Category: aesthetics


Here’s a passage from Jonathan Coe’s excellent 2004 novel, The Closed Circle.

“. . . the young couple, who had arrived just behind Paul in a white stretch limo were enjoying the attention of a crowd of journalists and photographers.  This couple, whom Paul had not recognized, had last year been two of the contestants on Britain’s most popular primetime reality TV show.  For weeks they had kept the public guessing as to whether or not they were going to have sex with each other on camera.  The tabloid papers had devoted hundreds of column inches to the subject.  Neither of them had talent, or wisdom, or education, or even much personality to speak of.  But they were young and good-looking, and they dressed well, and they had been on television, and that was enough.  And so the photographers kept taking pictures, and the journalists kept trying to make them say something quotable or amusing (which was difficult , because they had no wit, either).  Meanwhile, Doug could not help noticing, right next to them, waiting for his wife to emerge from the ladies’, the figure of Professor John Copland, Britain’s leading geneticist, one of its best-selling science authors, and regularly mentioned as potential Nobel prizewinner.  But no one was taking his photograph, or asking him to say anything.  He could have been a cab driver, waiting to drive one of the guests home, as far as anybody was concerned.  And for Doug this situation encapsulated so perfectly everything he wanted to say about Britain in 2002—the obscene weightlessness of its cultural life, the grotesque triumph of sheen over substance, all the clichés which were only clichés, as it happened, because they were true—that he was, perversely, pleased to be witnessing it” (275-76).

Not a good passage; usually Coe avoids editorializing like this in his novel.  But I wanted to comment on it because 1) I usually, by absenting myself completely from it, avoid “weightless” culture while 2) fighting shy of the clichéd lament about its “obscenity” (laments that echo through the two hundred plus years of despair over the mediocrity of bourgeois, democratic, non-noble mores).  It is interesting to see Coe feeling compelled to both make the clichéd complaint and to chide himself for making it in almost the same breath.  At some level, we elites are not allowed to sound like Flaubert anymore, not allowed to express our distaste—and, yes, our contempt—for what gets dished out on reality TV shows.  Perhaps Milan Kundera was the last fully self-righteous and completely un-self-aware critic of kitsch.  Even as his notion of weightlessness (“the unbearable lightness of being,” such a portentous but still fantastic title/phrase) winds up being little more than the fact that men find it unbearable to be faithful to just one woman.  Kundera’s petulance and (ultimately) silliness put the last stake through the heart of “high” culture’s contempt for low.

But, still.  I have seen Fox news only three or four times in my life; read People  magazine the same number of times, and have never seen a reality TV show.  When I do encounter such things, I am (I admit) flabbergasted as well as bored.  That such trash fills the channels of communication is a mystery as unfathomable to me as the idea that people buy $10,000 watches.  Who would do such a thing—and for what earthly reason?  I don’t even have a condescending explanation to offer.  Fascination/obsession with the British royal family fits into the same category for me.

Meanwhile—and I don’t think Coe sees this—his ignored professor is a “best-selling” author and likely to win a Noble prize–so hardly universally treated like a “cab driver.”  Yeats and W. B. Auden are just two among the great early 20th century poets who lived in fairly dire poverty.  Even the post World War II poets—Berryman, Jarrell, Schwartz and the like—were spared that kind of poverty by having moved into sinecures in the beefed-up post-war universities.  Twenty-first century poets will complain bitterly about how few books they sell, but they are lionized within the tight confines of the “poetry world,” giving readings to robust audiences, and never threatened with the kind of poverty that Yeats took for granted.  We live in a world of niches now, so that no poet today can command a nation’s attention the way Yeats did (of course, he had the advantage of writing for a very small nation, about four million people strong, half the size of today’s New York City or London), even though no poet today can be as poor as Yeats.  The niches, in other words, reward well—have cultural capital in both its forms (financial and reputational) available for distribution.

All of this has to do, in very large part, with the ways that the post-war universities have become the patrons for the arts in our time.  Outside of the university it is very hard to make a living by the sweat of your pen.  The Grub St man of letters, writing his reviews for the papers and the weeklies, no longer exists—while no poet and very few novelists can make a living apart from teaching creative writing.  But the universities do provide a structure that insures rewards.

What everyone keeps lamenting these days (instead of lambasting the meretricious glob of TV and the tabloids) is the utter lack of contact between the niches.  The “culture” we teach in school is utterly divorced from the “culture” our students access outside of school.  They know nothing, and care less, for the material to which we introduce them—except for the very small minority we convert over to what by now should be called “school” culture, not “high” culture.

