Al Gore’s Cowboy Boots

Until recently I had never taken note of Wittgenstein’s parenthetical remark in the Tractatus that aesthetics and ethics are one. According to Google it would seem that academic discussions of the question focus on either contrasting the differences between the two or puzzling over what Wittgenstein could possibly have meant.

I became interested in the question quite unexpectedly while I was reading Paul Auster’s 4321. In fact it entered my mind in the form of a question:

Is there a point at which it can be said that an aesthetic becomes an ethic?

It seemed to me that Auster’s decision to radically change his aesthetic at such a late point in his career, after decades of perfecting it, just might be more meaningful than simply wanting to try something new. Positively, did it signal a change in his view of the world? or, negatively, did it signal a loss of vision or, less negatively, a loss of faith in that vision?

Am I mistaken in seeing Auster’s aesthetic of many decades as a strong vision? Why then the apparent lack of discussion of this change from concision to, not simply wordiness, but the deliberate use of an excess of unnecessary words? (Arguably, more in this instance is not better.) Complicating the issue is the fact that 4321 does indeed entail themes seen throughout Auster’s oeuvre. He did not abandon his themes, and that might indicate that he had not abandoned his worldview. If Auster is as capable as ever of writing first-rate prose and he has not abandoned his pet themes then has something else changed? Or is it no more significant than that you can’t expect a great baseball player to hit it out of the park every time? He just wanted to try something new, and it’s just not as good as what he’s done before. Big deal. Success would be meaningless if it wasn’t so difficult and there weren’t failures, blah blah.

Even if I can’t settle the question it is peculiar that I should stumble upon it again while reading another book by Paul Auster. It emerged for him when a consideration of spectator sports, of all things, led to a view of sublime artistic accomplishment.

It appears in Here and Now, the book of letters between Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee published in 2013. The most peculiar thing about this exchange of letters is that sports—particularly the act of watching sports—is the subject they most often return to. Namely, they are preoccupied with the question of why, since they agree watching sports is a waste of time, they so often turn to this activity (one wants to say, ‘Uh, because—-relaxation’, but I digress). Auster brings up the aesthetic aspect of sports. At first Coetzee takes issue and then in reflecting on his responses to the spectacle of great athletics, he writes,

What I would want to note in this set of responses is the way in which envy first raises its head and is then extinguished. One starts by envying Federer, one moves from there to admiring him, and one ends up neither envying nor admiring him but exalted at the revelation of what a human being—a being like oneself—can do.

Which, I find, is very much like my response to masterworks of art on which I have spent a lot of time…. to the point where I have a good idea of what went into their making…. but I could never have done it myself…. yet it was done by a man…. like me; what an honor to belong to the species…. And at that point I can no longer distinguish the ethical from the aesthetic. [pp 46-49]

And Auster’s response? Complete accord. Unfortunately the two don’t elaborate on the connection—the merging of aesthetics and ethics—perhaps because they found themselves wholly in accord with one another or because they felt it didn’t need elaboration. Perhaps it is not uncommon to make the connection, in some silent way. And it is only uncommon to articulate it as such. Doesn’t the expression, the art of…. suggest an unexamined acknowledgement of an aesthetic component to virtually any human activity? And doesn’t everybody know that success cannot be understood without its opposite—failure? meaning, of course, that the ethical conversation on aesthetics can proceed from either direction: an example of success, an example of failure. Even the expression, the art of…. suggests a kind of tightrope walk. Don’t look down. Don’t talk about what might go wrong. You might get dizzy.

And everyone knows (or should know) the seeping of identity politics into the arts is a recent phenomenon. Coetzee and Auster are, let us say old school. I don’t see their work or their concerns as they have voiced them to be significantly affected by it. But if public discussion of the arts has been thoroughly infiltrated by identity politics (as it seems to me it has), this is only an extreme case of the apparent merging of ethics and aesthetics. More accurately, I think it is the merging of a crude ideology of ethics with aesthetics. It is the phenomenon of an art or a conception of art driven and indeed formed by ideology rather than creative thought. What I have thought about and what I think Auster and Coetzee are referring to is not talking about the good, but being good. It is the ethical resonance that one experiences in transcendent works of art.

