Sunday, August 1, 2010

Questions of Value in the Arts

As I have said often before in various ways, the question of value in arts, letter, and humanities is one of the most important considerations both in the comprehension and evaluation of the world around us, as it admits of no easy answers.

It is in the very nature of fashion to tend towards extremes of all kinds, in part to create commercially viable "drama" that can win "mass appeal". Thus, if in the conservative past it was in vogue to regard works of art as hermetically sealed products that delivered us THE truth, uninfluenced by the grit of everyday life, in the "innovative" present it is in vogue to regard works of art as little more than windows into the changeable and unstable psyche of transient time periods, cultural expressions of balkanized and differentiated tribes, and as narrative myths created by psychoanalytic biography and personal prejudices. If, in the 1970s design was colored dishwater brown, out of sheer boredom, the 1980s must logically bring in garish teal and mauve. And so on.

Art at its best, and where it counts the most, is not as context dependent as the current fashion would have it (that is, the fashion that says works of art are but emanations of their culture). But art's raw materials are our personal and collective biographies. The end result - and all the arts have an end result, however process oriented they may appear - is more than its raw materials: it is something at times quite motley and wild. The higher its value, the more visits it repays, the less of its secrets will be revealed with a single, initial experience.

It is good to demonstrate all the sorts of ways we can go wrong with our misreadings in art as in life. By example we can learn. When a journalist whose expertise is politics and war coverage takes offense to a film about war because she cannot find in it a clear confirmation of that journalist's pacifist assumptions, said journalist cannot be said to have actually SEEN the movie in question, even if every frame was looked at and retained in memory.

The trouble - and the great promise - of works of art is that they have biases. They have points of view, and it is this, rather than "taste" that is a sticking point. In this sense the current fashion has got it partially right: there is always a scene at work. We are political and sociological animals.

I remember a friend of mine who could not bear to listen to Frank Sinatra. She HATED Frank Sinatra and screamed and covered her ears when he was inflicted upon her at the diner she worked. The trouble was, she knew a bit about the most negative and unfortunate aspects of Sinatra's biography and character, and moreover picked up on and associated those details with his manner and musicianship more generally. Sinatra was not Sinatra but patriarchy or male power and swagger, or the father that molested her. Whenever I use this example some are quick to defend her reaction, even if they like or love Sinatra with the phrase "knowing too much can ruin things for you". There is a deep sense that this waitress in encountering Sinatra was encountering energies and sensibilities utterly opposed to her in every way, as much as the difference between, say, a hand-grabbing smiling extravert and a touch adverse, frowning introvert.

We all, each of us, occupy mental spaces and cultural worlds of mutual incomprehension. Indeed this very incomprehension is one of the reasons we have art. All too often we are told that art exists to heal to unify. Actually art more often exists to keep us chastened and accepting of our separations.

But to reduce all artistic evaluation to taste, to give up on any kind of objectivity is to fall prey to a version of that old sophomoric relativism where taste is all that can be known and works of art are reducible to their intended demographic.

The trouble, of course, is that those things that are objectionable in Sinatra (if we assume for the moment's argument that they are actually present in the music) are in fact negative qualities that may very well contribute to that which is positive in the music.

And, conversely, such qualities are utterly irrelevant. We can listen to Sinatra and know nothing of the man. Indeed we might be the better judge of him if this were the case. (What philosopher John Rawls calls in another context "the veil of ignorance"). Swing rhythms, and chords and Cole Porter melodies do not literally communicate a message of male oppression or the dead weight of tradition. They actually transmit emotions of a great deal more universality than that; they might even be "life affirming". But Sinatra as a man and singer had a point of view which comes through his performance and musicianship. My female acquaintance may very well want to spend the rest of her days listening to ani defranco and Billie Holiday, whom she preferred. But the very same principle holds for the latter two examples as well. They are every bit as biased. (Though their bias is of those who are historically not privileged and silenced. Whether this means we should listen to them more is, in the last analysis a political and ethical question quite apart from AESTHETICS which is the present concern). Interestingly Sinatra has a great deal in common with Holiday which should tell us something about musical style and the biographical or cultural fallacy.

Indeed we actually go to singers for their biases. Too often though we want the bias to be only our own.

I have often dreamed of an arts curriculum where we would read only texts that represent the opposite of our lived experiences. Men would only read women and viceversa. Men would read George Eliot and Charlotte Gilman. Women would read Philip Roth and Henry Miller. This would be an arts program where encountering the "OTHER" (to use a real VOGUE word) would be a genuine practice and not merely a slogan.

In the arts we read to meet and (re) discover ourselves. But, I think at best, we read to encounter new mysteries, to DEfamiliarize ourselves. We read to disabuse ourselves of any hope of final unity, indeed we might regard such hopes as themselves part of the problem, as a kind of negative prejudice.

But as long as we disregard questions of value we might well be at the mercy of commerce and politics. Value will not go away as an illusion. There will only be new struggles around value, at least as long as we exist for more than survival.

Perhaps it is time for questions of taste to be replaced by questions of value.

1 comment:

  1. WOW! Did you actually dare to write that individual artworks may have INTRINSIC VALUE that trumps our likes and dislikes of them? That's so great. I agree wholeheartedly that it's foolish and wrong to reject artworks based on personal and political biases. This argument forms a nice grouping with your other posts about problems in aesthetic viewing, especially the ones on ROCK AND ROLL and PHILISTINISM.