School culture does get a boost from all those middle to upper middle class parents who, for various reasons, see fit to give their children violin, ballet, singing, and (less frequently) art and acting lessons in lieu of (or in addition to) having them play little league or soccer or join a swim team.  The arts/athletics divide in American child rearing practices deserves sociological study.  Both for characterizing the parents who give their children different kinds of lessons—and in a longitudinal study of what effect those lessons have on later choices in life (chances of going to art museums or to the symphony; kinds of career paths taken).  And how does deep involvement in youth sports culture track to an obsession with celebrities or TV world?  Not any obvious connection there.

These schisms no doubt always existed in American culture.  But they didn’t used to track so directly to different political allegiances/views.  My colleague Jonathan Weiler thinks he can tell your political affiliating after asking only four questions, one of which is your emotional response to Priuses.  I have fear he is right.

And, as usual, most perplexing–and disheartening–to me is the deep hostility that such divides now generate.  Just as I really cannot understand why the uber-rich are so discontented, so determined to increase the financial insecurity of their employees, I cannot understand why our cultural warriors are out to destroy the universities.  Yes, its partly their war against all things public.  UNC is in the cross-hairs in a way that Duke will never be.  But it is more than that.  They have some leverage over UNC; they’d go after Duke as well if they could.  The need to punish one’s enemies as well as look to one’s own well-being is what I don’t get.  Peaceful co-existence of the various niches, the indifference of tolerance, is off the table it seems.  I keep referring back (in my mind) to a comment Gary Wills made years ago about the Republican nominating convention (of 1992 or 1996; I don’t remember what year).  He reported that over 30% of the delegates were millionaires, yet they seethed with discontent and rage.  What objective reason did they have to be so agitated? Life in the US had treated them damn well.  The same, of course, can be said of Donald Trump in spades.  What is the source of all his anger?  Pretty obviously the fact that he does not feel respected by the cultural elites.  So he wishes to destroy them, to cause them maximum pain.

A final question: does meretricious popular culture, all that weightless trash, always have this kind of aggression against dissenters to that culture packed within it?  In other words, I am back to thinking, yet again, about resentment–about its sources and about the cultural/societal locations in which it lurks.

Materialism, Meaning, and the Humanities

Taylor’s theism is directed, in part, against a reductionist materialism, which would 1) in its utilitarian forms (which include Darwinian accounts) “reduce” human motivations to sustaining life (either that of the individual or of the species) and see all human behavior as driven by the efforts to seek pleasure or avoid pain; or 2) in its biochemical forms claim that all human behavior is a product of chemical reactions in the body.  He is adamant that there must be “something more” than this to explain human aspirations and behavior.

In particular, Taylor says there are three things a reductionist materialism cannot account for: 1. Any sense of there being non-human forces or powers to which we, as humans, can connect.  This, straightforwardly, is the place where “transcendence” makes its appearance.  There is something that transcends the exclusively human—and the experience of or faith in the existence of that transcendent something cannot be accounted for in reductionist materialist ontologies.

2.  There is the observable fact that moral motivations play a large (although hardly exclusive) role in what humans do.  There are issues of value—of what gives pleasure or what gives pain, what is seen as admirable, and standards apart from desire itself by which any particular desire is deemed endorsable or not.  We subject out own desires and behavior, as well as the desires and behaviors of others, to judgment—and the materialist view has a hard time accounting for the standards that are deployed in our making of judgments. This is a version of the fact/value dichotomy–and Taylor (I think) is sympathetic to the pragmatist view (most fully articulated by Hilary Putnam, but clearly already there in William James and wonderfully expressed by Kenneth Burke) that we are always already valuers, that our attention to things (to facts, to what is the case) is driven by what “concerns” us, what we think matters, is significant.

3. Finally, we have aesthetic responses, finding beauty in some things, and turning away in disgust from others, along with desires to produce such artistic objects and to spend time in their contemplation and consumption.  We might say that here we find admiration for work well done—for accomplishments that go beyond just getting the job done, just being “good enough.”  Standards of excellence are applied in all kinds of fields—from artistic endeavors to athletic ones to simply the “style” and competence with which the most ordinary tasks are done.

