In commenting on a recent book review, I argued that some art can be unjust (in the way that disaster tourism is unjust). I did so because we philosophers should not conspire with artists that want to lower the stakes in art, or (as I argued here) in philosophy. The very practice of a search after an extensional definition of mere art (in the absence of a claim about good or unjust art) trivializes how we ought to think about art and philosophical reflection on it. Some aesthetics professors chided me unconvincingly (because they are unwilling to question their practice), but here I focus on the satirical, critical response from the Dutch novelist, Arnon Grunberg (here and here; in his blog he reminds me that I was in the audience at a 2008 public lecture of his when he compared some art to disaster tourism). We have discussed these issues on our blogs. Now, Grunberg responds as follows:
"Who isn’t a factory worker in the society of the spectacle? I’m very much aware of the fact that much art that claims to criticize the system, that sells itself as being critical, is in fact just one of the pillars supporting the system.
The artist in our societies (the West) is a conformist out of necessity and by temperament. He is too much dependent on an audience to not know what conformism is all about. He serves the powers that be with enthusiasm, especially when the artist claims to be an idealist is my experience...
Introducing the term “unjust art” is a standing invitation to censorship that we don’t need and that is not going to solve anything.
And keep in mind that the censor is very much a factory worker in the society of the spectacle as well."
It is to Grunberg's credit that he has never taken on the pose of a critical or idealist artist, and that he (like Coetzee and Houellebecq) is self-aware about the role of art as entertainment in the society of the spectacle as well as the artist’s dependence on his mass audience. (We can understand the impenetrability of avant-garde art and of a few Continental philosophers as an attempt to prevent such dependence. But they never figured out what the appropriate accompanying political economy should be.) It's fair to interpret him as claiming that he knowingly serves the powers that be, but without enthusiasm. But unlike Agathon in the Symposium (a text we have co-taught), who exhibits similar self-awareness, but who apparently also craves for approval from the select (philosophical) few, Grunberg is more mistrustful of philosophy's tendency toward moralism and, especially, the totalitarianism that is a consequence of it.
As an aside, my ongoing criticism of philosophy as normal science is, in part, motivated by the presupposition that such philosophy tacitly tames philosophy by denying the very possibility for philosophy of a totalizing view; along the way philosophy as normal science abets our rent-seeking elites and the bureaucratic state, which needs the society of the spectacle to hide its emptiness. (It’s a fine line between totalizing and totalitarianism.) But understanding philosophy as normal science trivializes the very value of philosophical progress today.
Let me return to the main thread. In our times to call art "unjust" may just be thought another form of free publicity rather than a call for censorship. Moreover, even if somebody were to pay attention to philosophers' views, for most contemporary philosophers the urge to abolish or ameliorate injustice tends not to be translated into censorship,--we tend to be too convinced of the utter insignificance of art. It's only when unjust art were to be understood as, say, child-pornography that Grunberg's fears would make sense. The child is sacred in a way that motivates political responses. So, Grunberg’s response to my blog comments borders on the ridiculous.
A more noble way to understand Grunberg is to see him as reminding philosophers that we should learn to take our judgments seriously (again) because despite our apparent political powerlessness, our ideas can have consequences. (Recall my concern over some recent philosophers' too eager flirtation with disenfranchisement of voters.) That is to say, we are functioning in the way that Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello envisions (recall my comments here); philosophers and novelists quietly need each other not so much to regain significance in the age of spectacle, but to chart a path beyond it. If we want to play such a role we need to take our crafts seriously again. But in practice we are more like Statler and Waldorf; we keep questioning ourselves and the spectacle, but we can't keep ourselves from watching the show. To become philosophical again we need to poke our own eyes out.