, low/high culture, the question naturally arises: should such a vision encompass the  synthesis of scientific and humanistic-liberal arts cultures, a bridge, so to speak, to a new third culture or a new humanism? Unless we decide to let the new works of art speak for themselves, I surmise that such a daring enterprise would have to include an in-depth philosophical examination of our rapidly evolving times as exemplified in the extraordinary cultural phenomena (largely condemned by an elite academic establishment in love with a status quo paraded as “tradition”) of a Roberto Benigni reciting Dante’s Commedia, and of an Andrè Rieu popularizing classical music in the EU’s squares to the enthusiastic applause of culturally starved masses, the very same people who remain at risk of being bamboozled by the modern charlatan-entrepreneur advertising as necessities of life, under the guise of a popular green-culture, cosmetics, essential oils, and baked potatoes galore.

Theodor Adorno (1903-1969)

End of the 7th meeting of the Ovi Symposium (29 August 2013)


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