FROM THE TIME OF SOCRATES' Phaedo to the present, misanthropy has been thought of as spoilt idealism: the flipside of generosity for Timon of Athens, of sincerity for Molièère's Alceste, of reason for Jonathan Swift's Gulliver, and so on. Misanthropy thus construed places one in a critical position between ''humanity and humans'' (Schiller). In contrast, Chris Burden's work leads us to see the misanthropy fundamental to and constitutive of the very conception of art. For instance, through its erasure of the line commonly drawn between symbolic and real violence and through the uncertainties, equivocations, contradictions, and overdeterminations it evoked, the performance he titled 747 represented art's undoing of humanity, its drive to betray what Samuel Beckett called ''anthropomorphic insolence,'' or whatever may be thought of as properly human desires, intentions, and concerns. Similarly, through The Other Vietnam Memorial (1991) Burden drew out the fierce misanthropy in Maya Lin's beloved wall by reminding us of the names of the millions of Vietnamese that it symbolically and, in effect, violently erases. More recently,and perhaps even more controversially,the artist Dread Scott has followed Burden's example in a work titled (and dramatizing the equivoque in the term) Enduring Freedom (2002), a shrine based on those created in New York City in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks but devoted to the Afghan casualties of the war the United States is conducting in response to them. Using Beckett as one of his favored exemplars, Theodor Adorno directed attention to the aesthetic implications of misanthropy (even as he struggled to give them a utopian spin) when he remarked upon the Baudelarian ''spleen'' of art, without which it cannot be and with which it maintains ''a permanent protest against morality.'' Even though we continue to play it down whenever we try to discipline art into spiritual health by working some sense of responsibility into our theories of what it is, does, and has been, this disorienting protest is arguably the most ancient theme of Western aesthetics. Despite its so-called terrorist aspects, then, Burden's art is thoroughly traditional in emphasizing art's misanthropic appeal. A comparison on this score to literary works by writers such as Franz Kafka and Thomas De Quincey, to historical episodes such as the practice of ascetism among the fourthcentury ''desert fathers,'' to artworks by Caspar David Friedrich and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, to the films of Ingmar Bergman, and to the controversies over aesthetics that arose in the immediate aftermath of the events of 9/11 shows us why politics will be aestheticized, whether we like it or not. In other words, this analysis shows us why we cannot even begin to conceive of human justice without working through art and thus through the subject of misanthropy.

This content is only available via PDF.
You do not currently have access to this content.