Is Art a force for good in the world?
I don’t often ponder this question, perhaps because my whole life is predicated on the deep-seated faith that it is.
This is why reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Discourse on arts and sciences” — as strong a case against Art as I know of — triggers strong resistance and frustration in me. My first impulse is to cast aside his arguments as absurd slander. But I learned to know better than to hope that following this impulse will make these arguments go away; this kind of resistance is a certain sign that there is something there worth exploring with an open mind, with a will to understand. What if Art is really complicit in the worst of social ills?
Here is Rousseau’s charge:
The mind has its needs, just as the body does. The latter are the foundations of society; from the former emerge the pleasures of society. While government and laws take care of the security and the well being of men in groups, the sciences, letters, and the arts, less despotic and perhaps more powerful, spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains which weigh men down, snuffing out in them the feeling of that original liberty for which they appear to have been born, and make them love their slavery by turning them into what are called civilized people. Need has raised thrones; the sciences and the arts have strengthened them. You earthly powers, cherish talents and protect those who nurture them.
Spreading garlands of flowers over the iron chains which weigh us down, making us love our slavery — this is the core of Rousseau’s case against arts and sciences.
Guilty or not guilty?
What can Art say in its defence?
Art could perhaps say that now those chains do not exist anymore — or, at the very least, that they aren’t as heavy as they used to be in Rousseau’s time; that, rather than hiding the chains, arts and sciences have loosened them. After all, we live in a democracy, not in a monarchy; we aren’t really slaves, are we? But Rousseau looks deeper than that. The chains he speaks about are an inherent part of civilised society. If anything, they might have grown even heavier in the intervening centuries:
One does not dare to appear as what one is. And in this perpetual constraint, men who make up this herd we call society, placed in the same circumstances, will all do the same things, unless more powerful motives prevent them.
It isn’t hard to recognise ourselves in this description. The heavy social chains are now internalised so fully that, quite often, one doesn’t even know what one is — and if one does, it takes uncommon courage to show it. It is not that the chains have become looser or lighter, Rousseau would say, — it’s just that we now love and cherish our slavery even more. Our “comfort zones” grow smaller and smaller by the day, beyond Rousseau’s wildest imagination: just finding oneself outside the ubiquitous reach of invisible internet and cellular “chains”, however briefly, is often enough to make one feel uncomfortably disconnected.
Art could perhaps say that now — more so than in the eighteenth century France — it is a means of social critique, a champion of self-knowledge and authenticity. It does not spread garlands over the social chains, but rather strives to expose them. But Rousseau’s argument is that, without the decorations supplied by the arts, this wouldn’t be needed at all: people would see just the chains for what they are, and break free of them.
William Faulkner said in his Nobel banquet speech that it is the privilege of an artist:
to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.
Rousseau would answer, perhaps, that this is exactly what he meant by spreading garlands over chains. If not for arts and sciences, he would say, people would simply regain “the glory of the past” instead of needing any reminders.
But is it true? — Art could ask.
What if these iron chains, the chains of society, are inevitable — that is, they would have been there with or without Art? Rousseau imagines the original, natural state of man in the form of a solitary “noble savage”, with no need for society beyond an occasional desire for brief female companionship. The original woman, in this theory, would be then more than equipped to raise the resulting offspring by herself and let them go without regrets as soon as they are able to survive on their own. But this state never existed, as far as we know now — our hominid ancestors lived in groups, pre-cursors of “civilised societies”, well before they evolved into humans. And most likely, each of them had to behave like everyone else to survive.
If the chains of society are inherent in being human, then perhaps decorating them with flowery garlands is, indeed, the best we can do to make life bearable and worth living.
This seems like a valid line of defence, but Rousseau goes on to implicate Art more heavily in strengthening these chains, because of its associations with luxury, vanity, and inequality.
“What would we do with the arts, — Rousseau asks, — without the luxury which nourishes them?” “Luxury, — he says, — rarely comes along without the arts and sciences, and they never develop without it.”
Whatever the exact details of this association between arts and luxury, its very existence can hardly be denied. For example, a modern painter’s ability to make a living is inevitably linked to being “priced out” way out of most art lovers’ reach. And without it, even painting as a process becomes a luxury (in fact, I heard it said a couple of times that plein air painting is “the new golf”). Conversely, the ownership of paintings becomes both a luxury and a sign of social status, a way to feel oneself better than others. Echoing Rousseau, what would we do with luxury without luxury items?
And yet it is simply not true that Art cannot exist without luxury — Rousseau couldn’t know about cave paintings, but we do. The needs of the mind had given rise to arts long before there was any luxury to speak of.
Every artist wishes to be applauded. The praises of his contemporaries are the most precious part of his reward. What will he do to obtain that praise if he has the misfortune of being born among a people and in a time when learned men have come into fashion and have seen to it that frivolous young people set the tone, where men have sacrificed their taste to those who tyrannise over their liberty, where one of the sexes dares to approve only what corresponds to the pusillanimity of the other and people let masterpieces of dramatic poetry fall by the wayside and are repelled by works of wonderful harmony? What will that artist do, gentlemen? He will lower his genius to the level of his age and will prefer to create commonplace works which people will admire during his life than marvelous ones which will not be admired until long after his death. <…> If by chance among men of extraordinary talents one finds one who has a firm soul and refuses to lend himself to the spirit of his age and demean himself with puerile works, too bad for him! He will die in poverty and oblivion. I wish I were making a prediction here and not describing experience!
But artists are not alone in being vain, and here, at least, there is a remedy: the artist’s firm soul and their willingness to resist the temptations of social success.
The third of Art’s accomplices is “the fatal inequality introduced among men by distinctions among their talents”:
There you have the most obvious effect of all our studies, and the most dangerous of all their consequences. We no longer ask if a man has integrity, but if he has talent, nor whether a book is useful but if it is well written.The rewards for a witty man are enormous, while virtue remains without honour. <…> The wise man does not run after fortune, but he is not insensitive to glory. And when he sees it so badly distributed, his virtue, which a little praise would have energized and made advantageous to society, collapses, grows sluggish, and dies away in misery and oblivion.
Guilty as charged, I guess, but doesn’t this inequality simply counterbalance even more outrageous inequalities of physical strength, material possessions, and birth?
So, does Art strengthen the chains of luxury, vanity, and inequality — or is it corrupted by them (just like everything else human)? Or both?
Foolishness or courage?
Rousseau completes his Discourse with this statement about their descendants — that is, about us:
And unless they are more foolish than we are, they will lift their hands to heaven and will say in the bitterness of their hearts, “Almighty God, You who hold the minds of men in your hands, deliver us from the enlightenment and the fatal arts of our fathers, and give us back ignorance, innocence, and poverty, the only goods which can make our happiness and which are precious in Your sight.
Perhaps we are more foolish than they were, but I think Rousseau himself realised that there is no way back — just like there is no un-eating Eve’s apple. He points to the origin of arts and sciences from the very beginning — the needs of the mind (and in this context, “mind” stands for everything opposed to “body”, including “soul” and “spirit”). Needs, not superfluous pleasures. So, whatever Art’s sins, the only way out is through.
Is this way dangerous? Yes, it is, and Rousseau shows us its dangers and temptations.
But he also praises courage as an undeniable human virtue — and what is courage if not the willingness to face dangers?
After all, foolishness and courage are often difficult to tell apart…