Good in Theory

Do we make the assumption that art is good for us? On what evidence is that based?


There are intelligent voices ready to tell us it is.[1]

But really if you want to see the value of the arts, and its contestation, all you need do are look at the struggle that is currently taking place in the UK to maintain arts funding in the face of a neo-liberal austerity drive. The discourse being strictly along the lines of


“Yeah I know but, like, in the end what is it really worth?”

“Ha, an arts degree, what good is that in the world?” etc.


They might have a point. [says the man with two]


In funding wars it generally gets placed in opposition to science, maths, engineering, computing. What we might call ‘the practical skills’.[2]


This argument is kind of long and boring and dumb and is often premised on this harshly economic basis whereby the fact that they don’t ‘make any money’ is a reason not to fund them, which manages to discount the entire world of advertising, design, fashion, music, cinema, television, photography and so on. All of which make a ton of money.


But anyway. Putting to one side the study of it and munificence thereof, this isn’t the question. The question is, ‘Is art a force of good?’.


This is often the other side of the argument above, the idea that there is something intrinsically good in art, that it is a good thing to have in the world. Bataille called us the art making animal after all.


Alain de Botton says this;


““[I]t is a therapeutic medium that can guide, exhort, strengthen and console its viewers, helping them to become better versions of themselves.”


Note that he says its viewers. So just looking at art makes you a better person.


To me this all sounds a bit Victorian, a bit like if we were all just a bit more civilised we’d all be much happier, and you know, for as much as this is true I don’t think it’s the biggest revelation.


But maybe what he’s really talking about is self-actualisation. OED definition


“The realization or fulfilment of one’s talents and potentialities, especially considered as a drive or need present in everyone.”


Top of Maslow’s pyramid of needs. Art, the viewing of, as a form of (generally ‘purposeless’) self-expression that equates to self-actualisation in the sense that we all need ‘to release our inner poetry’, and can do so by learning to appreciate other people’s work.


And there’s a corollary idea attached to this one, although by who or how I don’t know, but it’s the idea of context, that art somehow gives our existence a context within which we can understand it (this function would seem to be more and more important within today’s entropic and disorientating atmosphere).


I’d add two other facets to our idea of the ‘goodness’ of art.


Art as the voice of dissent/freedom. The subversive element, a voice of truth.


And a religious idea, art as a vehicle of mysticism, fetishism, spiritualism.


[You could draw a pyramid with each facet on a point – self-actualisation, context, dissent, religion]


This is how we consider it to be morally good. The theme is conscience, and that’s what we’re talking about here, we’re saying that art is morally good. [In italics.]


But not everyone agrees.


Most notably of course Plato. The banishment of the poets by the philosopher king in book ten of The Republic. They pretend to know things but know nothing, they portray the worst part of souls (i.e. not the rational part), and they’re two steps away from the platonic world of forms, even further away than reality itself. Crazy stuff. Although he does say he would let them back in, if someone talked him round. Then he died.


Aristotle was pro. The Poetics, Katharsis etc.

[short rendition of that work]


Then there’s Hegel. In one sense he’s very pro. Art sits alongside Religion and Philosophy as its function gives expression to [geist – spirit], it expresses itself in made things and is visibly or audibly perceivable. The sensuous expression of this is beauty. He also talks about “comes consciousness of itself”, and this most easily coming about through the perception of human beings (our idea of self-actualisation again). He was a fan of figurative art, but given that he’d spent time looking at Rembrandt you wouldn’t hold it against him. [you couldn’t get it on your phone, or in a book, you actually had to travel to where it was]


Given that he was a contemporary of both Beethoven and Goethe in one sense its surprising that he also thought the need for art would fade away, that the need for it would end as Geist comes to its full realisation, hence the whole ‘end of art thing’. Or in another sense he was just incredibly perceptive and looked around and thought it can’t get any better than this. It also had a lot to do with the way he saw art progressing historically, the symbolic, the classical, the romantic.


In terms of philosophy and art this is all the classical stuff. The modern starts with Nietzsche and


“The existence of the world is justified only as an aesthetic phenomena”




This is from the introduction to his first book The Birth of Tragedy that he wrote fourteen years after its first publication.


He is the first one to fully introduce the idea of the ambiguity of art.


In the book he opposed Apollonian impulses [rational ordered] against Dionysian impulses [wild/irrational, chaotic, untamed, drunk etc.] and gave examples of each, but the much more fun part is the introduction.[3]


[I recommend you read the little section in footnote, he is wild.]


He ties art to a profoundly ambiguous morality, he kind of agrees with Hegel that it is sign of our predicament, but without Hegel’s utopian teleology. He sees our need for art pessimistically, that it is because we are the most contradictory of beings. He talks about something profoundly human, that touches on the unconscious in both a Freudian and Jungian way, a spirit within us. Bataille was influenced by Nietzsche after all.


