The Landscape of Humanity: Art, Culture and Society, by Anthony O’Hear

The Landscape of Humanity: Art, Culture and Society,

by Anthony O’Hear,

Imprint Academic, 2008, £17.95.

The Landscape of Humanity is a philosopher’s response to the nonsense of the current world. It covers architecture, culture and politics. Anthony O’Hear is less bemused than the rest of us about a world in which, for example, gallery curators ask us to gaze in aesthetic wonder at discarded nappies, Chris Ofili’s Madonna surrounded with elephant dung, Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, Robert Mapplethorpe’s remarkable excursions into the photographic iconography of gay life, and other such exhibits, as if these remarkable objects stood in some line of descent from Botticelli, Vermeer and Monet. Where, when you need him, is the impertinent child who could recognise nakedness when all the fools around him were nodding approvingly at imagined genius?

Such items, Sir Nicolas Serota affirms, are “challenging and transgressive”. In this critical role, the argument goes, they make us realise deep things about life and society, things which in our shameful bourgeois way we would prefer to hide. O’Hear cites another philosopher, Arthur Danto, who describes feminist art as “disturbational”—which is close enough in tone to “masturbational” to hit the nail on the head.

The interesting point Danto was making emphasises the slide in meaning which, in lurking behind such things as a Museum of Women’s Art, or exhibitions of Jewish Painting, reveals what is going on. In the past, such names signified merely art that happened to have been created by women, or Jews. It has now come to mean art that arises from, and expresses, the supposed experiences of these groups, something that assumes that we all experience the world as categories. Art thus became “interested”, a reflection of a partisan situation.

Anthony O’Hear stalks these implications by bringing Kant into play, and especially Kant’s claim that the beautiful is both disinterested and universal. If Kant is right (and I think he is) then this conception of art sacrifices the universal to the particular, which is to say it abandons the aesthetic realm for the political. It no longer aims at finding beauty in the universal experience of human beings, but at expressing the political demands of some category. And most of these categories seem to be angry about something or other.

In this post-aesthetic world, all art is understood as the utterance of categories, and we must respond not to the beauty of the object but to its message. Most of the art of our civilisation over many centuries was Christian and would therefore be consigned to irrelevance by the new ideas. A crucifixion scene or a nativity is in this view robbed of its human universality and reduced to the parochial level of expressing the attitudes of Christians—but hey! what’s that to non-Christians? Milton and Dante also drop out of sight as purveyors of an outmoded message; indeed, there’s virtually nothing left of the past because everything expresses traditions no longer thought relevant to our concerns. O’Hear wants to save both the message and the beauty, and therefore rejects the Kantian aesthetic of disinterestedness.

The aesthetics of architecture raise different problems. O’Hear develops this point particularly in discussing functional architecture. The meaning of a building such as a church or a railway station, he observes, is not exhausted by the propositional content associated with it on any particular occasion. Like the hero of the Ayn Rand novel The Fountainhead, functionalist architects hate decoration. The aesthetic traditions are to be replaced by a problem-centred practicality. The project begins by attempting to predict what will be needed in the life of the school, office, apartment block or whatever else is being built. Such a project might seem to speak directly to the specific demands of whoever uses the building, but O’Hear observes that it is remarkable how inconvenient, indeed actually “unfunctional”, many such buildings turn out to be.

Such buildings have no style because they have no identity. There is no criterion of choice because (as in much moral life today) “the act of choosing itself becomes the criterion and basis of taste”. To create anything in some particular style is to have an identity, but today’s architects pride themselves on utilising any convenient selection of the options the past reveals to them. But a choice is not itself an identity, and it follows that no replication of a past style can be made without, as Baudrillard has it, irony. Yet we must observe that eclecticism laced with irony merely returns us to the everyday “utterance” our irony is designed to avoid. Universal irony defeats its own purpose.

