why bother with art?
In his Principles of Literary Criticism of 1924, I.A. Richards is invested, among other things, in describing “a morality which will change its values as circumstances alter, a morality free of occultism, absolutes and arbitrariness, a morality which will explain, as no morality has yet explained, the place and value of the arts in human affairs” (52). And in putting the project this way, we find evidence of a problem that is at once understandable, familiar, and frustrating. In short, what is the last clause – the bit about the arts – doing in the sentence? The establishment of a morality attuned to the modern situation is a noble task, no doubt, but why must it also be one that can explain the value of the arts? What if one was to come up with a morality that fulfilled all the other conditions, but simply didn’t have room for the arts?
The answer, in part, has to be that the shape of Richards’s project is determined by his line of work. It is an English professor’s sort of morality – and perhaps, moral social organization – that he is working towards.
For those of us who work via the humanities, particularly the artistic humanities, it is an uncannily familiar situation. The development of a politics from and in support of artistic production, along with all of the other great things that we’d like included – it’s a very strange task. It explains why we tend to love those political thinkers who made space for art, or who kept art at the center of their politics. William Morris, the Constructivists, the various auto-poeisis types like the late-Foucault and Deleuze. For obvious reasons, it’s difficult for us to deal with a vision of society that didn’t make room for the production of good novels and poems, good pictures and films. But of course, backed against the wall, we’d also admit that these things really aren’t of central importance to the project of social amelioration. They are tools or supplements, garnishes or indirect manifestations of social health. For the fact of the matter is that it may well be that a more perfect society could be an unfavorable location for the production of the sort of art we are used to esteeming as great or even worthwhile.
But on the other hand, we are all familiar with the specter of the rationalized society in which there is no room for art, artistic pleasure, or perhaps even pleasure itself. Art can serve as a metonym for the color of life; where there is no art, we imagine, there is only faceless gray, the utterly minimum dwelling. This vision of rational society, even if it is only a spectral scapegoat, is something that we are obliged to negotiate with, for it is a powerful counter advertisement to the ad without products that solicits buyers for the thing we are trying to sell.
Beyond all the ambiguities, the question that Richards’s statement forces upon us – a question about means and ends, and which are paramount to us – is a question that we must deal with if those who for through and for aesthetic production are to frame a politics more effective than symptomatic.