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Philosophy and Literature 24.1 (2000) 96-110

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Hitler and the Tyranny of the Aesthetic

Tobin Siebers


On the occasion of William Jefferson Clinton's inauguration as the 42nd President of the United States, Arthur C. Danto, the art critic for The Nation, made a special plea to the new President on behalf of art in America. 1 Why not, he asked Mr. Clinton, be the Arts President? Nothing could be better at a time of aligning yourself with the national spirit, Danto advised the President, than to declare the same allegiance to the aesthetic world. Danto argued that the recent Matisse show at the Museum of Modern Art revealed the special connection between the democratic aspirations of America and of the Republic of Art. Throngs of people flocked to see the exhibit, despite the fact that their own presence made viewing the paintings impossible. It would have been valuable for the President to have attended the show, Danto explained, to appreciate what his fellow citizens felt it worth enduring just to put themselves in the presence of great beauty--an experience all the more unfathomable and rewarding given the contradictory fact that these same people may not have been able to understand the meaning of Matisse's works.

For Danto, this contradiction touches the heart of why art should be supported and celebrated in America. Ordinary Americans, he argued, who are without any particular training in the history of art and who have their own special interests, passions, and leisure-time activities, are nevertheless compelled to be in the presence of great art, no matter what the cost or the hardship to them, because they believe that "it confers meaning on their lives and that their lives would be infinitely poorer for its absence" (p. 116).

"So why not proclaim yourself their President too?" Danto asked Mr. [End Page 96] Clinton. For the Republic of Art is our republic. It represents "all classes and genders, all races and as many ethnic stocks as we have" (p. 116). Most important, these lovers of the beautiful are prepared, in Danto's opinion, to take on difficult works that embody values different from their own. We live or want to live in a pluralistic society, and it requires toleration and openness to different people, ideas, and objects. The pluralistic world of art mirrors our ideal of democratic society. "In fact," Danto explained, "ours is a very pluralistic art world, which is the reflection of the society in which it exists and that supports it" (p. 116). For the President to recognize this fact would not only serve as a powerful symbolic gesture for his presidency; it would signal more vividly than any other gesture that "a new spirit drives our nation," one in communion with "the aesthetic consciousness of humankind" (p. 117).

Alas, Mr. Clinton did not follow Danto's advice. He made no declaration to be our Arts President. And it did not take too long for someone to react to Danto's suggestion in a way that might explain the President's reluctance. According to John Sisk, the idea of an Arts President in America is terrifying. 2 Sisk reminds us why with a bit of history. As "a temperamental teenager," he remembers, "Hitler aspired to be a great artist" (p. 121). Hitler is the very model of the Arts President, Sisk implies, and the same may be said about Stalin and Lenin: "each of these twentieth-century political innovators," Sisk complains, "was an Arts President determined to mandate the environment in which a mysterious communion could happen. All three--Stalin, Lenin, and Hitler--with their self-absorption and inability to tolerate criticism, behaved like artistic personalities" (p. 121). The artistic personality, Sisk argues, always hungers for status, prestige, and a graced existence. It is in the nature of aesthetics to collaborate with power and money but especially with power. "The aesthetic impulse," Sisk writes, "is just as voracious as Kant might lead one to believe; it never rests, and it wants it all" (p. 122).

The idea of President as...


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