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why bother with art?

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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.

Written by adswithoutproducts

May 8, 2008 at 7:31 pm

Posted in aesthetics, criticism

3 Responses

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  1. Why do “the arts” need to be distinct from, broadly defined, physical cultural production ? After all, if you’re an english professor, you might tend to define “the arts” as a kind of privileged space within human imaginitive creation, with all the eurocentric particularisms the discipline implies: paintings, novels, plays, yes; stories, music, social-networks, participatory rituals, etc, not so much. But this has everything to do with a very historically particular conception of “The Arts” that excludes the vast majority of stuff that anthropologists might call “culture.” For the “english professor” type perspective, changing moralities and social contexts do pose a threat to those historically particular forms: films and tv replace novels, for example, as the kind of social lubricant that makes “modern” living bearable. If you’re an English professor with an investment in novels, then this might be a bad thing. But does it have to be for everybody? If we take “art” to be a more broadly understood function of social activities, then there’s no reason why a new morality can’t include new forms of art, which is to say, reconceptualizations of what art is. English departments tend to be really bad at thinking about the ways that a video game, for example, is as relevent a piece of art as a novel (probably much more), because the Arnoldian sense of high culture still jockeys for space alongside more historicist notions of cultural production, but, frankly, that’s their problem. It’s an institutional conundrum for people who would like to retain privileged status in the cultural economy (even as their currency is steadily devalued), but I don’t see it as an intellectually inevitable problem.


    May 11, 2008 at 8:44 pm

  2. I agree with quite a bit of what you’re saying here. I guess the easiest way to allude to the big caveat is to simply say “adorno” and run for cover. I definitely don’t think it’s enough to do that (I hope that’s obvious), but his argument about the relationship between higher art and the popular is something that seems to need to be grappled with.

    Or, more particularly with Richards, perhaps it doesn’t really matter, what you’re saying. I think the statement as quoted above could be repurposed to include art as cultural production in general without loss of the issue. The question is whether or not makes sense to torque our sense of what is moral/ethical/politically just into making room for art. Should all consideration of art (whether construed as high art or popular, old forms or new ones) be seen as supplementary to the real work at hand, or should it be part and parcel?


    May 12, 2008 at 1:30 am

  3. re: Adorno, count me in as now running for cover.

    I think part of the problem is that phrases like “the real work at hand” are as difficult to define in practice as art, and for the same reasons: while the use of one word allows us to imagine that they are one thing, they are, in terms of practical politics, very different and opposed things. The work done by TS Eliot’s “Art” and the work done by Picasso or that of somebody like him are absolutely irreconcilable, but imagining them to be one thing is itself an act with political consequences; if we use a model of “art” as “high” then it can seem like Picasso is torquing our coneption of art to fit his political program, while Eliot is being true (whereas another model of art would just as easily suggest the reverse).

    To put it another way, there are so many different (and in some cases, irreconcilable) reasons to oppose the war in Iraq, but it’s the same “work at hand.” For some of those people, one kind of art is a useful supplement and for others, another kind is, so the question of whether Art matches politics is inevitably going to be adjudicated in very different terms: one political goal but very different (and irreconcilable) uses of art to get there. Reading Lolita in Tehran vs. Literature from the Axis of Evil, for example, and that’s just within the liberal camp. From my perspective, the concepts of “literature” and “Art” in those books are already so Westernized (and secular) that it is almost completely incompatible with the most important critiques of American imperialism (which names it as such and “provincialize” its assumptions of universality).


    May 12, 2008 at 4:22 pm

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