Monday, July 17, 2006

Taylor on Art and History

Art and History are on Charles Taylor's mind. History primarily to explain in more systemic detail why individualism appeared and has continued to strengthen its ideological base, ultimately encouraging deviant narcissism. Art because of the close relationship between artistic creation and self discovery. Taylor is interested in explaining why the ideal of authenticity is always sliding into one or the other of its "deviant" forms (narcissim, or, Taylor's new and better adjective: anthropocentrism); modernity by definition atomizes society. I'm not as interested in replicating the bones of his debate as pulling this quote on on the historical development behind the ideal itself, and examining the correlation between authenticity and the aesthetic.

Individualist ideas developed in the thought and sensibility, particularly of educated Europeans, during the seventeenth century. These seem to have facilitated the growth of new political forms that challenged the ancient hierarchies, and of new modes of economic life, which gave greater place to the market and to entrepreneurial enterprise" (58). . . . From its very inception, this kind of society has involved mobility, at first of peasants off the land and to cities, and then across oceans and continents to new countries, and finally, today, from city to city following employment opportunities. Mobility is in a sense forced on us. Old ties are broken down. At some time, city dwelling is transformed by the immense concentrations of population of the modern metropolis. By its very nature, this involves much more impersonal and causal contact, in place of the more intense, face-to-face relations in earlier times" (59). . . . Our technocratic, bureaucratic society gives more and more importance to instrumental reason. This cannot but fortify atomism, because it induces us to see our communities, like so much else, in an instrumental perspective. But it also breeds anthropocentrism, in making us take an instrumental stance to all facets of our life and surroundings: to the past, to nature, as well as to our social arrangements. (Ibid.)

Poesis and the Artists as the Paradigmatic Modern

The ethic of authenticity demands of its devotees the cultivation of self-expression as a means to self discovery and definition. "The notion that each one of us has an original way of being human entails that each of us has to discover what it means to be ourselves." Now, before this culture arose, when individuals and things found their places within an established status quo, art was imitation, mimesis. But now, when we must discover ourselves through expression, our art, too, is poesis, making, and the artist becomes the paradigmatic human being.

Simultaneously, self-definition requires a break with morality. "The very idea of originality [being authentic], and the associated notion that the enemy of authenticity can be social conformity, forces on us the idea that authenticity will have to struggle against some externally imposed rules. . . there is a notional difference between truth to self and those of intersubjective justice. . . . Authenticity involves originality, it demands a revolt against convention" (63).

Recalling his earlier treatment of the ideal of self-determining freedom, we see here again the need for a freedom to be against and to be for. "Authenticity is itself an idea of freedom; it involves my finding the design of my life myself, against the demands of external conformity" (67-68). Of course, this can easily tip into the deviant. Taylor thinks this is exactly what has happened in postmodernism. Following a doorway drawn in the wall of bourgeois social morays by "Marinetti and the Futurists, Antoine Artaud and his Theatre of Cruelty, and Georges Bataille" (66), Taylor finds:

"The Nietzschean critique of all "Values" as created cannot but exalt and entrench anthropocentrism. In the end, it leaves the agent, even with all his or her doubts about the category of the "self," with a sense of untrammelled power and freedom before a world that imposes no standards, ready to enjoy "free play," [Derrida] or to indulge in an aesthetics of the self [Foucault]" (60-61).

At any rate, Taylor is quite clear that developments in art and the development of authenticity run on parallel tracks. The eighteenth century, he says, in the turn to the subject ceased to define art and beauty "in terms of the reality or its manner of depiction." Instead defining them by "the kinds of feeling they arouse in us, a feeling of its own special kind, different from the moral and other kinds of pleasure" (64). The line goes through Shaftesbury and Hutcheson and finds its forumula in Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgement. Beauty--like authenticity--is its own fulfillment and its own goal. The gravity has shifted. "Self-truth and self-wholeness are seen more and more not as means to be moral, as independently defined, but as something valuable for their own sake." Quoting Schiller's Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, Tayor describes a wholeness communicated by the enjoyment of beauty made from the union between self-wholeness and the aesthetic, the experience of which is higher "because it engages us totally in a way that morality cannot" (65). Such ecstasis becomes for Schiller the highest form of telos, "its own form of goodness and satisfaction" (Ibid.).

The Matrix of Authenticity

So we find that Taylor's understanding of the ideal or ethic of authenticity is "full of tension . . . living in an ideal that is not fully comprehended and which properly understood would challenge many of its practices" (56). And he is quite helpful in this chapter to provide a dialectical schema of authenticity, so that authenticity

  • (A) involves


    • (i) creation and construction

    • (ii) discovery

    • (iii) opposition to the rules of society & (potentially) morality


  • (B) requires


    • (i) openness to horizons of significance (for otherwise the creation loses the background that can save it from insignificance)

    • (ii) a self-definition in dialogue (with that which is Other)



Deviance is discovered where A is embraced and B ignored or vice versa. I find this schema helpful, because, in the end, Taylor is trying to give his hearer insight into how to fight for authenticity. He sees this ideal and ethic as a real good, as something that enriches human life--and yet which requires responsible administration in order to keep it from sliding off into one deviant form or another. I think, for example, of this same kind of process at work in the law/gospel dynamic of Martin Luther and in subsequent reformed theology, where hypervigilance need be kept against either a hardening scholasticism or a lusty, self-indulgent embrace of the heresy of the free spirit.

Previous entries in this series are:
Sorting Some of this Out.


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