Friday, November 04, 2005

Beauty and Goodness.





There is much disagreement in Western philosophy concerning the role and importance of art in a full or rich human life. I think that this debate is worth considering for a moment, since I have been engaged in discussions of literature and aesthetics over the past several days.

It should not be forgotten that every philosophical topic or issue that I discuss in one of these eletronic journal entries merits much greater analysis and exploration than I can possibly provide in this setting. As Santayana would say, I am merely "dipping my finger in the pie." No Freudian observations please.

Nothing would please me more than to encourage people interested by something that I say, in any one of these posts, to read a book by one of my heros (or heroines): Harold Bloom, Peter Ackroyd, George Steiner, Terry Eagleton (when he is not abusing Americans), Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis, Gore Vidal (we must bow when speaking his name), Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Iris Murdoch, Alison Lurie, Germaine Greer, John Updike, Jonathan Franzen, Jose Marti, Carlos Fuentes, Erica Jong, James Baldwin, Cornel West and Marina Warner are among the names that will turn up in these discussions, sooner or later. All of them know more than I do about most things and are better writers. My goal is only to interest you in the issues.

So is there a connection between art and ethics, beauty and goodness?

I would like to think so. On the other hand, after the Holocaust, I am not so sure that we can say so with great confidence. Theodor Adorno's question hangs in the air: "How can one write poetry after Auschwitz?"

I think that we must write poetry after Auschwitz if we are to retain our sanity or preserve such ability to cope with evil as we may possess. The two polarized positions may be characterized, very roughly, as the views that: 1) there is no connection between the degree of a person's civilization or artistic sensitivity and awareness, that is, education in the arts and what that person will do in extreme circumstances; or 2) the claim that there is such a connection, so that great art makes us better persons.

George Steiner comments on the man who listens to Bach in the evening, reads Goethe in the morning, and then goes to his job in a concentration camp. Iris Murdoch and others -- including George Santayana, in an earlier generation -- speak of the capacity of all great art to direct human attention towards the "mysterium" of love and goodness. In the tradition derived from Plato, by way of Kant and the Romantics, "art elevates the spirit to the contemplation of lofty things, allowing us to achieve a transcendence of our particularities." All of this sounds like Oxford armchair stuff these days, especially to the millions coping with hunger and plague in the Third World, or even in the inner cities of the United States.

For Marxists, art is ambiguous. It may serve the purpose of, for example, a gift of candy to an injured child, distracting that child from the injustices to which he or she is subjected; or it may be a form of resistance when it becomes part of the social struggle for liberation. But this is to ignore the ways in which some of the best art is concerned with a spiritual liberation and not with transforming the world through revolution or altering the material conditions of people's lives.

I continue to believe, perhaps childishly, that the best art can heal and serve as a balm for our wounds in life, that there is a kind of catharsis in aesthetic experience. Both the artist and recipient of the work of art are enriched and healed by artistic communication. They are made better persons. I cannot say exactly how this happens, but I believe that it does.

It may be that art helps to cultivate or develop feelings in people. The capacity to accept and learn from emotional responses is crucial to a sane life or to wisdom. In America, especially in legal circles, feelings are feared as "subjective" and not amenable to "rational analysis or discussion," usually based on an archaic bit of moral epistemology that distinguishes sharply between facts and values, emotions and rationality. Many of these distinctions and antinomies are due for re-examination. Also, one cannot "bill" for one's "feelings," usually, which lawyers find distressing. I am sure that some lawyers manage to bill for their feelings, so that their compassion is only an "extra charge" at the end of the month. Law and the sexual services industries have so much in common.

I will leave the reader today with the words of two of my teachers and ask you to reflect on them. First, Santayana:

In what might be called classical philosophy, art meant command over instrumentalities and methods: it might be abused, but it was a moralist's duty to watch over it and see that it was directed towards the ultimate and harmonious service of the soul. Beauty, on the other hand, was one side of the ultimate good. Art was called fine or beautiful, in so far as it was directed towards this good: but a material work of art, or a method, had to be judged not only on this ground, but in view of all its effects. A beautiful work of art might be evil in that it flattered falsehood or vice; but to a truly refined taste only that could be wholy beautiful which was wholly attuned to the health of human nature. Now-a-days all this has been confused and lost sight of. In radical quarters beauty is not regarded as a good, but art is respected as expression -- but expression of what? You say of feeling. Swearing then would be art. [And much worse too.] ... "art," in the modern world, is a pure affectation and self-indulgence on the part of a group of ill-educated persons, who have no discernment of the good in any form, but only a certain irritability and impatience to put their finger in the pie.

And next, Germaine Greer:

As long as Shakespeare remains central to English cultural life, [English, but also American life?] will retain the values which make it unique in the world, namely tolerance, pluralism, the talent for visible compromise, and a profound commitment to that most wasteful form of social organization, democracy. To an outsider such lack of system may seem amorphous, disorganized, and even hypocritical; from within it is evident that such an inclusive mode can be no more inconsistent than life itself. The puzzle is to discover the intrinsic ordering principle in apparent disorder. Perhaps the reason the principle eludes so many is that they are searching in the wrong place; in the theatre of the beholder is the medium. The missing middle term in the Shakespearian proposition is our response. Without that there is and can be no argument.

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