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When Aesthetics is Ethics – The Art that Lost its Manners

In January 1947, after ten years living in the United States and four years of single-minded dedication to writing a book that had obsessed him ever since he sketched out its earliest outline in 1904 (not 1901, as he would later claim), Thomas Mann finished Doctor Faustus.[1] In the novel, a composer, Adrian Leverkühn, sells his soul to the Devil to secure twenty-four years of artistic genius, in the awareness that, at the end of his days, disaster awaits. Leverkühn’s esthetic philosophy mirrors that of Arnold Schönberg, the creator of the twelve-tone technique in music; but, more importantly, Leverkühn is based on an entire country, Germany, which had believed itself to have touched heaven after making its own pact with the Devil.

With his customary neurotic discipline, barely had he completed that huge tome of fiction when Mann gave the finishing touches to a paper he had begun the previous year, and was to deliver the following April in Washington: “Nietzsche’s Philosophy in the Light of Contemporary Events.” The title, far from being immodest, fell misleadingly short of the real import of the text, in which Mann distils the ideas underlying his novel: a reflection on the art of the bourgeois century, on Germany, and on Mann’s own life. Though a radical Democrat not averse to socialism, during World War I, when his “Reflections of an Unpolitical Man” came out, Mann had suffered the political disease he was now fighting against.

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In his essay, Mann admitted defeat in his private battle against an esthetic program founded by the Romantics, which, having attained maturity with the Parnassians, had grown into a veritable plague with the avant garde. Baudelaire had won the match: art and evil trod the same path. Mann’s sorrow had the lucidity of one looking back from the end of the road, the nadir of a cultural tradition-his own, German culture-capable of putting forth, at the same time and by the same people, the most hideous brutality and the most refined art.[2] Mann’s apprehension was that something more than mere coexistence, congruence or implication linked art and horror.

Mann’s fear of evil in German culture was an exorcism in the first person: the author of The Magic Mountain, who partook of all the psychopathological vicissitudes of the writer-notably, vanity-believed  he embodied German art. He saw himself as the final and highest exponent of a tradition that traced its beginnings to Goethe. What was more, Mann knew what he was talking about: in his youth, he, too, had succumbed to the fascination of evil. He spoke of his culture and of the uncompromising patriot he had once been; he had retraced his steps back from Baudelaire because he disliked what he saw at the end of the road. He wanted to ward off self-deception:

We have known evil in all its meanness, and are no longer esthetes enough [my italics] to be afraid to proclaim our faith in the Good, or to be ashamed of principles as trivial as truth, freedom and justice. In the end, stoicism, too, under whose sign free spirits once attacked bourgeois morality, belongs to the bourgeois era. And getting past that era means escaping the esthetic age to penetrate a moral and social age. An esthetic conception of the world is wholly incapable of addressing the issues we are called upon to resolve.[3]

The diagnosis is accurate. But also, unwittingly, ashen and defeatist. Thomas Mann, the issue of a family of Hanseatic traders, seems to give up on the battle waged by his social class. He has breathed so deeply of an atmosphere in which art holds hands with barbarism that he does not notice that he shares its assumptions, and that he, too, sets up an opposition (“We are not esthetes enough”) between esthetics and truth, freedom and justice, a triad he was to invoke over and again, like a charm. Mann assumes what he detests to be true; almost the same assumption, incidentally, made twenty years earlier by Julien Benda in La trahison des clercs. One had to choose one thing or the other; one had to dilute art if one was to defend what really matters. This was exactly the dilemma first drawn by the targets of Mann’s criticism-though, admittedly, they had thrown in their lot with esthetics. Almost thirty years before, in 1919, the ever-pessimistic and lucid Max Weber had framed the question with masterly clarity:

If anything, we realize again today that something can be sacred not only in spite of its not being beautiful, but rather because and in so far as it is not beautiful… And, since Nietzsche, we realize that something can be beautiful, not only in spite of the aspect in which it is not good, but rather in that very aspect. You will find this expressed earlier in the Fleurs du mal, as Baudelaire named his volume of poems. It is commonplace to observe that something may be true although it is not beautiful and not holy and not good.[4]

