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Tanner Lectures on Human Values: “Known and Strange Things: The Political Necessity of Art”

Fintan O'Toole, English; Lewis Center for the Arts; Fund for Irish Studies

November 10, 2022 · 4:30 pm6:30 pm · 101 Friend Center

University Center for Human Values

ABSTRACT: The relationship between democracy and art has shifted simultaneously in opposite directions. On the one hand, very few people still believe that aesthetic experience has a positive political value. Yet, on the other, democratic practice is increasingly saturated in performativity and the fictional narratives of identity. Ideas that once belonged to artists – provocation, invention and knowingness – are now the stuff of reactionary politics.

We need, therefore, to reassert the necessity of art for democratic citizenship. It is through art that we learn how to live at once in different time frames, as we must do if we are to come to terms with the climate crisis. The aesthetic experience engages with the past but does not pretend that is finished or complete. It creates mental spaces that are “neither here nor there/ A hurry through which known and strange things pass” (Seamus Heaney). It allows us to hover between states without having to land on the fixed terrain of absolutes. The democratic mindset is one in which this capability is embraced and we can behave as if we know who we are and what we are doing even while also knowing that we do not.

Lecture II: Negative Capability

Democracy cannot sustain itself without what John Keats called “negative capability” – the capacity to live with doubts, uncertainties and mysteries without having to impose apparent resolutions. The current crisis of democracy is rooted in the loss of this capacity and the insistence that contradictions are inherently intolerable. How can artists seek to restore it?

Fintan O’Toole
Columnist with The Irish Times and Leonard L. Milberg ’53 Visiting Professor of Irish Letters at Princeton University

Fintan O’Toole is a columnist with The Irish Times and Leonard L. Milberg ’53 Visiting Professor of Irish Letters at Princeton University. He is the winner of both the Orwell Prize for Journalism, the European Press Prize and the AT Cross Award for Supreme Contribution to Irish Journalism. He is currently working on the official biography of Seamus Heaney. He is a member of the Royal Irish Academy.

Born in Dublin in 1958, he has been drama critic of the New York Daily News, and The Irish Times and Literary Adviser to the Abbey Theatre. He contributes regularly to the New York Review of Books and The Guardian.

His most recent book, “We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland” was named Book of the Year in the 2021 Irish Book Awards.


Rebecca Solnit
Writer, Historian, Activist

Rebecca Solnit is the author of more than twenty books on feminism, western and urban history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering and walking, hope and catastrophe. They include “Orwell’s Roses”; Recollections of My Nonexistence;” “Hope in the Dark;” “Men Explain Things to Me;” “A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster;” and “A Field Guide to Getting Lost”. A product of the California public education system from kindergarten to graduate school, she writes regularly for the Guardian, serves on the board of the climate group Oil Change International, and just launched the climate project Not Too Late (nottoolateclimate.com).

Alexander Nehamas
Edmund N.Carpenter II Class of 1943 Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus, Professor of Philosophy and Comparative Literature, Emeritus at Princeton University

Alexander Nehamas is the author of “Nietzsche: Life as Literature;” “Virtues of Authenticity: Essays on Plato and Socrates;” “The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault;” “Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art;” and “On Friendship”.  He has translated, with Paul Woodruff, Plato’s “Symposium” and “Phaedrus” into English.  At Princeton, he chaired the Council of the Humanities, directed the Program in Hellenic Studies, and was the Founding Director of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts.  He has given the Sather Lectures at the University of California at Berkeley, the Tanner Lectures at Yale University, and the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh.  He has received a Mellon Foundation Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities, he was named a Commander of the Order of the Phoenix by the Greek Government, and he holds the Chair in the History of Philosophy at the Academy of Athens.

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Center for Collaborative History
Department of Anthropology
Department of Art & Archaeology
Department of English
Department of Philosophy
Department of Politics
Lewis Center for the Arts
Princeton School of Public and International Affairs
Princeton University Art Museum
Princeton University Humanities Council
Princeton University Public Lectures
The Program in Creative Writing at Princeton
The Program in Journalism at Princeton

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