The Crisis of Culture and the State

Corneilus Castoriadis (1991) Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy,  pp. 219-242

I take it that this is a working seminar, so please do not expect my lecture to be in an academic style. Mostly I will try to delineate some ideas and to assert many question marks. The questions emerge from some positions and vice versa. There is no such thing as pure interrogation; when we question something, we presuppose some other things as not being questionable for the time being. Concerning these things, we do have a point of view. Of course, if we are mentally free, we are able to come back and question our very presuppositions, the points of view with which we began.

Now I do have some points of view relative to our theme, the crisis of contemporary culture and its relation to the State. My central idea, to put it briefly, is, first, that there is a crisis of culture and that this crisis is but an aspect of the crisis of Western societies. Second, this crisis cannot be relieved through any sort of action by the present-day State. The State is part of the problem, not part of the answer. However, irrespective of the character of the States existing in different historical periods, this has not always been the case. There have been periods, even recent ones, when the intervention of the State in the cultural field can be said to have been positive. The present plight is due both to the character of present culture and to the nature of the contemporary State, its bureaucratic character, and the fact that it is an object of massive indifference.

What do we mean by the term “culture”? You certainly have already discussed definitions of this term. What I mean by this word is something between the meaning which most American anthropologists give to it, namely, practically the totality of a social world, and the habitual French sense (not so different from the German Kultur), meaning the works of the spirit, what Hegel would call objektiver Geist; the works of the spirit, the knowledge of these works and an anonymous but living public aware of these works, capable of appreciating and judging them, capable of serving as the concrete, historical bearer of this culture. To put it more precisely, culture is whatever goes beyond the strictly instrumental or functional in a given institution of a society and in the works of this society, and that which presents an invisible dimension cathected or invested positively as such by the individuals in the given society. For example, a Gothic cathedral is certainly much more than the stones which compose it; apart from its sacred character, people continue to invest it with something which is more than the stones, more than shelter, more than a place where, priests can perform their functions. They invest it, they cathect it because they positively value it in some invisible and noninstrumental, nonfunctional dimension.

Why speak about “crisis”? I am not using the term in its proper, original sense. The word comes from the Greek, meaning separation, judgment, decision (<the verb krino), and is intimately linked with the word kairos, meaning a moment of opportunity or of necessity for acting. Adhering to this original sense, one would say that there is a crisis when a process has reached a point where, implicitly or potentially, a moment of decision arises between opposing alternatives. For instance, in the evolution of a sickness, a crisis is a moment or a stage when the physician can say: either the patient will pass away in the next few hours or he will begin to get better. The word is frequently used in this sense in the old Hippocratic writings. But I am using the word in the present context to denote a protracted period of wear and tear, of corrosion of the world of imaginary significations which animate society’s institutions and which hold society together. The existence of such a protracted corrosion points to an important deterioration of a society’s capacities for self-repair, to use a biological metaphor. Society is not, of course, an organism, but societies always possess the equivalent of self-repair capacities.

Regarding present society, this means that the two poles, the two nuclei of imaginary significations which have coexisted in Western societies for centuries are in a state of crisis. One of these nuclei is the capitalistic nucleus properly speaking, the imaginary signification of unlimited expansion of pseudorational mastery over nature and over humans. To this is opposed the other nucleus, the project of social and individual autonomy (or the emancipatory project, or the democratic movement, or the revolutionary movement). The latter is not something which has appeared only in the last two centuries. The emancipatory project has dominated Western European history since the end of the Middle Ages, beginning in fact with the new cities founded by a new category of individuals, the first “bourgeois,” Burger, the protobourgeoisie which arose out of the feudal order. This protobourgeoisie built political communities which tended toward self-government and maneuvered between the feudal lords, the Church, and the new monarchies to obtain a degree of independence.

The key characteristic of our society is this dual institution: it is not just a capitalist society, nor is it a democratic society, as journalists, politicians, and “political philosophers” would have it. Politically, our society is a liberal oligarchy, with a well-entrenched ruling minority, and with various institutions which embody residues of age-old Struggles for freedom, for emancipation, for autonomy. And, of course, these residues suffice in establishing a tremendous difference between this type of society and a totalitarian or stratocratic society like the one in Russia.

Concomitant with the erosion of these significations and deeply linked with it, is the waning of political and social conflict. This type of conflict has been characteristic of European history. Incidentally, when I speak of “Europe,” “European,” etc., I am not using the terms in a geographic or even less in a national or racial sense. I mean instead, the social-historical stream starting with ancient Greece and again, in the modern era, with the peoples of Western Europe. It is in this social-historical region alone that we observe real political struggle, not just conflicts between rival court cliques or opposing interest groups, not just competition for power within a given institutional framework, but a struggle over the institutions, a struggle aimed at the changing of these institutions. It is this struggle that brings about an extraordinary change in institutions as well as a change in the anthropological, the sociopsychic structure of man/woman giving rise to individuals able, in principle, to question the existing institution of society (the justice of existing laws, the validity of prevailing social views of the world and of human life, etc.).

The imaginary signification of unlimited expansion of “rational” mastery is in deep crisis today. One has only to look at the hollowness of the revived “liberal” rhetoric of the free market, free enterprise, etc.; there is nothing new in it, not even new arguments—it is a plastic, cheap thing, miles below the level of discussion of the great liberals of the early nineteenth century. On the other hand, a crisis equally deep has corroded the democratic, or emancipatory, or revolutionary project. Revolution does not mean bloodshed and gun fighting. Revolution is radical change in the institutions of society. After the degeneration of the traditional working-class parties and trade unions, and the decline of the ideology of “progress,” be it liberal or Marxist, there is now a stalemate. Even people who would like to work to change things look around and cannot see any direction in which they could work.