Elsewhere in the letters they use the word “grace” to describe great athletics and I might echo that word in seeing a kind of fall from grace when an artist disappoints. They have fallen to earth—a man like me, indeed. One wants to be inspired. Bob Dylan once said that is the purpose of art and it’s hard to disagree.

Disgrace is the name of one of Coetzee’s finest novels. A man at his ugliest is exposed and deposed. But when one falls to the bottom one finds there is still further to go. Dylan said it in a song: “Just when you think you’ve lost everything you find out you can always lose a little more.” Coetzee’s willingness to linger there is an act of extraordinary artistry that fills me with awe. I have wondered if his agreement to publish these letters was based on a calculated risk: let them see me. A risk because if we see him as human, all too human, then the aura of the Great Artist might become tarnished. Example: his being disturbed by that stupid person who doesn’t even know the first thing about the function of fiction. Wow. and, really? Auster tells him the best thing to do in such situations is to ignore the stupid person. But here I am reading about it in the letters. And let’s face it, there’s not a whole lot of protein there. What’s the message? Who is this book for? The intended readership of a book like No Hero by Mark Owen seems clear. He and his fellow SEALs, often called heroes, don’t feel like heroes. Here he tells personal stories about his fears and failures and how he learned to overcome them. But whatever it is Coetzee and Auster want us to know is less clear. Do they want us to see them in their simple humanity? OK. Why? This is slippery territory.

I did not want to read the letters when I heard about their publication. Merely publishing them struck me as self-serving of the authors. My wife, knowing how much I admire the authors, brought the book home as a gift last week and I couldn’t resist. Hadn’t I sketched an ethical proposition of sorts before even reading it? Now I would have to fill it in or draw a different picture. Reading involves certain responsibilities.

Our imaginative relationships with the people who produce great works of art proceed step by step, work by work, thought by thought yet in the end our images of those persons should remain vague and unformed. On the other hand, if ethics and aesthetics are one, then processing an artist’s work must also proceed step by step yet resulting, ideally, in an ever clearer understanding. And what happens when Americans turn on their pop stars and Hollywood icons? What is really going on? Was there a flawed understanding on the part of the fan concerning their connection to the star in the first place? I have sometimes hesitated before writing about an artist, chastened at every word by the thought that I might inadvertently offend the person I was writing about. While we stand in awe at the accomplishments of great art and may feel that the person who produced them has touched our soul, the fact remains we do not know that person. And so what is it but an ethical matter as to how we should conduct ourselves when we choose to write about their work? I think the first principle of that conduct should be to remember we are writing about the work and not the person. Therefore our images of the people (who make the art) in what I have termed the imaginative relationship cannot and should not go further than a passing thought or two. They’re just chimeras. Any ethical understanding we derive from works of art are generated from our side of the equation in the sense that the artworks are tools we may use to better ourselves. A man like me. It is ourselves we are working on, not the artist. Aesthetics and ethics may be one. The two are intertwined when art is made and then when it is experienced: it flows both ways. The important stuff is there, even if it’s up for debate. The rest is Al Gore’s cowboy boots.

There is an unbridgeable gap between art and audience. The union that occurs between a writer and a reader, for example, is at most a kind of meta-relationship; it is not a real-world relationship between persons. Identity politics in the arts today is an attempt to bridge the gap. But a book like Here and Now may also be an oblique attempt to voice the silent space of that gap. It’s not as though we all can’t leave well enough alone. We must think about the aesthetics/ethics dyad. But maybe Wittgenstein left the comment in parentheses and unexplained for a reason. Maybe Bob Dylan is cryptic and weird for good reason. And perhaps we haven’t paid enough attention to that other part of the Tractatus: Of that which we cannot speak we must remain silent.

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11 Responses to Al Gore’s Cowboy Boots

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    I can’t pretend I understand more than a veneer of what you are discussing, but I am nonetheless interested and my curiosity is piqued. As I am not conversant with artistic trends, I am not so much aware of the place of identity politics within them (a term, the use of which has become so elastic I’m never sure what it means). That said, these things come to mind: first, a wonderful exhibit of art by Latino/Latina artists I recently saw, the variety of which was so great it seemed to me to belie any attempt to put art by Latinos/Latinas into a designated box (nor was it curated in a way that required that, which was a relief). At the same time, I did from time to time see cultural references that surely would not have borne expression had the artist been, say a Swede or a Dane. Second, I think how often I have felt instructed, in the best of ways, about the sensibility and experience (so perhaps identity) of people from a given part of the world through their artistic expressions. Last, and not with the wish to be contentious, I am not sure what “old school” is meant to reflect, but I take it as a time when aesthetics/ethics were free if identity politics, whatever meaning is ascribed to the term. Yet for me, as I read, I see a sort of identity politics in the phrase “a man like me.” As I am not a man, I do not participate in this identification. (That’s fine with me, by the way, these are two men, after all, discussing response to sports, eg, between themselves.)