Mann, however, is already on the other side of history, the wrong side, the losers’ side. His assertion of values that drag down art-truth, freedom, justice-goes against the current, and he himself appears to take for granted that beauty does not walk the same path. He accepts the dilemma of the damned, the maudits, and chooses decency. He elects to pay the toll levied by esthetics, a toll he seems to believe inevitable. Whereas for the classics the beautiful and the good had been melded together-and, more than together, they were conceptually inseparable, it was inconceivable to have a good work that was morally bad-this German witness of barbarism seemed to accept, and regret, that the beautiful and the good were in fact opposed. “But they are opposites,” he tells us mildly.

He was, in the last analysis, the last bourgeois who believed-and now seemed to doubt-the classic Weimar ideal, the Bildung, the confidence in literature’s ability to forge citizens as an instrument of moral excellence, the nineteenth-century version of the Greek ideal of education, Paideia. Mann’s insecurity is the insecurity of a whole century, a whole social class. Mann’s concerns are the same concerns, though in different form, that preoccupied the German bourgeoisie, a middle class that in times past had thought itself able to distinguish what had value and what did not, and that one day was to discover it had deceived itself. Ortega was right-though not as to the exact date and circumstances-when he said:

It is not that the majority does not like the art of the young and the minority likes it, but that the majority, the masses, do not understand it. The old bigwigs who were present at the performance of Hernani understood Victor Hugo’s play very well; precisely because they understood it they disliked it.[5]

But not now: now they simply do not know what to expect and are sick with insecurity. Having gone to see a football match, they had been presented with a game of cricket. The transition to insecurity is epitomized in masterly fashion in a scene in Séraphine, a film by Martin Provost: Wilhelm Uhde, the famous art dealer and one-time friend of Picasso, discovers a woman of humble origin and limited intelligence but with a great talent for painting. Reluctantly dining with the local magnates at a small town where he has been washed up by circumstance, Uhde spots a painting shoved carelessly into a corner. He takes an interest in the village-woman’s canvas, and the town burghers switch abruptly from laughing at the picture to a state of uneasiness. The big-name art dealer, whose presence they deem an honor, admires this wretched-looking picture. Suddenly, they find themselves bereft of rules. As if caught off guard in a sophisticated restaurant, they feel lost: it is not we who are going to try the food, it’s the food which puts us to the test. If we don’t like it, it’s our problem. With his customary perceptiveness for the long cycle, Daniel Bell has pointed out that:

[W]hat is striking today is that the majority has no intellectually respectable culture of its own-no major figures in literature, painting or poetry-to counterpose to the adversary culture. In this sense, bourgeois culture has been shattered.[6]

The majority no longer has any say, the rules have been struck out, and arbitrariness is at its height. This is fertile ground for fraud, and the story of how this state of affairs came about bears repeating in outline.

The double disaffection of contemporary art

It happened some years ago now. Two New York garbage men felt no hesitation about the John Chamberlain sculpture standing at the gallery entrance; they lugged it away immediately, wondering how that crush of scrap metal had gotten there. The anecdote is unsurprising. In London, when Momart, an art warehouse, caught fire, the flames, showing no esthetic mercy (or maybe they did), promptly consumed a “work” by Tracy Emin: a tent appliquéd with the names of the women she had slept with. In London’s Tate Gallery in 1972, Carl André exhibited a work entitled Equivalent VIII, consisting in 120 ordinary bricks stacked in the shape of a rectangle (an exactly similar rectangle-though not comprising the same bricks-had been shown in New York six years earlier). The bricks were accidentally stained with ink.