For me, that much is certain on the level, so to speak, of massive and significant facts. It is much more difficult to understand why these developments took place. As you know, Hegel thought that he understood the rise and fall of cultures. I do not think he really did. All he could say was that the spirit of a certain people (Volksgeist) had exhausted itself, which is, of course, a tautology. When we look at a culture on the rise, we see an amazing number of geniuses and great oeuvres, as well as the genius of the entire community. For instance, Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and many important philosophers existed within a short span of time, along with the buildings of the Acropolis and the Demos of the Athenians. This same sort of extraordinary string can be seen from Dante and Giotto through Shakespeare and Bach to Proust, Kafka, Joyce, and Picasso. And then, in the same places, with the same geography, under the same sun, the “same” people, practically the “same” society does not create anything new. For centuries it just goes on imitating, rather poorly, what has been done before—like the thousands of statues remaining from the third century B.C. to the victory of Christianity. Even if you know nothing about sculpture, it is impossible to confuse these with the products of the previous period. I think that the same phenomenon is starting to happen today. This is what has been called postmodernism: eclecticism and imitation. In fact, it is a rather cheap version of Alexandrianism. The only really significant contribution of postmodernism is that is has shown how great and creative modernism was.

Certainly one could say that all of my judgments are subjective and depend upon my personal values. In a sense, this is trivially true, and uninteresting. Is there anybody around asserting that the (living) composer X is “worth” Johann Sebastian Bach, or the (living) painter Y is “worth” Rembrandt? Worth: value. This brings me to another dimension, or aspect, of the crisis: that of values. Of course, nobody could say that in the present society there no longer are values, that this society is a society without values. A society without values is impossible. Values are always there (and not a discovery of Nietzsche’s or the neo-Kantians’, as Heidegger would have us believe) because they are there, and must be there, in any society as poles which orient the making and doing of individuals, their social action and their life. There are always finalities to which the functioning of instituted society is subordinated. Therefore, in a transhistorical, descriptive, neutral sense, all societies establish or institute values. I insist on the neutrality of the term. In a tribe of headhunters, the more skulls you have in your hut, the more worthy you are. In this sense, there are certainly also values in our present society, but what are they? They tend more and more to be the antagonistic maximization of consumption, of power, of status, and of prestige-these are becoming the only actual translations of the imaginary signification of the unlimited expansion of “rational” mastery. And thus the latter appears increasingly futile, hollow, and internally contradictory. This effect has been, of course, reinforced by the energy crisis and the ecological crisis. If human beings are to serve the existing institutions solely because egoistic motives and desires are pushing them to do so, and, furthermore, if the modes of socialization and cooperation or commonality exist only as instrumental and utilitarian, the result can only be a critical state. Again, this is not in the sense of momentary crisis, but rather in the sense of a protracted agony for the existing institution of society.

My thesis is that this is the case to a significant and important degree, and that the process accompanies the waning of present creation, that is, cultural creation. Of course every month we find a new genius or a new revolution in this or that domain which has been invented by journalists and the merchants in the cultural field. But the revolutions get mixed up. One talks about revolution in painting or sculpture in the same way one talks about a revolution in refrigerators and toilet paper. This vocabulary, and all that goes with it, is part of the general industry, not just the cultural industry. Recently, I was in New York and I was told that there are—I do not remember exactly now— 2,000 to 4,000 art galleries in Manhattan. I do not think that in Da Vinci’s time there were 2,000 galleries in Milan; in fact, I do not think there was even a single one. The comparison is, of course, unfair but one may ask, what do these 2,000 galleries in Manhattan sell? It could be said that when an epoch does not have great men, or great works, it invents them. This is true of the present period and most certainly was of the Alexandrian. As an illustration of this, there is a wonderful short story by Kafka, “Josephine the Singer,” in which, tribe has a singer, a soprano, who unfortunately has no voice at all Nonetheless, the tribe has to pretend that they have a singer with very beautiful voice. So every time Josephine says, “Oh, I feel it coming on, here it comes, I’ve got my inspiration, I will sing,” wherever she may be, everyone stops. People gather around her, and they all mimic the faces of people who are listening to very beautiful music, while there is no sound at all. So, in this same manner the president of the United States, or of France, or the prime minister has to be a great politician; otherwise we are lost. The painters, sculptors, other artist and the philosophers must also be great painters, sculptors, or philosophers, etc. If they are not capable of creating new philosophical idea they prove their greatness by “destroying,” “deconstructing,” “subverting” whatever philosophies have been formulated before, thus “proving” that we have a new philosophy, even superior to the previous ones.

