Some Thoughts on Art

I finished reading Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club last week. If you have any interest in the evolution of American thought, social, economic, philosophical, jurisprudential or otherwise, then I highly recommend it; Menand is one of our greatest authors and critics (he’s a staff writer at The New Yorker), and The Metaphysical Club is one of the most informative and entertaining books I’ve had the pleasure to read. The overriding philosophical concept discussed is Pragmatism, American philosophy’s most eminent contribution to the field. Like in all systems of philosophy, interpretations of Pragmatism and its application to different branches of philosophy are many and opposed. So, in order to avoid that quagmire (which would only be complicated by my ignorance), and because my point today is only a shaky extrapolation of Pragmatism, I’ll just offer my own, imperfect interpretation.

Why do we choose to believe one ‘truth’ over another? The patron saint of Pragmatism, as it were, was Charles Darwin. The originators or Pragmatism (Charles Peirce, William James and later John Dewey) took the notion of natural selection, of chance variations that, depending on the oscillations of circumstance, become more or less effective for a being or community of beings, and applied it to belief in general. To borrow Menand’s example, long-beaked birds thrive when nuts are soft and under the soil, but they’re at a disadvantage when the nutshells are hard and above ground – then it’s the broad-beaked birds’ turn. Likewise, the relative ‘truth’ of a belief – its strength in the competing market of beliefs – depends on how practical it is at the time. Only once an idea can assert itself, once it can make itself supreme among other, rival beliefs, does it become accepted as ‘true’.

The reason that science has become prominent (for some) isn’t because it’s fact, but because there are qualities to it – that measurements are taken, that the same experiment can be recreated and achieve identical results – which are more attractive than the qualities of faith. When ‘shopping’ for an idea, demonstrability and precision are attractive assets. Why do some people reject apparent ‘facts’? Because they find that the alternative is more convenient to the way they want to live their life. If you asked an antebellum Southerner why slavery was admissible, he might give any number of reasons, but the basis is likely that he already owned slaves. His livelihood depended on slave labor. Therefore, slavery was ‘right’. We applaud the Abolitionist for opposing slavery. But for all his claims of inalienable rights, he was in a much different position than the Southerner, a position that allowed him to reflect freely on and promote the concept of liberty. The Civil War was the manifestation of two ‘rights’ struggling for primacy.

This theory of belief is fresh heaven for the philosopher of art. Taste is a belief, after all, a mutable belief that alters, individually and collectively, according to era and opinion. New trends in art find their champions and detractors, a battle ensues, and one camp emerges victorious. A favorite work of art falls out of favor (or gains favor) when our reasons to appreciate it are conquered (or reinforced). This aesthetic contention has certainly been treated more expertly and thoroughly elsewhere (probably in John Dewey’s Art and Experience, although I haven’t had the chance to read it yet), so I’ll just finish with a scratch on the surface.

One of the most negatively enlightening conversations I’ve ever had was with a friend around the time of the release of Brokeback Mountain (2005). This friend is intelligent in the traditional sense: well-educated, well-traveled, well-spoken, and with an apparent interest in popular and scholastic culture. However, she had no intention to see Brokeback Mountain. Gay cowboys, she explained, at the time the movie was set, did not exist. The basis of the story was a lie, so what would be the point of seeing it?

I try to be tolerant of ideas different than my own, and yet this remark was so utterly stupid on so many levels. However, for the purposes of our discussion, let’s isolate what she, in effect, expressed only in regards to her taste. She did not believe in the premise of the movie, and therefore she did not feel compelled to see it. (Perhaps her rejection of gay cowboys was a symptom of her rejection of homosexuality in general.) If we can apply that rationale to her habitual approach to art, then we can assume that she doesn’t want to be exposed to art that exemplifies beliefs (gay cowboys exist and are ‘right’) which do not correspond to her beliefs about life (gay cowboys don’t exist and are ‘wrong’). This is, unfortunately, a very common way to approach art.

Always be suspect of propositions like the following, but let’s say that one can choose to experience art and appreciate it (taste) for one of two reasons: (a) the artwork confirms one’s beliefs, or (b) the artwork calls one’s beliefs into question. (In great works of art, this effect is often subtle.) I would say that the latter is the more noble of the two, but there’s nothing ignoble about the former unless it’s adhered to absolutely.

What metaphor is older than art as a mirror? If we accept it, then each work of art offers a glimpse of ourselves and our world. Certain consumers of art only look briefly and confidently at their familiar reflection, and they avoid doubtful mirrors altogether. Happy in their beliefs, they see no reason to question them. Others seek out the doubtful mirrors. They might return to the familiar ones, but not to be flattered – just to get a nice, long look at what is reflected.

Self-affirmation is one usage of art. I consider it an abuse. But all I can do is consider it so. The alternative, of course, is war.

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~ by ohkrapp on July 29, 2008.

One Response to “Some Thoughts on Art”

  1. […] Some Thoughts On Art […]

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