Two Reflections: Art, Abnormality

The purpose of art is to reveal truth. Not facts, not slogans, not trendy attitudes, and certainly not the ephemeral feelings or passions of the artist himself. Truth, meaning something unchanging and essential to a proper understanding of some element of reality, whether regarding human nature, the structures of civil order, or the ordering principles of the cosmos. Anything, therefore, which purports to be art, but which does not have the revelation of truth, in the sense I have outlined, as its aim, is mere puttering, pretension, or propaganda. 

The classical rivalry between philosophy and art, science and representation, is premised on the philosophers’ respectful assumption that the artist as such would not wish to be regarded as relevant or socially significant at all were he not revealing something true, which is to say something to be understood through a depiction of character or event, some waft or wisp of wisdom blowing through the veil of the beautiful. The question, then, from the classical point of view, is only whether or not the artist, by his art, is capable of achieving any such wisdom, or his work capable of revealing or directing us toward it. That he is, qua artist, making a claim to some measure of truth, and by producing art, seeking to reveal that truth, is not to be questioned. This is the good faith presupposition the philosopher makes on behalf of his rival. 

No one who employs the methods or media of art without this defining intention has anything more in common with the artist proper than a man who collects old books to be used as doorstops and paperweights has anything in common with a librarian.

To revive this understanding of art and the artist would immediately draw us back to that classical rivalry between art and philosophy, with its compulsory investigations of the essential nature of the good, the true, and the beautiful, and of the spiritual attributes and practices required to seek these most effectively. A debate not only among human beings, but also within the soul of each man, and hence in itself a path to self-knowledge; what a wonderful revival of thought, art, and civilization this might engender! Unfortunately, there is no one left today, among our paltry stand-ins for either side of this debate, with either the mind or the heart to take themselves or life itself so seriously.

There will always be abnormality on our fringes, and from among this abnormality there may, at moments, appear a window to some intuition or revelation. The difficulty is that there is a natural conflict or opposing tension between this fringe element and the stabilizing normalcy that allows a society to remain united and coherent within itself. This conflict is nearly intractable by nature — and it should be so, in order for both the normal and the abnormal to remain in existence in their respective essences, and to serve their awkwardly complementary functions in the human drama.

Two tendencies of political collectives, however, undermine the real or potential benefits of abnormality in our midst. The first is the communal reflex to reject and condemn the abnormal outright, as an existential threat to decency, faith, or public standards. The second is the democratic impulse to normalize the abnormal, by gradually imposing it as a new and uncriticizable norm, i.e., by officially declaring it universally desirable and socially beneficial in the name of equal rights or the utilitarian redistribution of “goods.” 

The first tendency is a grave danger to society, but leaves the abnormal itself — whether exiled, imprisoned, or burned at the stake — more or less as it is. The second tendency may be an even more pernicious danger, however, as it effectively reduces abnormal thoughts or feelings to the status of protected establishmentarianism, thereby both destroying the natural norms that hold human communities together and allow civil society to survive, on the one hand, and, on the other, simultaneously neutering and taming those outlier impulses and attitudes which, if allowed to remain dangerous and strange, out on their social fringes, might, through the continual shiver of internal tension and external isolation, have finally sparked forth and ignited something beautiful or brilliant.

Worst of all, while community self-protectiveness which errs on the side of extreme intolerance and persecution at least allows the abnormal to see clearly what they represent, what they endanger, and what they must therefore do to survive in their natural habitat (the fringes), the democratizing form of excess drives in the direction of tolerating abnormality to death, as it were, resulting in the abnormal man learning to demand normalization as his right. As though a prowling tiger on the outskirts of town should demand the right to have its claws and fangs removed, so that it may be permitted to shop for meat at the supermarket like everyone else.

Well, there are actually things to be said in favor of the exception, provided that it never wants to become the rule.

— Nietzsche, The Gay Science (Walter Kaufmann translation), §76 

You may also like...