What has been called modernity is something which reached its climax between 1900 and 1930, and which ended after World War II. This was a really great period. People did not realize it at the time. In fact, they did not realize it until the word postmodernity was coined. Grand, creative, modern art was essentially finished by 1930—of course, with some exceptions. In music, Schonberg, Webern, and Berg had invented atonal and serial music before 1914. Until recently, few people who admired abstract painting knew that Kandinsky and Mondrian were born long before the turn of the century, 1862 and 1872, respectively. Dada and surrealism were in existence by 1920. And if I were to begin the following list, Proust, Kafka, Joyce. . . would you please tell me how you would continue? Certainly Faulkner was a great novelist—and today there are still some very good novelists—but if we consider the culmination of Western creation, we cannot kid ourselves that it is possible to compare what has been produced over the last forty years with Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner or Van Eyck, Velasquez, Rembrandt or Brunelleschi, Michelangelo or Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, Rimbaud or Rilke. And as this fact cannot be accepted, not only are fictitious geniuses invented, but the critical function has been destroyed as well.

The critical function in the contemporary world is, mostly, a pan of the promotional industry even when the critics themselves are acting in a bona fide manner, innocent of any malice in the juridical sense. While we have consumers’ associations which, for example, force the automobile industry to recall its defective products at times, how could there be a Ralph Nader for contemporary literature or painting, or for that matter the products of French ideology? Thus, one is left with this promotional attitude of critics who, I think, were massively scared by what happened between 1870 and 1930 and are determined not to be caught again. The “scare” probably began in 1873 with the Salon des lndependants and the scandal surrounding Manet’s Olympia (Rimbaud is writing at about the same time). Between that time and 1930 the critics were persistently, as they might have put it, “left behind”—as were individuals, museums, and governments who went on buying academic paintings, known in France as pompier paintings.

The result was that finally it was discovered that during all this time some curious, semi barbarian people, mostly Russians and Americans, had been buying Impressionist paintings (which is why you find so many of these today in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad or in New York and other American cities). The conclusion which the corporation of critics has drawn from all of this is that either one should not talk about new productions, because one risks going down in history as silly, or one should applaud wholeheartedly whatever appears, acclaiming it, however nonsensical, as the beginning of a revolution, etc.

The substance of these considerations does not refer only to art. It also concerns intellectual creation; here, more than for the rest, I can only scratch the surface of the subject. For instance, technical and scientific development continues, one could even say that it has accelerated considerably. But one could also say that this technical-scientific development does not really go beyond what might be called drawing conclusions and elaborating the ramifications of the great ideas which were already there. These are in fact the ideas formulated during the great period of modern physics, between 1900 and 1930, by Planck, Einstein, De Broglie, Schrodinger, Heisenberg, and Dirac. After this period, I do not think one finds truly new, important ideas in physics. I mean germinal ideas. For instance Newton was proven “wrong” in the end, but he created a fantastically powerful imaginary scheme by means of which almost everything was brought together and which made it possible to represent, calculate, and predict accurately even today. The same was true of the great physicists of the 1900-1930 period. And if one takes the trouble to go through the present literature of physics relative to problems of the boundaries of knowledge, one sees both a chaotic situation, from the theoretical point of view, and the absence of really important, grand new ideas. I would say the same is true in pure thinking as such after Heidegger, and in a sense, already with Heidegger himself. When Heidegger proclaims the end of philosophy, he is writing, or attempting to write, his own obituary. Already with Heidegger, and certainly after his Sein und Zeit, philosophy is becoming more and more interpretive: the extraordinary vogue of hermeneutics in the present period, to the point that hermeneutics becomes a substitute for original thinking, is fully significant in this respect.

I am certain that history does not repeat itself, that it does not even stutter, as Churchill said. History creates new languages all the time, languages which are not “higher” or “lower” than the previous ones, but in some cases they may be the languages of decay. We know of at least one other period when interpretation was the predominant activity of intellectuals: the Alexandrian period. At that time, when people were no longer able to create, they began collecting the works of the past, trying to decipher their true meaning, attempting to ensure that their manuscripts were properly edited and “correct,” etc.

What is happening today? It is not just that people talk interminably about Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud; they talk about interpretations of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud; they write about what X wrote in refuting Y’s interpretation of Nietzsche, or they go on trying to demonstrate or to prove the death of Western philosophy. As the French say, there are some dead whom you must go on killing forever. So philosophy is killed again and again, and deconstructed, and denounced for its logocentrism, phallocentrism, and “Platonocentrism,” and it seems that the job is never properly done. One may wonder if this is not simply due to the incapacity of all these writers to find something more substantive or creative to bring forth.

Now let us consider the relation, the enigmatic relation, between a crisis of society and a crisis of culture. Hegel thinks he understands why, when a historical form is on the ascent, great works appear, and perhaps we all would like to think that we understand this. But he does not say much as to why, when the Greek polis starts to decline, further Greek poetry becomes impossible. The polis, and democracy, break down and so the Hellenistic monarchs first, then the Romans, become masters. What has this to do with poetry? Why should there not be great poets anymore? Now the dire fact is that there are not. What is the reason? I do not know. But I would tentatively suggest that the creation of great works, oeuvres, in a society presupposes that there are meanings in this society which are very positively and strongly cathected, invested by the people living in the society in question. I think all the great works we do have, including the modern ones, those of 1870-1930—give or take five or ten years, five or ten novels, five or ten compositions-have been created in a sort of positive relation to positive values. I know, of course, that I am using obscene terms; I must be somebody coming out of the woods to speak about positive relations to positive values. Or perhaps I am a Daughter of the American Revolution.

