By Isaac Butler
Art makes us more human. Fiction increases empathy. Music awakens us to the beauty of the world. Genre allows us to explore politics while keeping the audience entertained.
Perhaps you’ve heard—or, if you’re me, written and said—some variation of the above over the past decade or so. Those of us who care about art, about culture, about the wondrous creations humans can get up to when they set their minds to it, have said something along these lines at some point. We’ve had to make the case for pursuing the arts, or caring about them so damn much, around the dinner table, or in letters to our elected representatives justifying the spending of millions of dollars on what often amounts to a bauble for the wealthy.
In light of yesterday’s torture report, it’s worth asking whether or not we’ve been lying to ourselves. After all, we are in the midst of the Golden Age of Television. The most popular artistic medium in human history is at the pinnacle of its creative abilities and achievements. Did this make us more human? Did this increase our empathy? Did this allow us to explore politics in an interesting way that transformed us?
Music is one of the oldest art forms there is. And music was used to torture people. The complicity—witting and un—stretched even to beloved anti-Bush comedian Jeanane Garofalo, whose voice over formed part of the “torture playlist.”
As I survey my twitter time line, filled with announcements of people’s pretty book covers and episode recaps of the Sons of Anarchy final season, I’m crushed by a sense of pointlessness. But that weight doesn’t lift when I look at more “serious” endeavors. It doesn’t feel, particularly, like the work of Harold Pinter, one of the most searingly humane playwrights to ever live, matters when it can be politely applauded in the theaters of a nation that froze people to death in a place nicknamed The Salt Pit. Poetry, often mentioned as an antidote to more market-based arts, feels equally inadequate. Seemingly only read by other poets, and only written for them, poetry feels completely useless regardless of its form, or content, or venue.
My own work fares no better. As a writer I am obsessed with competing truths, I write about this all the time, yet what does competing truth matter in the face of the truth of “rectal feeding?” It doesn’t. It can’t. Sometimes, for all my postmodern adoration of subjectivity, there is one truth.
David Foster Wallace thought that the purpose of art was to make us feel less lonely. I can’t think of a single writer whose work mattered more to me during the Bush years than Wallace’s. He ended his career—and his life— as a moralist. His work made thousands of people feel, including me, more alive to the world and each other, less lonely. America made us all, including him, sidekicks to evil.
I’ve read and loved the words of James Baldwin. I’m writing this on a computer made by slaves. A computer whose high cost—totally tax deductible, since I am a writer—I have complained about multiple times.
Perhaps, then, the poptimists are right. Perhaps surface pleasure is the highest goal art can attain. Perhaps shallowness and a brazen relationship to the market are to be lauded instead of condemned. At least Pharrell isn’t delusional. He knows what he is, a salesman. And what he’s selling is that happiness is a truth.
Poptimism is just rejoicing in our complicity because it is inescapable. It posits fun in the face of the unchangeable as surely as the dadaists reacted to the very sane madness of WWI with nonsense.
I do believe that the deeper virtues and pleasures of art, the ones beyond the surface sheen, are valuable. They just might also be worthless.