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But, instead of replacing them with identical bricks sourced from any nearby building site, the curators went to the trouble and expense of meticulously scraping the stained bricks clean. One could continue to recount examples of this kind until tears welled up in one’s eyes: tears of laughter, perhaps sorrow. This is the natural consequence of the “anything goes” that characterizes the art of our time, an art that inspires a few esthetic theorists-and no doubt most of the public, if silently-to ask, “But is it art? Is this art, or bunk?”[7]

Before the “anything goes” in the realm of form, there was an earlier, moral “anything goes.” The process of moral distancing was an antecedent, and, in some sense, an enabling condition, of formal arbitrariness: the loss of functionality, of ulterior intention, of practical motive, clears the way for relinquishment of esthetic constraints. Function commands the existence of rules. There is no challenge in creating a tool lacking a use. If a novel or a play is to give us an insight into a particular point of view or encourage us to entertain doubts, it must adroitly administer various rules to persuade us, to appear credible. Even if-perhaps, especially if-that point of view is remote from our own, the narrative sequence must be skillfully steered so that we can, in the end, understand the other, as if in some way we, too, like them, were making a decision at the same crossroads, drawing inspiration from the same values.

The idea that art might have some ulterior justification may sound odd nowadays; it may even sound distasteful and dishonest as if someone were trying to sell us something different from what we set out to buy. Art, one might say, begins and ends with itself. The notion that “every pictorial or plastic work is unnecessary”[8] was perhaps the only common ground among the thousand sects of the avant-garde. And yet this thesis had been current for almost a century, having been first advertised by the Parnassians. In 1835, for example, in the preface to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin, Gauthier wrote: “There is nothing truly beautiful but that which can never be of any use whatsoever; everything useful is ugly, for it is the expression of some need, and man’s needs are ignoble and disgusting like his own poor and infirm nature.

The most useful place in a house is the water-closet.”[9] For us, it is at that crisis that the gap opens up between art and craft: the uselessness of the former is opposed to the instrumentality of the latter. Art, in this view, serves no purpose, or, at least, is created to no purpose but art itself. The idea follows closely on one of the central theses of contemporary esthetic thought, whereby in art the adopted point of view is, at the same time, the subject viewed; artistic representation refers to nothing beyond itself, and never points outward at the world.[10]

But that gaze is our own, the heir to the youthful enthusiasm of l’art pour l’ art. Hegel, in his customarily idiosyncratic way, had an inkling of this when he spoke of the end of art: art had become autonomous and its traditional functionality had been “superseded”-to put it in his own language. Benjamin, with his lost aura and his odd jargon, intermingling the mystical with the materialist, averred that original meaning is diluted when the patterns of tradition fade, including the pattern of function. That was new. The purpose of art had been broadly moral-transcendental if one would want to put it that way. In the classical world, it had been moral in a superlative and primordial way.

For Jaeger, “Sophocles belongs to the history of human education.”[11] Plato, by a complicated and fervently pursued route, also had faith in art’s ability to modify behavior and, for that reason, wanted to exclude from young people’s education any work of art portraying immoral conduct (Republic, 376, Echo-411, 398 Echo). But, as to the educational, motivational, and cognitive role of tragedy, none was more accurate than Aristotle, in this matter, too, the most lucid of thinkers. For Aristotle, tragedy is of course a form of pleasure, but also of moral teaching, a tool to learn about oneself and others. By arousing certain emotions, such as pity and terror, tragedy sharpens and polishes our talents and helps us understand ourselves (Poetics, VIII, 7). Tragedy was called upon to awaken those two fundamental emotions so as to bring about what really mattered, what justified tragedy to begin with: self-knowledge, moral purification.

Martha Nussbaum has placed that role of Greek tragedy beyond doubt, erecting a major portion of her literary research on this area of inquiry: “Through attending to our responses of pity, we can hope to learn more about our own implicit view of what matters in human life, about the vulnerability of our own deepest commitments.”[12] Esthetic enjoyment, though allowed, is inseparable from art’s vital role, perhaps in the same way that enjoyment of food is inseparable from its constitutive function. Yet even this food metaphor falls short. Whereas in gastronomy function does not determine form-nutrition is a necessary condition but does not define the particular lineaments-in art, function, and form are indissoluble. A work can discharge its moral function only if it satisfies the esthetic requirements.