Taylor does not insist that only faith in a transcendent can underwrite objections to reductionist materialism.  But what he does show is that religion (at least in some cases) shares a cause with the humanities: the cause of showing there is something more than materialist satisfactions (the utility maximizing rational individual of classical economic theory) that “matter” to human beings.  The humanities are also committed to a sense that humans derive (find) meaning in a variety of activities and relationships that are not captured by a single-minded pursuit of utility.

Of course, ever since Matthew Arnold (at least), the humanities’ attempts to describe those sources of non-utilitarian meaning have come across as pretty desperate, a kind of hysterical special pleading.  In fact, the humanities seem caught between two antithetical strategies in such presentations of their value.  Either, they try to demonstrate that the humanities have a utility value, just one that is not reducible to pleasure/pain or straightforward economic gain.  Or they try to argue for the uselessness of the aesthetic and of knowledge for its own sake, finding in such non-utility a welcome respite from the obsessions and demands of a consumer culture, where getting and spending rules over all time and effort.

I am more inclined to go the “meaning route.”  That is, I don’t want to focus on what the humanities and the arts “do” for the person who either pursues them actively or consumes them somewhat more passively.  In other words, I am not very attracted to or convinced by the Martha Nussbaum type arguments about how reading the classics (from Lucretius to George Eliot and Henry James) makes us better moral subjects and better democratic citizens.  Perhaps she is right.  But I’d hate to be committed to saying that those who do not do the requisite reading are somehow doomed to be deficient moral subjects and citizens.

Rather, I think it more demonstrably (phenomenologically) true that subjects locate meaning through processes of valuation that prove much more multifarious than any utilitarian or Darwinian calculus can account for.  In particular, I would push the thought that what is found valuable (and hence worth striving to create and working to sustain) is much more the product of a self’s relation to, embeddedness in, others and the non-human world than the utilitarian/Darwinian account would suggest.  Which is to say that, along with Dewey, I believe “morality is social.”  Morality, in this case, covers both what contemporary philosophy (following Bernard Williams) calls morals (rules of conduct mostly directed toward establishing and maintaining optimal relations to others and to the world) and ethics (questions pertaining to what is the “good life,” of what ends I—and others—should pursue).  All the issues pertaining both to morals and ethics are worked out, thought through, acted upon, and subject to the judgment of others within the ensemble of social relations and practices in which the self is embedded.

Does that mean that “society” plays the role of the “transcendent” in my form of humanism?  I am willing to accept that characterization of my position.  The social is the “horizon” (to use that term from phenomenology) within which judgments of meaning and value are made.  The humanities, then, would become the study of how those judgments were/are made by various different people situated in various different societies.  But not just how those judgments were made, but also what those judgments were/are.  The humanities and the arts, as is often said—and Taylor argues that the same is true for religion—proceed by way of exemplars.  There are no hard and fast rules for making judgments—and there is no way to proclaim apodictic truth for any particular judgment.  Which is not to say that there are no reasons one can offer for one’s own judgments.  But we should fully expect that such reasons will prove more convincing to some than to others—and that the extent to which reasons are convincing will depend quite heavily on the social context from within which those reasons are heard and evaluated.

Does this all entail cultural relativism?  Yes, to some extent.  I will in a subsequent post return to the William James’s notion of a “live option.”  There are demonstrably judgments and choices that were “live options” in the past that are no longer so.  Unlike someone living in the 1845 South, I cannot actively entertain the question of whether I should purchase a slave.  This is not simply because no slaves are available to buy.  It is also because, situated where I am in history and culture, being a slave owner is unthinkable for me.

But it is only relativism to a certain extent because cultures are not monolithic; they are in dialogue with other cultures (and with the past), as well as internally riven with all kinds of debates about proper judgments concerning morals and ethics.  The person living in the 1845 South could not be unaware that some of his fellow American citizens found slave-owning abominable.  Being within a culture can isolate someone from others who hold contrary views, but it cannot completely shield him from knowing about those who would dispute his views.  The humanities, we might say, are committed to airing all such disputes—opening out toward the historical record, to other cultures, and to the debates within one’s own culture.  The humanities stake a lot on the idea that the pursuit of meaning and values should be undertaken in and through exposure to as wide a set of judgments as possible.

This open-mindedness of the liberal arts (of the humanities) is, of course, anathema to those who wish to insure the triumph of one particular set of values over another.  All tyrannies try to shut down the public sphere, the full and raucous airing of multiple views.  Established religions have often been guilty of just such attempts to stifle discussion and debate.  Taylor, of course, recognizes that fact.  Hence he has to be very tolerant of non-religious humanists.  His position seems to be that the humanist is missing out on something, on a good thing, by not opening up to a relation with the transcendent (as contrasted to accusing the humanist of heresy).  At issue, I presume, is whether the transcendent of one’s relation to others and to the world is “enough.”

