The Greatest Achievement: Arendt and Art02-26-2023
Hannah Arendt isn’t known for writing about art. But that doesn’t mean she has nothing to say about it. Far from it.
Arendt’s books and essays do, in fact, contain some direct remarks about art. Sometimes, Arendt describes what art is: its essence, its nature. At other times, she explains what she thinks it is for human beings to make works of art, the specific kind of activity that creating art is compared to other types of “work.” Other statements have perhaps unintended artistic implications. But there’s nowhere for a reader to find all these reflections in one place. And, even when you find them, they are often just suggestive, never fully fleshed out. They certainly never turn into anything systematic that we might call Arendt’s contribution to aesthetic theory.
Arendt was, make no mistake, a very careful reader of Kant’s Critique of Judgement. The “third critique” is the foundational text in modern aesthetics. All the major thinkers in this tradition have discussed its themes and nuances. Arendt certainly ranks among them, but on her own terms. Her approach was unconventional. Though she wrote about questions Kant raises about what it is to make a judgment about something, and what it is for one individual to have an insight into what other people think and feel about a world we all share, she does so to wring out the political implications of these problems, not to directly apply them to this or that claim about beauty or art. This makes us ask why we should write anything about Arendt and art at all.
One way in is through Arendt’s philosophical anthropology: her description of the human being as “homo faber.” Homo erectus stands upright; homo sapiens thinks; homo faber makes. Homo faber uses tools to create things. They transform the material available to them into a world full of objects fit for use based on an idea of what the final product should be like and how the world ought to be. Arendt thought that art was the highest kind of activity that homo faber is capable of.
The art made by homo faber is a record of how we remember and understand ourselves. It is how we pass our memory and shared experience of the world down through the generations. This gives us mortals a taste of immortality, since the art that is produced lasts far longer than the people who created it or look at it ever will. This is intimately connected to politics for Arendt. Art is art because it appears in public, showing up in our shared world, just like what we say and do when we act politically. Political speech and action can only have lasting power if the world these words and deeds appear in has a lasting meaning that comes before them. This is what art provides. But this still doesn’t tell us why we should make so much of Arendt’s understanding of art, since it is just one facet of her description of what human beings are and do.
There’s something else worth exploring here. Something less immediately obvious. We’re not just looking for times when Arendt discusses what art is in general or her explorations of how human beings work on and judge things. Nor when she refers to classic works of literature or great authors of the past or her present. These are relevant and worth writing about, as are the artistic implications of her thought even when it isn’t about art. This can and will, however, take place in the light of Arendt’s allusions to modern art.
At one point, Arendt writes that modern art is, along with modern developments in science, “the greatest achievement of our age.” And she goes on to describe the “astounding recovery” of art in the twentieth century compared to the kitsch of the years before it. These comments alone justify a wider discussion about Arendt’s understanding of art, opening up a series of important questions.
Arendt wrote that the “innermost story” of the modern age can be told by the periodic upheavals led by political revolutions. Her comments about modern art suggest she thinks that the artistic revolution of modernism has done something similar. They suggest that Arendt — this thinker of how we understand the past and build the future — has much to say about how the art of her century marks a radical break with everything that had come before it.
We can, however, ask what Arendt means not only by “modern art,” but by “our age” in art and culture — when she thinks it begins, which great works, figures, and ideas mark its progress, and who else fits into it. Then we can ask if and how Arendt’s understanding of artistic development fits with those of politics and philosophy, and whether she thinks art reflects, distorts, complements, or contradicts them, or something else. But, since she does not tell us, and only rarely names specific artists or movements, we will have to work this out for ourselves.
The point is not to speculate about how Arendt herself would have responded to the art of the recent past or present, even though she said nothing about specific artists or their works. Monet, Manet, and Van Gogh were, of course, all working in the decades just before Arendt started studying and writing; Picasso, Jackson Pollock, and Andy Warhol, and so many more, were her contemporaries. Rather, the point is to think about how we can think, write, and talk about art in conversation with Arendt. It is to respond to the art of our age by drawing on Arendt’s insights, and to respond to Arendt’s thought with the art’s insights in turn.
To do this, we can take up two modest aims with potentially very interesting consequences: On the one hand, we can provide people interested in Hannah Arendt and in art with insights into both, including refreshing and perhaps unexpected takes for those who might not turn to Arendt as a source for reflection on art. On the other hand, we can suggest a healthy mix of works and objects to look at and think about: examples from modernism (and before it) that readers may well know about, and contemporary art, which is often inaccessible and misunderstood by the public.
Arendt’s thought takes us to the places where we speak and act politically: the agora, polis, senate, and modern spaces based on them. There’s no reason why it can’t also describe the places where art appears: the studios where it gets made, the academies where it gets taught, the salons, galleries, and museums (and theatres, cinemas, and other public venues) where it is displayed, appearing in the world for all to see. We can and will visit these places, and so many others, like thoughtful flaneurs. We’ll find that Arendt’s thought may well help us pick the lock of a treasure chest of culture held in common by all of us. And all for the love of the world.
For Richard J. Bernstein (1932–2022), who knew exactly what I was doing but let me find it out for myself.