What I mean is not an edifying function of the work, not a moralizing function, not what the Germans would call Erbaulichkeit—the results of which have been ghastly, as in commercial catholic “art” (what in France is called I’art saint-sulpicien), or “socialist realism.” This type of art was intended to school “the New Man,” but resulted only in the most derisory kitsch. What I mean is not even Aristotelian catharsis. Rather, I refer to the strange relation existing between the work and values or imaginary significations of a society, relations consisting in the fact that the great work of art simultaneously reaffirms these values and calls them into question. I think this is true from the Iliad to The Castle by Kafka, going through Macbeth, Mozart’s Requiem, and Tristan und Isolde.

I would like to explain more clearly what I have in mind. What happens in the Iliad from this point of view? Achilles freely chooses virtue and glory instead of a quiet life, and thereby is led to death. He knows that, and we know what death is for the Greeks. Achilles reveals it to Ulysses in the Odyssey, in the Nekyia, the chant which refers to the Nether-Netherland, the land of the Dead. He says to Ulysses that he would rather be the miserable slave of a poor peasant on Earth than the king of all the shadows. This was death for the Greeks. The afterlife was much more dreadful than what was lived on Earth. The poems which were the basis of education for all Greeks told them that they must die eventually, and that they ought to die for arete and kudos and kleos: for virtue and fame and glory. They told them also that there was nothing after death, or that whatever might be after death, in any case, was more miserable than anything on Earth.

Macbeth appears at a time when there is once again a liberation of man, a time of seemingly unlimited possibilities for action. It is through this unlimited possibility for action rediscovered by modern man that Macbeth and the spectators along with him discover that we are all but poor actors strutting about on stage. That’s all our lives are, Shakespeare tells the Elizabethan public, and that is what the Elizabethan public understands and sees through the work, with the famous tua res agitur, it is your own business which is acted out. It is not only Macbeth, we all are poor actors strutting about the stage and yet we still go on living. The Elizabethans go on living; like the Greeks, they go on living as they do because they know that.

The same is true with Tristan und Isolde: if you are really to live a full love, the outcome is death. In a century when everybody is obsessed with the idea of love, this is what Tristan conveys. We do not stop loving after Tristan, but we know that, and perhaps we measure our actual loves against that.

So the great work of art creates a shock—a shock which is an awakening. The intensity and greatness of the work of art are absolutely inseparable from this shaking up, this vacillation of the established, instituted meaning of things and of life. But this vacillation can only take place if there is a positive sense in the lives of the artist and the public as well, a positive meaning not of life in general, but in what they are doing in life. That is why while Oedipus Rex or Hamlet present for all to see the ultimate meaninglessness of our destiny and of all our efforts, as well as the blindness of our clairvoyance, they still manage to stir up and even uplift their public. Those among us who in a sense continue to belong to this public continue to be uplifted insofar as we are living a life in which we cathect/invest certain values positively.

But this very same absurdity of life, which is the preferred theme of the best of present literature or theater, does not have the same meaning anymore, the same value of revealing or discovering something. Absurdity really is not possible any longer, because for us there is no strong and strongly invested pole of nonabsurdiry in relation to which absurdity could become real absurdity and be lived as such. Death, as the end of life, is only pitiable today in an atmosphere of self-commiseration, because a poor, miserable being is clinging to some additional days—not because death knells the end of a relation to things which matter for all. Hegel said that philosophy, when it comes at the end of the day, can only paint gray over gray. Perhaps the best of contemporary literature paints gray over gray, or black over black. From its most common to its finest forms, from Death of a Salesman to Beckett’s Endgame, contemporary literature only says in a better form and with greater intensity what we constantly live.

Another important element of art is in crisis, namely, the essential relation of the work to its public. The genius of Aeschylus or Sophocles is inseparable from the genius of the Athenian demos, just as the genius of Shakespeare is inseparable from the genius of the Elizabethan public. This relation has nothing to do with geographic or genetic factors. These communities instituted themselves in this creative type of relation with creative workers in various fields. I am not speaking in a nostalgic mood nor am I implying that there was an idyllic relationship between the artist and his public. It is well known that the burghers of Leipzig wanted to have Telemann as Kapellmeister. But Telemann was not available, so they hired Johann Sebastian Bach as the second best. History has decided otherwise. But the fact is that they did hire Bach, and also that, after all, Telemann was a very good musician. I am not implying either that the public in question was the whole society. It would be very easy, and not very interesting, to undertake a cheap Marxist critique of all have said. I know that the tenants in Lancashire were not patrons of the Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare’s plays were performed. The public of these plays was a certain portion of the population of London—but it was, to an important extent, the popular public, comprising artisans, merchants, etc. Similarly, Bach was not performing for the serfs of Pomerania; he was playing for the bourgeois public of Leipzig. But these bourgeois formed a community. And this community had both internally and with “its” artists a peculiar relationship for which it is impossible to find a word, and for which the word “organic” would certainly be misleading—through perhaps the only available one. This relationship is destroyed gradually during the nineteenth century, with the triumph of capitalism stricto sensu and the break up of the cultural scene. “Learned” art, art savant, becomes separated by an unbridgeable gap from popular art-and whatever existed before as popular culture is slowly or rapidly destroyed. The populace is henceforth nourished, if at all, with the crumbs falling from the dinner table of the well-to-do classes.