Enough for what?  For fully realizing the potential of life?  It seems like it would have to be something like that.  But I am not sure—and will return to this issue in subsequent posts.

For now, I will finish by considering the relation to the non-human.  I am not inclined (as is obvious by now) to find in the non-human—be it God, Nature, or some kind of life force/energy—a source of meaning.  Yet that does not entail denying that non-human forces and energies exist.  There are natural processes—erosion, earthquakes, weather cycles etc.—that exist apart from the human;  they pre-existed the human and will, most likely, exist after humans are extinct. There are also non-human creatures, some of whom pre-existed us and others of whom (I assume) will outlive the human species.

Moral questions involve, among other things, considering how we value those non-human forces/creatures and what are the optimal relations in which to stand to them.  Am I committed to the notion that whatever meaning and value those non-human forces possess are meanings and values that we, as humans, have created?  Yes, I am committed to that view.  Does that mean that non-human forces can only have meaning/value insofar as they relate to (even serve) human concerns?  That’s a tougher one.  I’d like to think (but don’t fully know how to make this stick) that we humans can value something with which we share the world (whether that sharer is human or non-human) for its own sake.  That is, I can fully acknowledge the other’s right to exist, and to flourish, without seeing the other’s existence as benefiting me in some way.  Here is Kant’s “kingdom of ends.”  That it is humans who see/designate others as ends-in-themselves does not logically entail that such a view is impossible to achieve.

What would be the reason(s) advanced for such a view?  One could be the reciprocity argument.  I am no more responsible for my presence on earth than is my neighbor or a butterfly.  Since I fully expect others to grant my right to be here, it is consistent that I grant their right to be here as well.  Otherwise, I would have to have some argument that would explain why I have more right to be here than the other creatures and processes that I find in the world about me.  Of course, such arguments for the “special status” of humans are rampant in human history, and most religions offer some version of such arguments.  Hence only humans get to be immortal or made in God’s image in Christianity.  There is also the Darwinian/Nietzschean route of saying we live in a totally amoral universe, where it is eat or be eaten, so it is not a question of “special status” for the human, or even for me and/or my tribe, just a struggle for life and death.  But if we accept that moral considerations do have some force in human motives and actions, then the challenge of justifying the “special status” of all humans or of some sub-set of humans is likely to be taken seriously.

A second set of reasons would be more holistic, more ecological.  The idea here would be that the world is sustained (in part) by a set of natural processes that unfold without human direction, but that can be altered by human action/intervention.  We are slowly discovering that such human actions/interventions often have drastic by-products, ones that threaten the sustainability of the world.  Our presumptions of control over the non-human have had bad consequences.  We would be much better off walking with a much lighter tread, leaving others and the non-human to live in peace, exempt from any interference from us.

Are those natural processes transcendent?  In a strict sense, I guess the answer is Yes.  They are certainly non-human.  But they are not transcendent in the more religious sense because they are not, in my view, a source of meaning, or some kind of “personal” entity to which we can have a call-and-response (dialogic) relation.  Taylor persistently wants to reject the “impersonal universe” he associates with modern secularism, while I am fully guilty of finding the non-human “impersonal.”  We stand in relation to the non-human, and can have a drastic impact on its functionings, but I don’t think we can be in dialogue with it, and I don’t think we can establish a relation to it that generates meanings except insofar as we, as humans, find value in the non-human (something which occurs all the time).

Am I fully satisfied with these formulations?  Far from it.  I am using Taylor to sort through my own commitments/intuitions, even as his book challenges me to offer a coherent (and convincing) account of how I justify/understand the assumptions/claims that must underwrite those commitments.  And I am finding that I stand on very shaky ground.

The Third Thing

Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty (Norton, 2011) is consistently interesting, intermittently insightful, and frequently annoying.  I wanted to say “infuriating” in that last spot, but that is way too strong.