    • I’m sorry, I have not deliberately ignored you for 3 days. I’ve been offline–haven’t even checked email.

      Some time in the 80’s I went to an art exhibit at the Miami art museum of work by contemporary artists from Latin America. it was actually the first time I had ever seen Frida Kahlo’s work. The show made a deep impression on me, for reasons I need not go into now. What I am referring to by ‘identity politics’ is not the positive experience of learning about people from around the world through their art. Nor is it the denial of who we are as individuals–where we live, where we’re from, what we look like, etc. What I am calling ‘identity politics’ in the public discussion of art is the act of putting the artist’s identity (race, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin, etc) ahead of all other criteria and keeping it at the forefront at all times. It’s not about universals, unification, global humanity, commonality. It’s about emphasizing differences that cannot be escaped. And it’s politics because heterosexual white men–especially Americans–are seen to have dominated the arts and a veritable war has ensued to take the arts away from them. Who cares if some particular white man has worked to be part of the solution his whole life in terms of civil rights and global humanity. He’s a white man and his time is done. Identity politics is straight up racism and hatred of white heterosexual American men in particular. Their time is done. Naturally this feeds into white supremacy and helps Trump and that makes it all worse. Getting back to the arts, in this climate, for example, Picasso is not seen as someone who had any respect for African art. No, he is said to have stolen from African people and profited from it. That African artists have themselves used materials from other cultures is not mentioned. I mean, they were the ultimate bricoleurs. But then, that’s a white man’s construct and that’s all I’m capable of, as a white man.

      I don’t think Coetzee was playing identity politics when he said, “a man like me”. True, Federer is indeed a white man, like Coetzee. But considering how many people of color play sports, I don’t think he was identifying with the man’s race. It would be very hard for me to think that of the person who wrote “Foe”, “Waiting for the Barbarians”, “The Age of Iron” and other books. Those who adhere to identity politics would laugh at the notion of a time of art before identity politics. From their perspective, that’s when straight white men ruled everything. However, it is certainly true that Coetzee could have easily made the same point while being gender neutral. He could have used Serena Williams as an example and said, ‘a person like me’. Well, he didn’t and yes, he’s a man. But I cannot believe that the man who wrote “Foe” is a sexist racist pig (and no, I’m not suggesting that you might be suggesting such a thing; it’s just that this subject is unavoidably ugly).

      • Susan Scheid says:

        Mark: I’m grateful for your response. I was, as you might imagine, hesitant to write in the first place, as it’s hard to express oneself appropriately without the advantage of talking face-to-face. (I’ve foresworn social media altogether for this very reason.) This, among others, is a very important point you make: “What I am calling ‘identity politics’ in the public discussion of art is the act of putting the artist’s identity (race, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin, etc) ahead of all other criteria and keeping it at the forefront at all times.” Of this, however, I am less sure: “And it’s politics because heterosexual white men–especially Americans–are seen to have dominated the arts and a veritable war has ensued to take the arts away from them.” I do think there is an effort to “redress the balance,” that is, to grasp that dominance of some (whoever they may have been) has led to overlooking other artists of merit–and it’s important to shed a strong light on that so as to allow for rethinking and reassessment. One of the things that complicates this, of course, is that it’s not simply men v. women or white v. people of color, but all manner of art-politics that come into play. As one example, it seems to me (although I see this only at a remove), that if a poet or writer is not part of “the academy,” it’s much harder to get recognized and published, no matter the merit of one’s work.