Up to a point the bourgeois public maintains a relation with the creator which subsequently breaks down. Why, I do not know. I surmise this is because the values and significations of the capitalistic bourgeoisie already show up as shallow and/or inhuman. The fact is that the phenomenon of the misunderstood genius, of the artiste maudit is very recent. It appears after the Romantics, in the last third of the nineteenth century. It is as if, at about this time, the artist suddenly is confronted with a choice. Either he decides to “go with” his public-such is the case with Paul Bourget, Georges Ohnet, Edouard Detaille, melodramatic novels and pompier painting of battles, etc.—or he chooses to go his own way, as did Rimbaud, Lautreamont, Edouard Manet, and the Viennese atonal musicians, Edgard Varese, etc. What I am asserting is that this type of situation was new, historically speaking, trivial objections to the contrary notwithstanding. Johann Sebastian Bach is not the Schonberg to a Saint-Saens of his epoch. Furthermore, there is no Saint-Saens in the Bach epoch. There is no cheap, plastic “art,” there is no kitsch. There is Bach, and there is Telemann, and there are myriads of lesser artists; there is popular music, but there is no Saint-Saens, there is no pompier art. And then not only the art critics, but the bourgeoisie themselves discover that they have to jump on the bandwagon, and that the “ununderstandable” character of a work of art does not prove anything; it rather proves that the one who cannot understand it is stupid. Therefore, people who would otherwise “object,” henceforth shut up, and a new pseudopublic is created, a public d’avant-garde, avant-garde audiences and avant-garde artists, and they are all linked together by a sort of pseudomodernistic reference.

To this we must add some considerations about the crisis or the death of forms. These things have already been said, but nobody seems to reflect on the fact that painting, epic poetry, and the novel, are creations of certain historical epochs, certainly corresponding to deep traits of these epochs and not necessarily viable in each and any period. In one of his less inspired moments, Marx asked if the Iliad, and more generally, ancient Greek mythology, would be possible in the modern period—a very good question. He answered in a rather silly way that it would not be possible because the feats of the ancient Gods and heroes have been made derisory by modern technique. This does not explain why we have not invented a mythology about the forces which have not been made derisory by our technique. It is true that epic poetry is impossible in modern society, but the “reasons” are both deeper and more general. Some of these “reasons” (the term is utterly inadequate) we can understand, some we cannot.

Painting also has experienced a succession of forms, “material” forms, so to speak. For most of history, painting has been mural painting. The detached painting (the painting in a frame) is something rather recent historically. We know it existed in classical antiquity, but to a great extent it belongs to the Christian period (in the form of icons), and later. However, in another sense, Christian painting is not “painting”—that is, it is not “art,” because sacred objects (“icons” or the equivalent) are painted specifically to be put in the Church. Perhaps the first nonsacred “objects,” or rather persons, represented in painting are the small figures of the donators standing in a corner of the painting. It is not until the beginning of the Renaissance that real lay painting begins with private patronage by kings or great dignitaries, rich people and finally museums, a very recent phenomenon. Nobody seems to notice that the very idea of painting for museums raises a-host of questions. Furthermore, nobody seems to envisage for a moment the possibility that perhaps, as in the case of epic poetry, the novel is a form of artistic creation which would not fit in any and every historical period. Could a really “modern” individual read The Idiot? I would be inclined to answer no, The subjective posture, intellectual as well as affective, required for a reading of Dostoyevsky, or Proust, or Joyce seems to me absolutely incompatible with watching television thirty hours per week. As a psychoanalyst, a sociologist, and a historian I am confident that the same individual who spends more than half of his leisure time watching television cannot become fully immersed in a great novel. Some of the people who read Dostoyevsky certainly look at television from time to time, but they are not the audience that forms the economic basis of the television industry. This would be a strong internal antinomy.

Now I come to the problem of the relationship of the State to culture. Plato and Aristotle were, as you know, the first ones to have posed explicitly the question of the relation of culture and the political community. That is, they were the first in our tradition; the issue was probably also raised by non-Western thinkers, such as the Chinese. Plato and Aristotle, however, did not use the term “State” because the Greek polis was not a State, it was not an apparatus of domination separated from the body of citizens. Power, political power, was vested in the citizens, in the political community. We know that the empowered citizenry was restricted, in that women had no share in this power and that there were slaves, and we rightly and strongly disapprove of all this—but this is beside the point. The 30,000 Athenian, male, adult citizens were the political community, the sovereign body and they actually and effectively exercised power. There was a technical-administrative apparatus, but this was made up of slaves, working under the supervision of a citizen magistrate. This was the democratic polis exemplified by Athens.

Plato faced the problem which we also are facing: Is any and every sort of culture compatible with the desired, sought for political constitution? The question can be easily generalized, and indeed Plato himself in The Republic generalizes it: What is the relationship of a given institution of society with the art it creates? He is the first to have explicitly posed this fundamental question, showing, once more, the greatness of his genius. This makes it clear why, in a sense, all philosophy since him has been in one way or another Platonic, and why people today still think along his lines without even knowing it. But at the same time Plato was monstrously wicked. He hated democracy, and to discredit democracy and whatever went with it he invented a world of lies. He created a universe of falsities and illusions which still have currency today. The Sophists were great thinkers; but one who hears the word Sophist thinks immediately of a person who distorts the truth by means of a fallacious argumentation. This is a feat of Plato. In the same way, the word demagogue, although not coined by Plato, took the semantic charge it has today from Plato because he used it to describe the greatest democratic politicians of all times, Themistocles and Pericles. If all we had to go by concerning the history of Athens was the summary of it that he gives in The Laws, we would have a picture of this history almost as distorted as the history of post-1917 Russia according to the History of the Communist Party of the USSR written under the guidance of Stalin. Whatever he does not like is omitted. The battle of Salamis, the decisive battle for the Greek world, is omitted, because it is the battle and the victory of the demos, the populace, the rabble rowing in the ships who beat the Persians. On the other hand, the battle of Marathon, the battle of the hoplites, of the well-to-do and propertied citizens, is, of course, given all due praise. Such is the objectivity of Plato and his love of truth.