To get over the annoying bit first: Nelson is very fond of quoting some writer or other, and then saying “I mostly agree” before launching into her reasons for not fully agreeing.  Not only is this a tic, but it also often just comes across as the attempt to believe two contradictory things at once.  Which, in fact, is often just what she does want.  On the one hand, she tends toward a fairly stringent aestheticism.  Hardly surprising if your topic is cruelty in art.  It’s important to stress that cruelty in art is not cruelty in life.  Child abuse in life is morally reprehensible; no nuances there.  But child abuse in Lolita is something else again.  Yet (there is always that “yet” in Nelson), she also wants to say that art gives us some insight into non-aesthetic human behavior.  Cruelty in art is not totally separable from cruelty in life.

So what is the relation?  At this point she goes into waffling so deft it can seem illuminating.  Francis Bacon haunts this text.  It seems pretty clear that Nelson doesn’t “like” Bacon’s paintings—and she certainly doesn’t like Bacon as a person.  But she keeps returning to look at the paintings as if another look will get her to some settled account (one that satisfies her) about what those paintings do.  Bacon turns living flesh into “things,” stripping them of all subjectivity in order to render them as objects.  In this way, he replicates what Simone Weil (in her famous essay on the Iliad) says is the effect of “force”: it turns what it touches into a thing, brute material acted upon.

“Artists such as Plath and Bacon aimed to access ‘the brutality of fact’ without providing any narrative to house it, and yet also without courting abstraction.  This is an intriguing aim, albeit one bound to produce not only formal but also political difficulties” (239).  There you have it; art is not just about itself; it also has some relation to “the political.”

Specifically, the political difficulty is fatalism, which breeds a passive acquiescence in the “brute fact.”

“For many would argue [notice Nelson’s sly distancing of the thought she is about to utter] that art which aims to extinguish the story behind suffering and focus on the suffering itself partakes in a different, more insidious cruelty—that of depoliticization, of stripping cruelties from their contexts so that they seem pitiable, sensational, or inevitable, rather than contingent, avoidable, or explicable. . . . ‘The most politically indoctrinating thing you can do to a human being is to show him, every day, that there can be no change,’ says filmmaker Wim Wenders.  For the most part, I agree. [The Nelson hedge at play.] And if one suggests that the thing that cannot change is the very thing that is causing suffering, the indoctrination can be all the more toxic.  Such forms of expression can seemingly act as an accomplice, even if unwittingly, to this cynicism, which turns its back on the hard work of ferreting out the reasons why a particular cruelty has occurred, who is responsible for it, who gains from it, and who suffers” (239).

Nelson then narrates going to a Bacon retrospective and having the experience of “finding I wasn’t in the mood to look at Bacon’s paintings any longer” (240).  But the suggestion lingers that this mood might pass, and she will find herself able (even desiring?) to look at his paintings some other time in the future.

What’s annoying (OK, infuriating) in a book written so persistently in the first person, is that Nelson never tries to describe this mood or, more globally, the impact of the Bacon paintings on her as spectator.  In fact, the book is full of brilliant statements about what this or that artist is doing in his or her work, but whenever it comes to describing the viewer’s response, Nelson invariably turns subjectivist: each audience member’s mileage will vary.  She is fond of reporting on the unexpected responses of her students to works she had experienced differently.  But she never tangles with the question of the legitimacy of her responses—or to the question of how faithful to those responses she should be.

In short, why should she look at Bacon’s paintings at all.  To be even more blatant (and philistine?) about it: what do Bacon’s paintings contribute to the world?  Is the world a better place because they exist?  That’s crass, I know.  But surely art doesn’t get a free pass just be announcing itself to be art.  Why should it not have to justify its existence in the same way that everything else does? And aren’t we bowing to the tyranny of received institutional authority when we think we ought to (some kind of imperative is at work here) look at Bacon’s paintings.  It is very hard for me to imagine any kind of purely aesthetic argument (art for art’s sake) for the value of Bacon’s paintings.  There must be something they are thought to deliver (in the way of insight or feeling/emotion) that underwrites claims to their greatness.  So what is that something?  Showing us that humans can turn subjects into objects, that living bodies are vulnerable to mutilation, that some people take pleasure in mutilating?  Are those things we did not know, that we need Bacon to tell us?  And what are to do with such knowledge?

I am tempted to follow Brecht here; having walked through a Bacon retrospective, just what is it I walk away with, and toward what ends will I direct the knowledge and/or feeling I have gained/experienced in viewing the paintings?  My complaint is that Nelson short circuits the discussion—much as she says that Bacon’s paintings short circuit “context” and “story.”  Bacon’s paintings become themselves a “brute fact,” hanging there on prestigious museum walls, echoing the “brutal facts” the paintings depict.

