Five Questions with Dr. Simon Thornton: Art in the Age of COVID-19

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Ethan Yu

Contributing Writer

Dr. Simon Thornton is a postdoctoral scholar and lecturer in the Humanities and Social Change Center and religious studies department at UC Santa Barbara (UCSB). Last fall, he taught a course on Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger in relation to moral theory. He is currently teaching a class on the philosophy of art. He specializes in ethics and phenomenology and how the two can help us understand human powerlessness and finitude. In an interview with The Bottom Line conducted over email, Dr. Thornton answered a few questions about art in the age of a global pandemic through a philosophical lens.

Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

“Sunset, Mont Blanc” by Wenzel Hablik

1. What are your current research projects/interests and how have they been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?

“Recently I have been studying the works of two (fairly) contemporary American philosophers, Johnathan Lear and Stanley Cavell. Both of these thinkers seek to question the power we typically accord to our human capacity for reflection (note that they have philosophers in mind in particular). It is natural to suppose that it is possible for us to, say, get our contemporary situation in perspective by ‘stepping back’ and rationally reflecting on it. In this connection, it is often thought that philosophy and the humanities in general are valuable because they can help us gain self-knowledge and find a more profound connection with the world and others. In short, philosophical reflection [provides] us with a clear-sighted view of ourselves, the world, and others.

Lear and Cavell, however — each in their own way — challenge the extent to which reflection can afford us with a clear-sighted view of the facts of our situation. Rather, rational reflection can easily put in the service of non-rational ends; we have a tremendous capacity to unconsciously rationalize and justify beliefs and courses of action that sustain illusions we hold about ourselves, the world, and others. As Lear puts it, rational reflection can and often is “used as a defense, blocking the self-understanding it purports to deliver.” I think, generally speaking, that acknowledging the limits of rational reflection is more important now than ever.

But in addition to this I would like to note, during this pandemic, I have witnessed instances of the apparent failure of deep humanistic learning to provide the therapeutic benefits it is often said to provide. I know people who have devoted years to understanding and embracing the facts of human finitude; although theoretically, they become as good as paralyzed in the face of the current crisis. I have been tempted to ask, what good is philosophical and humanistic reflection if it cannot afford us with genuine clarity and insight about ourselves and our situation? I would like to respond: the very raising of the question constitutes its own answer.”

2. “Art is truth setting itself to work,” said German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, in his essay, “On the Origin of the Work of Art.”

Do you have a certain work of art, book, movie, painting, etc., that you have been thinking about lately that reveals something about the present age? 

“Heidegger believes that great artworks can help establish and reveal the implicit sense of reality, and the ethos through which a historical community understands itself and its world. Art, that is to say, has a creative function as much as it can work to set up a world of meaning … it also has a disclosive function … as it can “hold the age in thought.” In his essay, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Heidegger appeals to the example of a Greek temple in order to illustrate this point. The temple sets up (or, at least, helps to set up) a cosmos (the totality and significance of human exigency): the temple houses the Olympian gods … and the temple also provides a ‘site’ or a focal point which discloses or renders intelligible the cycles of life and death within a community.

For Heidegger, the way we experience art today differs markedly from the way he imagined the ancient Greeks experienced the temple. For a start, Heidegger believes modernity, in art and in life, to be much more focused on the individual subject than the ancient Greek world was. To this extent, Heidegger believes modernity to be comparatively impoverished.

In this respect, Heidegger’s views on art fall into broad agreement with those of another famous German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. In his first book, “The Birth of Tragedy,” Nietzsche celebrates ancient Greek tragedy, as represented in the work of Sophocles and Aeschylus, while lamenting the rise of what he sees as a technocratic and moralistic modernity. Modernity, on Nietzsche’s analysis, believes that the world can be accessed and known through reason, and it is optimistic; modern subjects believe that life is fair (if it is not, then it can be fixed) … it pays to be good and … doing the right thing will make you happy. But Nietzsche believes that these modern beliefs sustain a potentially disastrous illusion about the nature of human life. And he thinks that we must re-invent tragic drama in order to disabuse ourselves of this illusion.

I believe that Nietzsche’s discussion of tragic drama is particularly relevant amidst the contemporary crisis. Mass unemployment, untimely death, isolation, and the many other terrible consequences of the [COVID-19] pandemic must challenge our sense that the world is (or could be) just. And the difficulties we have experienced in responding to the pandemic must challenge our faith in the power of science (to find cures and to make accurate predictions). In other words, the current crisis may be confronting us forcefully with a sense of our own limitations and relative powerlessness. Tragic drama, on Nietzsche’s view, contains the resources to help us come to terms with this sense of powerlessness. Although I do not fully agree with Nietzsche’s harsh and pessimistic world-view on the whole, I do agree that tragic drama still has important lessons to teach us today.”

3. In an essay titled, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin writes, “the adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception.”

Many of us are now stuck at home reading books, streaming movies and TV, and listening to music mostly through digital means. Meanwhile, art museums, theaters, and concerts are being closed or canceled everywhere. What does this all say about the nature of art and how we consume it?