Despite all this, because Plato was a genius we are still grappling with the questions he raised, and in the present instance with the question of The Republic: What sort of art would be appropriate to the (his) ideal polis? What sort of art, and with what content, ought to be encouraged and promoted by the political community? Of course, Plato’s answer is dependent both upon his general philosophy and upon his political philosophy and project. Plato considers art as mimesis, imitation, a conception not only consistent with but practically imposed by his ontology; this conception, Aristotle will inherit. But art, of course, is not imitation. Imitation is one of the possible external vehicles of art. Art is fundamentally creation. Art, qua creation, is the opening up of a window toward the Abyss, the Groundless, the Chaos which is the ultimate essence of Being. This is what Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, and the Requiem do. They open up, they tear away the veil of day-to-day life, of the familiar and domesticated, and show the Chaos to everyone. This is also what philosophy attempts to do. Religion, in various ways, tries both to make present and cover up the Chaos. An obvious example is the Christian mass of the dead where we are told at the same time that we are pulvis, cinis, et nihil, dust, ash, and nothing-and that we are to go to the bosom of the Father. Presenting and covering up, this is what all religions do all the time. But art, great art, does not cover up, it uncovers—unlike kitsch such as socialist realism with its positive heroes and happy endings. And in this also Plato appears as a forerunner, he dismisses classical Greek art (and mythology) because it is not morally edifying, presenting as it does gods with human passions and defects, etc. That this position should have been inherited by the Christian Church as well as by Leninism-Stalinism-Maoism is another instance of the ironic vengeance of history. Great art is not edifying and uplifting, it does not present “positive heroes” (and not “negative” ones either) nor does it have happy endings.

But this was not the actual position of the city, of the polis, with regard to culture. I will not discuss this attitude fully now; instead I will ask you, if you are interested, to take a look at a paper I have written about the Greek polis. The attitude of the classical Greek polis in relation to culture is best expressed in an extraordinary text, the “Funeral Speech of Pericles” in the Second Book of Thucydides’ History. The sentence which most interests us in this present context is the famous Philokaloumen met’euteleias kai philosophoumen aneu malakias: “We love the beautiful and we live the beautiful, we love wisdom and we live wisdom.” The Greek verbs in this sentence cannot be translated simply into a transitive mode, they are verbs of state, like the verbs to be, to live, to sleep, etc. What Pericles says in this sentence is that we are practicing and loving beauty and wisdom, we are doing so in the act of philosophizing, that we philokalize, meaning “love the beautiful.” And that is of course the real work of the polis. In the polis par excellence, Athens, there is extraordinary creation: in tragedy, in architecture, in sculpture, and so on. This Athenian flowering is the result of a positive public attitude toward what we call “cultural creation.” Tragedy, for instance, is at the same time a public feast, a religious feast, and an essential political institution. Tragedy cannot be reduced to politics, but tragedy has a fundamental political significance.

Plato’s conception of mimesis, his rejection of Greek mythology and poetry on grounds of their content, could lead one to believe that, in today’s parlance, for him the value of a work of art lies essentially in its “content,” that is, its theme or subject matter. This would not be quite true, and an indirect indication of this is Plato’s remark in The Republic that the citizens in the ideal city (his city) while growing up should absorb, should inhale beauty and goodness by seeing what is around them, which obviously refers as well to “formal” properties of what is seen. I mention this in order to point out the ingratitude of this man. Because the idea I just summed up is nothing but a very fitting description of the effect that growing up in fifth-century Athens, among the public buildings, the feasts and the other events, must have had on the Athenian children. Plato, here again, exploits the reality of Athens while criticizing it. But Plato and Aristotle come after the crisis and the shattering of Athenian democracy, during years of decadence, and their positions are well situated within this decadence (though, paradoxically, much less so for Aristotle).

I will not linger on the intermediate period. There is the very long Hellenistic-Roman interlude, and then the Dark Ages. Disregard the periodic revival of “revisionist” views about the Dark Ages. From the fourth century A.D. on, things are really dark for centuries save for a small ripple during the so-called Carolingian Renaissance, though there is no possible comparison with what was going on during the previous era. Massive illiteracy swept over the whole Western world. However, this does not mean that nothing was happening, or that nothing beautiful was produced. Romanesque art, in fact, is born and draws to a close during this period.

