I'm due to go back to school. Starting September I'm aiming to enrol on the Philosophy MA at King's College, London. Somewhere at the back of my mind a doctorate is calling. For now, though, I'm very happy writing games and this course will just be a part-time thing to keep my brain alive. With that in mind, I'm trying to get back into gear by turning out some essays. This is one. Some notes before we start:
- I have a BA in philosophy, but I've never studied any aesthetics. I may be saying things that are painfully obvious, or got debunked centuries ago.
- If you're already au fait with objective and subjective values, and with art being the latter, you can safely skip to 'What is art?'
- This essay assumes the reader accepts religion as false. Some of the arguments are based on this belief.
- There's a too long, didn't read at the end.
On with the show!
Is Art a Modern Religion?
Art bares remarkably many of the hallmarks of a religion. Is its value something we've been conditioned to accept unquestioningly?
Defining the word 'art'
Clearly the word itself, 'art', is one whose definition has never ceased to be turbulent. For the purposes of this discussion I'll use it to refer to any thing, manmade or otherwise, which can be considered valuable beyond any practical purpose. This would cover - as I see it - anything that's ever been considered 'art', including music, photography, video games; a car chassis, a woodland clearing, or a building.
There's usually a further conversation to be had over which of these emotive things carry artistic value (often the painting or the opera), and which are 'merely' aesthetically valuable (eg blue wallpaper or a shiny watch strap). This is not a distinction I'm concerned with right now. For now when I refer to art, I refer most specifically to that pursuit a great many great people have dedicated their lives to creating, promoting, and assessing: the creation of art for art's sake.
Already, I think, we've hit a number of telling notes. We know that art is something which people - often unquestioningly, fanatically and otherwise to their own detriment - consider to be of utmost importance in their lives. Art is something we are all intimately aware of, but struggle to pin down. It is something we fight over (albeit in a far more subdued way than religion). Art is something on which we attempt to proliferate our own perspective at the expense of opposing movements. It is something which pervades every element of our society, be it the Dali design on Chupa Chups lollies or the carefully choreographed cutlery on a fine dining table.
Art is perceived as a 'real' value
Obviously I'm not seeking to question the existence of the things which we call art, in just the same way I would not seek to claim it impossible that someone called Jesus said some persuasive things at some point. Clearly paintings and books exist. My concern is the perceived value behind those things - namely, is there any true value to them, or like god is that value an invention of the psychethat makes the world a bit more bearable?
Art is something the most of us would take for granted as being in some intrinsic and timeless way fundamental to human existence. Specific examples aside, its value as a whole is something whose reality tends not be open to question. Crucially, therefore, artistic value is something with the ability to propel us through life in directions entirely unsupported by any rational facts.
I'd like to use morality as an analogy here. Over the millennia of human development, we have constantly broken down the dogma around our false beliefs. We began with god. Go back just 300 years and the question of whether belief in god was rational - ie was supported by fact rather than hyperbole, superstition and psychological need - wasn't just a question that people weren't supposed to ask; it was a question 99.9% of people didn't even think to ask. Religion wasn't seen as a belief in the same way it is today; it wasn't seen as something a person must go out of their way to find and uphold. It was just a part of the background. It was an assumption so implicitly accepted - by people, but also by the structure of every element of society - as to be invisible.
Throughout the latter half of the 20th century religious belief moved from invisible, to questionable, to questionable without fear of the noose, to answered, and finally to debunked (in most intelligent, educated circles).
Morality - which I define as the belief in an authoritative rule or system of rules governing how a person 'ought' behave - is moving through a similar cycle, albeit a compressed and ongoing one. With the elimination of god, the question of what underpins the authority of objective moral values became one that could legitimately be raised. Over the past 200 years it's one which - I would argue - has been answered, but one which remains unaccepted. Morality is no less a religion than Christianity, and its questioning in public remains an activity liable to ostracise whoever dares do so. It is, in short, on the difficult cusp between being an invisible assumption (often the subconscious premise that the greater good is of primary, a priori importance), and a more conscious belief that it's possible to discuss and even doubt.
The crucial analogy, here, is that clearly there are real, objective actions which we call moral; just as there are real, objective works which we call art. What is open to question is whether the value of these works - and of those actions - is as real and objective as they are; or whether the value is an invention of the human mind, and therefore in need of a stronger internal understanding in order to justify the belief.
Art as a subjective, rather than objective value
Except, it's not. Unlike morality or religion, there are few proponents of the belief that art is somehow underpinned by some unknowable and supernatural force. Despite the omnipresence of objectively presented review scores and critiques (which could at most be said to objectively represent the subjective values of their stakeholders), art is already accepted as having subjective value - that is value which can justifiably differ from person to person. Murder is supposed to be murder, regardless of who is doing it; a miracle doesn't stop being a miracle because it was observed by an atheist. The entire structure of the arguments against those beliefs revolves around demonstrating that this objective value is an assumption. Art, though, enjoys a far more dangerous assumption: that its value is not only subjective, but beneficially so.
