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Violence, Art, and Our Crisis in Culture

“The common element connecting art and politics is that they are both phenomena of the public world. What mediates the conflict between the artist and the man of action is the cultura animi, that is, a mind so trained and cultivated that it can be trusted to tend and take care of the world of appearances whose criterion is beauty.”

“The Crisis in Culture,” in Between Past and Future (1993 [1961]) 218-219

The survival of culture is not assured. In her exploration of culture and crisis, Hannah Arendt distinguishes between objects that are produced for use and those that are produced as art in order to endure. Consumptive life is a part of leisure, a “necessity” of life, whereas art, as Arendt often discusses, partakes in the humanistic task of cultivating a world that doesn’t collapse all distinctions – among people, among realms of experiences, among spaces of collective encounter, and among the ways in which we see violence whether in the hands of fellow human beings or state authorities. This note about violence is not a theme in Arendt’s “The Crisis in Culture.” But it very well could be, and as I’ll assert here, it should be. This is part of our “crisis of culture,” after all, a dilemma for which art may offer some chance of cultivating a humanistic sensibility that is much needed in light of persistent violence within liberal democratic republics today.

Between Past and Future

Hannah Arendt’s Between Past and Future, in which “The Crisis in Culture” is an essay (Source: Amazon)

As Arendt notes, the problem with culture isn’t its mass nature or the fact that entertainment is attractive. Rather, Arendt’s targets in Part One are those cultural critics who despise or righteously dismiss the mass phenomenon of entertainment and expect a type of purity in cultural life. (For a richly detailed view of the multiple contexts out of which Arendt writes this essay, see Patchen Markell (2014).) It’s a phenomenological fact for Arendt that we “stand in need of entertainment and amusement in some form or other, because we are all subject to life’s great cycle; a life cycle of work, labor, and action in a functioning polis.” While this is a surprisingly dense and wide-ranging essay, for my purposes I’d like to zoom in on the way Arendt talks about culture, reminding us that culture as a “word and concept” is Roman in origin. It comes from colere, which means “to cultivate, to dwell, to take care, to tend and preserve” (211). Culture in this sense is therefore a “common sense” of individuals to attend to the things of the world.

In terms of the relation between art and culture, Arendt identifies “beauty” as the criteria of art in an intriguing way. She says, “beauty is the very manifestation of imperishability,” that “fleeting greatness of word and deed can endure in the world to the extent that beauty is bestowed upon it” (218). It is the “radiant glory in which potential immortality is made manifest in the human world” without which all human life would be futile (218). Beauty is heroic in these terms. But what if the “crisis in culture” today – that is, with the United States as our subject – is better attacked by art in a horrific mode? Arendt’s aesthetic interest in art and beauty in an age of ordinary violence may be better conceptualized as horror. This is the type of cultura animi needed today.

cia torture report

Protester Anna White places a rose and a banner outside the White House in Washington on Oct. 17, 2006. The just-released CIA torture report includes detailed accounts of how the agency used music against detainees. (Source: IBT Pulse)

Think of some of the most recent national incidents that fly in the face of cultivating a humanistic view of the world in common. Think first of the recent grand jury decisions not to prosecute white police officers who used deadly force against unarmed black men in the states of Missouri and New York. And then think of the release on December 9 of the Senate intelligence committee’s report on the C.I.A.’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a document which has damaged the reputation of the United States as a place that protects bodily integrity and defines itself against arbitrary and tyrannical uses of state power. As Lynn Hunt argues in Inventing Human Rights (2007), torture became a concept once the body in pain no longer served as a sacrifice for the community but as an individual for whom pain was her or his own. Thus, state responsibility shifted to punishment limited by the moral and political good of protecting the boundaries of the incarcerated or detained self. For Hunt, the concept of torture became real as the bright line of our moral modernity in political life when it was imaginatively felt as horrific by ordinary individuals in the public square.

Mainstream news outlets now report that blacks are ten times more likely to be stopped than whites (USA Today Nov. 19, 2014). U.S. public opinion shows that during the Bush administration, a majority of those surveyed were opposed to torture, even when respondents were “asked about an imminent terror attack” or when asked about enhanced interrogation techniques, or when told that “torture would work to get crucial information” (Gronke, Rejali, et al in the Political Science journal PS from July 2010, 437). In fact, a “public majority in favor of torture didn’t appear until, interestingly, six months into the Obama administration” (437). While the authors of this survey of U.S. public opinion on torture from 2001-2009 hypothesize that there was an emerging partisan divide on the use of torture, certainly we see representations of torture across all visual media.

Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950

Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950 (Source: Afterimage Online)

The public is soaked with violence in ordinary life, and our entertainment is soaked with normalizing state violence in the hands of both female and male characters when acting as agents of the state or as rouge operatives. Last year the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., which is open free to the public, had a special exhibition called “Damage Control: Art and Destruction since 1950.” This exhibition effectively cultivated a cultura animi of horror in the realm of “high” art (Christian Marclay’s 14 minute “Guitar Drag” 2000 is painful as a symbolic rendition African-American James Byrd, Jr. dragged to his death by three white fellow Texans in 1998). In the realm of popular art or the aesthetics of protest, we can say that the hashtag #ICantBreathe may do the same sort of mediation. How else can we take care of the world? How else can we see each other imaginatively?

— Laurie Naranch

(Featured Image: Thousands of demonstrators march across the Brooklyn Bridge in protest of the Eric Garnger decision; Source: Death and Taxes Mag)

Posted on 15 December 2014 | 10:00 am

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