Ambivalence

by Adam Rothbarth

 

“Man has an inclination to associate with others, because in society he feels himself to be more than man, i.e., as more than the developed form of his natural capacities. But he also has a strong propensity to isolate himself from others, because he finds in himself at the same time the unsocial characteristic of wishing to have everything go according to his own wish. . . . to achieve a rank among his fellows whom he cannot tolerate but from whom he cannot withdraw.” — Immanuel Kant, Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View

 

The thought of writing an essay on my ambivalence is fundamentally paradoxical. If I take myself not to care about art at a certain level, how must I approach the task of thinking critically about my estrangement from it? From where do I muster the energy to be objective? Or, to put it another way, how do I care that I don’t care? To answer the question, I will do what all art critics should in part strive to do: I must critique not only art, but my own self.

What does it mean to care about art? First, I must separate my caring about art into two categories: intellectual care and emotional care. Emotionally, I inherit from society a subjective deficit that art claims to strive to fill. This claim is second nature today, one of the pillars of the culture industry: art is meaningful, art is fulfilling, art makes life worth living. And yet since I know that none of these things are really true, I am fundamentally thrown—on an emotional level—into perpetual crisis regarding my relationship to art. It can do nothing to quench the unquenchable thirst that the impossibility of Spiritual fulfillment evokes. It is a deep desire, and one that can only be relieved by the negation of my own negation.

Just as man is driven into society to seek a form of liberty that does not exist in nature, finding himself unfulfilled equally (so far) by solitude and community, man is so driven towards art, finding himself in a similar contradiction. Thus, man enters into a relationship with aesthetic production that, to invoke the epigraph to this essay, he cannot tolerate, but from which he cannot withdraw.

So what is the relationship between art and potential negation? This is perhaps where one’s care can begin to blossom, their minority acting as the soil in which their critical positions may flourish. Today man does not question the categories of art or the culture industry, but, rather, seeks exponentially refined ways of understanding them meta-critically in his particular aesthetic moment. But this pursuit presupposes that man must care about art. However, if man can only care about what he can lose, and the culture industry is a permanent institution of capital, how can man gain the degree of abstraction necessary to care, or to even think critically about it? How can man care about something that is unfulfilling and permanent? In a sense he cannot, and yet the paradox remains. This answer produces a more important one, though: if man acknowledges that he cannot care about particular art-works, he MUST care about art as a category, intellectually. His ambivalence masks a desire so powerful that it can only appear in a distorted, contradictory form.

This relationship with art drives man, whether he recognizes it or not, towards an actually meaningful and particular critique of art. He must care about the art that does not fulfill his mind today so that he may be fulfilled by his own social activity tomorrow.

Man must care about art because it is a practice in which he can both critique his ambivalence and envision a world without it. For the artist, this means creation; for the critical theorist and the art critic, it means interpretation. In many ways, art is no longer able to criticize empirical reality in a meaningful way. It has lost sight of the dissonance of modernism, and could today be said to more or less simply embody the perplexity of contemporary social life. Without revolutionary politics, there is no real art, and without critical theory and art criticism, there is no real interpretation. In this void, we are left with two mirrors facing each other: ambivalent art-works on one side that task a confused world with deciphering their meaning on the other.

I do not know what Trump’s presidency will bring, nor do I really know what it will mean for art, though I entertain my private speculations. I do know that, empirically, his victory has been simultaneously the most exciting event we’ve experienced at Caesura during our year of publication, and also a force powerful enough to halt publication for five months. Nota bene: we have not reached a collective understanding of the meaning of our hiatus.

Perhaps we wanted to wait to see what would be there when the dust settled. Maybe we were too overwhelmed by the art world’s response. I know that part of my own hesitation to publish involved a desire for a resuscitated Left. But it didn’t show, we didn’t write, and the world continues to turn. There remains no real Left, and as the many responses to Trump have shown, there is very little, if any, real art. This is why Caesura is as important as ever, as one of the last bastions for actual critique, if I may be so bold as to suggest that we have attempted to provide this.

To paraphrase Adorno, the realm of art is cold. I feel it now more than ever, and if you are reading this, you probably do as well. I cannot speak for the other editors at Caesura, nor those at other publications, but I know that for myself, I must force myself to continue to care about art today so that I may be fulfilled by my life tomorrow. And this means acknowledging my ambivalence. Only then can I be free to actually think about art.