A good deal of irony is, we may judge, the revelation of a wobbling identity, the attitude of someone who cannot quite be there, somebody who, as the French say, is not in his plate. And the fact is that functionalism, as the presiding criterion of modern architecture, turns out to be a failure. Buildings like everything human have lives of their own to lead, and people adapt to them in unpredictable ways. The result is that postwar Britain, for example, was littered with functionalist schools, tower blocks and council estates that rapidly turned into the slums of our time. There’s a tiny bit of amusement in the spectacle generated by blowing them up, but it’s a poor return on so much effort.

An ironist is someone who is saying something, and not saying it, at the same time. Irony is only effective if used in moderation, because the perpetual ironist is nothing, and nowhere. He can generate neither utterance nor act. And he finds himself in this condition of non-entity because he will not commit himself to being something particular. Identity is thus the idea that in many ways lies at the heart of O’Hear’s “landscapes”. His actual paradigm world is that of mid-twentieth-century philosophy, and populated by strong characters who were concerned not (as were their successors such as Rawls and Nozick) with normative issues, but with reality itself.

O’Hear’s political “landscape” contains figures such as Hayek, Popper and Oakeshott. He is deeply preoccupied with Popper, but in the end his sympathies lie with Oakeshott. Thus he is acute in pointing to the abstract rationalism of Popper’s view that any moral conviction a person may have must, in an open society, be “up for” critical discussion and revision. Such an entity is, as O’Hear remarks, “too thin a conception on which to base an individual life, let alone a community”. Indeed, any such Popperian paradigm moral agent would be someone hopelessly confused; that way, as James Thurber used to remark, madness lies.

To be a person is thus to be someone serious about what he says and does, and someone located in a community of some sort, the community itself being constituted by tradition. One might invoke Hegel’s insistence that to be real is to be limited—to be something in particular, rather than nothing very much in general. Much of what O’Hear is criticising is an attempt to evade this test of reality. Of the three political philosophers who concern him, he much prefers Popper to Hayek, because of Hayek’s “ineradical value pluralism”. The ultimate complaint is that neither Popper nor Hayek “is able to explain just which traditions and values we need as the framework for our liberal society”. They can’t explain this, of course, because both of them reject conservatism; they are liberal radicals, and Hayek thinks that conservatism is merely timidity. Bewitched by abstractions, they could never reach the concrete.

The third philosopher O’Hear deals with is Oakeshott, who certainly values the concrete, and is a famous foe of all forms of rationalism. He has, however, often himself been rejected because he does not accord religion a central place in his account of the state. Recognition of the importance of religious belief is central to O’Hear’s argument, but he does not criticise Oakeshott on this ground. He does, however, lack perfect pitch in expounding him. Oakeshott does not (as O’Hear thinks) identify the modern state with his concept of civil association, though he certainly thinks that the more a state becomes an enterprise, the less is it properly a state.

O’Hear tends to attribute to Oakeshott the same kinds of practical concerns as those found in Popper and Hayek. Oakeshott does not actually believe that “Politics ought to be [my emphasis] like a conversation between people united in history and tradition in which they explore the intimations of their tradition.” His point is rather that politics can be nothing else except “the pursuit of intimations”. The implementation of any program described in abstract terms depends on how such terms are connected to circumstances, and that can never, for logical reasons, be anything except indeterminate.

The example Oakeshott uses is female suffrage. Demanding votes for women was often justified by the unlikely assertion that humanity had quite suddenly awakened to a realisation of the natural right of women to participate in politics. Oakeshott thought that the reality was that in many respects, women in a modern society already played such an extensive social role that their exclusion from politics was itself the anomaly.

Modern politics deals in illusion, one might conclude, because it sometimes persuades people that some current justification of policy has something to do with the actual reason why politicians act as they do. As with all philosophers who tangle with what we whimsically call “the real world”, O’Hear is a student of illusion, a distinguished participant in our Quixotic search for a map of reality free of distortion.

Kenneth Minogue is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics.

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