Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Art and Ideas

The more I see the more I doubt whether people ever really make aesthetic judgments at all. Everything is judged on political grounds which are then given an aesthetic disguise.
George Orwell

There is a quote by Lewis, but I have given up on finding it, that even if one could write like (Thomas) Traherne, one wouldn't be allowed to, because every dictate of style is in fact a directive of what one may write about. Something similar to Orwell's idea there.

People will say they admire a work of art because it was done well, even though they disagree with its message. That is far less possible for me than it is for others. I suppose one can admire skill most easily in one's own field, so that one trained in classic ballet can be impressed by a Martha Graham troupe even while finding it infuriating, or a playwright enjoy well-written dialogue in a play advocating virtues opposing his own. But even in arts that I know something about I do not find such an adjustment easy. If the theme the artist is putting forth is one I hate, root and branch, I cannot enter in to admire it.*

My view is the more common, far more common, in all cultures until recently. Art for it's own sake, art as something noble in itself rather than as a vehicle for real virtues, would not have been a meaningful concept for most of our ancestors. Once we grasp that, we see Orwell's and Lewis's words in a different light. To value artistic skill regardless of the use to which it is put is not a neutral vision of art and skill, but a very emphatic statement about them. It is a claim that we should value artistic skill more than our faith, or our philosophies, that it has a claim of virtue all its own.

So also with other ideas that have been elevated over the last few centuries. We consider it a good thing to be open-minded, and to have an exchange of ideas. Maybe so, but Jesus didn't seem to think so. His aim, and that of his immediate followers, was to tell things, not learn what their ideas were and affirm them. We may imagine that Jesus would be different in 21st C America, but I think imagination would be our only basis for thinking so.

*I don't have to like all aspects of it. I get more out of hip-hop than most people my age, even though I find much of it musically appalling, because it at least has more narrative than most other popular music, which since the 50's has often been based on a single thought repeated endlessly (Hey Jude, supposedly one of the great pop-rock anthems, for example). Even the objectionable parts can be values conflicts based around other recognisable values, rather than the mere negation of virtues or complete narcissism of much popular music. Sometimes I don't much care if the music is particularly skilled or not, so long as it has quiddity - that it exemplifies peasant folk dance or operatic solo or Western Swing fairly well.


Alex said...

This notion can probably be found in the Oxford Anthology of Platitudes, but the art of any epoch reflects (or perhaps 'reifies') the Spirit of the Age, I think.

Unless you believe that changing aesthetic considerations ultimately express universal truths?

Cassandra said...

Everything is judged on political grounds which are then given an aesthetic disguise.

Or perhaps our political beliefs spring from our aesthetics?

I've always thought so. Interesting quote.

Texan99 said...

I've heard that, after William Faulkner toiled in Hollywood as a screenwriter for a while, he had a minor breakdown and typed many pages reading endlessly "Boy meets girl. Boy meets girl. Boy meets girl." It's a pretty good description of most movies and popular songs.

I have a hard time with even highly skilled writers if they annoy me too much with their moral or political views. On the other hand, I can tolerate some pretty pedestrian writing from someone whose moral and political views are consonant with mine.

One the other hand, in poetry, all I seem to care about is the form. I still love Thomas Hardy's poem "If but some vengeful god would call to me . . . ." though I deplore the sentiment, while I can't bear horribly written but orthodox poetry.