But real change comes only with the protobourgeoisie creating the first new cities (or giving a different character to the existing ones). The bourgeois invent anew, without knowing it, something quite similar to the ancient polis, a political community aspiring to self-government, to some sort of autonomy. This community is, or wants to be, responsible for its own fate, It is no accident that Gothic art starts in this period; Gothic art is really the work of this protobourgeoisie. Subsequently, and very quickly, there arises in the new cities a differentiation, and the development of a sort of a bourgeois aristocracy, a patriciate opposed to the new plebs, to the popolo minuto. During this period, the centuries from the eleventh or twelth to the nineteenth, the powers that be, the Church, the ruling bourgeois strata in the cities, the princely rulers like the Medici in Italy, or the kings elsewhere—France, Spain, England—support art and culture, and support them apparently in the best possible way. We should remember that we owe to this period some of the best work ever done in the arts. The situation is not identical in the case of writing—poetry or the novel—where it is difficult to trace relations between the creators and the authorities (consider, for example, the case of the creator of the modern novel, Cervantes). One of the exceptions is seventeenth-century France, where Louis XIV and his court at Versailles attract and, to some extent, attempt to control the output of some of the great writers of the period, such as Racine. But in the case of the visual arts and even of music, the authorities act as patrons, and this is more or less necessary due to the nature of the thing. The budgets involved are enormous—palaces, churches, municipal buildings, etc., and the paintings and sculptures that go with them are weighty items and require weighty decisions. For a long time there is precious little “market” about them; they depend upon the decisions and orders of the existing authorities.

The point I want to stress is that, for all we know, the choices of these authorities were practically perfect. We may like or we may dislike French kings, popes, or Italian tyrants, but nobody, I think, would object to what they did in support of these arts. So it is in the case of King Francois I, who brought the Italian painters to France, giving thus a new dimension to the French Renaissance and inducing the creation of the Ecole de Fontainebleau, or in the case of Pope Julius II, the patron of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Bramante, or the Medicis in Florence. One may ask oneself, why is it so? The beginning of an answer, I think, is that there was no split between the avant-garde and the rest of cultivated society at that time. These people—the popes, the princes, the rulers—were part and parcel of the cultured society of their time, and this stratum, even when it was represented or personified by Henry VIII or Pope Alexander VI (Borgia), was attuned to what was happening in society. These people were certain that they were doing the right things; they were also sure of their judgment when something new and strong appeared. This situation continued up to, perhaps, the middle of the nineteenth century.

Earlier I mentioned the Olympia by Manet. In a similar vein I would like to relate a very beautiful story concerning Wagner and Paris which also happens to be true. It concerns the relationship of Wagner to the cultivated and chic Parisian aristocracy of the Second Empire and his first and last attempt to become known and accepted in Paris. Princess Metternich, an important person in the Court of Napoleon III, acted as a mediator and finally succeeded in organizing for Wagner a performance, the first performance, of Tannhauser at the Paris Opera. Tannhauser is a harmless affair, in contrast to the Tetralogy or Tristan. One cannot say it is an “Italian” opera, but it is not very far from the work of Karl Maria von Weber. It is very melodic, not very deep from the point of view of harmony or orchestration; there are beautiful, melodious arias sung by the tenor, the soprano, the baritone, and gently accompanied by the orchestra. There is nothing of the magnetic chaos of truly Wagnerian music. Now, the Paris of the time was one of the most civilized places of all times, and yet its public was one of the most philistine that ever existed. They adored Offenbach, La Belle Helene. etc. And these people had the Parisian jewelers make for them special silver whistles with the following inscription: Pour la premiere de Tannhauser. They packed the opera house, started whistling at the end of the Introduction, and the performance had to be stopped immediately after the beginning of the second act because of the constant whistling.

One can see in this story the split I was talking about earlier between the creation of the new and the existing, established, instituted culture. Also very revealing are the orders and purchases of paintings by the French government from about that time on. The government did not order the painters to paint in this or that way, and neither were important painters lacking—Courbet, then Manet and the Impressionists lived in this period, But the French government would have nothing of what they were doing. It preferred to go on buying pompier painting. Neither was the situation different in the other European states. Some difference appeared with the construction of the Palais de Chaillot around 1936, but this was just an isolated incident.

One could raise the question of what happened to taste during this whole period; however, we cannot discuss it as such. But the examples just mentioned reaffirm that what Kant says in the Critique of Judgment about taste has a historical grounding (which of course does not, in and of itself, decide the value of what Kant says). What Kant reflects upon in the Third Critique is the commonality of judgment about beauty, which is reactive commonality and not determining universality. And this is the translation of what had been created in Western Europe during the previous centuries: a common taste, transcending local and national boundaries and linguistic frontiers, corresponding to the emergence of a civilized and cultured society equally able to recognize beauty in Spanish novels, English drama, and Italian poetry, in Flemish painting and French cathedrals—and, of course, in Greek and Roman art and culture. In this society people would either agree about what is and what is not beautiful or would respect each other’s judgment enough for this judgment to become not an ultimate criterion but a necessary ingredient of one’s own judgment—something which, in principle, is totally superfluous in the field of cognitive judgment.

It is this effective commonality which, as I tried to indicate before, starred breaking up in the nineteenth century. This break-up was the manifestation of a crisis which is continuing under different guises. In particular, at present, neither governments nor critics nor rich collectors dare say that they do not like a particular painting, that it is not good. So governments, or in the United States the various foundations, museums, etc., which are equally manned and dominated by the bureaucracy, partake of the same attitude as public opinion.

It would be totally inept to say that governments today misbehave in this respect because they do not listen to public opinion. On the contrary, they are in full agreement with the public, rather, they follow it. The public today “freely” chooses the products representative of today’s “culture”—how could it be otherwise? To be sure, this “freedom” of choice is, in a very strong sense, a fiction. The public’s taste is strongly shaped by whatever is supplied, and supplied in the most pervasive way. But it is impossible to separate along this continuum an initially “innocent” public and “powers of corruption” which deform its pure native taste.

