Art and Aesthetics: on aesthetic education

The following text is from the book Art and Aesthetics, which I wrote in my early graduate student days (mainly in Heidelberg and Paris) but which will be published in France by Lux Classic on February 5. This is the second and last installment featuring a few excerpts from that book.


In the earlier part of the last century, there were two main schools of thought on [education]: the first, and older way, was what I may call “authoritarian-memorative”; the second and newer way I call “interactive-analytical”. The former, very generally put, urged that the body of information to be taught be crammed into the head of the student by any means possible – heavy-handed if necessary, by rote. The latter challenged this approach, and claimed that the student would better be able to prosper if the body of information was approached in, precisely, a more interactive or analytical way. This is of course a very simple and generalized paradigm I am here presenting, but the more exact meaning of it will become clear as I proceed.

The main humanities library at Heidelberg, my alma mater

I pick up where I left off at an earlier point: college is supposed to give us, not primarily an education, but foremost an open mind. As I have said, this sentiment sets perspectivism on a pedestal of virtue. This is, as also earlier stated, the tyranny of subjectivity and pluralism: We are supposed to get openness first, and education regarding the particulars second – this is the view not only of naïve graduates, but of much academia as a whole, both in America and Europe. This society sees its superiority in the precise acknowledgment that it is not superior[...]

And this has the most profound effect on our education: if we were certain that our heritage of the classics – the Greek and the Roman, which formed our society – stood higher [...] than, say, the morbidly self-conscious and self-defeating post-colonialist canon (of which one finds plenty in today’s Western universities), then the authoritarian-memorative mode of teaching would still be with us. We would have a body of work of which we were proud, and which we would insist that our children learn[...] The interactive-analytical mode came about around the middle of the previous century, or somewhat earlier, because of our insecurities. Once this society started to doubt its own specialness, it did not think it had enough authority to insist upon itself when teaching its young[...]

The book being published on February 5, 2016

As it is, the authoritarian-memorative has had to retreat on almost all fronts before the onslaught of the interactive-analytical. This latter approach has in itself become the goal of much of elementary education – it is indeed the cornerstone of our educational thinking, as it goes hand in hand with the cornerstone of our current sociological thinking, perspectivism. [...]

The danger, now fully realized, of the hegemony of the interactive-analytical is the triumph of perspectivism and, with that, of intellectual social liberalism. In the eyes of such liberals, one may struggle, but one may not win, for victory, as defeat, would suggest that one side was weaker or stronger than another, which would deal a blow to egalitarianism. But if victory is not allowed, then what is the point of struggle? This, nonetheless, is their perverted logic. They love to fight so much that the prospect of peace is not even borne in their imaginations[...] This distaste for the victorious goes hand in hand with a distaste for whatever is the ruling norm, since that which rules must have been victorious at some point in order to achieve the ruling state, and since it thereby represents a defeat of egalitarianism, a battle where one norm beat another. The love of rebellion that intellectuals and pseudo-artists have today is foolish partly because they appear to have forgotten that one rebels in order to achieve something. What will they do when their rebellion succeeds? – they will then themselves become that which they deplore, namely the norm, and they will find that it is much easier to attack something than to defend it, that defense, the explanation of why something is good, requires actual intellectual exertion, whereas any idiot can scream “down with such-and-such”. Just like the self-proclaimed bohemians who shout “l’art pour l’art”, these people tend to think that rebellion is for rebellion’s sake. Such catchphrases as “everything is relative”, “everything is a matter of opinion”, and “nothing is all black and white”, are their party slogans. This party is constituted by people who think they are being intellectual the moment they start talking about “phallic symbols” (another victory of the pseudo-psychological that I have previously described) and “shades of grey”, this latter phrase having been all but inscribed above the doors of every educational institution today. There is such a fear of saying that something is right, that something is true! [...] In the face of such twisted philosophy, he who thus used to be a rebel sooner or later becomes forced, if he is a true rebel – as opposed to someone who simply likes to think of himself as one – to embrace a type of anti-rebelliousness in order to preserve the victory for which he has fought so hard. He must embrace a new type of struggle, he must, as it were, rebel against the state of constant rebellion, a rebellion so precious to our intellectuals that it has indeed become a norm in itself – a norm, that which they purport to hate[...]

The scientist-scholar: Wilamowitz and his phallic symbols

The vulgar slogans mentioned above carry great power. In their thirst for equality and non-absolutism, our intellectuals have perverted the fact that there are indeed such things as “good and evil” (or, as I should prefer to put it, “strong and weak”, “beautiful and ugly”, “noble and depraved”)[...] Not even our intellectuals actually deny this in theory, of course, but when faced with specific situations they always exhibit a remarkable queasiness at the prospect of saying “this side is better than that” – a queasiness fuelled by the narcissism of wishing to portray oneself as above petty conflict. [...] The only instances in which they will attack each other is in using as battlegrounds the work of former men, as venues in which to advance their own ephemeral interpretations, and it is in these instances that they find an outlet for all of their ferociousness, for their insecurity and vanity. Then they are like starving apes in a cage, fighting and shouting for the last scrap of food their keeper threw inside.

