We Read Books has sparked its first Big Discussion (thanks to author Rob) about the role of art in society, from a use-, value- and morality- derived perspective.
Rob starts things off here. With a post about Rousseau's Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences. According to Rob, the key issue breaks down like this:
However, in general, what Rousseau describes as “moral” seems to be in congruence with tenets preached by most religions and philosophies of the world – that people should devote themselves to the reduction of suffering. And here we find the troubling issue with which every artist must grapple. As Rousseau says, “We do not ask whether a book is useful, but whether it is well-written. Rewards are lavished on wit and ingenuity, while virtue is left unhonoured.” The arts, according to Rousseau, are motivated by vanity, pride, the desire to please one another, and encourage a society obsessed with luxury.
To which, Herx responds with a post of his own here, taking a gander at John Gardner (author of Grendel amongst other things) has to say about the necessity of "moral" fiction, which is the hammer we use to fight against the circle of darkness threatening to destroy mankind. And George puts a plague on all our houses here where he writes:
Art has neither use nor morality. To posit that it is utile is to place the aesthetic experience on the perceptual level of yet another wrench in the toolbox that constitutes the utilitarian approach; to posit that it is moral is to abstract puritanical castles-in-the-air from the contemplation of the individual aesthetic object; worse, that these objects (including the body, or its activities) can be perceptible as good or evil.
Okay. Phew. Summing that up took awhile. Now for some some thoughts on my own.
Rob is correct when he writes that artists spend a lot of time trying to justify the usefulness to society of what they do. I think this is a mistake, as it will only lead to more pain. We should accept our uselessness from a practical perspective. Art is uselss. It resists the very idea of "use". You can't build a house with a play, nor will a painting help you beat the stock market.
But this is part of the beauty of art. We live in a society obsessed with "use". Everything must have a concrete commodifiable purpose and (with any luck) must lead to making money. Art resists and subverts this idea. What could be more useless than sitting in a room watching a group of people pretend to be something they aren't? What money is to be made in looking at a painting? None.
Useless activities, though, are extremely valuable, but valuable in a human-sense, not in a monetary/practical sense. We confuse use and value. They aren't the same. Art that exists to further a concrete purpose isn't really art, it's propaganda. Similarly, humans who exist solely to further a conrete purpose are, in fact, robots. Propaganda can be quite beautiful, and robots can accomplish a great deal, but there is more to art and humanity than simple purposefulness.
(I'm talking around the concept of valuable. I realize this. This is because I can't quite put my finger on a definition for the term. I know what it means when I use it, but I don't know how to express this meaning other than to continue using it. I apologize for vagueness, but sometimes words are inadaquate.)
How is art valuable? Let me suggest a few ways. First, as I've said above, it's useless. The useless activity is sometimes (for our humanity) the most important one. Reminding ourselves that there is more to us than fulfilling goals like a rat in a maze (no matter how lofty and moral a maze) is important. Second, art can suggest other ways of perceiving the world. The novel Perfume will make you pay attention to smell in a whole different way. Drumming will let you see the beauty in pattern and the musicality of rhythm. Third, through simple demonstration of the creative act, art makes more creation possible. When we gather together in a theatre, we see human beings creating performances, becoming other than what they are, this makes our own attempts to perform beyond ourselves more possible. When we see a painting, we see that creatively interpreting the world in ways other than our institutional understandings of it is possible.
I don't think art has to do any of the things listed above (that's where Gardner, in Herx's estimation of him, stumbles for me). I'm not interested in being proscriptive. But the art that I find valuable, beautiful, humane and interesting does these things. This is why I agree with Herx in not caring for A Clockwork Orange and why detailed, naturalistic sets and costumes put me off (when we don't allow the audience imaginative space, we don't challenge and invite them to be creative).
None of those things listed above is useful. It's not going to accomplish some social goal (getting people to join the army, for example, or to give money to the poor) nor will a concrete action result from it. That' sokay. Art is a gift, part of giving a gift is not having control over what people do with that gift.
I could go on and on about this... but this post is getting long, and I wanted to get some record (no matter how disorganized) of my thinking about this issue right now. Please, head on over to the various posts and share your thoughts, if you've got a moment. The more voices, the better.
UPDATE: More action over at WRB as I write a little piece on Oscar Wilde's Decay of Lying