Art and Freedom

The topic Art and Freedom could lead in a number of directions so I should begin by briefly indicating where I propose to take it.

I want to talk far less about individual works than about art in general – art as a specific form of human endeavour – and I want to ask if there is any intrinsic relationship between art in that sense and freedom – and if so what kind of freedom that might be.  Without wishing to sound too grandiose, I want, in other words, to approach the topic on a general philosophical level and see where that leads us.

I would like to do this via three different approaches to the philosophy of art.

The first is what is often called ‘analytic aesthetics’ which, as the name suggests, is an offshoot of analytic philosophy.  As you probably know, analytic aesthetics is the dominant school of aesthetics in the English-speaking world and has been for several decades now.  It is a school of thought with which, frankly, I have very little sympathy, but it is one which, in view of its semi-monopoly of the aesthetics airwaves, I don’t want to ignore.

The second approach, which dwells in a different corner of the philosophical world, is the aesthetics of what is sometimes called ‘critical theory’ or the Frankfurt school, and includes names like Adorno, Walter Benjamin and others.  Once again, this is a school of thought which holds little attraction for me, but which again, I don’t want to ignore. 

And finally I would like to say a few words about the significance of freedom in the theory of art of the French writer, André Malraux, and those of you who know me won’t be surprised to learn that he will be the hero of my little tale.


I will begin with analytic aesthetics.  Now, it’s interesting to note that there are a number of topics which one might consider to be very relevant to art about which this school of thought has little or nothing to say.  It has virtually nothing to say, for example, about the relationship between art and the passing of time – that is, in what sense, and why, art might be said to endure.  It has very little to say about the meaning of creativity in art.  It is very coy indeed about the relationship between art and history.  And interestingly for present purposes it has almost nothing to say about possible links between art and freedom and one can comb through textbooks on analytic aesthetics as assiduously as one likes without finding any significant discussion of the topic.  

Why is this?  Well, to see why I think we need to take a step back for a moment and approach the matter on a somewhat broader front.

A feature of most modern theories of art is the frequent appeal to an abstraction called ‘reality’ or ‘the world’ – or sometimes ‘life’ or ‘human experience’.  If, for example, art is theorised as a form of representation, it is ‘reality’ or ‘the world’, or an equivalent of the kind I’ve mentioned, that is said to be represented.  If art is, as some maintain, a source of ‘knowledge’, then it is again ‘reality’ or ‘the world’ that it is said to give us knowledge about.  If, as some in the critical theory camp are wont to argue, art is ‘world disclosing’ then, as the phrase implies, it is ‘the world’ or ‘reality’ that is being disclosed. And even if, as some deconstructionists have argued, art is somehow trapped in its own web of language, it is still ‘reality’, or an equivalent, that language allegedly prevents it from fully grasping. 

Now, philosophers of art wage endless battles over what precisely is meant by terms such as ‘representation’, ‘knowledge’, ‘disclosing’ etc.  How exactly does art represent, they ask? What kind of knowledge does it provide? And so on.  But, curiously, while these battles rage on, there is one objective on the field of conflict that all the combatants seem determined to neglect.  This is the notion of reality or the world itself.  What, after all, does this bland, apparently innocuous, abstraction mean in the context of art? What ‘reality’ are we talking about? What is it like? What is it not like? Here we find that the two major schools of thought I’ve mentioned are strangely silent. The concept is certainly used – very frequently – but equally frequently it escapes anything resembling close scrutiny.  Analytic aesthetics will sometimes equate it with phrases such as ‘the world around us’ or ‘the actual world in which we live’ but we would surely not want to dignify phrases such as those by treating them as an analysis of the concept in question, especially since we are dealing with a school of thought prides that itself on its analytical rigour.

But, alas, truth, like murder, cannot be hid long!  And although analytic aesthetics rarely makes any explicit comment about the meaning of the concepts of ‘reality’ or ‘the world’ when it uses them, one does not really have much difficulty in seeing what implicit assumptions it is making when it uses them.  And this, if you will bear with me a little longer, is worth brief examination because I think it allows us to see why this school of thought – and remember we are speaking about the dominant school of aesthetics today – is so silent on the question of art and freedom, and on the other topics I’ve mentioned.

