The Limits of Art: Two Essays (The French List)

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9781906497620: The Limits of Art: Two Essays (The French List)
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Tzvetan Todorov, one of Europe’s leading intellectuals, explores the complex relations between art, politics, and ethics in the essays that make up The Limits of Art. In one essay, “Artists and Dictators,” Todorov traces the intimate relationship between avant-garde art and radical politics in pre-revolutionary Russia, pre-fascist Italy, and pre-Nazi Germany. Todorov sets forth the radical idea that the project of totalitarian dictators and avant-garde artists actually “emerged from the same womb”: both artists and dictators set out to make it new—be it art or society.

Further troubling the role of art in the world at large, in “Art and Ethics” Todorov re-examines the age-old question of what can be expected from art and whether it should be emancipated from ethics. Must art be morally instructive, or should it be self-sufficient and concept-free? The answer is not an either/or to Todorov, who believes, like Baudelaire, that art has both cognitive and ethical aspects to it—even if it is presented as art for art’s sake.

Throughout the essays in The Limits of Art, Todorov insists on the essential need for artists to recognize, understand, and even love the world outside.

“Todorov harbors no illusions about the mix of good and bad that enters into the fabric of all that is human. . . . He speaks throughout in his own voice, with rare breadth of sympathy and with a fine eye for the complexities of human experience.”—New Republic

“Like the authors he focuses on, Todorov is tolerant, understanding and wise.”—Observer

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About the Author:

Tzvetan Todorov is the author of The Conquestof America, Imperfect Garden, The New World Disorder, Memory as a Remedy for Evil,and Torture and the War on Terror,among others. Gila Walker has translated more than a hundred works from French, including texts by Jacques Derrida, François Julienne, Yves Bonnefoy, and Georges Didi-Huberman.

From Publishers Weekly:

These two incisive essays--explorations of the nature and function of avant-garde art, radical politics, and ethics--are mirror images. The first, the more substantive, explores how romanticism was turned on its head by the great dictators of the 20th century: Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin. Each exploited an uneasy coupling of art as individually liberating with his own brand of social theorizing. The artist-activist is epitomized by the pamphlets of Richard Wagner and their selective mutilation by Hitler. But the 20th-century roots of art, culminating in Nazi practices of eugenics, says cultural critic Todorov (The Conquest of America), actually lie with the founder of the futurist movement, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. With its "cult of novelty" and modernity, futurism even caught on with the Russians and that ultimate totalitarian promulgator, Stalin, who in turn recalibrated it all in the form of "socialist realism." The second essay is about how the 19th century manifested the first decoupling of art from morality. Moving from Kant to Poe, Baudelaire, and Wilde, Todorov centers on the reconciling insights of Iris Murdoch: art is inescapably an ethical activity. (Oct.) (c)
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