Friday, July 29, 2016

Appreciating Mistaken Art Like Mistaken Philosophy

It is a fact -- however much a given artist may deny it -- that works of art often express a narrative and a moral point of view. This fact is sometimes (subversively) underplayed and de-emphasized. But there is no doubt that Dadaism and Bauhaus in some way express different ideals than, say, Romanticism or the Baroque.

Indeed, one might argue that certain movements in modern art -- together with higher education, the law, and the media -- bear a large portion of culpability for the general moral degradation of Western society.

At the very least the point clearly makes sense, since obviously one could argue the other way too: That certain forms of art are inherently "traditionalistic" or "reactionary," and should be "supplanted" or "opposed" by more progressive forms of art.

Still, it seems reasonable to think that, at least up to a certain point, there is value even in art that expresses a false narrative, a skewed moral viewpoint, or an improper ideal.

I think a nice analogy can be made with philosophy. On the one hand, I think that Nietzsche is entirely wrong, that his arguments fail, and that we should produce arguments to counter his viewpoint. On the other hand, clearly in some sense Nietzsche is a genius, and it would be a shame never to read him or interact with his thought. Life would certainly be far less interesting anyway.

I tend to attribute this value in Nietzsche's work to its cultural significance and influence, its excellent technical execution, and even to some extent the power of the arguments (arguments can be powerful in a way even if, ultimately, they fail). There may be other factors involved too. In short, there can be much value in a piece by Nietzsche even if that value does not lie in its truth.

Now, if we think of works of art as analogous to arguments or maybe philosophical pieces (and their authors as being like philosophers, their movements as being like philosophical "isms", and so on), then it begins to make sense how one can appreciate even art that one "disagrees" with. It is quite easy to recognize in a piece of art its cultural significance, its technical brilliance, and even the "force" of its "argument", even when one "disagrees" with it or considers it ultimately to be a (philosophical) failure.

This eases a certain tension in my soul: I find certain forms of modern art to be fascinating; however, I know that the "point" they are trying to make is often entirely wrong, and that it ought to be "counteracted" by art that is both sufficiently modern yet does not express nihilistic, relativistic, or hedonistic passions.

But separating the "message" of a piece of art from the other components of its value makes both of these sentiments to be entirely reasonable and consistent. If we can make the distinction between a work's message and its value in philosophy, then it seems we can make it in art too.

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