Like its parent discipline, analytic philosophy, analytic aesthetics adopts a view of reality which is, in my view, strongly beholden to science.  The reality with which the analytic philosopher prefers to deal is, I would argue, a strongly depersonalised reality.  Like the world of the scientist, it is a kind of ‘public’ world, a world which is not linked in any fundamental way to your experience or my experience but which constantly strives for an impersonal vantage-point, a vantage-point from which one can picture the world as a kind of ‘objective’ assemblage of people, things and events, owing as little as possible to what you or I might happen to believe or feel, and as much as possible to what one might regard as ‘neutral’, publicly demonstrable, fact.  You might of course ask what art has got to do with a world like that, and also why analytic aesthetics, as a study of art, might choose to inhabit it – and I think those would be excellent questions.  But equally, I think, one can readily see why the question of freedom, a deeply human question – which is surely emasculated if we uncouple it in any fundamental way from how you or I think or feel – might find such a world uncongenial if not intellectually suffocating.  Thus, I would argue, it should really come as no surprise to us that we can search long and hard in the textbooks of analytic aesthetics without finding any significant mention of the subject of freedom.  And the same is true of the other neglected topics I mentioned.  The relationship between art and time, the meaning of creativity in the context of art, and the relationship between art and history, are again, like art and freedom, topics with a strong human dimension – topics which seem likely to wither on the vine in the neutral, impersonal world in which this brand of aesthetics has chosen to live.  They are topics that analytic aesthetics, in my view, does not have the intellectual tools to deal with.   


This brings me to the second school of thought – the aesthetics of ‘critical theory’ or the Frankfurt school – and here the situation is rather different though, to my mind, no more satisfactory.

The first thing to note is that writers of this persuasion – and Adorno and Walter Benjamin are the two I am most familiar with – seem no more inclined than their analytic counterparts to think carefully about what they mean by the concept of reality in the context of art.  One again the concept is used liberally, and once again it plays a major role in the theoretical propositions that are advanced; but once again there is same disinclination to pause and ask: ‘What precisely do we mean by reality in this context?  Can we legitimately go on using the concept without any serious attempt to explain what we mean?

But as with analytic aesthetics, murder cannot be hid long and truth will out.  The practice of the critical theorists betrays their underlying presuppositions soon enough even though they don’t attempt to make them explicit.  In the vast majority of cases, it is clear that when writers of this persuasion refer to the ‘reality’ or the ‘world’ which art is said to disclose – ‘disclose’ is one of their favourite terms – they mean a reality of politics or history – an essentially collective reality.

Early in his Aesthetic Theory, Theodore Adorno, for example, writes that 

Tied to the real world, art adopts the principle of self-preservation of that world, turning it into the ideal of a self-identical art … It is by virtue of its separation from empirical reality that the work of art can become a being of a higher order…[i]

Now I do not claim to fully understand that rather enigmatic statement, but I do note that it relies heavily on concepts termed ‘the real world’ and ‘empirical reality’.  And I also note that Adorno places this statement under a heading that reads ‘On the relation between art and society’, which strongly suggests to me what the rest of his book seems to confirm – that when he uses terms such as ‘the real world’ or ‘empirical reality’ Adorno, like other thinkers of his school of thought, are usually thinking, as I have said, of a reality conceived in collective terms – a social, political or historical reality. 

So it’s not really surprising to find that writers of this persuasion, in contrast with analytic aestheticians, do discuss the subject of freedom quite frequently; but equally it’s not surprising to find that this is almost always done in terms of the role of art in social or political struggle.  Art does have a role in contributing to human freedom, the critical theorist argues, and that’s because it relates in some essential way to man’s existence as a social or historical being.  There are, of course, strong disagreements about how this occurs - whether, for example, so-called ‘high art’ is simply an instrument of bourgeois oppression, or whether, on the contrary, so-called ‘popular’ art may not act as a disguised instrument of oppression though a kind of cultural impoverishment.  I don’t propose to enter into these convoluted arguments, but simply wish to make the point that philosophers of art in this corner of the philosophical world do see a link between art and freedom, but that the issue is conceived in collective terms because the reality to which art is addressed is understood as a collective reality.

