Friday 17 June 2016

How seriously should we take Art, Literature, Science and the like?

In discussing Robert Graves's The White Goddess on this blog a couple of days ago, I described how in later life he advocated a vision of past and future society that was based around the necessary conditions for poets to write the best poetry. In fact, this vision actually derived narrowly from his own idiosyncratic psycho-sexual preferences - but my point is that Graves elevated poetry to the level of primary importance in his life and in the human world.

In a word, Graves made poetry into a religion - and he wasn't alone.

At around the same time - especially in the late 19th and early 20th century - a lot of people were doing an analogous thing with whatever happened to be their own vocation. Visual artists lived to paint and expected society to be organised around that activity, musicians to compose; and creative scientists also lived by the same credo. Each creative person made a religion of their vocation.

This attitude of giving extreme and indeed near-total priority to one's own creative endeavours certainly fuelled the quality of each of these activities - for a while.

And this was part of the mass apostasy of The West, a transitional phase in the decline of faith. So, creative people who had been brought-up as Christians - or sometimes Jews - and to put their religion first; would lose their childhood faith and instead put their work first. The initial consequence was that the work benefited from the extra time and effort being channelled into it - which seemed to validate the decision in terms of that the greatest geniuses were most often 'free-thinkers' (in that loaded phrase).

Indeed, in popular evaluations, confirmed by the biographies of many Men of exceptional achievement, there seemed to be a stark conflict between religion and the creative arts and sciences. Religion was seen as a constraint at best, a distortion always, and often a source of dishonesty and falsehood when it came to the Arts ans Sciences. The honest truth seeker and revolutionary thinker was seen as obviously an atheist.

What was not appreciated was that devotion to creative work, in whatever branch of human endeavour, was not self-validating in practise - because there are powerful social (and personal) forces that tend to re-frame the arts and sciences as merely a personal gratification for the creator, and from a social perspective merely a means to an end.

Anyone who was serious and personally motivated about his work would sooner or later run up against this. For instance, as a scientist and an academic, I felt that I had work that I ought to be doing - as best I could; but the local and general context for both science and academic work saw it as a means to various ends. My immediate colleagues would want me to collaborate in group projects, the institution would want me to do things which contributed to institutional goals, society at large would want things that would lead - in the immediate term - to increased prosperity, comfort, alleviating of suffering, or (especially) that could be used to justify and validate progressive political programmes.

I would recurrently have conversations with those placed in administrative charge who urged me to abandon whatever I was doing and work with colleagues, apply for grants, try to publish in high visibility journal,s stop doing things which might bring bad publicity... and so on. Carrots of promotion were talked of, and sanctions for refusal were hinted at.

In sum, the modern context is, and has been for several decades, that any creative person who is self-motivated is always, sooner or later and usually sooner, in practise encouraged to abandon whatever he wants to do and to do what somebody else (various other people) thinks is a good idea.

Now, this is not new and surely applied to the creative people of the past as much or more than it does now. But, what is new is that modern people inhabit a secular world; a world in which religion is either altogether absent or reduced to being a lifestyle choice.

How, then, does a typical modern secular person react when he is put under pressure to abandon what he understands to be his creative role or duty? How does he react when it proves to be an immediate (and probably long term) disadvantage to his health and wealth and status to continue along his self-chosen path; how does he react when all the objective rewards are stacked on the side of expediency and obedience rather than principle?

My observation is that in such a dilemma the modern creative nearly always abandons his individual creative path, and does what most benefits his career.

And the reason is obvious - in a world where justification is in terms of increasing the happiness or reducing the possible suffering of 'people'; the creative individual cannot justify to himself, let alone to his bosses, why high level activity in the arts or sciences should have any special value. Indeed, to be creative seems like selfishness - putting one's own happiness above the security and status of one's colleagues, one's institution and society in general.

To do what is being asked is seen as altruism - as living for the benefit of others (and also good for one's own prestige!); but to do what one feels ought to be done appears as merely selfish and wilful. That was very clearly how my own refusals to abandon what I regarded as my proper work seemed to those who urged me to be more public spirited - their faces, tone of voice and words were filled with frustration, exasperation, anger.

To pursue - without any guarantee or even probability of success - a line of work that took no account of either career or collective goals seemed to them both puzzling and perverse. In my heart I felt that I had to try to do whatever I felt I ought to do - but of course I also had my doubts about myself.

In face of such a reasonable attitude as expressed by colleagues and bosses; as an avowed atheist I could provide no higher justification for my decisions that that they felt innately right; but I had to acknowledge that I may be mistaken, this feeling could easily be a delusion.

So I was thrown back onto mere self-assertion: to some variant of that is how it seems to me!
And to a kind of naked self-assertion - along the lines that I would do this or the other unless or until I was actively stopped from doing it.

My point here is not to suggest that I was vindicated and everybody else proved wrong - because I wasn't vindicated; at least not in any publicly recognisable fashion. My point is that the modern equivalent of Robert Graves or any other person who feels they ought to put their art first will not be able to justify ploughing a personal furrow to themselves and others, because the option to make arts and sciences into mini-religions is no longer available in a world without any religion.

