David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Ernst Cassirer on Art Public and Private

The artist possesses the strongest will and the strongest capacity for communication. He cannot rest or repose until he has discovered the way to bring to life in others everything that lives in himself. And nevertheless it is just in this continual self-renewing flow of communication that the artist feels himself isolated and thrown back to the limits of his own I. For no individual work that he creates can capture the fullness of this vision that he bears within himself. Always a distressingly felt opposition remains: “outer” and “inner” never completely correspond. But this boundary, which the artist must acknowledge, does not become a limit for him. He continues to create, for he knows that it is only in his creations that he can discover and take possession of his self. He has his world and his true self only in the gestalt that he gives them.

In religious feeling, too, we find the same duplexity. The deeper and more inward it is the more it appears to turn away from the world and break all ties that bind man to man, to his social reality. The believer knows only himself and God; and he does not want to know anything else. “God and the soul I desire to know,” says Augustine, “Nothing else? Nothing at all.” And yet, with Augustine, as with every other religious genius, the power of faith proves itself only in the profession of faith. He must communicate his faith to others, he must fill them with his own religious passion and fervor, in order to become truly certain of this faith. This profession is possible only through religious images–in images that begin as symbols and end as dogmas. Thus, even here, every initial enunciation is already the beginning of a renunciation. It is the destiny and, in a certain sense, the immanent tragedy of every spiritual form that it can never overcome this inner tension. With the resolution of the tension the life of spirit would also be extinguished; for the life of spirit consists in this very act of severing what is, so that it can, in turn, even more securely unite what has been severed.

Ernst Cassirer, The Logic of the Cultural Sciences,” “Perception of Things, Perception of Expression”

Some thoughts:

  • This picture of the artist in society is a nice variation on Hegel without all his Whiggish baggage and rationalism.
  • The lack of correspondence of “inner” and “outer” is something not just confronted in art, but in all aspects of our lives.
  • Cassirer’s claim puts so-called folk art in an interesting position. When it is taken up by cosmopolitans, their appreciation for it is not for a pure or untainted version of artistic expression, but for someone who has tapped into a vein of public communication seemingly beyond their reach, and has done so without trying to or realizing it.
  • And so it pays to be suspicious of those who claim to be creating art “just for themselves.” I think Gore Vidal puts it best, below.

From the beginning of the United States, writers of a certain kind, and not all bad, have been bursting with some terrible truth that they can never quite articulate. Most often it has to do with the virtue of feeling as opposed to the vice of thinking. Those who try to think out matters are arid, sterile, anti-life, while those who float about in a daffy daze enjoy copious orgasms and the happy knowledge that they are the salt of the earth. This may well be true but Miller is hard put to prove it, if only because to make a case of any kind, cerebration is necessary, thereby betraying the essential position. On the one hand, he preaches the freedom of the bird, without attachments or the need to justify anything in words, while on the other hand, he feels obligated to write long books in order to explain the cosmos to us. The paradox is that if he really meant what he writes, he would not write at all. But then he is not the first messiah to be crucified upon a contradiction.

Gore Vidal, “The Sexus of Henry Miller”


  1. “Religious feeling” (if not necessarily “religious genius”) can be separated from prosyletizing. Cassirer describes only that subset of believers who feel compelled to make public witness, at least some of whom have expressed discomfort with the public aspects of their mission.

    “And so it pays to be suspicious of those who claim to be creating art ‘just for themselves.’” Beg pardon? The first paragraph you quote doesn’t mention audience reaction. For artists who aren’t just making a living, what leads to further creation aren’t bad reviews or bad sales but the continued gap felt by the artists between what they “sense” and what exists. Artists who are just making a living need to find such a gap: “Yes, we made Rio Bravo already, but not with Robert Mitchum playing the drunk.” In either case, at some level the work must be “just for themselves” if it’s to go on at all. What distinguishes writers who successfully publish / painters who sell through galleries from private writers / Sunday painters might be their idea of what “existence” entails.

  2. Not audience reaction, but the unavoidable fact that one is working in a community. I think where I disagree with your position is thinking of the artist as some isolated and unified figure, when any meaning or significance their work has is the product of a team effort, for better or for worse. Analogously, you can talk to yourself, but you still have to speak English (or whatever language of your choosing). Artists may perceive a gap, but as with so much mediocre art, perceived gaps are often a result of ignorance rather than genuine originality. When fate throws up some kind of genius or visionary who does offer something new, I think it owes to more than just the perception of that gap. Some get lucky and are born with it, while others scour the books of the world to synthesize something new, but in both cases, the gap follows that person’s already existing particular relationship to the world.

  3. Very clarifying. Thank you, Mr. Waggish.

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