Now, I don’t have time to argue the matter in any depth but I believe that the assumption that art is essentially addressed to a collective reality is fundamentally mistaken.  There is an interesting scene early in Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma that takes place on the battlefield of Waterloo.  The novel’s hero, the young Fabrizio del Dongo, who is an ardent admirer of Napoleon, has made his way onto the battlefield to witness the clash of mighty armies, and perhaps even to fight for his heroic Emperor.  Hostilities have already begun when Fabrizio arrives, but strangely, the prodigious event he has come to see never materialises.  Instead, everything around him seems strangely random and confused, his attention constantly being caught by what seem minor and irrelevant details – like the dirtiness of the bare feet of the first corpse he sees, or the little black lumps of soil flung inexplicably into the air in a field nearby (kicked up, he realises soon afterwards, by enemy cannon shot).[ii] 

The scene, as one astute critic points out, is a masterly depiction of the elusiveness, from the point of view of the individual; of what one might conventionally call an ‘historical event’.  ‘When Stendhal describes Fabrizio searching for the battle of Waterloo and not being able to find it’, this critic writes,

Stendhal was expressing, in his own nimble way, one of the great insights of nineteenth century sensibility.  It was a flash of pure wonder at the utterly paradoxical relation between an individual destiny and whatever general significance might be attached to a 'historical event'.  In fact, it was the splendid illustration of a myth which no historical venture, and no amount of sophistry, has thereafter been able to obliterate from our consciousness….  The myth is about man and history: the more naively, and genuinely, man experiences a historical event, the more the event disappears and something else takes its place: the starry sky, the other man, or the utterly ironical detail….[iii]

Of course there are many works of art which deal with historical events or social struggles, with varying degrees of success.  But that is a very different question from whether art is by its nature addressed to a reality conceived in collective terms – such as the Battle of Waterloo – with capital letters.  As I say, I don’t have time to argue the point further but I believe that art in all its forms is essentially addressed to what the critic I have just quoted calls ‘genuine and naïve experience’ – naïve in the sense that it is what the individual really experiences, not what he might, if he allows himself to be persuaded, merely claim to experience.  In other words, unlike writers of the critical theory school, I believe it is a mistake to assume that the reality which art addresses is fundamentally social, political or historical in nature.  If art does have something valuable to say about freedom, and I will argue in a moment that it has, it is not about freedom understood in collective terms.  Social and political theory, and of course history, may tell us a lot about that subject.  But, it is not, in my view, the true province of art.


I have left myself very little time to talk about Malraux.  For those of you for whom he is not a familiar name I should perhaps explain that in addition to a series of novels and other works, Malraux wrote extensively on the theory of art, and he offers us, in my view, an understanding of art which is both revolutionary and extremely enlightening.  In the few minutes left I won’t attempt to offer any general summary of his thinking but will just make some quick points which are relevant to the issues I’ve been discussing.

First, unlike analytic aesthetics or critical theory, Malraux recognises clearly that he needs to deal explicitly with the reality to which art is addressed.  Thus, for Malraux, the reality in question is not some vaguely defined ‘world in which we live’ nor some vaguely defined collective reality.  All art, he argues, is fundamentally the individual’s response to a metaphysical reality.  ‘Metaphysical’ is a notoriously elusive word, so what does it mean in this context?  The reality to which art responds, Malraux argues, is ‘the fundamental emotion man feels in the face of life, beginning with his own.’  That emotion is our underlying sense of the arbitrariness and contingency of all things.  It is the fundamental awareness, known to each of us, Malraux argues, that all the myriad forms of life, including the most banal and unremarkable, seem to have no fundamental reason for being the way they are, or indeed for being at all.  It is an awareness of the world, similar to that addressed and combated in different ways by the major religions of the past, as boundless chaos in which everything, including man and all his endeavours, seems to be without the least significance.  

Art responds to this reality – this sense of fundamental insignificance – by creating another world, a rival world, ‘not necessarily a supernal world, or a glorified one’, Malraux explains, ‘but one different in kind from reality’. Different in what way?  Different, he argues, because metaphysically unified.  Different because the worlds it brings into being are constructed solely of elements that, unlike those of mere, given reality, are the way they are, and are present, ‘for a reason’.  Art, Malraux writes, creates a world ‘scaled down to man’s measure’.  It ‘wrests forms from the real world to which man is subject, and makes them enter a world in which he is ruler.’

Now all that is rather rushed and abstract.  But essentially those are the foundations on which Malraux’s theory of art rests and from them flow all kinds of fascinating and revolutionary implications which I do not have time to explore.  I will, however, say something about the notion of freedom that flows from this thinking and explain very rapidly why, for Malraux, art and a particular kind of freedom are intrinsically linked. 

The clue is contained in his statement that art ‘wrests forms from the real world to which man is subject, and makes them enter a world in which he is ruler.’  In the closing stages of The Voices of Silence, one of his major works of the theory of art, Malraux briefly discusses Sophocles’ Œdipus and writes that

In those dark regions that the spectator of Œdipus is invited to explore, what fascinates him more than the vengeful satisfaction of seeing kings rolled in the dust is the simultaneous consciousness of human servitude and man’s indomitable capacity to make this very servitude testify to his greatness. 

