Do we make the assumption that art is good for us? If so, on what evidence do we base that assumption? There are intelligent voices ready to tell us that it is.
But really if you want to see the value of the arts, and its contestation, all you need do is look at the struggle that is currently taking place in the UK to maintain arts funding in the face of a neo-liberal austerity drive. A discourse that is strictly along the lines of:
“Yeah I know but, like, in the end what is it really worth?”
“Ha, an arts degree, what good is that in the world?” Etc.
They might have a point. [Says a man with two.]
In funding wars, art generally gets placed in opposition to science, maths, engineering, computing. What we might call "the practical skills." This argument is kind of long, and boring, and dumb, and is often premised on a harshly economic basis, whereby the fact that arts don’t "make any money" is a reason not to fund them. But anyway. Putting to one side the study of art and munificence thereof—the question here really is: Is art a benevolent force?
And this is often how the counterargument to the above goes—the idea that there is something intrinsically good in art, that it is a good thing to have in the world. Bataille called us the "art making animal," after all. Alain de Botton, meanwhile, says this:
It is a therapeutic medium that can guide, exhort, strengthen and console its viewers, helping them to become better versions of themselves.
Note that he says its viewers. So just looking at art makes you a better person. To me this all sounds a bit Victorian, as in, "if we were all just a bit more civilized, we’d all be much happier." And, you know, for as much as this is true I don’t think it’s the biggest revelation. But maybe what he’s really talking about is self-actualization. OED definition:
The realization or fulfilment of one’s talents and potentialities, especially considered as a drive or need present in everyone.
Self-actualization tops Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs. And art? It's a form of generally "purposeless" self-expression that equates to self-actualization, in the sense that we all need "to release our inner poetry," and can do so by learning to appreciate other people’s work.
And there’s a corollary to this: that art somehow gives our existence a context through which we can understand it (this function would seem to be increasingly important within today’s entropic and disorientating atmosphere). I’d add two other facets to our idea of the "goodness" of art:
1. Art as the voice of dissent/freedom. The subversive element; a voice of truth.
2. And a religious idea: art as a vehicle of mysticism; fetishism; spiritualism.
This is how we consider art to be morally good. Our topic is conscience, that’s what we’re talking about here, we’re saying that art is morally good.
But not everyone agrees.
Rembrandt van Rijn, A Polish Nobleman, 1637
Most notably, of course, Plato: the banishment of the poets by the philosopher king in book ten of The Republic. They pretend to know things, but in fact they know nothing. They portray the worst part of souls (i.e. not the rational part) and they’re two steps away from the platonic world of forms, even further away than reality itself. Crazy stuff. Although, he does say he would let them back in, if someone talked him round. But then he died.
Aristotle was pro: The Poetics, Katharsis, etc.
Then there’s Hegel. In one sense, he’s very pro. Art sits alongside Religion and Philosophy as it expresses Geist (spirit) too, expressed in made things, visibly or audibly perceivable. The sensuous expression of this is beauty. He also expounds "comes consciousness of itself"—and this happens most easily through perception (it's that idea of self-actualization again). Hegel was a fan of figurative art. He’d spend his time looking at Rembrandt. (And back then, you couldn’t get art on your phone, or in a book. You actually had to travel to where it was.)
Given that Hegel was a contemporary of both Beethoven and Goethe, it's surprising that he also thought the need for art would fade away, that the need for it would end as Geist reaches its full realization, bringing with it the "end of art" as thing. Or perhaps he was just incredibly perceptive, and looked around, and thought, it can’t get any better than this. His point of view also had a lot to do with the fact he saw art progressing historically from the symbolic, the classical, the romantic.
In terms of philosophy and art this is all the classical stuff. The modern starts with Nietzsche:
The existence of the world is justified only as an aesthetic phenomena.
This quote is from the reissue introduction, An Attempt at Self-Criticism, to his first book, The Birth of Tragedy that he wrote 14 years earlier. Nietzsche was the first one to fully introduce the idea of the ambiguity of art. In The Birth of Tragedy, he opposed Apollonian impulses (rational, ordered) against Dionysian impulses (wild/irrational, chaotic, untamed, drunk, etc.) and gave examples of each, but the much more fun part is the introduction. [I recommend you read the little section in footnote, he is wild.]
Nietzsche ties art to a profoundly ambiguous morality; he kind of agrees with Hegel that it is sign of our human predicament, but without Hegel’s utopian teleology. He sees our need for art pessimistically, that it comes about because we are the most contradictory of beings. He talks about something profoundly human, that touches on the unconscious (in both a Freudian and Jungian way), a spirit within us. Bataille was influenced by Nietzsche after all. But he definitely doesn't consider art as good per se.
