The Arts and Morality

I would like to take as my text a brief passage from a lecture Lionel Trilling gave at Harvard University in 1970. His topic is sincerity and he has this to say about literature and the universality of the messages we receive when we take it seriously:

“Generally our awareness of the differences between the moral assumptions of one culture and those of another is so developed and active that we find it hard to believe there is any such thing as essential human nature; but we all know moments when these differences, as literature attests to them, seem to make no difference, seem scarcely to exist. We read the Iliad or the plays of Sophocles or Shakespeare and they come so close to our hearts and minds that they put to rout, or into abeyance, our instructed consciousness of the moral life as it is conditioned by a particular culture — they persuade us that human nature never varies, that the moral life is unitary and its terms perennial, and that only a busy intruding pedantry could ever have suggested otherwise.”

I shall begin by confessing that I have devoted a majority of my life to the defense of both literature and the universality of certain fundamental moral precepts — such precepts as justice and human rights, which I insist are at the core of every civilized (and indeed uncivilized) society and whatever religion they happen to practice. Trilling is suggesting there is a connection and I suspect he is right.

But I would add all of the arts, including dance, painting, music, and poetry to the list of things that demonstrate the universality of what we call “human nature.” The arts, and naturally literature as one of the core elements of the fine arts, prove indubitably that we are all basically alike despite our superficial differences. What this means is that as human beings who share a common nature, we are held to the same ideals regardless of our cultural or historical differences. As Trilling suggests, those differences make no difference. We all espouse justice, fairness and the rights of others as fundamental principles of a common moral code. We may view this code differently or stress different elements at one time or another — shrinking or expanding our grasp of what constitutes justice and allowing or disallowing that some who have been denied also have rights. Moreover, we may espouse those universal principles and yet refuse to act on them. But when push comes to shove, or when we stop and think “what if….?” we realize that we all demand fairness, justice and the recognition of our human rights, though, of late, we may tend ignore the responsibilities that go along with rights..

The fine arts, including literature, attest to the correctness of those demands. They demonstrate as cannot be otherwise demonstrated that we are all fundamentally alike. We share Achilles’ outrage at his treatment by Agamemnon despite the fact that he lived in a different culture ages ago. We commiserate with the seventeenth century French playwright Molière’s character Alceste when he comes to realize that one must play a role to succeed in the real world. We suspect this is a profound truth, even in our day. We can feel the hatred that permeates the soul of Keiko, one of the main characters in Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness, and share Okonkwo’s outrage over the presumption of the Christian missionaries in their attempts to colonize his country in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

Moreover, when we view a painting or see our fellow humans dance or hear them sing (despite the fact that we cannot understand the words) we respond, as Trilling says, with our hearts and minds to the same emotions or others very much like those of the artists themselves. We note the presence in symphony orchestras of people of different ethnic backgrounds and from different countries who tap deep into the emotions of the composers of their European music and project it into the audience made up of a heterogeneous grouping of their fellow humans and we share a common experience.

Thus, when we hear that “it is all relative,” and that we shouldn’t be “judgmental” because we are all different, we know this is at best a half-truth, a “busy, intruding pedantry.” We are all different in so many ways as those who would ride the “Identity Politics” horse would insist. But at the core we are all the same and when we do the right thing or the wrong thing we know that this can be seen and recognized by our fellow humans who also seek in their own way to do the right thing or avoid the wrong thing. We all seek the moral high ground — or if we don’t we should.

The fine arts demonstrate in no uncertain terms that we all suffer outrages and seek approval and love in the same way and take delight in the same joys and are repulsed by the same atrocities committed by those who seem very real though they be mere “fictions,” products of an artist’s imagination. This is why we read and why we open our eyes to the beauty that surrounds us in whatever form it may take. Because it deepens our sensibilities and makes each of us a little more human.