Modern artists and scientists cannot make their work into a religion because they don't believe in any religion - they explicitly believe that only this life matters (there is nothing else) and that there are no objective standards of truth or beauty (these are evolving social conventions) - and in the end everything ca only be justified in terms of making human lives happier or less miserable.

Anyone who believes that their own personal idea of essential work in the arts or sciences takes priority over the public consensus of what is important, is nowadays placed in a minority of one with no possible means of justification. And (when there are no standards external to society) being in a minority of one and insisting on your personal interpretation above that of everyone else is a definition of either stupidity, delusion, or antisocial selfishness.

So in our secular society, without God or any kind of deity, the vocational poet, philosopher, artist, scientist or whatever is pretty much extinct.

So how did I manage to stick to my vocation despite being an atheist? I think the reason is that I was actually a practical but unacknowledged deist. I really did believe in objective, impersonal standards and goals. I could not justify this belief and I did not admit it publicly (because I had no arguments to support it0 - but secretly I knew that the universe had order, purpose and meaning, and that I had some personal role to play in it.

Somehow, this implicit deism was enough to keep me on a path of pursuing, albeit without much 'success', what I regarded as the most important thing I could do. I know of several others who pursue a vocational and creative path, strengthened by the same deep down denied deism as sustained me.

But the situation is one of cognitive dissonance ad intractable ambivalence; and the mass apostasy from religion has understandably led-on-to a mass apostasy from the arts and sciences, and their assimilation into the mainstream world of Leftist bureaucratic careerism - which is the stark reality behind the dishonest facade of modern arts and sciences. 


IA said...

"And (when there are no standards external to society) being in a minority of one and insisting on your personal interpretation above that of everyone else is a definition of either stupidity, delusion, or antisocial selfishness."

There is a powerful and rich arts establishment that is organized from the top down. Its branches include the MoMA (Nelson Rockefeller's mother was a joint founder), Whitney, Guggenheim, Tate Modern, Pompidou, Menil in Houston, the Los Angeles County Museum, and many, many others with vast resourses and benefactors. The highest price paid for a living artist at auction was a Jeff Koons which recently went for I think $57 million. Damian Hirst has assistants who make dot paintings which he signs and then sells for millions. Try to understand that young impressionable people in art schools are noticing where the money is. They may are may not think about anything other than what is being sold and what it takes to tap into the market, a market fueled by hedge fund wives, Chinese millionaires, and Russian oligarchs all looking for safe spaces to park their loot.

Artists do what they're told to do. They are supplying a market demand like any other manufacturer. If the market demands emptiness and irony they will supply the images, gestures, and what have you. I'm not saying artists have no agency. But they, like anyone else, need to pay the rent and most tend to be poor and in fact stay poor. I don't think they should be judged differently than sport, rock or movie stars. Yes, there are fools who think they are superhuman and Picasso was a god. But, in truth the market demands that artists hold up a mirror that reflects back on the patron what they, the patron, would like to be, what they desire to imitate. Its what the market demands. The artist's image is a more intense and concentrated form of that desire of the patron. So if the patrons are stupid, delusional and antisocial why should their artists be any different?

Jonathan C said...

Great observations. I'm adding this to my list of your greatest hits.

Posts like this are particularly important to me because I'm often thinking about my motivations for my own creative work, and how much I should shift that work toward what would be more popular.

I've always had an internal motivation system that seems nearly impervious to external feedback. But I was fortunate that my internal motivations coincided with things that others considered important at the right time to establish my career. Now, those two things are much less in accord, and now is the time to make decisions about my future directions. Like you, I seem to have been guided by an implicit belief in the transcendental even during my atheist years. But now that I'm Christian again, I need to work through the implications of that so that there's a direct connection from my Christian beliefs to my motivations. Your writing is helping me with that, though I still feel like there's a long way to go.

Bruce Charlton said...

@IA - Sorry I was talking about real Art. What you describe shares the name, but that is all.

Nicholas Fulford said...

An artist is always free to follow their muse, and in fact it is an essential requirement to abandon all masks at the doorway. Art that is authentic - which is any good art - requires that vestment be discarded; that the mind and emotions be open to being inspired - to being stuck full force with inspiration's lightning bolt - out of the blue.

An artist must be concerned with fidelity to his or her muse, to becoming naked enough to create a form that distills and instills the essential/archetypical in a form which has the ability to alter the state of others when they engage with it.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

"I was actually a practical but unacknowledged deist. I really did believe in objective, impersonal standards and goals."

How does deism give you that? If a personal God is the source of standards and goals, how are they impersonal and objective? (This is a sincere question. I still don't understand how belief in God does the philosophical work so many people are convinced it does.)

IA said...

And then you have the problem of forgers. One of the best was the great English forger Eric Hebborn who also wrote about his life and trade. One book, Drawn to Trouble, did just that because he named names of very influential people who's careers and honor were destroyed. One day walking in Rome Hebborn's head ran into a blunt object. No person associated with this occurrence has been found, to my knowledge.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - I explain, with context, in the course of this article

But I use deism to mean a NON-personal deity, and reserve theism for a personal god/s.