So this same phenomenon (to which I have given many names, but let me say for now the triumph of perspectivism) as found in the schools also manifests itself in the university, in higher education[...] To all my talk of artists, and of the hostility of the academy to them, one might say, rightly, that academies are of course designed to produce scientists (in the word’s looser sense, including the natural, social, and humane sciences), and not artists, as there is no institution in the world that can be designed to produce true artists, visionary thinkers. That the academy’s purpose is the production of scientists is indeed very true, and there is nothing wrong with this per se. It becomes a problem, however, when the subject matter of the science is art[...] Science dealing with science – natural science – is good, and art dealing with art is also good, but science dealing with art is not. In studying our literary canon, which is art, the academics insist upon a scientific method – a philological or hermeneutic method of some kind. As art lies wholly outside of science, it cannot be understood by it. It is always amusing to me to observe professors discuss the concept of genius, and to see them straining their well-trained minds to the utmost to understand what genius is, which they never will. (Perhaps my favorite example, though there are many, is the book Genius by that cute little banterer Harold Bloom [New York 2002], a person who would be annoying if he were not so harmless, in which he desperately tries to bring order and comprehension to a set of questions infinitely beyond him.) [...] Surely, you realize, it is no coincidence that, as has been said before, the best commentator on Homer was Virgil, on Virgil Dante, on Dante Shakespeare, on Shakespeare T. S. Eliot. That is, art dealing with art – that is truly fruitful, as is science dealing with science. But now the science has come to understand itself as the proclaimer and measurer of art – and thus a formidable difficulty arises.

One therefore finds oneself with no feasible arrangement: science cannot produce artists, and so one may abandon such a prospect, but the scientists that science produces cannot understand the art which is the object of the science, and so that, too, becomes fruitless[...]

The artist: Nietzsche as student

This general inability of scientists to produce artists, or to deal capably with art, led me to consider the inversion of the question – the general inability of artists to produce science, or to deal capably with science[...] And so I asked myself, as a test case: Why was Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf a better scholar than Nietzsche? Nietzsche, because he was an artist, could not be a scientist, which is required for the scholar. When reading Wilamowitz’s Zukunftsphilologie! after having gone through its target, Nietzsche’s Die Geburt der Tragödie (The Birth of Tragedy), the matter becomes abundantly clear: Wilamowitz’s scholarship – in spite of its flaws – was, certainly in the long run, superior to Nietzsche’s. And yet the latter’s genius easily overshadows the philological talent to which the former may lay claim[...]

The fact is that the artist [...] is someone who simply cannot devote his entire being to the study of others, because in order to realize his artistic potential, he must also study himself, his own person. It is only the one who is empty that can fill his whole being with the works of others, and not he who is already bubbling with creative potential[...] The scholar, who has no such quality, can throw all his concentration and efforts into studying that which others have created, and thereby become a more erudite person than the artist. He pours all of his efforts into the already existing art before him, and for purely didactic purposes, which is also why he does not understand that the artist may write things that fall outside of the purely didactic aim, to the extent that he has one (a professor of mine, at the end of a lecture on the conclusion of De rerum natura, said that it was a permanent riddle why Lucretius had not taken the opportunity to further his didactic-philosophical aim while discussing the outbreak of disease in Athens, and the professor was thus able to combine his vast scholarship with the most monumental cluelessness regarding things truly creative and artistic, things beautiful)[...] The artist must [...] sit alone, without any books, to study himself. He must have courage – for courage is daring to be alone with one’s thoughts. The scholar constantly perusing his books and literary fragments has in common with him who spends his evenings watching television that neither dares to be alone with his own thoughts, for one’s own frank thoughts, not the thoughts of others, are always the greatest adversary. Nietzsche could never have such a firm grasp of every text of the ancients simply because he needed to produce his own. The scholar, the scientist, is of course a specialist, whereas the artist must be interdisciplinary, because the artist sees beauty around him everywhere, not only in a particular field, and he must take all of this beauty within his embrace… This is the state of the humanistic scientist, that he lays his focus on the too limited[...]

Lysippos' Herakles (called the "Farnese"). He was strong, but used his strength for virtuous purposes.

As for classical philology, its use lies in being able to determine authentic from non-authentic, figuring out what the actual words of an author long gone were. But once it attempts to interpret those words beyond their semantic meanings, it falls short. Philology, in attempting to interpret, in attempting to philosophize beyond its means, will always fall victim to the current sociological ideas of the day (“the eye of the beholder”) – it will become a tool in the hands of those who try to set their stamp on the university, and who will be forgotten the day after tomorrow. Today, philology forms the artillery pieces of literary theorists, of the anti-heroism that was the benchmark of the last century, and which is still with us. It is no coincidence at all that it is only within the last several decades that one has started hearing that Euripides’ Heracles or Seneca’s Hercules was actually just suffering from hubris all along, induced by his own strength, a man whose brains were addled by his muscles, and that Iphigenia was really just insane rather than motivated by a genuine desire to contribute to the success of her nation. These are modern prejudices. Do today’s classicists not realize that their fancied “hermeneutics” are really just a vehicle of the current fashion? They are applying the ephemeral to the immortal. Yes, of course it is important to try to apply those great figures to our own day – to see how they are still relevant (which they are, otherwise they would not be immortal) – but with these theories we will simply fill up our own library shelves without giving anything to posterity, for the next generations will have their own prejudices, just as stupid as, but different from, our own, and will reject our interpretations in favor of their own dogmatism. I have little care for that multitude of scholars who see their own twisted logic in a piece of literature and then spend the wee hours of their academic days trying to tell the rest of us what to think. The fact that the potentially fiery imagination of a student may be kindled by reading of past deeds should be satisfactory enough. In our age, scholars, who are nothing but children of their times, are wont to believe that a man with muscle and initiative must necessarily be brutish and dull-witted. It is they who believe that a woman could never give her life for a greater cause – because they themselves, zombies in human guise that they are, do not themselves feel that fire within them, because they themselves would never fight, and die, for something higher, and so they cannot understand how others would[...] But antiquity almost unceasingly thought of Heracles as an exemplum virtutis, and from antiquity we have more than a few things to learn.

© 2006 by Benedict Beckeld

© 2016 by Lux Classic