Luigi Russolo, The Revolt, 1911, Collection: Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague © The Estate of Luigi Russolo
It’s important that Nietzsche places art within the phenomenal world in the final sentence, because next up is Heidegger. But before we get there, it's worth thinking about what art came after Nietzsche, post-"god is dead": your avant garde movements like DADA, Surrealism, Futurism, German Expressionism. DADA was important because, you know, this was killing off God (probably last expressed by Picasso) and of course the Futurists, along with Dalí, were sucked into fascism.
Which brings us nicely to Heidegger. [Bad joke.]
In his "post-turn" work Heidegger redeems art as an unmitigated force for good. In his essay "What Are Poets For?" he argues that it is the only point of access to re-find the spiritual dimension, to re-find the gods [note the plural]. The lack of religious sense is something Heidegger thinks is terrible for humanity—he talks of the abyss, and so on.
Art, or "poetic thinking" is also an important counterfoil to "technological thinking," an idea that is expressed in a number of different permutations in Heidegger. The thing with Heidegger is that he’s a phenomenologist. So he brings all these grand ideas down to the point of experiencing reality: technological thinking is where everything you see is weighed and assessed for value, an objective/use value, whereas poetic thinking is where you see the value of the thing in itself. [Maybe a morality of the heart.]
There is a strongly moral dimension to poetic thinking. It's religious to the point of perception. Heidegger's assessment of the prevalence of technological thinking is dire (this was all before we lived in a world with the prevailing economic system).
It’s worth noting that what Heidegger has done is, in a way, invert Plato's ideas, in that instead of art taking us away from a metaphysical plane, it brings us closer to a kind of metaphysical plane in the world, in Being—although technically, it’s not metaphysical, it's actually the opposite.
If you search around for how these ideas might be seen in art roughly contemporary to Heidegger, it could be as prosaic as pop music, songs with lyrics (he believed poetry was the preeminent art form), or you could find this religious encounter in Abstract Expressionism.
To quote Barnett Newman in The Plasmic Image:
Surrealism is interested in a dream world that will penetrate the human psyche. To that extent it is a mundane expression… the present painter is concerned not with his own feelings or with the mystery of his own personality, but with the penetration into the world of mystery. His imagination is therefore attempting to dig into metaphysical secrets. To that extent his art is concerned with the sublime.
So, the sublime being a good thing. Which brings us to today, and a very different world from the 1950s. And the question we come up against are:
How do we understand morality today?
and its two subsidiaries:
Where do we as individuals discover it?
How do we as a society express it?
Hans Bellmer, La Poupée Poupée, 1935-6. Collection: Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d' Art moderne, Paris
Michael Sandel frames our problems within a pluralist society quite well. Morality is based on the idea of what good is, the Aristotelian "good life," but in a world of "free" individuals we all have different ideas of what this might be. Society always places boundaries on freedom, some not significantly contested, like basic laws, others more so, like more benign modes of behavior. The tension arises from negotiating the boundaries between these two things: the interaction between society and the individual.
A nice analogy for me here is that it’s like the eternal tension of being a critic, the challenge you face when writing about art: part wants to be the objective voice, the one who judges value and shares those values with others—but this is dictatorial. The other part retreats to subjectivity and only puts forward an individual opinion—but this lacks authority.
The situation today is that the market has stepped into this void: money is presented as objective, not only a shorthand to allow individuals to have all the things they want, but also a "free" system whereby the collective subjectivities together form a "true" objectivity. In politics, this is most often presented as the idea that what is good for the economy is good for us all—or in art, as with many other things, that would mean, what is expensive is good.
Now sure, there are many different ways to attack the idea that what is expensive is good: it’s enough to use your own eyes and brain—but this idea isn't very popular. Just go and try to be a critic at an art fair, and you very quickly realize that you’re singing from the wrong hymn sheet, because any contrary voice is made to look like it’s a spanner to the smooth running of the machine that is good for us all. And it is.
Jeremy Deller, Battle of Orgreave, Dir. Mike Figgis, film still. © Jeremy Deller. Commissioned and produced by Artangel
In The Perfect Crime the grumpy old man that was Jean Baudrillard fiercely critiqued the art world for creating the value system by which it is judged. The art market is a very "pure" capitalist market: the value attached to art objects is "free" value, created by the market itself. And the relationship between the art world and the art market is very unclear, the one having permeated the other. The things about value systems created by themselves is that they are very far from the moral ideal as we understand it: as in what we think of as the right way to live, the right way to act. It’s the problem when the proxy becomes the thing itself; instead of being a conduit to the good life, it is what’s perceived as the good life.
Now, don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying that art doesn’t have any purchase in this situation, that there aren’t a million acts and gestures in response, but maybe we’re back again with De Certeau’s individual tactics against the strategies of market structures [see footnote 1]. The problem is that in order to establish a platform, you have to conform to certain standards, most simply put, you need to have value.
