Thursday, March 30, 2006

Kant, Savages, and the Sublime

I'd like to post about something that I've seen again and again in our society- something that is starting to come into focus for me.

I posted previously about the strange response our students had to Giotto's painting The Lamentation when it was shown to them in class.

"The students were bored and annoyed.We ask them simply to look at some of the most beautiful works of art that have ever been created and they get irritated. They talk, or go to sleep, or leave.

Beauty does not speak to them; vulgarity does."

I noted their similar response to this statue, Laocoön and his sons- "The supreme artistry of this particular piece similarly annoyed them. It was also a tremendous waste of their time."

This year it was the first stanzas of Tennyson's poem Charge of the Light Brigade that provoked their annoyance. And this is what suddenly struck me as strange- they don't act tired or bored, which one might expect from kids in a lecture hall. Their response is more like knee-jerk annoyance. As soon as they see the slide of the beautiful object, they quite visibly respond with anger- it's like kryptonite to them. As soon as they heard the first words, and recognized that this was poetry, they expressed their frustration. These things don't just fail to speak to their sensibilities- they actually offend their sensibilities.

And I don't think it's just these kids. I see it in people my age- they spit out the words "elitist" or "pretentious" or "arrogant" any time they come into contact with art that isn't ironic and cynical. Kant saw this sort of angry response towards the sublime as characteristic of "savages". Modern academics tend to emphasize that his ideas about "savages" are as racist as that word implies. He's talking about most non-Western peoples here. Perversely, many academics now see 'the sublime' as a mere trope in a racist discourse, reflecting perhaps their spiritual isolation from any other understanding of it.

And yet, I think maybe this annoyance I see in my peers, is Western culture's ultimate revenge on the Enlightenment. Because, Kant was not only wrong about other cultures; he also never forsaw that we would produce our own savages. To be honest, his idea really has nothing to do with race and nationality, although his examples do. We can reject those and get our PC points, but it is worth returning to his core idea. This core idea is that the savage not only identifies himself with the trite, but actively rejects the elevating or sublime as offensive to his sensibilities. Right before she died, Susan Sontag said that mine is the first generation of western barbarians, and I think she was right.

So, I think that what should disturb us isn't that the people around us, young and old, seem to identify on such a personal level with the most callow pornography, songs about murdering black men, and banal celebrity. It's that they see anything more elevating, beautiful, or sublime, as deeply offensive to who they are as people.

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