"That's just your interpretation," or "This really meant the following for me personally," are certainly more accurate reactions to art than, "This is good art, this is bad," but they also grant art a uniquely powerful claim to the speaker: the claim that their view is indubitable; not beholden to logic. Now, far be it that 'sounding a bit like religion' be enough evidence to damn anything as such, but it has to be said: as soon as we start claiming something is valuable, yet reserve its value as a uniquely personal, non-objective and unquestionable entity, religion is certainly the field we begin to wander into.
What is art?
Sadly to ask, "What is art?" or "Why is art valuable?" is often to see the sort of backlash you can only imagine similar questions of morality and god were receiving so many years ago. To question the value of a great work out loud is so terribly gauche - you're being too analytical, or not analytical enough, or thinking about it in the wrong way, or plain not getting it. This is precisely what makes it dangerous.
We even produce dystopian works of art which present worlds where art is banned as if this were the ultimate moral sin; we view these worlds in much the same way the religious societies of the eighteenth century would have viewed our own.
But it's time to clear some things up. This essay is not seeking to claim there can be no value in art. By definition subjective value (value which exists entirely in the mind of the human subject) is something which defies an all-encompassing, subject-independent classification. If you simply like the look of a silver Porsche or a basket of fruit there's no reasonable way to disagree with you. Certainly the simple fact that the value two different perceive in a work can be outright contradictory is not proof that their values are false. If my preference for a particular character or art style results in a unique interpretation, or if my experience in life results in a work's familiar message feeling fresh and I therefore find it to be thoroughly captivating, there is no sense in which another person's predisposition can be considered in some way superior to mine. What is considered profound cannot be so for everyone.
The role of reason is artistic value
Crucially, though, we tend to demand that appreciation of art (works created specifically to be valued on a meaningful level) differ intellectually from appreciation of more passively emotive things (the wallpaper, the woodland clearing, the bowl of fruit). Unless we wish to relegate the value of art to that of unthinking emotion, that value will still have to be rationally justified. Unless we wish to propose that the value perceived in the most complex of impressionist art is equal to that of the banker admiring his nice silver Porsche, we must accept that reasoned thought is required, and that the reality of artistic value therefore remains open to reasoned doubt. That value might be some philosophical or even spiritual lesson, eg Kafka's emphasis on the alienation of the modern bureaucratic society. It might be the effective, immediate and emotive communication of a way of life we have no means of accessing for ourselves, eg Anne Frank's wartime tale of hope and persecution. It might simply be a work's ability to conjure a more complex emotion than is commonly experienced. But all of these things are reasoned values. They are open to interpretation, but they are not impervious to intelligent questioning.
Art's power over us
Perhaps it is only that art can have so many possible interpretations that has rendered it such a viable religion. Just as religions and moralities underpin their sets of rules with promise of rewards that are very difficult to refute - eg the afterlife - art grants its followers rewards equally intangible: 'impact', 'culture', 'vision'. And if you don't feel like you've received those rewards, if Picasso leaves you cold, then don't worry: it probably affected you in some other way; or its simple apprehension has improved you as a person; or it's just not for you; or maybe you plain didn't get it.
Regardless of whether there was or was not some measure of objective truth somewhere along the line, countless religions and social constructs have demonstrated just one thing over the centuries: that it's terrifyingly easy to convince people something is real and important provided they're convinced everyone else agrees and there's nothing immediately graspable and concrete showing themless of whether there was or was not some measure of objective truth somewhere along the line, countless religions and social constructs have demonstrated just one thing over the centuries: that it's terrifyingly easy to convince people something is real and important provided they're convinced everyone else agrees and there's nothing immediately graspable and concrete showing them otherwise.
My point (finally)
Ultimately, I suppose that this is as much a sociological warning light as it is philosophical essay; a niggling concern for no one as much as myself. I'm not for a second proposing that art cannot have profound effects on us, or that the world would be better off without it (though I am proposing we at least consider as much). I am not questioning on a rational level the theoretical reality of the value we place in art (since art presupposes that that value is subjective, and therefore not underpinned by anything in the 'real world' beyond our own minds). I cherish visiting an art gallery or reading literary fiction (though in the case of the former I wonder how much of it is about perceiving true value, and how much is about showing a pretty girl a cool place). I have been moved by art, and I have been intellectually affected by art, but by a significant margin I have more often than not simply been entertained.
So when I'm done with this essay will I do my usual thing? Will I take my ideas and convert them into fiction? Perhaps sacrifice the clarity of the message I want to convey in favour of convincing a few more people of its value through hyperbole and plot?
Clearly to sit here and say, "All this pretentious art is a load of bullshit designed to make clever people feel cleverer," is not new, nor clever. But then it's equally clear that if art gives smart (or would-be smart) people a purpose in life that they need not question or justify, then that's not a whole hell of a lot different to Nietzsche's observation that religion provides vulnerable people the very same.
My point is not that I believe art is necessarily screwed, in the same way that I don't believe living by Christian standards will necessarily ruin your life. My question, really, is this: "Has art replaced religion as the unquestionable value in our society, obscuring any true value we might seek; and is it possible that in assuming that value as absolute we sometimes make decisions based on that assumption that may ultimately prove to be to our detriment?"
I suspect that I quite frequently have.