 

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Antiques Roadshow

Several years ago I posted a piece about the popular PBS show “Antiques Roadshow” where folks bring in their treasures to find out what they are worth. I want to expand the point I was making at that time. As you assuredly know, folks dust off the antique vase that has been sitting in the attic for years collecting dust and stand in line for hours to ask an “expert” how much it’s worth. The underlying assumption here is that value is a  function of cost. We want to quantify everything and cannot accept any sort of value in our world aside from cash value.

Except, perhaps, utilitarian value: what can it do? We do readily recognize this sort of value: the vase can hold flowers. But there are other kinds of value as well, such as  sentimental value, the value of colors on a canvass, and, what interests me most, moral and aesthetic value. Why have these sorts of value gone by the board? I wonder.

In fact, I have wondered about this for years and some time ago I even wrote a book about it titled Rediscovering Values in which I defined values (aesthetic and moral values) in the following manner:

“Values are regional properties of objects or events that ‘require’ a positive response on the part of anyone who considers the object or event with discernment.”

Now this sounds a bit technical, but it is easily unpacked.  My main point is that values are putatively “there” in the world. The “requiredness” of which I speak is a notion developed by the gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Köhler and it refers the quality of the smile of the baby, or the regional properties evident in the act of a starving child who takes the bread he is offered and hands it to his younger sister. I don’t speak of the feelings these things evoke in us, I speak about the act itself or the smile itself which provoke those feelings. In addition, requiredness may simply refer to the strong sense of necessity that attaches itself to the conclusion of a valid syllogism or the final line in a mathematical equation. When we see that A is greater than B and B is greater than C we are “required” to acknowledge that A must be greater than C. Our world is full of properties in the region of objects and events that make them more interesting and important to us, that “require” positive or even, at times, negative responses. These qualities are all around us if we only open our eyes and ears.

Thus I also talk about the “discernment” of the one who responds to those values and this is equally important. Discernment is a function of experience, sensitivity, and imagination. Those who have lived in the art world for much of their lives, like our friend “Zeebra” for example, tend to be much more discerning judges of works of art than the rest of us. Those who have suffered through many trials in the world, or experienced them vicariously in well-written novels, are in a better place to respond to the regional properties we call “moral values.” It is possible, of course, that there are people who are born with an innate ability to respond to certain values — a heightened development at birth of the right side of the brain, perhaps. But experience, sensitivity, and imagination play a very big role. And experience and imagination are not, by and large, valued by our culture (sorry!). We prefer to reduce all value to quantities we can measure and add or subtract with our electronic devices that tell us all we think we need to know about our world.

But, if I am right, we miss a great deal in this sort of reductionism. We miss the many features of the world that the artist sees, the many sounds the musician hears, the subtle movements the dancer sees, and even the beauty of a well-hit tennis shot or a fade-away jump shot. These things take training (experience), and sensitivity. And they take imagination and at times effort. One needs to look around and one needs to open oneself to the “regional properties” of objects or events that surround us and attend to them long enough to allow those properties to make an impression.

Instead of taking the vase out of the attic and dusting it off and then taking it to an expert to find out how much it is worth, we would be better off dusting it off and placing it near us, perhaps with freshly cut flowers, so we can appreciate its many beautiful properties and those of the flowers, both visual and olfactory. It may not be “worth” much in dollars and cents, but it may be worth a great deal as an object that can make our world richer and fuller.

Conrad’s Art

I take it as given that Joseph Conrad was a consummate artist. He worked at his craft devotedly and somewhat self-consciously. An excess of self-consciousness would have flawed the finished product which, in my view, was seldom if ever flawed. The artist must know when to “let go” and let his or her work have its head. Conrad knew. His novels are beautifully written and filled with insights into the human condition, powerful images, and flowing prose. It beggars belief that this man was writing in his third language — after his native Polish and, later, French. He was convinced that English allowed him to better express the subtleties of language and evoke the most powerful images.