But it is definitely not good per se.


It’s important that he places it within the phenomenal world in the final sentence because next is Heidegger.


But before we get there its worth thinking about what art came after Nietzsche, post – ‘god is dead’, and you’ve got to be thinking your avant garde movements, DADA, Surrealism, Futurism, German expressionism. DADA was important because you know, this was killing God as it was probably last expressed by Picasso, and of course the Futurist being, along with Dali, a bit sucked into fascism.


Which brings us nicely onto Heidegger. Bad joke.


In his ‘post-turn’ work Heidegger redeems art as an unmitigated force for good. In his essay What are Poets for? he argues that it is the only point of access to re-find the spiritual dimension, to re-find the gods [note the plural]. The lack of religious sense is something Heidegger thinks is terrible for humanity, he talks about the abyss etc.[4]


Art, or ‘poetic thinking’ is also an important counterfoil to ‘technological thinking’, an idea that is expressed in a number of different permutations in Heidegger.


The thing with Heidegger is that he’s a phenomenologist. So he brings all these grand ideas down to the point of experiencing reality, that very front end, so expressed in one way, technological thinking is where everything you see is weighed and assessed for a kind value, its objective value, where poetic thinking is where you see the value of the thing in itself. [maybe a morality of the heart]


There is a strongly moral dimension to this idea. Religious to the point of perception. His assessment of the prevalence of technological thinking is dire.


[This was all before we lived in a world with the prevailing economic system]


It is a profoundly religious idea and it’s no surprise that parallels with eastern religions have been drawn [although please don’t ask me where]


It’s worth noting that what Heidegger has done is invert Plato, in that instead of art taking us away from a metaphysical plane, it takes us closer to a kind of metaphysical plane in the world, in Being, although technically it’s not metaphysical in any sense other than that we can’t access it, other than through art.


If you search around for how these ideas might be seen in art roughly contemporary to him it could be as prosaic as pop music, songs with lyrics (he did believe poetry was the preeminent art form), or you could find this religious encounter in Abstract Expressionism.[5]


To quote Barnett Newman from the plasmic image


“Surrealism is interested in a dream world that will penetrate the human psyche. To that extent it is a mundane expression… the present painter is concerned not with his own feelings or with the mystery of his own personality, but with the penetration into the world of mystery. His imagination is therefore attempting to dig into metaphysical secrets. To that extent his art is concerned with the sublime.”


The sublime being a good thing.


Which brings us to today. A very different world to the 1950’s.


And the question we come up against are;


How do we understand morality today?


and the two subsidiaries;


Where do we as individuals discover it?


How do we as a society express it?


Michael Sandel frames our problems within a pluralist society quite well. Morality is based on the idea of what good is, the Aristotelian ‘good life’, but in a world of ‘free’ individuals we all have different ideas of what this might be. Society always places boundaries on freedom, some not significantly contested, like basic laws, others more so, like more benign modes of behaviour. The tension arrives in negotiating the boundaries between these two things, how society and the individual interact.


A nice analogy for me here is that it’s like the internal tension of being a critic, the challenge you face when writing about art; part wants to be the objective voice, the one who values and tell others of its value, but this is dictatorial, the other part retreats into subjectivity and only puts forward an individual opinion, but this lacks authority.


The situation we’re in today is that the market has stepped into this void, money is presented as an objective objectivity, not only a shorthand to allow all the different individuals to have all the things they want, but also a ‘free’ system whereby the collective subjectivities come together to form a true objectivity.


In politics this is most often presented as the idea that what is good for the economy is good for us all, or in art, as with many other things, it would be that what is expensive is good.


Now sure, there are many different ways to attack the idea that what is expensive is good, despite all the barrels of ink spent on doing so it’s pretty much enough to use your own eyes and brain, but this idea doesn’t make you popular, just go and be a critic at an art fair, you very quickly realise that you’re singing from the wrong hymn sheet, because any voice outside gets very quickly made to look like it’s hindering the smooth running of the machine that is good for us all. And it is.


In his book The Perfect Crime the grumpy old man that was Jean Baudrillard fiercely critiqued the value system of the art world as essentially a system that creates the value system by which it is judged.


The art market is a very ‘pure’ capitalist market, the value that is attached to art objects is ‘free’ value, created by the market itself. And the relationship between the art world and the art market is very unclear, the one has permeated the other.


The things about a value system the creates itself is that it’s very far from an ideal of the moral as we understand it, as in what is the right way to live, the right way to act.


It’s the problem where the proxy becomes the thing itself, instead of being a conduit to the good life it is what’s perceived as the good life.


Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that art doesn’t have any purchase in this situation, that there aren’t a million acts and gestures in response, but maybe we’re back again with De Certeau’s individual tactics against the strategies of market structures [footnote 1].


The problem being that in order to gain a platform you have to conform to certain standards, most simply put you need to have value.


