Terrible Innocence Of Art
By Jorge Majfud
28 July, 2007
idea that art exists beyond all social reality is similar to the disembodied
theology that proscribes political interpretations of the death of Jesus;
or to the nationalist mythologies imposed like sacred universal values;
or the templars of language, who are scandalized by the ideological
impurity of the language used by rebellious nations. In all three cases,
the reaction against social, political and historical interpretations
or deconstructions has the same objective: the social, political and
historical imposition of their own ideologies. The very "death
of ideologies" was one of the most terrible of ideologies since,
just like the other dictatorial states of the status quo, it presumed
its own purity and neutrality.
In the case of art, two examples
of this ideology were translated in the idea of "art for art's
sake" in Europe, and in the Modernismo of Spanish America. This
latter, although it had the merit of reflecting upon and practicing
a new vision with regard to the instruments of expression, soon revealed
itself to be the "ivory tower" that it was. Not without paradox,
its greatest representatives began by singing the praises of white princesses,
non-existent in the tropics, and ended up becoming the maximal figures
of politically-engaged literature of the continent: Rubén Darío,
José Martí, José Enrique Rodó, etc. Decades
later, none other than Alfonso Reyes would recognize that in Latin America
one cannot make art from the ivory tower, as in Paris. At most, in the
midst of tragic realism one can make magical realism.
Ivory towers have never been
constructions indifferent to the rawness of a people's reality, but
instead far from neutral forms of denial of that reality, on the artists'
side, and of consolidation of its state, on the side of the dominant
elites (politically dominant, that is). There are historical variations:
today the ivory tower is a watchtower strategy, a secular minaret or
belltower raised by the consumer market. The artist is less the kind
of his tower, but his labor consists in making believe that his art
is pure creation, uncontaminated by the laws of the market or with hegemonic
morality and politics. At the foot of the stock market tower run rivers
of people, from one office to another, scaling in rapid elevators other
glass towers in the name of progress, freedom, democracy and other products
that spill from the communication towers. All of the towers raised with
the same purpose. Because more than from contradictions – as the
Marxists would assert – late capitalism is constructed from coherences,
from standardized thought, etc. Capitalism is consistent with its contradictions.
The explanation of the most
faithful consumers of commercial art is always the same: they seek a
healthy form of entertainment that is not polluted by violence or politics,
all that which abounds in the news media and in the "difficult"
writers. Which reminds us that there are few political parties so demagogic
and populist as the imperial party of commercialism, with its eternal
promises of eternal youth, full satisfaction and infinite happiness.
The idea of "healthy entertainment" carries an implicit understanding
that fantasy and science fiction are neutral genres, separate from the
political history of the world and separate from any ideological manipulation.
There are at least five reasons for this consensus: 1) this is also
the thinking of the literary greats, like Jorge Luis Borges; 2) mediocre
writers frequently have confused the profundity or the commitment of
the writer with the political pamphlet; 3) it is justifiable to understand
art from this purist perspective, because art is also a form of entertainment
and pastime; 4) the idea of neutrality is part of the strength of a
hegemonic culture that is anything but neutral; lastly, 5) neutrality
is confused with "dominant values" and the latter with universal
At this point, I believe
that it is very easy to distinguish at least two major types of art:
1) that which seeks to distract, to divert attention ("divertir"
means to entertain in Spanish). That is to say, that which seeks to
"escape from the world." Paradoxically, the function of this
type of art is the inverse: the consumer departs from his work routine
and enters into this kind of entertaining fiction in order to recuperate
his energies. Once outside the oneiric lounge of the theater, outside
the magical best-seller, the work of art no longer matters for more
than its anecdotal value. It is the forgetting that matters: within
the artwork one is able to forget the routine world; upon leaving the
artwork, one is able to forget the problem presented by that work, since
it is always a problem invented at the beginning (the murder) and solved
at the end (the killer was the butler). This is the function of the
happy ending. It is a socially reproductive function: it reproduces
the productive energy and the values of the system that makes use of
that individual worn out by routine. The work of art fulfills here the
same function as the bordello and the author is little more than the
prostitute who charges a fee for the reparative pleasure.
Different is the problematic
type of art: it is not comfort that it offers to whomever enters into
its territory. It is not forgetting but memory that it demands of he
who leaves it. The reader, the viewer do not forget what is exhibited
in that aesthetic space because the problem has not been solved. The
great artwork does not solve a problem because the artwork is not the
one who has created it: the exposition of the existential problem of
the individual is what will lead to departure from it. Clearly in a
consumerist world this type of art cannot be the ideal prototype. Paradoxically,
the problematic artwork is an implosion of the author-reader, a gaze
within that ought to provoke a critical awareness of one's surroundings.
The entertaining artwork is the inverse: it is anasthesia that imposes
a forgetting of the existential problem, replacing it with the solution
of a problem created by the artwork itself.
I mean to say that, recognizing
the multiple dimensions and purposes of a work of art – which
include entertainment and mere aesthetic pleasure – means also
recognizing the ideological dimensions of any cultural product. That
is to say, even a work of "pure imagination" is loaded with
political, social, religious, economic and moral values. It would suffice
to pose the example of the science fiction in Jules Verne or of the
fantastical literature of Adolfo Bioy Casares. Morel's Invention (1940),
considered by Borges to be perfect, is also the perfect expression of
a writer of the Argentine upper class who could allow himself the luxury
of cultivating the starkest imagination in the midst of a society convulsed
by the "infamous decade" (1930-1943). A luxury and a necessity
for a class that did not want to see beyond its narrow so-called "universal"
circle. What could be farther from the problems of the Argentina of
the moment than a lost island in the middle of the ocean, with a machine
reproducing the nostalgia of an unbelievably hedonistic upper class,
with an individual pursued by justice who seeks a Paradise without poverty
and without workers? What could be farther from from a world in the
midst of the Holocaust of the Second World War?
Nevertheless, it is a great
novel, which demonstrates that art, although it is not only aesthetics,
is not only politics either, nor mere expression of the relations of
power, nor mere morality, etc.
Freedom, perhaps, may be
the main differential characteristic of art. And when this freedom does
not turn its face away from the tragic reality of its people, then the
characteristic turns into moral consciousness. Aesthetics is reconciled
with ethics. Indifference is never neutral; only ignorance is neutral,
but it proves to be an ethical and practical problem to promote ignorance
in the name of some virtue.
Translated by Bruce Campbell
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