There is no autonomous idea of esthetic pleasure as such, in isolation from what procures and justifies it. If the rules have been properly honored, pity and terror must follow, and fulfill their purpose by helping us understand ourselves and others. The labor of tragedy is to contribute to the community of sentiment, to draw the viewer into a potential misfortune that, though not his own, could be anyone’s. If you feel compassion, if you seriously understand another’s pain, you accept your own vulnerability. A person afloat on hubris believes himself not to be exposed, and is thus unable to empathize with the suffering of others, he does not suffer from others. The supreme achievement of the play is to move even the proud, to force them to see their own humanity, their state of being but one among many.

This conviction was to stand for a very long time. In the mid-seventeenth century, Velasquez’s master, Francisco Pacheco, as if quoting an entrenched, undisputed truism, cited Ovid to aver that “the liberal arts soften and improve custom, saving it from being fierce or brutal.”[13] A century later, in 1749, this certainty had crumbled, if we are to judge from the question put in the Dijon Academy competition which-according to the first book of his Confessions-changed Rousseau’s life: “Does the progress of the sciences and the arts help to corrupt custom, or to improve it?” Function, hitherto a necessary condition, was now on the way to becoming a by-product. In the appraisal of work, the esthetic dimension became the essential yardstick; if any further question remains, it is whether or not the work also helps to improve humanity, much as physical work strengthens the body incidentally, though its essence is to modify the world so as to create wealth.

Another hundred years on, the doubt was finally cleared from the other side. Art, if it is to be heard, must eschew values, deny them. Art is to be detached from any ulterior purpose, functionality or transcendence. Here, too, the Romantics took the first step. Schiller, in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, said:

[B]eauty gives no separate, single result, either for the understanding or for the will; it does not carry out a single intellectual or moral object; it discovers no truth, does not help us to fulfil a single duty, and, in one word, is equally unfit to found the character or to clear the head. Accordingly, the personal worth of a man, or his dignity, as far as this can only depend on himself, remains entirely undetermined by æsthetic culture, and nothing further is attained than that, on the part of nature, it is made profitable for him to make of himself what he will; that the freedom to be what he ought to be is restored perfectly to him.[14]

The transition was dizzyingly swift. In 1851, Baudelaire-none less than Baudelaire-was pitiless with the esthetic ideal that he himself was to advocate for the rest of his life and was to go down in history for: “The puerile utopia of the school of ‘art for art’s sake,’ by excluding morals and often even passion, was necessarily barren…. In the name of the higher principles that constitute universal life, we are entitled to declare it guilty of heterodoxy.”[15] Only a few years later, in 1864, Baudelaire had leapt to the other side of the fence and was busy hiding his tracks: “To be a useful man has always seemed to me to be particularly hideous.”[16] He was not alone in this, nor was it a passing fad.

There was art, but-more importantly-there was a whole program, a case to be made, a self-awareness of fighting a battle in which displays of virtuosity about art were more important than art itself, poetics before poems. Across the Channel, the perpetual accomplices Wilde and Whistler followed suit:[17] “Art finds her own perfection within, and not outside of, herself.”[18] “[Art] is a goddess… selfishly occupied with her own perfection only-having no desire to teach… Art should… appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism… “[19]

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Detachment from values was the first step towards a fascination with evil. Yes, “evil:” the word itself, laden with baggage, must be handled with care, in exact homeopathic doses: so badly overused, it is apt to confuse more than it clarifies. But this is the word that has currency in the bazaar of ideas today, and that circulated back then, when Paul Verlaine adopted it as a sobriquet for a cluster of poets (Les Poètes Maudits), the leading lights of whom were, besides Verlaine himself, Rimbaud and Mallarmé: this was one of the earliest examples of literary marketing, a pursuit that has never ceased to flourish since.[20] There is no more accurate term-if anything, the equally hackneyed “nihilism”-to designate a radical disposition that has little to do with the revolutionary impulses of the Socialists. If one was against the bourgeois order, this was a corollary of being against any form of order, including an order of justice.

