- On the Way to Ethical CultureThe Meaning of Art as Oscillating between the Other, Il y a, and the Third
Who can suppose that a poet capable of effectively introducing into his scenes rhetoricians, generals and various other characters, each displaying some peculiar excellence, was nothing more than a droll or juggler, capable only of cheating or flattering his hearer, and not of instructing him?
Are we all agreed that the chief merit of a poet consists in his accurate representation of the affairs of life? Can this be done by a mere driveller, unacquainted with the world?
The excellence of a poet is not to be measured by the same standard as that of a mechanic or a blacksmith, where honor and virtue have nothing to do with our estimate. But the poet and the individual are connected, and he only can become a good poet who is in the first instance a worthy man.— Strabo, The Geography of Strabo
After Emmanuel Levinas showed the need for radically positing the Ethical as the original structure of human inwardness and as art is a fundamental aspect of being human, a reexamination of the meaning of the Artistic and its relation with the Ethical is necessary.1 Throughout [End Page 195] the history of Western thought and culture, the meaning of art has been regarded either as imitation of the world and nature (Plato and Aristotle), objective self-expression of the Absolute Spirit (Hegel) or Being (Heidegger), a subjective “free play of imagination” and judgment (Kant and the Romanticists), or as inevitable engagement with social issues and political position (the Marxists and Sartre). In spite of the variety of theories and views about the essence and value of art, it is unquestionable that the Artistic has transformational power over humans, which points to art’s connection with ethics. Therefore, following Levinas, instead of asking the general ontological questions about the gist of art “What is art?” or “Why is there art instead of something else?” we should seek an answer to the ethical question about the meaning of art: “How can the existence of art be justified?”
The answers could be sought in two directions. The first already quite well beaten path explores Levinas’s own vision on art, which most critics find hesitant or even ambiguous.2 The impression of this hesitation is significant on the background of Levinas’s rigorous clarity about the Ethical. Overlooking this impression would lead to conclusions that would deviate our attention from the main question about how the existence of art can be justified. A possible explanation would be that Levinas’s seemingly fragmentary thoughts about art are woven into the fabric of his ultimate meta-ethical project — that is, his approach to art is instrumental, subjected to the Ethical. For example, commentators agree that Levinas’s early article “Reality and Its Shadow” (1948) is the only one exclusively focused on art and use it as a starting point to assemble the fragments of his aesthetic views into an aesthetic theory. Although this move might be justified methodologically, Levinas is clear that the discussion of art in this article is subordinated to the more general (and more serious) question about the nontruth of being (LR 132). Positing art as mythological and mystical, thus incapable of transmitting a meaningful message if separated from philosophical criticism (142), Levinas puts “in brackets” the discussion about the artistic and focuses on the reason qua knowledge (philosophy) and its relation with the Other. The impression of his hesitation about art’s [End Page 196] independent capability to dephase the instant, to breach the ontological gravity, and to expose the human spirit to the Ethical comes from those texts where Levinas applies his own vision about the integrative role of philosophical criticism — i.e., texts that work as philosophical criticism of art: “Transcendence through poetry — is this serious?”3 (PN 175n12), “if poetry can contain teachings” (165; emphasis added). Therefore, on one hand, Levinas exhaustively scrutinizes all possibilities of ethics of philosophy and comes to the clear position that in order for reason to function humanly it should be dethroned by the Other. He is...