Do I want Bacon explained away by some back story about his psychological depravity?  No, not at all.  What I want is some story, some context, that makes his paintings do something besides shock and disgust.  Because I don’t see the value in shock (Nelson can be very witty about the avant-garde’s endless repetition of its stock moves) and I don’t see what more than that Bacon’s paintings aim for.  I am not a good art critic—and writers like Berger, T. J. Clark and Nelson at her best often make me see things I didn’t see for myself.  I want someone to do that for me regarding Bacon before I am willing to grant either his importance or his genius.

But I didn’t come here today to talk of Bacon.  I actually want to write about Nelson’s intriguing attempt to bridge the art/life divide, to finesse their being two separate things even as they sustain some sort of relation to one another.  Nelson’s idea is that the artistic object is a “third thing” that exists between people—and through which they relate.  She is partly influenced by Arendt’s notion of the “in-between,” of the distance, the space, that exists between people—and which enables their connection.  Intimacy collapses the in-between and thus overwhelms individuality, tending toward a collapse of selves into one another.  Here’s Nelson’s version of art’s functioning to establish the “in-between.”

“Rather than lambast that which mediates as our enemy, each [of a group of writers Nelson admires] makes a concerted effort to reclaim the value of the ‘third term.’  ‘In the logic of emancipation,’ Ranciere writes, ‘there is always a third thing—a book or some other piece of writing—alien to both [teacher and student] and to which they can refer to verify in common what the pupil has seen, what she says about it and what she thinks about it.’ The emancipatory value of the third thing, as Ranciere sees it, lies in the act that no one can own it; no one can own its meaning.  Its function is to mediate, but not in the sense of imitating or representing a reality from which spectators are barred.  Here, ‘the mediate’ relates people to each other, with relation signifying the process of being brought together and given a measure of space from each other at the same time” (46).

This seems to me a lovely and very productive way to think about art, one that preserves at one and the same time art’s separation from “life” and art’s contribution to that same life.  Nelson returns to this notion of the “third thing” several times in her book—and ends by invoking it one last time.

“A paradox is more than the coexistence of opposing propositions or impulses.  It signals the possibility—and sometimes the arrival—of a third term into a situation that otherwise appeared to consist of but two opposing forces.  Roland Barthes elaborates the third term—which he calls the Neutral—with the utmost beauty and intelligence in his 1977-78 lectures titled The Neutral. . . . For, as Barthes suggests, insofar as certain third terms—however volatile or disturbing—baffle the repressive forces of reduction, generality, and dogmatism, they deserve to be called sweetness.” [The last sentence of Nelson’s book] (269).

Note that “certain” third terms can do this job.  But Nelson’s book never attends to how specific works play this function—or, crucially, to how different works perform it differently.  What happens when Bacon is our third thing instead of Matisse?  That a book on the art of cruelty ends with the word “sweetness” suggests that even cruel art can be sweet if it opens a pathway out of dogmatism.  But Nelson never does the work of showing us how this all goes down.  Place Bacon between us—dear reader and me, the writer—and what Happens?  I don’t know (can I admit to not really wanting to know?).  I certainly would love to hear Nelson’s account of what happens, an account that avoids the “generality” she says that third terms help us overcome.  I want, in other words, this notion of the third term “cashed out” (to invoke that much maligned phrase from William James).

Because I do, in fact, find the idea of art as a stimulus to, even a producer of, relations deeply appealing.  It makes the aesthetic a “space of appearances,” an intersubjective zone of discovery, where what is discovered is my identity, your identity, and our identity—a discovery unavailable without the catalyst of the work.  “Identity” is not a great word here, but I use it in hommage to Arendt’s notion of the ways in which we create/discover ourselves through interactions with others. That art works may have some special way of provoking those interactions seems right to me—and places art works in relation to “the world” (again, using that term in an Arendtian fashion) in evocative ways.

I am not on firm ground here.  I am working from a set of intuitions and prejudices.  I certainly do not want to take the position that the cruel art work (or any art work) must have “redeeming value.”  In fact, I want to jettison the notion of “redemption” (in all forms and in all applications of the term).  But shorn of the idea of redemption, I still want to think (as specifically as possible) about what an art work does.  So thinking of the art work as catalyzing human relationships seems promising to me.  What kinds of relations do cruel works foster?  How do they move audiences to new places?  My claim is that all art works do something; they are operators on their viewers.  So let’s figure out what they are doing.