- Gadamer On Art, Morality, and Authority
Mary Devereaux claims that the problem of morality in the twentieth century and the anxiety caused by the fear of moral chaos fall into two main responses: (1) one looks to the past because the past seems to afford what the present lacks, i.e., a commonly shared and stable moral reality; and (2) one looks to the present and comes to terms with the way things are, a strategy of accommodation that revises our over inflated notions of knowledge and justification, particularly moral justification. 1 She sees Gadamer’s work as an additional option that responds to this problem. Devereaux says Gadamer’s response to the collapse of traditional morality is a turn to the experience of art wherein one derives morals from an extra-moral sense. Thus, Gadamer’s aesthetic example serves as a source of moral value. Devereaux says Gadamer’s project fails, in that his account contains an optimistic and unquestioned assumption that art always operates to our benefit (p. 71). However, Gadamer is appreciative of the deficiencies and dangers inherent in the kind of view he holds and does not hold an excessively optimistic, romanticized, naive, or prescriptive view of tradition. Gadamer’s account is a descriptive explication of the manner in which societies acquire the authority to form values.
Devereaux’s account is to a large extent fair and accurate. However, despite her empathy with Gadamer’s account, she has reservations about the accuracy of Gadamer’s description of art and questions the depth to which he understands the current ethical crisis. She maintains that Gadamer’s analysis indicates a preference for a certain kind of art [End Page 144] (i.e., classical), and much of twentieth-century art (Tinguely, Cage, Burden, etc.) is outside the purview of Gadamer’s analysis. Though each individual artwork, in Gadamer’s view, can serve as a metaphor for ordering in general, Burden et al. aim, “not simply to introduce new materials or new subject matter within an existing artistic framework, but to alter the frame” (p. 69). These artists reconceive the very nature of artistic activity and change the rules by substituting the accidental, the incomplete, and the self-contradictory in place of selection and craft (pp. 69–70). Recent artistic principles have deconstructed the notion of order, showing the failure of order itself. Should we even grant that certain types of traditional art function as Gadamer has indicated? Though we might hope for the desired result of moral cohesion, Devereaux says, we are still faced with the problem of availability and the extent to which a person’s contact with art generates the necessary moral education. Her most serious charge is Gadamer’s “unquestioned assumption” that art always operates to our benefit (p. 71). The reliance on shared tradition, Devereaux argues, positions Gadamer to argue that the interaction with texts serves the positive moral function of social cohesion. However, Gadamer’s willingness to assign normative authority to tradition opens him to serious charges of conservatism, most prominently from the criticism and viewpoint of feminists and black scholars, and he “does not acknowledge those for whom the authority of that tradition is deeply and unquestionably problematic. Might not a coherent tradition, if achieved, function oppressively?” (p. 71). Devereaux claims that Gadamer rejects this possibility.
Devereaux’s criticisms thus fall into these five areas: (1) Gadamer privileges a certain kind of art (i.e., classical); (2) for Gadamer art serves as an ordering, but it does not fulfill that capacity; (3) Gadamer is unclear about the availability and the degree of contact members of a society must have with art in order for the artwork to function in its moral capacity; (4) Gadamer wrongly assumes that art always operates to our benefit; and (5) Gadamer’s acceptance of the normative authority of tradition is oppressive. Devereaux errs in all of these criticisms.
Devereaux’s criticism of Gadamer’s aesthetic theory in general, disconnected for the moment from its supposed moral implications, is that his analysis is concerned with traditional or classical forms of art, ignoring the less integrative forms of art of the late twentieth century. Though it may...