Take the following brief descriptions as an example — selected almost at random from Conrad’s novel Chance:

“As often happens after a grey daybreak the sun had risen in a warm and glorious splendor above the smooth immense gleam of the enlarged estuary. Wisps of mist floated like trails of luminous dust, and in the dazzling reflections of water and vapor, the shores had the murky, semi-transparent darkness of shadows cast mysteriously from below.”

And again:

“It was in the trade winds, at night, under a velvety, bespangled sky, a great multitude of stars watching the shadows of the sea gleaming mysteriously in the wake of the ship; while the leisurely swishing of the water to leeward was like a drowsy comment on her progress.”

Or, finally:

“The night of the town with its strings of lights, rigid, and crossed like a net of flames thrown over the somber immensity of walls, closed round him, with its artificial brilliance overhung by an emphatic blackness, its unnatural animation of a restless, overdriven humanity.

Art requires imagination, not only on the part of the artist, but also of the spectator. Fully appreciating art requires of the spectator a suspension of the critical, discursive faculties and the willingness to embrace the work on its own terms. Conrad worked very hard to present in his novels hints and suggestions that pointed just beyond the words themselves and which demanded of his reader an effort, a willingness to engage the work fully in its own terms. Some have characterized his works as “impressionistic.” As Conrad himself tells us:

“[The artist] speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain: to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation — and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts  in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity — the dead to the living and the living to the unborn. . . .

“All art appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its high desire is to reach the secret springs of emotion. . . . My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all else, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything.”

Art cannot be translated. It must be met on its own ground. And to the extent that we are unwilling to make the effort and open ourselves to the wonders that art can make available to us our world shrinks and diminishes. When we mistake mere entertainment for true art, demand that we be allowed to remain passive while the work dulls our senses, we move farther away from that which has the capacity to open to us a world we will otherwise remain blind to throughout our lives. The artist works in three-dimensions and we ignore his or her work at the risk of reducing our world to two dimensions and missing out on what might otherwise allow us to grow and to see and feel things that we must otherwise completely miss.

This is why we read. This is why we listen carefully to music. This is why we visit galleries and concert halls and witness the elegance of human bodies in motion. Conrad knew whereof he spoke, and he spoke of writing as only one of many forms of art. As we gradually become less and less willing to make the effort his words will fall on the ears of increasing numbers of people who will simply not know whereof he speaks. Because, above all else, engaging art fully requires an effort of imagination and in our modern world imagination is held in low esteem, art is regarded as frivolous, we are reluctant to expend effort, and we settle increasingly for mere entertainment as our senses become slowly but surely dulled and our world shrinks accordingly.

Standards of Taste

In my view one of the most interesting debates, and one I have discussed before in these blogs, is the one among those who insist upon or deny the possibility of standards of taste — especially in the fine arts. We hear all too often that beauty, for example, is a matter of taste. You like popular music and I do not. I prefer Rembrandt to Rockwell, whereas you think I am a snob. Indeed, the disagreement can become heated and often lowers itself, as do many debates, to the level of the ad hominem — attacks on the person. I may or may not be a snob, but my preference for Rembrandt over Rockwell doesn’t rest at that level. There may actually be something about Rembrandt’s work that makes him a better painter and his works truly more beautiful (if we can use that word any more). Or is it all a matter of taste about which there can be no dispute?

It is assuredly the case that taste differs widely among various people and that one’s taste changes as he or she grows older. But it is also the case that the change may well mark an improvement and that there is such a thing as “refined” taste. If I grow up listening only to pop music and never hear a symphony I am not really in a position to judge whether classical music is or is not somehow better (more beautiful?) than popular music. If I have read a great deal of literature it would seem that I am in a better position to judge of a new work if it is truly worth reading or a waste of time than I would be if I never read anything but comic books. I may even be in a better position to say if it is “great” — though, again, we retreat from such words these days. The point is that there may not be such a thing as a standard of taste, but there may be subtle differences in works of art and literature that are only perceived by those in a position to recognize them: those who have a more refined taste, which is acquired with wide experience. This is true even in the case of fine wine and tea. It is said that there are experts who can discern hundreds of different varieties of tea just from tasting them. And we all know folks (I am not one of them) who seem to be able to detect certain qualities of the wine they are tasting that the rest of us seem to miss.

