The Terrible Innocence of Art

Borges in L'Hôtel, Paris

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La terrible inocencia del arte (Spanish)

The Terrible Innocence of Art

Jorge Majfud

The 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 values.

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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