cover image The Limits of Art: Two Essays

The Limits of Art: Two Essays

Tzvetan Todorov, trans. from the French by Gila Walker, Seagull (Univ. of Chicago, dist.), $15 (96p) ISBN 978-1-906497-62-0

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.)