Readers of Pascal will recall the famous passage about les deux infinis, the infinitely small and the infinitely great. Telescopes and microscopes revealed to Pascal’s generation dimensions of the universe either too large or too small to grasp through analogy with our own experience.
But the caveat that analogy with experience is not always conducive to understanding applies in the human domain as well as the natural. Although a phenomenon too minute for us to grasp is no longer experience but physiology, there are temporal and spatial horizons of experience beyond our own. The intuition that serves us well in our immediate interactions with others may be counterproductive in a broader context. Even if we retain faith, as Pascal did, that our moral sense is ultimately correct, we are too limited to see evidence for ultimate, transcendent developments. We must suffer through the middle term with no guarantee or even expectation that moral acts will be rewarded in the practical world.
The potential dissonance between shorter- and longer-term values is a central problematic of any social order. Our moral intuition is based on a model of face-to-face reciprocal relations. How does this model apply to interactions that take place in a social rather than an intimate context? That the masters of the economic and political institutions of society put the welfare of these institutions–which is also their own–above moral reciprocity fuels the resentment of those less favored. In the long run, this resentment moves human institutions, whether by evolution or revolution, in the direction of greater reciprocity. In the middle term, however, the social order must remain operative, moral or not. History is not always, nor even generally, made by nice people.
Older cultures took for granted the dissonance between public and private behavior. They considered that daily life unavoidably involved us in acts of pollution that had to be purged periodically through sacrifice. Pollution is not a synonym of immorality; its criterion is perceived danger to the equilibrium of desire that preserves the social order. Blood signifies violence and therefore uncleanness to the ritual mind, whether it come from murder or menstruation. Roman Catholicism adapts the sacrificial principle to the Christian moral context by redefining the impure as the sinful and requiring regular confession and penance. But the Protestant ethic is averse to the easygoing notion of unavoidable but delible corruption. It tells us rather that our every act, public or private, is divinely judged by the criterion of moral reciprocity.
Why is this uncompromising moral attitude, one that no society could fully uphold, more conducive to the spirit of capitalism than the traditional approach of pollution and purgation? Wouldn’t the entrepreneur work more efficiently in a less stressful moral atmosphere?
The superiority of the market system over the ritual order that purges corruption by sacrifice is that the latter fails to exploit the potential value of the moral tension between private and public relations. As the market system expands, it increasingly recycles private desires and resentments within the marketplace rather than treating them as impure and purging them by ritual means. The old sacrificial systems didn’t apologize to their victims; sacrifice, even human sacrifice, was presumed to bestow honor. The history of capitalism may well be filled with stories of greed and violence, but these are considered its failings rather than its glories. We are more sensitive to the market’s hypocrisies because we hold it to a higher standard, one that, as Michael Novak and others have pointed out, is essentially that of the Gospels. The connection between Protestantism and capitalism is less an innovation than the emergence, in a time of economic and technological progress, of the underlying homology between Christianity and the market system.
The thrust of the evolution of market society is to diminish the difference between reciprocal private and hierarchical public behavior. However far we remain from this goal, it is difficult to deny that we are moving toward it on many fronts. Yet in the cultural realm, we have never been less certain of the correspondence between immediate and long-term values. Creators have never been less concerned with posterity; the creation of immortal works, the common aim of previous generations of artists (remember the great American novel?), is no longer an avowable goal. As we speed toward the horizon of universal reciprocity, we are less and less sure of our cultural identity. As our moral intuition tells us more about human reality, our esthetic intuition seems to tell us less.
The reason seems clear. The more transcendent the sacred, the more permanent its incarnations. In ritual society, not merely artworks but everyday acts are “immortal” because they are consecrated by the long-term values of the social order. Conversely, the more our private experience becomes the source of public values, the less the creations that reflect the specificity of this experience can be expected to be relevant to posterity.
Need there be masterpieces in our era, in any era? We should expect that the more society facilitates the conjunction of private and public, the less its artistic creations will claim permanent significance. There is greater freedom in circulation than in incarnation. What the future will treasure in the present will no doubt be its transitoriness rather than its universality; if our creations attain immortality, it will be not as masterpieces, but as collectibles.
The Internet is only the beginning of a parallel universe of interactive communications that seems certain to make obsolete the traditional conception of a standalone artwork created for the passive appreciation of an audience. The moral reciprocity we reach for in the real world will no longer be accessible in the cultural domain through passive vicariousness. As the dissonance of public ethics and private morality is reduced, we can anticipate an ever-greater participation of the private spectator in the consecrating act of esthetic creation.
All art is virtual reality, a human-created world of experience that brings Pascalian differences of scale within the scope of our intuition. We understand this only today, when art’s reality has lost its sacred detachment from our own. The reduction of the dissonance between public and private relations signifies as well the breakdown of the separation between life and art, the mimetic crisis of our postmodern world.