03/02/2010 17:12

Negativity and Normativity: Art and Justice in the 20th Century

Aline M. Ramos
Fordham University

Negativity and Normativity: Art and Justice in the 20th Century

Ever since Greek Antiquity, we have been revising our idea of justice and all of its normative components. The Presocratic philosophers and Plato mentioned many ways in which beauty, art and justice were related. However, not much has been done to approximate the new developments in theories of ethics and justice to new findings in aesthetic theory – and the very little which has been published (like Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just) does not really accomplish much in the clarification of that relationship. The aim of this paper is to expand Adorno’s question about the possibility of life after Auschwitz in three other questions: 1) Is there justice after Auschwitz?, and 2) Is there beauty after Auschwitz? 3) How are beauty and justice related after World War II and artistic modernity?

The answer to these three questions will direct us to a model of beauty as fairness to be grasped through a model of negativity: it will be based on the negative dialectics proposed by the Frankfurt School, on the idea of negative capability, which was introduced by Keats and was later appropriated by philosophers like Dewey and Heidegger, and also on negative theology (via negativa).

When Adorno said that “to write poetry after Auschwitz [was] barbaric”, he did not mean for poets to stop their work; rather, he meant that culture had failed to do justice to the suffering of the victims of concentration camps, and that there was a huge gap between any artistic creation before and after Auschwitz which could not be ignored. The focus on memory which Adorno calls for leads us to something which art and justice have had in common since the beginning of the 20th century: the struggle against reification and the lack of use of imagination. Thus, the latest developments in theories of justice and current approaches to aesthetic beauty call for a new way of seeing the relationship between the two: namely, not for what they have in common (balance, proportion etc.), but rather by focusing on what both are fighting against.

This take on negativity relates to the theological idea of sin, or a theology of the fall. The idea of sin (and the possibility for subsequent redemption) illuminates human predicament where there is no right-relatedness. When we realize that the peace and harmony which are part of a “Divine promise” do not exist, we are left with the mystery of evil, sin, and fall, i.e. we see that human relationships are somewhat broken, and this relates to a misuse of human freedom. Sin is the kind of moral evil for which humans are accountable. It takes humans some effort to turn that sin into redemption, to experience a sense of reconciliation and forgiveness, and the triumph of good over evil. In my paper, I show which aspects of those three negative approaches form a coherent way of seeing beauty and justice after the 20th century, with the addition of a theology of salvation and a feminist approach to aesthetical-ethical theories.