Four months ago [February 1986] in France there was a great stir of public opinion about a fifth channel on television. Two months before the general elections, President Mitterrand, in the name of the newly discovered freedom of enterprise in television and information media, pulled out of his sleeve a contract between the government and a Signore Berlusconi to establish this fifth television station. The president had chosen Signore Berlusconi and the station came alive. This Signore Berlusconi was already famous for having practically killed official Italian television through the establishment of his own channels. When he first began operations in Italy, the law forbade private television stations other than local ones. In order to get around this law, Berlusconi set up numerous local stations, and these showed the same programs in sixty or more Italian towns. In a short time Berlusconi became master of Italian television, and official television was virtually out as far as big audiences were concerned. His success was due to advertising revenues, on the one hand (you are used to this, but in Europe there has been a long struggle to attempt to limit advertising time on television), and on the other, to the very vulgarity of the programming with, naturally, a heavy porno component. Of course, the “socialist” president knew all of this perfectly well. Almost certainly, Berlusconi had made an implicit political commitment to the “socialists.” Anyhow, this fifth station is established, and the whole of France is waiting to see what it’s like; the first evening arrives, and the success of the new station is not at all negligible. A patient of mine, on the couch, says incidentally the following day: “I watched the fifth station last night. In comparison with that, Dallas is pure Shakespeare.” But, I should say, this is what the French public, as it is, wants, and there is no point in blaming only Mitterrand or the “socialists” for manipulating and/or corrupting the public. Of course they are doing what they can to that effect, but the public is not outside the game either. Perhaps the best one could offer on its behalf is the old saying: “when rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.” So they relax and enjoy the corruption.

If all of this is even only 49 percent correct, sociologically, overcoming the crisis would certainly entail something quite different from the creation of new laws or other decisions by the State. It would entail radically new attitudes on the part of the people. And if, as I hope, such new attitudes in the people emerge some day, this would mean that the present state of apathy, cynicism, indifference, and privatization would be overcome. This, in turn, would entail deep political changes, changes in the structure of political institutions and in the relation of the people to them. The type of relation of people to political institutions would have to change in order to make possible the participation of the people in power and in decision making. If the historical motto of the bourgeoisie has been, “no taxation without representation,” our motto should be, “no implementation of decisions without sharing in the making of the decisions.” In my opinion these two things, the overcoming of the crisis of culture and the overcoming of the political crisis are absolutely inseparable.

Meanwhile, what we have to do, is to work to preserve as much as we can of authenticity, of genuine work in the fields in which we find ourselves; and we must watch for the possible signs or germs of new creation, without letting ourselves be blackmailed by traditionalism, pseudomodernism, postmodernism, or what have you.


In view of some misunderstandings which arose during the discussion following the seminar some explanatory remarks may prove of use to the reader.

I am not speaking nostalgically of a “classical” period, neither am I supporting an “elitist” art against a “popular” one. For me, there is no opposition of value between popular (or folk) art and “artful” art, neither do I think that great art is folk art written properly, so to speak. The relation between the two is sui generis. The links, for instance, between musical folklore (songs and dances) and great “artful” European music are extraordinarily strong. But at some point in time-say, during the nineteenth century—the almost complete separation of the two species of art takes place simultaneously with the virtual destruction of popular art. It is known that there are two exceptions, jazz and cinema, the two great creations of the first quarter of the twentieth century. But, what happened to these two as the century proceeded? What have we to say about jazz after the death of Thelonius Monk, for instance? Of course, everyone is entitled to his/her opinion and taste, but as far as I am concerned up to the 1960s jazz developed as a very high form of art. While the period after the 1960s is too short to allow a definitive judgment, it is clear that present-day disco and rock music simply cannot enter into comparison.

The relation between popular and “artful” art has always existed, from the time the latter appeared; it was broken, for the first time, during the nineteenth century. And for a long period, perhaps for its entire existence, avant-garde or modern art was disliked by the bourgeoisie—and artists in general hated the bourgeoisie. Nonetheless, the creation of great art went on for a long time (seventy years or more) in the form of true modern arr. Atonal and serial music was created around 1906, and now Luciano Berio is inserting long quotations from La Traviata or Beethoven’s symphonies into his pieces. Where is the musical creation of today? When Lenin said to Klara Zetkin, “I cannot understand why these painters paint a sort of broomstick with two long forks attached, and call this ‘Portrait of Mrs. X,'” he was, of course, expressing the philistine part of his nature, and he was talking exactly as a cultivated bourgeois of his time would talk. But the truth of the matter is that the workers and peasants of that time (and of today) would certainly not like cubist painting any more than the petty bourgeois public did. Cubist painting is great painting, nevertheless. And this is the tragedy of great modern art: it was the first great art which was inaccessible to the largest segment of society (something from which the eclectic pauper-soup of postmodernism escapes the easy way). And this fact stands against all “populist” theories of art, and, for that matter, traditionalist theories, or “class” theories. And that is how we entered the present dismal period of emptiness. Of course, in this huge world of ours it is almost inevitable that important figures will emerge—Samuel Beckett or Claude Simon, Rene Char or Paul Celan, to mention but a few. But here I am talking about the social-historical trend.

See also: Castoriadis on Culture By David Ames Curtis

See also: Social Transformation and Cultural Creation by Castoriadis

See also: The Radical Instituting Power and Democratic Theory by Andreas Kalyvas

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