Whereas the Socialists espoused an idea of justice, these others believed in nothing. Their condemnation came not from alternative values, but from nowhere, from the negation of any ideal whatever. Ethics as the price of esthetics. Creativity, “originality,” to put it in the lexicon of the time, required congress with the demonic. It was not literature that was at the service of life, the good life, or of building character; it was life-the bad life-that justified the existence of literature. One was to experiment and later tell the tale. Life, rather than ethical, was to be esthetic, or, more accurately, if life was to be esthetic, it would have to cease to be ethical. The most consummate embodiment of this “ideal” was the dandy, the demonic hero. Not without cruelty, Alfred de Muset dubbed Lord Byron the “lame Mephistopheles.”[21]

The end of an age

The waning of the bourgeois order that Mann gave up as a lost cause was the end-sequence of a process that wove together two threads, practice and form. The practice had driven art to slough off instrumental function. Art was no longer to seek justification in some transcendent intent, an intent we might broadly characterize as moral: to pass on certain values, shape citizens’ minds, give material form to religious ideals. If we are to credit Kristeller and Shiner, this had been the way things were up until the eighteenth century.[22]  The technical, artistic conditions were of course in place, but in a derivative way, being justified only to the extent that they served the ultimate purpose. Substantive, normative, or functional constraints entailed formal constraints; and taken all together they wove a tapestry that left no room for improvisation, be it of substance or of esthetics. One consequence of this was that the world was not ready to hear the artist’s own voice.

The casting-off of that transcendent intention emerged from the autonomy of esthetics and the central role of the artist. Romanticism was the earliest stage of a journey that was to lead from a “work” and its purpose to an “artist” and his creativity, his genius, his emotions. Nevertheless, the discontinuity was incomplete. Another, more modest variety of transcendence survived, still revolving around the individual work, but no longer connected to an ulterior purpose or function. Again, it was Schiller who systematized this trend in his Letters:

In a really beautiful work of art, the substance ought to be inoperative, the form should do everything… however vast and sublime it may be, the substance always exercises a restrictive action on the mind, and true æsthetic liberty can only be expected from the form. Consequently, the true search of the master consists in destroying matter by the form [Schiller’s emphasis]… [A]n impassioned fine art is a contradiction in terms, for the infallible effect of the beautiful is emancipation from the passions. The idea of an instructive fine art (didactic art) or improving (moral) art is no less contradictory, for nothing agrees less with the idea of the beautiful than to give a determinate tendency to the mind.[23]

Whereas some constraints-the substantive ones-had been relaxed, others remained. Even “art for art’s sake” had its rules: the rules of each specific art. The so-called formalistic definitions of art[24]-whereby a work of art, if it is to be art at all, must fulfill not any particular ulterior purposes but a range of internal (“formal”) conditions-encapsulated many of the ideas prevailing at the time. The rest, largely including nineteenth-century “bourgeois taste,” was accounted for by estheticist definitions, a neighboring current that saw art’s calling as creating esthetic experiences or pleasures, whatever one might take that to mean.[25]

The avant-garde, for its part, sought not so much a loosening of formal rules as, to the extent that any rules remained, their abolition. The aspiration was for each work to establish its own rules, which is as much as to say that all rules were abandoned. “I always speak about myself because I don’t want to convince, and I have no right to drag others in my wake, I’m not compelling anyone to follow me, because everyone makes his art in his own way,” Tristan Tzara asserted in his Dada Manifesto. A rule is, among other things, a regular, at least minimally stable pattern that, by prescribing certain paths, prohibits others. Now there remained not even that blurred boundary drawn around “esthetic pleasure.”