“In the essay you mention, which was written in 1936, Walter Benjamin considers the impact of the development of photography and film on the way we experience art. In one section, he interestingly compares the experience of seeing an actor on stage to seeing an actor on screen. In contrast to plays, in movies all evidence of the way the action is produced (technical equipment, for instance) is concealed. The spectators are ‘forced’ to concentrate on what the director (via the cameraman) wants you to concentrate on … and the screen actor is ‘cut off’ from direct access to the spectators, and so cannot respond to their mood.

These observations, it seems to me, are strikingly relevant to the experience of the exponentially increased use of video-conferencing apps, like Zoom, that many of us are going through. Through Zoom, we can curate how we look and want to be seen in ways that were not possible before (for instance, by using different backgrounds or deciding whether to turn on our camera or not). And it is much more difficult to gauge the mood of the group participating in a Zoom call. As many people have observed, this has given rise to a strange form of “Zoom fatigue.” Benjamin might be thought to offer an interesting diagnosis of this fatigue when he observes that:

‘While facing the camera [the screen actor] knows that ultimately he will face the public, the consumers who constitute the market. This market, where he offers not only his labor but also his whole self, his heart, and soul is beyond his reach. During the shooting he has as little contact with it as any article made in a factory. This may contribute to that oppression, that new anxiety which … grips the actor before the camera.’

There is an anxiety, that is to say, associated with the new, unbridgeable gap that has opened up between, say, teacher and student over Zoom. Uncannily, it feels as if we are learning both how easy it is to move many of our everyday activities online — and also how much is lost in the process.”

4. There’s a famous saying by philosopher, Theodor Adorno, that has somewhat gained a life of its own: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today.”

Is there something abhorrent about the idea of creating art during a time of unspeakable crisis? Is consuming art a kind of mass escapism in this day and age? Is it even productive to be contemplating on art right now? Or is Adorno wrong?

“Theodor Adorno held a famously austere view of art, and he was, with equal infamy, relentlessly pessimistic about the state of the world. In connection with the passage you quoted, Adorno asserts that:

‘After Auschwitz, our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims; they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victim’s fate.’

His comments on poetry have the force of imagining a murderer fleeing the scene, but stopping on the way to remark on the cuteness of a baby to its mother. It is not so much obscene as disorienting: how can this cold-blooded murderer be awed by the innocence of new life? For Adorno, Auschwitz signaled a qualitative change in the nature of what it means to be human. How can humanity, which commits genocide with technical precision, celebrate beauty? Notably, though, Adorno compares the case of Auschwitz, a manmade atrocity, with the experience of natural disaster:

‘The earthquake of Lisbon sufficed to cure Voltaire of the theodicy of Leibniz, and the visible disaster of first nature was insignificant in comparison with the second, social one, which defies human imagination as it distills a real hell from human evil.’

To simplify, a natural disaster may shake one’s belief in, for instance, divine providence, but a manmade atrocity such as Auschwitz may cause one to lose faith in humanity.

Here’s a relevant question in this connection: is what is happening now a disaster, a man-made atrocity, or both? It can be argued (putting certain conspiracy theories to one side) that the COVID-19 is a natural phenomenon, and so should be treated as such. But one may also wonder whether the conditions that made it possible for the virus to spread as ferociously as it has and the way in which we have responded to its spreading at various levels makes the matter less clear-cut. The extent to which Adorno’s harsh dictum on poetry holds for us now rests on working out this question. I won’t presume to make that judgment here.

Nonetheless, I do want to register a relevant experience I had recently. I was with my housemates watching some music-based TV fundraiser for the Coronavirus relief effort. At some point, amongst the performances of famous pop stars, there was a montage of really shocking footage of those working on the frontline, in hospitals. At that point, we all fell silent, and the mood changed. It felt as though it were somehow wrong of us to be enjoying the music, safe at home while so many are suffering and others are making sacrifices. But what can you do?”

5. What is the role of art during the COVID-19 crisis or crises in general?

“This is obviously a very big question, and I can’t hope to answer it here. But I will add a small comment or, rather, a challenge. Crudely, we might think of two roles for art in crises: the first is to edify, the second is to distract. In response to your first question, I poured some cold water on the idea that art, broadly construed (to include philosophical and humanistic reflection), might have an edifying effect. It might be the case that even our most earnest and genuine attempts to make sense of ourselves and our situation through philosophical and humanistic reflection will be just as ensnared by unconscious motives and biases as our most superficial reactions. In response to your fourth question, I suggested, a propos Adorno, that there is something obscene in letting oneself be distracted by art in a time of crisis. Clearly, both of these responses are overly crude. But I think that they nonetheless both contain germs of truth that we must confront theoretically in order to understand what role art may play during crises.

Notwithstanding these critical questions, however, I must report that in my experience art in some cases does seem to set truth to work, as Heidegger might put it. In this connection, and in relation to the contemporary crisis, I would recommend the following poem by Seamus Heaney (originally written in response to 9-11) for your reader’s consideration (Cf. Søren Kierkegaard’s “God is that anything is possible”):

Anything Can Happen

Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter

Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head

Before he hurls the lightning? Well, just now

He galloped his thunder cart and his horses

Across a clear blue sky. It shook the earth

And the clogged underearth, the River Styx,

The winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself.

Anything can happen, the tallest towers

Be overturned, those in high places daunted,

Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune

Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,

Setting it down bleeding on the next.

Ground gives. The heaven’s weight

Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle-lid.

Capstones shift, nothing resettles right.

Telluric ask and fire-spores boil away.

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