For when the tragedy is over, Malraux continues,

the spectator decides not to put out his eyes but to see it again; for when he sees the Eumenides foregather on the rocks of the Greek theatre, like the man who sees an image of the Crucified Christ, or a painted portrait or landscape, he senses, even if obscurely, that man has intruded into a realm in which he had previously been without significance – that consciousness has intruded into the realm of destiny.[iv]

The term ‘destiny’ is Malraux’s shorthand for that element within ‘the fundamental emotion man feels in the face of life’ that conveys a sense of man counting for nothing – the individual’s sense of being nothing more than flotsam in a universe of chaos.  Thus, he is arguing, although the play Œdipus tells a tale of unremitting misfortune – of man as hapless victim of forces beyond his control – the spectator chooses to see it again (and not to yield to despair) because, despite the bleak image of a man crushed by sorrows, its portrayal by Sophocles – its incorporation into the realm of art – seems to crush something more important: the sense of belonging to a blind, chaotic universe in which man is of no consequence.  This play, like all works of art, gives the spectator a sense that destiny in the sense Malraux is using the term has been resisted and that, in Malraux’s words, ‘man has intruded into a realm in which he had previously been without significance.’[v]

Art – true art – is thus inseparable from a particular kind of freedom – a metaphysical freedom.  Art is a revolt against, or escape from, destiny in the sense that, in the place of a chaotic world in which man has a sense of utter insignificance, the artist creates, and the audience then experiences, a rival, coherent world ‘scaled down to man’s measure’ – a ‘humanised’ world to borrow a term Malraux occasionally  uses.  Art Malraux writes, in a famous phrase, is an ‘anti-destiny’ not of course because it can alter the ‘sorry scheme of things’ in which man finds himself but because it creates a rival world which man recognises as his own, even if, like that of Œdipus, it is one of unremitting disaster.  As Malraux phrases the point it is ‘the replacement of destiny undergone by destiny mastered.’[vi]  For Malraux then, if we are speaking of art, freedom is not a non-subject as it is for analytic aesthetics, nor is it an idea that has wandered into the realm of art from social and political theory; it is an intrinsic characteristic of art – indeed one of its fundamental characteristics.

[i] T.W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. C Lenhardt (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 6.

[ii] Stendhal, La Chartreuse de Parme, Stendhal, Romans et Nouvelles (2) (Paris: Gallimard, 1952), 59-65.  Fabrizio says to one of the French sergeants, ‘Sir, this is the first time I have been present at a battle.  But is this a real one?’  (p.65)

[iii] Chiaromonte, "Malraux and the Demons of Action," in R.W.B. Lewis, ed., Malraux: A Collection of Critical Essays, (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1964), 98,99.

[iv] Malraux, Les Voix du silence, Ecrits sur l'art (I), 886.

[v] In La Psychologie de l’art, Malraux uses Œdipus to make the same point but he also includes another example.  He writes: ‘What kind of hold does the novel exert on us?  For a real, living Anna Karenina the events Tolstoy describes would be undergone.  For the reader, despite a tendency to put herself in Anna’s place, they are mastered.  The difference between life and its representation in art is the suppression of destiny.’ André Malraux, La Psychologie de l'art: La Création Artistique (Paris: Skira, 1948), 144.  Malraux’s emphasis. 

[vi] Malraux, L'Homme précaire et la littérature 274.  In French : ‘La littérature apporte, au plus haut degré, la substitution du destin dominé au destin subi.’

This short paper was delivered at a  conference on 'Freedom' at the Australian National University in July 2007.

'... there are a number of topics which one might consider to be very relevant to art about which [analytic aesthetics] has little or nothing to say.'

'The concept [of reality] is certainly used – very frequently – but equally frequently it escapes anything resembling close scrutiny.'

'...it should really come as no surprise to us that we can search long and hard in the textbooks of analytic aesthetics without finding any significant mention of the subject of freedom.'

'... the assumption that art is essentially addressed to a collective reality is fundamentally mistaken.'

'... unlike analytic aesthetics or critical theory, Malraux recognises clearly that he needs to deal explicitly with the reality to which art is addressed.'

'Art, Malraux writes, creates a world "scaled down to man’s measure"...'

'Art – true art – is thus inseparable from a particular kind of freedom – a metaphysical freedom.'