The man who addressed this interesting issue and seems to have made the most sense of it was David Hume in the nineteenth century. In his essay on the “Standard of Taste,” he remarks:

It appears then, that amidst all the variety and caprice of taste, there are certain general principles of approbation or blame, whose influence a careful eye may trace in all operations of the mind. Some particular forms or qualities, from the original structure of the internal fabric, are calculated to please, and others to displease; and if they fail of their effect in any particular instance, it is from some apparent defect or imperfection in the organ. A man in a fever would not insist on his palate as able to decide concerning flavours; nor would one, affected with the jaundice, pretend to give a verdict with regard to colours. In each creature, there is a sound and a defective state; and the former alone can be supposed to afford us a true standard of taste and sentiment. If, in the sound state of the organ, there be an entire or a considerable uniformity of sentiment among men, we may thence derive an idea of the perfect beauty; in like manner as the appearance of objects in day-light, to the eye of a man in health, is denominated their true and real colour, even while colour is allowed to be merely a phantasm of the senses.

In a word, if I am color-blind, I am not in a position to judge the worth of a painting. If I am tone-deaf, I cannot possibly discern the subtleties of a complex piece of music. And if I have no experience whatever with great art and literature, I am not qualified to judge such things. The notion that there is such a thing as “good taste” is often labelled as “elitism,” which once again lowers the discussion to the level of the ad hominem. It is not elitist to recognize the differences among persons who are or are not in a position to judge the worth of various objects. There may not be an indisputable standard of taste, as Hume suggests, but, as he also suggests, there are qualities in objects that announce themselves to those who are in a position to hear them or see them. As Hume admitted, the expert is noted for his or her “strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of prejudice . . .” Some people are simply in a better position to judge of works of art, say, than are others. I do not speak of myself, but I know of people whose opinions seem to me to be well informed and I know enough to listen carefully to what they say. There may be no disputing taste, but it makes perfectly good sense to speak about those who have “good taste,”  those who know whereof they speak, and those who do not.

D.I.C.

One of the sobering consequences of the revolution that has placed electronic toys in the hands of everyone who can hold one is what I would call “D.I.C.”  — diminished imaginative capacity. By coining this term I join with others who seem to love to make up names, and especially acronyms, for common events and phenomena in order to seem more learned. (We need not dwell on the acronym in this case!) The electronic toys the kids play with today and the movies they see do not require that they use their imaginations at all: they are loud, graphic, vivid, and present themselves to a largely passive audience. All the person has to do is sit and watch, or play with a joy stick, and their world is at their finger-tips with all its violence and noise. And because they read far less than their parents and grandparents and visit fewer art galleries, dance recitals, or symphony performances, this is of considerable concern: it is symptomatic.

To begin with, the appreciation of all great art and literature requires an effort of imagination. Take Joseph Conrad, for example. Despite working in a second language, his vocabulary is very rich. Further, He is what many have called an “impressionistic” writer and this causes problems for many readers for two reasons. Thus, Conrad’s rich vocabulary requires an extensive knowledge of words on the part of a reader. But more to the point, Conrad leaves gaps and spaces in his writing that require an imaginative effort on the part of the reader in order to engage his writing fully. And the effort is one that a great many people are unwilling or unable to make, especially given their shrunken vocabularies of late. The same might be said of the highly imaginative Shakespeare whose language is rapidly becoming foreign to growing numbers of young people. But the list of writers who demand an effort on the part of their readers could be added to endlessly. And the same could be said for art and music: they require an effort of imagination to engage the works fully. So, the question before us is: Why should anyone make the effort when they can pick up an electronic device, push buttons, sit back, and let the thrills begin? The answer is that very few are, in fact, willing to make the effort.

