j.-m.-bernstein

Max Beckmann, The Night, 1919 (Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf).

J. M. Bernstein writes:

The cruelty of abstraction, its cutting into the flesh of sensuousness in order to enact such sensuousness, engages us on the ground of our bodily mortality, which the reigning universals eclipse as a condition for meaning. The disturbance, distress, suffering of the material surface - just that - that these canvases perform (on and to us) are a way of calling back and voicing sensuous reality in its mortal coils, of recalling or inventing an experience of depth of transcendence that hangs on nothing more than our bodily habitation of a material world in which all things pass away.

Edward Hopper, Sun in an Empty Room, 1963 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

J. M. Bernstein writes:

The ideality of the involuntariness of modern love is formed in opposition to society’s requirements of willing, choice, work, in opposition to the idea that goods are consequences or the results of action (as governed by instrumental reasoning), and hence even in opposition to subjective interest and desire. Fidelity’s willing explicitly contradicts the presumed good of love’s involuntariness; but this good is betrayed even more by a lack of willing. If there is no fidelity to the good of love except through fidelity, then the good of love is sustained only by what explicitly opposes it. There is no direct path here. These aporiae of love bespeak the incommensurability and disequilibrium between activity and passivity in ethical life, a disequilibrium that echoes the duality between a morality of intentions (activity) and a morality of ends (passivity). Adorno’s result is negative: we know that ethical activity and passivity are out of joint, but we are unable to form a positive image of they are to be rejoined. Modern love thus comes to reiterate the dislocations of modern ethical life in the very gesture that originally made it appear as an antidote to them.

Edward Hopper, Office at Night, 1940 (Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota).

J. M. Bernstein writes:

[I]f an aspect of ethical objectivity is salvaged by the involuntariness of love, then this very fact bespeaks the formation of the idea of love as a protest and refuge. Thus when this same involuntariness becomes too insistent, too emphatic, a matter of right or principle, the loss of its moment of truth is threatened. Which is why Adorno believes that involuntariness can be what it intends only by the supplementation of the voluntariness – the exertion of will love opposes – represented in the notion of fidelity. Fidelity is the conscious willing of the involuntary relation, even when it is no longer involuntary. Love without fidelity becomes a plaything of pure chance: “Passive without knowing it, it registers whatever numbers come out in the roulette wheel of interests.” Pure or principled passivity would make love unethical, the demands or claims of feeling through its very randomness trumping the claims of the object as revealed through it.

George Grosz, The Eclipse of the Sun, 1926 (The Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington).

J. M. Bernstein writes:

What hibernates, what lives on in an afterlife in the modern arts, is our sensory experience of the world, and of the world as composed of object, things, whose integral character is apprehensible only through sensory encounter, where sensory enounter is not the simple filling out of an antecedent structure, but formative. Conversely then, what has been excised from the everyday is the orientational significance of sensory encounter, sensory experience as constitutive of conviction and connection to the world of things. The emptying of sensory encounter of orientational significance is our mortification.

Edward Hopper, Room in New York, 1932 (F. M. Hall Collection of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden, University of Nebraska-Lincoln).

J. M. Bernstein writes:

For us the involuntariness of love models ethical passivity, the sense that our responses to others can be awakened by them, and that their unique, nonsubstitutable being is sufficient to engender a fully particular response from us. Passivity captures an aspect of ethical objectivity in that it signals a fidelity to the object as opposed to the needs, wants, and desires of the self or to some extrinsic ideal norm, hence it is a fidelity that comes not from us but from the claims of the other. In its immediacy and feeling love presents ethical objectivity – our concern for the welfare, interests, and flourishing of the beloved – as heightened subjectivity, our deepest concern flowing from the sheer thisness of the loved one. For Adorno this is the moment of ethical truth in the bourgeois idea of love, a component of the value of loving and of what in loving is valuable.

John Brack, Subdivision, 1954 (TarraWarra Museum of Art).

J. M. Bernstein writes:

Again, Adorno’s judgment may appear both nostalgic and too harsh: who is he blaming for the fact that modern homes lack the grace, comfort, and human proportions of the “intolerable” homes in which he and his cohort were raised? Certainly he is not blaming us for living in such homes (if we do); nor is he blaming architects, builders, land developers (although there may be some blame to be apportioned here). The questions of blame and guilt, which so naturally arise in this context, are wrongly posed. Homes are the “arena” of private existence, their character inflecting the practices of “dwelling” that occurs in them. Hence, the stakes are again those of a practice and our relationship to it in virtue of a reflective grasp of the relevant factors that make it possible.

Howard Arkley, Riteroom, 1999 (Art Gallery of South Australia).

J. M. Bernstein writes:

Dwelling would be individually appropriate if its individual achievement could be wholly detached from its nonachievement by others; it would be socially substantial if my dwelling could be conceived as a component of a justly distributed social good. Neither condition is now met. In echo of Nietzsche’s comment that it was part of his good fortune not to be a home-owner, Adorno considers his “suspended” stance answerable to a new moral requirement: “not to be at home in one’s home.”

Edward Hopper, Summertime, 1943 (Delaware Art Museum).

J. M. Bernstein writes:

“In betraying the loved one,” as one’s feelings spontaneously change and take a new object, entails love, in its spontaneous ethical claim, “betraying itself.” In contrast, fidelity self-consciously holds the judgment of love in place against the arational spontaneity and immediacy of the feeling of love. This is not to assert that fidelity is an unproblematic virtue, as if it were not imposed by society as a way of keeping the anarchy of human emotions in order, and keeping the latent conflict of interests between lovers or husbands and wives from issuing into open competition: “The fidelity exacted by society is a means to unfreedom, but only through fidelity can freedom achieve insubordination to society’s command.”

Howard Arkley, Superb + Solid, 1998 (Art Gallery of New South Wales).

J. M. Bernstein writes:

[I]n the face of a world where there are “intolerable” residences of the past, blank estate or tract housing that reduces the idea of a home to sheer utility (even though we necessarily invest more), and deceitful period-style homes, in a world where the choices available each token injustice and either ignore the human needs of their inhabitants or satisfy them on the basis of deceit and illusion, Adorno suggests the best mode of conduct is an “uncommitted, suspended one: to lead a private life, as far as the social order and one’s needs will tolerate nothing else, but not to attach weight to it as something still socially substantial and individually appropriate.”