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  • Ted Cohen on Sharing the World
  • Michael Fischer

In "Stanley Cavell and the Limits of Appreciation," Ted Cohen restates his hatred of Richard Wagner's music. Cohen hears something "very nasty" in Wagner's music, "an element of Nazism," to borrow Thomas Mann's phrase for what Mann, too, found disturbing in Wagner.1 Whereas Mann was still able to value Wagner's music, Cohen despises listening to it. Cohen realizes that his revulsion sets him apart not only from Mann but also from W. H. Auden, who praised Wagner's "consummate skill" in creating heroes and heroines who exhibit the irrationality and self-destructiveness of human nature "in all its formidable enchantment."2 Cohen notes how another eminent listener, Arturo Toscanini, also thought Wagner's music worth performing, not repulsive.

Faced with conflicting judgments of an artist or work of art, some critics have tried to defuse the disagreement by adopting a live-and-letlive approach, aligning aesthetic judgments with critics' unimpeachable personal preferences. According to this familiar approach, there is no disputing taste in art, but there is no need to. Absent any pressure to achieve consensus, let alone unanimity, we can agree to disagree about art without any harm. Different opinions of a work of art can coexist peacefully, side by side, neither threatening nor contesting one another, [End Page 188] like the frankly subjective reviews of restaurants, products, and resorts aggregated by various websites.

Another, more sophisticated, way of dealing with aesthetic disagreement has been to intervene, not by picking one point of view and arguing for its superiority but by pruning discordant judgments of the underlying external interests assumed to be producing conflict. This response recalls Immanuel Kant, who claimed critics can speak with a universal voice and expect assent from others, but only by keeping their judgments of art disinterested and purely aesthetic. From this point of view, in the dispute over Wagner, Cohen's invoking "an element of Nazism" illustrates the discord that can break out when controversial political and ethical considerations disrupt the discussion of art. Tarring Wagner's music with Nazism becomes inflammatory, prejudicial, and out of order. I can imagine a Kantian mediator of this debate trying to reset it by urging the disputants to refocus their comments on aesthetic issues. The hope would be that factoring out irrelevant, incendiary political concerns might calm the discussion and reduce the unnecessary tension sparked by mixing art and politics.

Contemplating his strong disagreement with prominent advocates for Wagner, Cohen doesn't take either one of these tacks. He neither opts for a let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom relativism nor does he recant his invocation of Nazism. Cohen accepts the legitimacy of different perspectives on Wagner (his own very much included) but he does not leave it at that. He feels he must somehow incorporate into his own outlook the fact that others disagree with him; they should do the same with his antipathy toward Wagner. Here is Cohen's striking conclusion:

My claim is that the Wagnerite is perfectly legitimate in his enjoyment of this music, and in his capacity to overlook the anti-Semitism in the operas, but that he is no more legitimate than I in my disgust. My world is one in which the music of Wagner is distasteful. Your world is one in which the music of Wagner is endlessly engaging. I have to find room in my world for you and your Wagner along with me and my Wagner. If I don't, then I forfeit my claim to human, moral responsibility, for it comes with an obligation not to write you off, not to consign you to some other world I have nothing to do with. It has to mean something in my world that you are in it loving Wagner, for after all, the world is no more mine than yours.

(p. 158)

For Cohen, at stake in this disagreement over Wagner is nothing less than our capacity to live together and share the world with one another, [End Page 189] fully aware of our differences. Drawing on Stanley Cavell, Cohen goes on to note that our willingness to share the world...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 188-198
Launched on MUSE
2020-05-05
Open Access
No
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