Why bother, when the very idea of beauty had been left for dead: “A work of art shouldn’t be beauty per se, because it is dead.”[26] The Dadaists were not alone: “Never in favor of form, or of the visual, or of esthetics, but against. Absolutely against.”[27] The ban on prohibitions, the break away from formal rules, amplified that earlier discontinuity: the substantive break with transcendence. So Mann was definitely onto something when he hinted at a connection between the two. In some sense, formal conventions had become the last bastion of principles.

The Surrealists made disease an esthetic program. If one was to cut loose from all bonds, the first thing one had to do was escape from the fundamental bondage that made all other constraints possible: reason. Madness was the utmost freedom. Art brut, exalted by Dubuffet, art at a remove from any vestige of civilization, was precisely the return journey of the whole of art history. Hope lay in madmen, in children, in savages.[28] This was the ultimate consequence of the very definition of surrealism: “Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any esthetic or moral concern.”[29] The First Manifesto, albeit with a measure of circumspection, equates madness and imagination, and opposes these two to the fetters of logic and common sense. But what trace of caution remained in that text was soon drained from it. André Breton saluted hysteria as “the greatest poetic discovery of the late nineteenth century;” Dali extolled paranoia; Paul Klee enthused about Hans Prinzhorn’s work on the positive correlation between creativity and mental illness.[30] At this time, too, Jaspers was examining the link between genius and madness, in Strindberg, Van Gogh and Hölderlin.[31]

Even rank nonsense, even madness, seems to call for doctrinal support, so its proponents were keen to invoke the noblest principles, generally freedom. The relationship between freedom and mindlessness, so often addressed-and so badly addressed-from a variety of perspectives, found fertile ground in art. Madness was honored because it was “freedom.” “Freedom,” itself construed as an absence of rules, in reality, designated something quite similar to a failure of judgment. Artists were left defenseless, fitted out only with their own sense of responsibility and probity. But this was a point of support that proved dishearteningly brittle in a time in which greater things were going on than the loss of esthetic criteria; other forms of madness were afoot, less frivolous than artists’ pyrotechnics: a moral evil, less equivocal, more tangible. That carefree toying with words would, a few years later, lose its happy ring when a similar tune was heard from the lips of more sinister characters.

Unbridled art; danger in art

When Mann reminds us in his paper of the precise nature of the creature skulking behind artists’ logorrhea, he was not simply enacting the heavy Germanic solemnity of one believing himself the chosen chronicler of a culture and an age. A contemporary witness at the front line, psychologically remote from Mann but close to him in other respects, also saw a connection between fascism and unreason and traced them to a common ancestor. Lukacs, who-whether or not Mann meant it to be so, and critics still disagree-strikingly resembled Naptha in The Magic Mountain, devoted the most systematic of his works to reconstructing the philosophical tradition of irrationality, the same thread that, on the esthetic plane, had become the obsession of the mature Mann. In that book, Lukacs collected these words of Hitler’s, which any number of artists would have claimed as their own: “Naturally I do not make it a matter of principle to act amorally in the conventional sense of the term. I simply adhere to no principle of any kind; that is all.”[32]

Hitler’s propaganda minister, Goebbels, was more explicit and doctrinal when he characterized nationalism as “the Romanticism of the twentieth century.”[33]  And Enzensberger was right when he wryly noted: “Happy are those who persuade themselves that culture can inoculate a society against violence. Since before the dawn of the twentieth century, artists, writers and theorists of modernity have shown the opposite to be the case, notoriously exhibiting a predilection for crime, for the satanic outsider, for the destruction of civilization.”[34]

Mann’s essay, which has served this discussion as a guide, is enormously lucid, and not only regarding esthetics. He condensed into a few lines one of the essential themes of modern art history. The process that I have recounted in compressed form was in fact two processes superimposed upon one another: a substantive movement and a formal movement, each progressing at its own pace, but with a close bond always holding between the two. Mann hints that perhaps the question is not “how is it possible that a man may play Schubert or read Rilke in the morning, and torture at night,” that Steiner and so many others have asked, but a still more chilling one: whether one thing and the other might not be connected. The artist had run free from formal bondage, but also, and at an earlier date, from moral and substantive ties. Some price had to be paid. Since Leibniz, we have known that omnipotence, the absence of strictures, has its dangers. The problem of theodicy, a God who can do anything and contemplates evil, becomes-on his or her own particular scale-the problem of the artist. A God dissolved into his own omnipotence is not good news.