One of the most high profile tactics used by artists in this situation brings us back to Nietzsche’s ambiguity.


This ambiguity allows artists to do tricksy things, Koons being an easy example. He is in a sense the master of both having his cake and eating his cake. Shiny pretty kitsch that sells for millions of dollars and, through it’s total shiny pretty kitchness, critiques the market for paying millions of dollars for such shiny crap, crap that is also kind of beautiful. It’s doing everything at once and in this sense can at least be said to be dishonest, if not immoral or somehow false in the prevelance it gives to one side of this equation.


In part this is preserving the essential unstable core of a genuine piece of art, and in another it’s getting trapped into a dilemma similar to the one put forward by Sandel, the refusing to be one thing or another.


While this is one artist’s problem if we look at art as a whole there is one thing we can guarantee, it will always be appropriated by the dominant orthodoxy of the day, be that Christianity, Totalitarianism, or Capitalism, so the problem we face is in some sense the problem Koons faces, that the dollar signs are written large while you have to look pretty hard for the critique.[6]


This is perhaps the ultimate dishonesty of art, that it will never be pinned down, it will never be one thing, so while it might be happy becoming a toy for the whims of the world’s uber-rich and a system entirely designed to favour them, at one and the same time it also presents one of the few means to attack and subvert said system and attitudes.[7]


In the end maybe this is the point, we can’t expect or imagine art to have a moral compass, and, in its multiplicity and uncertainty, its impenetrability, it seems doubtful that art is a formula to make us all better people. It’s maybe willful utopianism (or desperation) to imagine that it is. It also perhaps begs the question of whether or not it’s actually the role of art to make the world, or us, better. Surely that would, collectively, be our job, something along the lines of that if we want better art we’d better make a better world. Or something like it.

The end.


[1] In Britain Alain de Botton has that humanistic thing going on where the viewing of art is all personal development and the growth of the individual.


Whereas for Michel de Certeau art could be a repertoire of tactics, a way to tackle the ‘strategic’ structure, a means of achieving individual autonomy.


If you stretch your imagination you could imagine art as a means to short circuit Pierre Bourdieau’s structures of power, the ‘artist’ as a class has traditionally sat outside the rigid strictures of class and social standing.


These are three basically arbitrary examples.


[2] They are not practicool

[3] “the book acknowledges only an artist’s meaning behind all that happens – a ‘god’ if you will, but certainly only an utterly unscrupulous and amoral artist-god who frees himself form the dire pressure of fullness and over-fullness, from suffering the oppositions packed within him, and who wishes to become conscious of his autarchic power and constant delight and desire, whether he is building or destroying, whether acting benignly or malevolently. The world as release and redemption of god, achieved at each and every moment, as the eternally changing, eternally new vision of the most suffering being of all, the being most full of oppositions and contradictions, able to redeem and release itself only in semblance; one may say that this whole artist’s metaphysics is capricious, otiose, fantastical – but its essential feature is that it already betrays a spirit which will defend itself one day, whatever the danger, against the moral interpretation and significance of existence. Here, perhaps for the first time, a pessimism ‘beyond good and evil’ announces itself, here that perverse mentality itself within the phenomenal world, to degrade it and to place it not merely among the phenomena, but even among the deceptions, as semblance, delusions, error, interpretation, manipulation, art.” [italics are mine]


[4] For Heidegger this idea was connected to Hegel’s idea of the progression of art. In the symbolic era art is a form of communication with the gods, you make art to make the gods happy and get something you want, i.e. an animal in the hunt. In the classical period the art became the god, so classical sculpture, in the Greek temple etc., is actually a physical manifestation of the god itself, example of this perhaps being the oracle at Delphi. In the romantic period the image of man replaces the image of god, both in art and in actual Christianity. In art it is best represented by the figure of the genius, this is a combination of god and man. So far so good, from there, for Heidegger, we begin to realise that the figure of the man-god is just a chimera and nothing lies behind it, nothing other than the absence of the gods, the empty space where the gods once were before we scared them off. For this reason all kinds of pantheistic beliefs have been attached to him, and probably not without good reason.

[5] Contemporary examples of this kind of spiritual art might be Olafur Eliasson or Matthew Barney.

[6] One of the other problems of the art market is that it isn’t entirely ineffective as a means of judging work, the most expensive living artists are people you kind of need to respect as valuable artists in one way or another, even if it’s uncertain they will be remembered as the greatest of their generation in one hundred years.


[7] If you want more effective examples of critique than Koons, I could give you Barbara Kruger’s “When I hear the world culture I take out my checkbook”, Jenny Holzer “Protect me from what I want”, Jeremy Deller’s reconstructions, or Aleksandr Brener’s suprematist gesture. These are obviously a fraction, and it’s an interesting question to ask, who offers the strongest critique of capitalism through their work.