January 21, 2005

Peering into Shakespeare's mirror: Is art useless?

The separation of art from the exigency of usefulness is one of the more spectacular bifurcations in the history of aesthetics. It is a brilliant example of setting up a dichotomy where none exists—and of the far-reaching consequences of a "mere" philosophical schism. The modern variant of the argument against art as a commodity runs along the following lines: Art is immutable, and therefore cannot be actively used by anyone. Our enjoyment of art and the enlightenment we gain from it stems from passive experience. For instance, we cannot change music as it is being performed. We let the music change us. And since art cannot be used and is an end in itself, it is useless by definition. You were afforded a glimpse of this in an article published last week in these very pages, which went on to assert that art shouldn't need to be useful— the fact that it is aesthetically illuminating ought to be enough for the epicure.

This argument is based on the fact that "use" is a function of direct manipulation. An object is useful only if its functions can be deconstructed to a level of direct manipulative causality. In other words, something that can be changed by the exertion of direct influence for a specific purpose is deemed "useful." However, I would contend that "use" is not a function of active or passive engagement with music, or its mutability, or ownership. Rather, it is a function of the nature and magnitude of the changes it engenders in listeners. Aesthetic illumination is perhaps the most brilliantly useful construct in existence, as it clarifies thought and consolidates dreams.

Art imagines the world as it could be, and therefore draws attention to what it is. By representing some facet of the ideal—its variations or its antithesis—it gives us something concrete to aspire to, something tangible to mold our actions toward creating. Auden once said that poetry makes nothing happen. He was wrong. Poetry alters universes: by characterizing the present, by symbolizing the ideal future, by delineating a path to get from point A to point B, and by laying out the consequences of such a path. History is replete with such examples of just how much art can accomplish. Why else would every dictator in history try to restrict the output of the artists? What makes art and symbolism such superbly effective tools for propaganda and revolution? Why does history repeat itself with such archetypal regularity? Because it is largely based on archetypes. History is enshrined in art, and art, in turn, creates history.

Furthermore, if an artist manages to eloquently portray something that was always experienced but never quite articulated, to coalesce a sensation into a conception (to create golden specters from a single bright beam of sunshine in a dusty room, or a perfect fugue from the footsteps of a cat across the keys of the piano) he has essentially made us see—both in the world and in ourselves—something that we might have missed, something which we might not yet have conceived. Art changes our very perception of reality. Shakespeare spoke of a mirror in his immortal Julius Caesar, a mirror that reveals to the individual what he might have missed in himself, being unable to see himself except by reflection and representation. That is the operational definition of art - something that illuminates facets of thought that had previously languished in darkness. It prevents life full of sound and fury from becoming a tale told by an idiot.

The misinterpretation of poiesis and l'art pour l'art lies in ignoring this distinction between direct utility and use. "Poiesis" is the Aristotelian concept that the artist is responsible to no one but himself while engaging in creation—he does not create art to please his audience, or serve any other conceivable purpose than that of expressing his ideas. "L'art pour l'art" is the Romantic version thereof, which evolved after art and music had divorced themselves from the church and similar situation-based endeavors. The fact that art exists simply for its own sake was taken to imply that it was quintessentially useless in relation to reality.

If we accept that art is an interesting but useless artifice, it becomes much removed from reality, or purely a by-product of its times. And since criticism is art wrought on art, if art is useless in relation to reality, it follows that criticism is ineffective in relation to art. Part of the modern critical apathy that I talked about in a previous article stems from this philosophical shift: the view that criticism can never alter the course of art, just as art can never alter the course of reality. So why even bother trying to express, construct, and defend an opinion? Further, why critique content, when content makes nothing happen? It is not too far from statements like, "It does not matter what is said, only how it is said—since all opinions are little pockets of hot air."

This perceived lack of impact leads to critical apathy, and is the death-knell of controversy. The premise that art is useless in relation to its times leads to the works of modern composers being gradually disregarded. New music is seldom being critically commented upon, which, in turn, causes the field to stagnate. As composer Nicholas Maw put it, "So many people in opera houses like the composer to be six feet under so they can do what they want with the material." Why try to come to terms with the philosophical implications of modern music, to deal with its technical challenges and conceptual palette? It does not matter.

Economically, this causes the belief that art cannot sustain itself in the face of competition, and must be supported by various sources at various points in order to keep it from financial ruin. At the most fundamental level, an industry's revenue is dependent upon the perceived value—the usefulness, if you will—of its product to the market at large. If art is defined as useless, its operations are unhinged from the action of normal market forces and competition. "No one wants it, but it must be maintained." Indeed, in terms of cost and revenue management, investments, cost center isolation, employee compensation, market-oriented programming, and the exploration of new repertoire, orchestras are often their own worst enemies. And since they're perceived to be dealing with a castle in the air, there's very little incentive for the management to alter its practices.

"If the field is laid open to competition, artistic integrity will be compromised, and orchestras will be forced to cater to popular whims." This is an argument one hears far too often, stemming from the divorce of art from utility. If classical music really is philosophically and intellectually illuminating—if it really is as relevant, brilliant and useful as it seems—it will be more than able to survive the market. In fact, it will survive because of it.

After all, the market allocates resources based on utility. This philosophical rift forms the basis of the modern crisis of classical music. After all, it is the characterization of the circumstance that dictates the form of the model of representation. Consequently, this dictates the results wrought by applying that model to reality. Defining classical music as useless has the potential to actually make it so.