        As with so many other things, identities are complicated and teasing out one aspect of power relations, while perhaps necessary to obtain recognition of the problems it creates, also distorts. I don’t know if this example will clarify or obscure, but I’ll throw it out there: when one of the candidates running in our Congressional district (a male/person of color) talks about discrimination against women, he refers to a conversation he had with his wife (a remarkable person in her own right). He credits her with making him aware that he has at least two identities: one as a man, one as a person of color. From the former, he experiences a position of relative privilege; from the latter, he has a means by which to empathize with others, in this case women, who find themselves not to be in a position of relative privilege. I have simplified this, but I write it because I found it striking, making me think about issues of power and privilege in a much more nuanced way. For example, I, too, have multiple identities, some of which afford me privilege (of which I’m often not even aware), others of which cut an entirely different way.

        Thank you for writing this thought-provoking post and for being willing to engage with my inadequate response.

  2. Susan Scheid says:

    Mark: Indeed, I do wish it were possible to talk face-to-face, where the trail of nuances can be followed. Short of that, I want to second, third, and fourth your comment, “I want–as I always have–people of all kinds from all over the world to be empowered and to lift each other up in love.”

    In response, and I’ll caution that this is not exactly an earth-shattering observation, but it seems to me that many problems stem from treating people as groups, rather than individuals. As one example, I really get tired of the characterization of “baby boomers,” of which I am one, as selfish destroyers of the world, when I, as one swept into that cohort, spent my whole working life working for unions, not-for-profits, and other do-gooder roles (whether I did any good is open to question, but certainly I tried). Yet at the same time, I recognize more and more that to redress the balance among individuals, we do need to grasp structural discrimination against various groups. That Starbucks incident involving the two men of color is just one example–the person who called the police did not see individuals, but the color of the men’s skin.

    As to Hammond’s comment, part of what I think, and in re the article as a whole, is that no one (though I may have missed it) mentions that deaccessioning is likely here the only economically viable way for institutions to purchase the work of artists who have not, but should be, represented. I wonder whether this might not be the underlying problem here, turning what should be expanding and enriching a museum’s holdings into a zero sum game.

    • Susan Scheid says:

      Actually, going back, the financial reasoning behind the deaccessioning is certainly discussed, e.g. “Deaccessioning these works creates space and raises funds for unseen artworks, without diminishing the BMA’s collection of postwar art,” and indeed Hammond emphasizes this in the final quote: “if you don’t sell the works, you don’t have the resources.” That said, I go back to what I wrote above–that a key problem is lack of resources by which to purchase works, rendering this a zero-sum game. Something else that strikes me: is the problem really over-representation of “white men,” or is it over-representation of “safe bets” that wealthy white acquisition committee members (to borrow a phrase used in the article) prefer? And this leads me back to think about the underlying issue of power relations, and then back to where I began, which is how hard it is to have a proper discussion in ad seriatim written comments!

      • I’ve read the museum’s official statement and don’t have a problem with it. My concern in all this is how we speak to each other. It should–no, it must be possible to either criticize or defend an action such as this on the part of the museum without resorting to racist language. “How Many white males do we need?” isn’t just another way of saying or emphasizing, “if you don’t sell the works, you don’t have the resources.”

        Your not-so-earth-shattering observation is a very good one. The most important things really are very simple, like, **just be nice**. And I’m with you that issues like “structural discrimination” (and I would add unconscious bias) are things we all have to think about and work on. Can’t we just be nice to each other while we do it!? There’s a church hymn I’ve taken with me from my childhood days: “Brighten the corner where you are.” I try to live by that–treat people right all the time as I come into contact with them every day.

        • Susan Scheid says:

          Agree completely. I would characterize the “how many white males” language as gratuitous and ignorant. It’s not possible to have a thoughtful conversation when it’s brought down to the level of comments like that.


    from the article: “Listening to these complaints, it is difficult to come away with the view that they are about anything other than exercises in power.”

    • Susan Scheid says:

      I only had time to skim the article, so not sure how to evaluate what power means in its context. I do have the sense that a lot of petty debates go on inside small corners of academe, as one example, where purity of position can take precedence over common sense. The question of a power relationship would, I think, come into play if, for example, a professor took a position like that described and downgraded any student that didn’t agree. If the people on each side of the argument have equal status (eg both students) though, I don’t know whether the issue is properly categorized as a matter of power relations, or something else, not sure what. The analog I think of is where someone starts shouting as a means of silencing what another person is saying. Certainly, though, part of what is missing in such a case is civility and mutual respect.

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