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Boundaries and trammels concentrate one’s creative faculties on a manageable task. We see this clearly in those labors most constrained by prohibitions (whether physical or material): any architect would want the largest possible budget, but limitless funds would paralyze, not liberate, his creativity.[35] For art, a lack of bounds is the way to nowhere. In a strictly precise sense, it is purposeless: “the mandate that every artwork break with its tradition and re-invent its art-form was actually never anything more than a wishful fantasy.”[36] For an artist, an absence of boundaries can mean a journey to hell. Without rules, with no task other than to express one’s “own ego,” only frustration awaits; a road is taken in the knowledge that it leads nowhere. If all you want is to “express your ego,” then you don’t know what you want.

But that is a question Mann did not explore. His essay, splendid though it is, suffers from other limitations, too. To pick one problem out of many, there is a confusion at the core of his text that, if properly considered, places Mann alongside those he purports to criticize. He weaves together two ideas that, though not contradictory, are not strictly consistent: art is art, he says, because it fights evil-this is his considered viewpoint at this late stage of his life; but, elsewhere, he seems to oppose esthetics to goodness, as if the pact with the Devil were an inevitable price to be paid for great work, a belief that underlies the whole plot of Doctor Faustus. Strictly, these two propositions cannot stand together.

The former entails that the highest work of art is the work that best fights evil. Yet the latter proposition affirms the opposite. The one cannot be squared with the other as long as both lie on the same analytical plane. Quite possibly, however, Mann meant to advocate the former in the normative sense-his esthetic stance-and reduce the latter to an empirical observation, a proposition of art sociology, perhaps. On this construction, Mann would be saying that the viewpoint of his time, of many of his contemporaries, was that art treads the same road as evil; but, at the same time, he would be raising a challenge to that widely held view. If this is right, then a large share of his narrative oeuvre, in which he seems to espouse the belief he criticizes here, could be construed not as a narrative structured by the opposition of ethics and esthetics but as a depiction of certain people-the protagonists-who see ethics and esthetics as opposites: so to speak, a work of art that critiques ideas about art.

This would be perfectly congruent with the plaintive and declamatory tone of so many of his books, in which philosophical ideas are not so much the vehicles of the plot as baldly stated dicta placed in the protagonists’ mouths. I would illustrate the difference with the contrast between Borges and Kundera. Borges tells stories animated by ideas-infinity, immortality-and composed of events that exemplify those ideas; Kundera, for his part, tells us a generic story in which, sporadically and for no visible reason, the characters discuss the idea of infinity, say, or immortality.

Be that as it may, and whether or not those two propositions can be reconciled, on the face of it, they sit uneasily with one another, suggesting a measure of confusion. The misunderstanding is not Mann’s alone, but is present, and perhaps still more so, in those who flirt with evil. Sometimes they claim that the finest art springs from moral considerations, while elsewhere they affirm that the best art is immoral-transgressive, others would later say-and this, whichever way one may look at it, is an engagé form of art, in that it carries a moral perspective. This confusion is alive in the avant garde, but, as we have seen, it was there from the outset in the Parnassians, and lives on even today. But let us chart those waters some other time.


[1] Mann provides an account of the novel’s background and of his cooperation with Adorno in Doctor Faustus: The Story of a Novel: The Genesis of Doctor Faustus. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1961. It later emerged that Mann resented Adorno for acting as if he alone had written the book, whereas, Mann thought, no one would have noticed his existence at all if it had not been for Mann. The episode is characteristic of both Adorno and Mann. H. Kurzke, Thomas Mann: Life of as a Work of Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.