The results of all this have been analyzed and cataloged by a number of psychologists who have shown that the young, especially, are going forth into a complicated world with short attention spans and what amounts to a form of brain damage. They cannot attend to any subject, especially one that doesn’t interest them, for any significant length of time; further, portions of their brains are simply not developed. There is, indeed, quite a controversy among so-called experts about whether these people will or will not be able to cope in the future. I have written about it in previous blogs and choose not to repeat myself here. But the evidence suggests that it will be increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for these people to think their way through complex issues or use their imaginations to consider alternative consequences of future actions. And this is serious, indeed.

Moreover, I worry about the loss of capacity to imagine when it comes to great literature and great art because it means that these things will simply slide into oblivion, pushed aside by a growing number of people whose interest is focused on the immediate present and the graphic nature of the images and sounds that issue forth from their electronic toys that require no effort whatever. It may not be a problem on the scale of global warming, but coupled with that problem — and others of major proportions — it does not bode well for the future. Those who solve the problems we face now and in the future will have to use their analytic powers and, above all else, their imaginations. So, on the growing list of things that ought to have our undivided attention, we most assuredly should add D.I.C. and insist that the schools continue to require literature and art and that teachers discourage the use of toys as a substitute for those activities that will fully engage their minds and hearts. If only the teachers would….

Useless Studies

In reading “Cross Currents,” the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences magazine from Northwestern University, I came across a story written by Phyllis Billington who graduated from that university in 1949 with a major in philosophy. Asked why on earth she majored in philosophy, she responded “I never could have gotten through life without it. Philosophy taught me to analyze, to see what was important, to keep my mind open but not to be afraid of convictions.” Mrs. Billington also studied piano on a Fulbright and was a cover-girl for McCall’s magazine. She studied harpsichord in Belgium with a concert performer trained by the  world-famous Wanda Landowska. A most impressive resumé, indeed!

But Mrs Billington’s response to the question of why on earth she majored in philosophy (especially in the 1940’s) was what intrigued me about the article. Of course, it was easier to study “useless” subjects in the 40s of the last century as the pressure to study something practical, something with immediate cash value, hadn’t yet begun to mount. But it was still quire remarkable, especially for a woman at that time. (That’s not a sexist remark: there simply weren’t that many women in college in the 1940s, much less majoring in philosophy! In fact, there weren’t that many men studying philosophy then or now.)

Philosophy is one of those “useless” subjects, along with English and History, that have come into disrepute these days as the colleges and universities shift their emphasis to vocational studies. Since the 50s, especially, the stress has been on the useful subjects — for the reasons already mentioned. But it is precisely the useless subjects that are the most valuable. After all, utility is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Useful, practical courses in college, courses designed to get the student the first job, teach students know-how. Seldom do they concern themselves with know-why. It is the liberal studies, the useless courses, that help us to understand the why of things. These are the courses that push us to a deeper understanding of the world around us and have permanent value — as reflected in Mrs. Billington’s remarks.

I also studied philosophy and my wife majored in Latin in college. We both had to answer those embarrassing questions: what will you do with THAT? And neither of us had the insightful answer Mrs. Billington had in response to the same question. Usually when I tell people I studied and taught philosophy I am met with embarrassed silence, or, perhaps, a smile and a “Oh yes, that’s where people lie on a couch and you ask them questions!” Not really. But we do ask questions, questions that don’t even have answers as a rule. Those are the only questions worth asking, but many people find that sort of thing frustrating as they want simple answers to complex questions (which explains the popularity of demagogues like Rush Limbaugh). But asking questions is the way we start out in life and it is what allows the mind to gain nourishment and grow. It’s all about keeping the mind alive. Thanks for reminding me, Mrs. Billington!