My musings on James Young's review of a recent book by Lehrer, prompted a useful discussion here on NewAPPS, but it also provoked a response from the widely translated and very successful Dutch novelist, Arnon Grunberg; he rightly discerned that my view demands that gatekeepers of art do their jobs. (How could I think otherwise with the name "Schliesser?") But here I want to focus on the final paragraphs of his piece:
"It’s even possible that we are pieces of art without knowing it.
Mr. Schliesser is a philosopher, and a gem of a human being for that matter, but to me he is also a piece of art. Whether he is a good, a mediocre or bad piece of art is not that important. I, for one, would like to buy him and put him on my desk, that’s how much I like him as a piece of art.
One of my goals in life is to set up an exhibition in an important and pleasant museum where you can meet the philosopher as a performance artist."
Beyond Grunberg's satire, I take him to be hinting at three significant issues:
- While there are solid Kantian moral strictures against humans being used as a means, it is by no means impossible that as I write this we figure in other people's artistic designs. One doesn't have to believe in Matrix-style or evil-demon global skeptical arguments to at least think it is plausible that we are pawns in other people's aesthetic projects. (Once this was quite a plausible claim in several 20th century dictatorships!) If that is true (and allowing that the world we inhabit has plenty of injustice), it follows that unjust art can be instantiated by you and me without us even knowing it.
- Philosophy as performance art is, of course, an alternative model to the philosophy as normal science project that attracts many of us. (I recall Martha Nussbaum comparing her own activities as a philosophy teacher in terms of stage performances once. Maybe some reader can help track down a reference?) I do not fully endorse this approach to philosophy, but I want to initiate some discussion on this to help us think about ways of resisting the philosophy as normal science and the philosophy as civil servant models that are already well articulated. While Grunberg's approach to it makes philosophy entirely subservient to his artistic whims (as well as that of museum curators), it is not necessary for us philosophers to accept his aims for us. In particular, we need to resist seeing ourselves as only confined to museums--something to be preserved as evidence of an earlier bourgeois culture (not unlike chamber orchestras in residence at prestigious universities). Grunberg does remind us that philosophic projects may well be redeemable on aesthetic grounds and can be judged by aesthetic criteria, especially (albeit not necessarily) if these are truth-conducive. This has Socratic and Nietzsche-ean overtones, of course, and does not fit with many of our scholastic aptitudes. (It need not devolve in Heideggerian poetic mysticism!) But all of us that take our teaching seriously, especially our *philosophic* teaching must be dimly aware of ourselves as performance artists. In class we often are demonic (in the Socratic sense), and we certainly aim to provoke and even to entertain (if only in order to stimulate an intellectual response). Moreover, for those of us who are increasingly being forced to ask for external funding to subsidize philosophic research and positions, philosophy as akin to performance art also has some attractive features. We can appeal to students', donors' and patrons' aesthetic motives while not making ludicrous claims about our economic utility. Given that we are moving to an 'event-based' culture anyway, this can be a promising approach to those philosophers that enjoy giving a good show (think of Jesse Prinz, Dan Dennett, our very own Catarina Dutilh, Alva Noe, Kristie Dotson, etc) without loss of philosophic significance. I realize many regular readers will react with skepticism and I hope to offer some further details on these musings in future weeks.
- This brings me to one final, important feature of works of art; as Grunberg reminds us, aesthetic values prompt in audience and artists alike possessive desires. Willingness to pay is a very important (but defeasible) proxy for aesthetic value. Too often inspired by Socrates or Thoreau's examples, we write and think about philosophy in contrast to the exchange economy. But most of the time our actions reveal a very different attitude--as professional philosophers we take salary and benefits very seriously. By thinking ourselves in terms akin to performance artists we can do so more authentically.