[2] W. Lepenies, The Seduction of Culture in German History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006; R. Sala Rose, El misterioso caso alemán, Barcelona, Alba, 2007.

[3] Thomas Mann, Nietzsche’s Philosophy in the Light of Contemporary Events. Washington: Library of Congress, 1947.

[4] Max Weber, Science as a Vocation, 1918. Available at

[5] J. Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art and Other Essays on Art, Culture and Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

[6] Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. New York: Basic, 1976.

[7] C. Freeland, But Is It Art? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. B. Tilghman, But Is It Art?: The Value of Art and the Temptation of Theory. Oxford: Oxford University of Press, 2005. Ian Ground, Art or Bunk? Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1991.

[8] Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto, 1918.,_Tristan_Tzara)

[9] Théophile Gauthier, Mademoiselle de Maupin, Paris: Charpentier, 1855, p 22 (digital edition).

[10] Alfred Danto, Embodied Meanings: Critical Essays and Aesthetic, London: Macmillan, 1995.

[11] Werner Jaeger, Paidea. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1945 (original edition, 1933-43), p 252.

[12] Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

[13] Francisco Pacheco, El arte de la pintura, 1649.

[14] J. C. Friedrich von Schiller, Letter XXI, Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man. New York:

[15] Charles Baudelaire, preface to Chant et Chansons, by Pierre Dupont, 1851.

[16] Quoted in J. P. Sartre, Baudelaire. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1967.

[17] William Gaunt, The Aesthetic Adventure. London: Jonathan Cape, 1945.

[18] Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying, 1889.

[19] J. Whistler, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. New York: Dover Publications, 1967 (original edition, 1890).

[20] P. Gay, Modernism: The Allure of Heresy. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007.

[21] P. Favardin, L. Boüexière, Le Dandysme. Lyon: La manufacture, 1988.

[22] P. Kristeller, “The Modern System of the Arts,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 12, 1951. L. Shiner, The Invention of Art: A Cultural History. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2001. The thesis has come under attack, most recently in J. Proter, “Is Art Modern? Kristeller’s ‘Modern System of the Arts’ Reconsidered,” British Journal of Aesthetics, 1009, 49, 1. Shiner wrote a reply, and Proter countered in the following issue of the journal. In fact, the proposition that the arts are a subset of the crafts has been widely entertained in art sociology: A. Hauser, The Social History of Art. London: Routledge, 1999. R. Wittkower, M. Wittkower, Born under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists. New York: W. W. Norton, 1969.

[23] J. C. Friedrich von Schiller, Letter XXII, op. cit.

[24] e.g., Clive Bell, Art. Oxford: Oxford University press, 1981 (original edition 1915).

[25] R. Stecker, Artworks. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

[26] Tristan Tzara, op. cit.

[27] A. Giacometti, Scritti. Ripatransone: Sestante, 1999.

[28] See D. Kuspt, The End of Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, ch 4.

[29] André Breton, First Manifesto, 1924.

[30] H. Prinzhorn, Artistry of the Mentally Ill: A Contribution to the Psychology and Psychopathology of Configuration. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1995. Cf. J. J. Sebreli, Las aventuras de la vanguardia. Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 2002.

[31] K. Jaspers, Strindberg and Van Gogh. Phoenix: University of Arizona Press, 1977. The link between talent and mental disease-in particular, schizophrenia and manic depression-appears to have been reliably observed in the science community, where geniuses suffering one kind or another of mental disorder are not uncommon: H. Eysenck, Genius. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

[32] Quoted by G. Lukacs, Destruction of Reason, 1954.

[33] Quoted by H. Hert, Reactionary Modernism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

[34] H. M. Enzensberger, quoted by J. Clair, La Responsabilité de l’artiste. Paris: Gallimard, 1997.

[35] J. Elster, Explaining Social Behavior. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[36] N. Carroll, On Criticism. London: Routledge, 2009.

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