One of the most high profile tactics used by artists in this situation brings us back to Nietzsche’s ambiguity. This ambiguity allows artists to do tricky things—Jeff Koons being an easy example. He is, in a sense, the master of both having his cake and eating it. Shiny pretty kitsch that sells for millions of dollars and, through its total shiny pretty kitchness, critiques the market for paying millions of dollars for such shiny crap, crap that is also kind of beautiful.
In part this is preserving the essential unstable core of a genuine piece of art, and in another it’s getting trapped into a dilemma similar to the one put forward by Sandel: refusing to be one thing or another. While this is one artist’s problem, if we look at art as a whole there is one thing we can guarantee: it will always be appropriated by the dominant orthodoxy of the day, be that Christianity, Totalitarianism, or Capitalism, so the problem we face is in a way the same problem Koons faces: when the dollar signs are this large, critique of the system becomes a difficult exercise.
This is perhaps the ultimate dishonesty of art, that it will never be pinned down; it will never be one thing. So, while it might become a toy for the whims of the world’s uber-rich and a system entirely designed to favor them, at the same time it also presents one of the few means to attack and subvert those systems and attitudes.
In the end maybe this is the bottom line: we can’t expect or imagine art to have a moral compass, and, in its multiplicity and uncertainty, its impenetrability, it seems doubtful that art comprises a formula to make us all better people. It’s maybe wilful utopianism (or desperation) to imagine that it is. It also perhaps begs the question of whether or not it’s actually down to art to make the world better. Surely that would, collectively, be our job. If we want better art, we’d need to make a better world first.
 In Britain Alain de Botton has that humanistic thing going on where the viewing of art is all personal development and the growth of the individual. Whereas for Michel de Certeau art could be a repertoire of tactics, a way to tackle the ‘strategic’ structure, a means of achieving individual autonomy. If you stretch your imagination you could imagine art as a means to short circuit Pierre Bourdieau’s structures of power, the ‘artist’ as a class has traditionally sat outside the rigid strictures of class and social standing. These are three basically arbitrary examples.
 They are not practical.
 Any discussion around Hegel and Aesthetics is often dominated by his “End of Art Thesis - Hegel’s Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Arts." (Translated by T. M. Knox. Oxford; The Clarendon Press, 1975. 10).
“the book acknowledges only an artist’s meaning behind all that happens—a ‘god’ if you will, but certainly only an utterly unscrupulous and amoral artist-god who frees himself form the dire pressure of fullness and over-fullness, from suffering the oppositions packed within him, and who wishes to become conscious of his autarchic power and constant delight and desire, whether he is building or destroying, whether acting benignly or malevolently. The world as release and redemption of god, achieved at each and every moment, as the eternally changing, eternally new vision of the most suffering being of all, the being most full of oppositions and contradictions, able to redeem and release itself only in semblance; one may say that this whole artist’s metaphysics is capricious, otiose, fantastical—but its essential feature is that it already betrays a spirit which will defend itself one day, whatever the danger, against the moral interpretation and significance of existence. Here, perhaps for the first time, a pessimism ‘beyond good and evil’ announces itself, here that perverse mentality itself within the phenomenal world, to degrade it and to place it not merely among the phenomena, but even among the deceptions, as semblance, delusions, error, interpretation, manipulation, art.” [italics are mine]
 For Heidegger this idea was connected to Hegel’s idea of the progression of art. In the symbolic era art is a form of communication with the gods, you make art to make the gods happy and get something you want, i.e. an animal in the hunt. In the classical period the art became the god, so classical sculpture, in the Greek temple etc., is actually a physical manifestation of the god itself, example of this perhaps being the oracle at Delphi. In the romantic period the image of man replaces the image of god, both in art and in actual Christianity. In art it is best represented by the figure of the genius, this is a combination of god and man. So far so good, from there, for Heidegger, we begin to realise that the figure of the man-god is just a chimera and nothing lies behind it, nothing other than the absence of the gods, the empty space where the gods once were before we scared them off. For this reason all kinds of pantheistic beliefs have been attached to him, and probably not without good reason.
 Contemporary examples of this kind of spiritual art might be Olafur Eliasson or Matthew Barney.
 One of the other problems of the art market is that it isn’t entirely ineffective as a means of judging work, the most expensive living artists are people you kind of need to respect as valuable artists in one way or another, even if it’s uncertain they will be remembered as the greatest of their generation in one hundred years.
 If you want more effective examples of critique than Koons, I could give you Barbara Kruger’s “When I hear the world culture I take out my checkbook,” Jenny Holzer “Protect me from what I want,” Jeremy Deller’s reconstructions, or Aleksandr Brener’s suprematist gesture. These are obviously a fraction, and it’s an interesting question to ask: who offers the strongest critique of capitalism through their work?
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