What’s Wrong with the World

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Art, literature, morality, and other small subjects

At present I'm working on (aka "thinking about") a post on Alvin Plantinga's "Advice to Christian Philosophers." But that's going to take a little while, and in the meanwhile, our own esteemed former colleague Bill Luse has posted the following fascinating quotation at his web site, which I am shamelessly stealing:

This book is an attempt to develop a set of instructions, an analysis of what has gone wrong in recent years with the various arts - especially fiction, since that is the art on which I'm best informed - and what has gone wrong with criticism. The language of critics, and of artists of the kind who pay attention to critics, has become exceedingly odd: not talk about feelings or intellectual affirmations - not talk about moving and surprising twists of plot or wonderful characters and ideas -but sentences full of large words like hermeneutic, heuristic, structuralism, formalism, or opaque language, and full of fine distinctions - for instance those between modernist and post-modernist - that would make even an intelligent cow suspicious. Though more difficult than ever before to read, criticism has become trivial.

The trivial has its place, its entertainment value. I can think of no good reason that some people should not specialize in the behavior of the left-side hairs on an elephant's trunk. Even at its best, its most deadly serious, criticism, like art, is partly a game, as all good critics know. My objection is not to the game but the fact that contemporary critics have for the most part lost track of the point of their game, just as artists, by and large, have lost track of theirs. Fiddling with the hairs on an elephant's nose is indecent when the elephant happens to be standing on the baby.

At least in America art is not thought capable, these days, of tromping on babies. Yet it does so all the time, and what is worse, it does so with a bland smile. I've watched writers, composers, and painters knocking off their "works" with their left hands. Nice people, most of them. Artists are generally pleasant people, childlike both in love and hate, intending no harm when they turn out bad paintings, compositions, or books. Indeed, their ambition guarantees that they will do the best they know how to do or think they ought to do. The error is less in their objects than in their objectives. "Art is play, or partly play," they'll tell you with an engaging smile, serving up their non-nutritious fare with the murderous indifference of a fat girl serving up hamburgers. What they say is true enough, as far as it goes, and nothing is more tiresome than the man who keeps hollering, "Hey, let's be serious!" but that is what we must holler.

In a world where nearly everything that passes for art is tinny and commercial and often, in addition, hollow and academic, I argue - by reason and by banging the table - for an old-fashioned view of what art is and does and what the fundamental business of critics ought therefore to be. Not that I want joy taken out of the arts; but even frothy entertainment is not harmed by a touch of moral responsibility, at least an evasion of too fashionable simplifications. My basic message throughout this book is as old as the hills, drawn from Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Dante, and the rest, and standard in Western civilization down through the eighteenth century; one would think all critics and artists should he thoroughly familiar with it, and perhaps many are. But my experience is that in university lecture halls, or in kitchens at midnight, after parties, the traditional view of art strikes most people as strange news.

The traditional view is that true art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it. It seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us. I do not deny that art, like criticism, may legitimately celebrate the trifling. It may joke, or mock, or while away the time. But trivial art has no meaning or value except in the shadow of more serious art, the kind of art that beats back the monsters and, if you will, makes the world safe for triviality. That art which tends toward destruction, the art of nihilists, cynics, and merdistes, is not properly art at all. Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy. It is a tragic game, for those who have the wit to take it seriously, because our side must lose; a comic game - or so a troll might say - because only a clown with sawdust brains would take our side and eagerly join in.

Like legitimate art, legitimate criticism is a tragicomic holding action against entropy. Life is all conjunctions, one damn thing after another, cows and wars and chewing gum and mountains; art - the best, most important art - is all subordination: guilt because of sin because of pain. (All the arts treat subordination; literature is merely the most explicit about what leads to what.) Art builds temporary walls against life's leveling force, the ruin of what is splendidly unnatural in us, consciousness, the state in which not all atoms are equal. In corpses, entropy has won; the brain and the toenails have equal say. Art asserts and reasserts those values which hold off dissolution, struggling to keep the mind intact and preserve the city, the mind's safe preserve. Art rediscovers, generation by generation, what is necessary to humanness.

Unlike Bill, I won't make you guess who wrote it while restraining yourselves from using Google. It is, we learn, John Gardner, On Moral Fiction. I'd not heard of Gardner's book before Bill quoted it and am indebted to him for the introduction.

Comments (19)

St. Paul said it best in Philipians: Whatever is pure, whateve is lovely... Think on these things...

The Chicken

Sounds like Scruton to me... I hope I'm right, but I'll keep mum in the comments.

Nope. I give it away right here. (It was already guessed at Bill's blog.) I've never read Gardner's whole book, but this quotation certainly has me interested.

I agree that the best art is, or should be, fundamentally serious. But I don't like calling the seriousness 'moral'. Serious art should be morally serious, of course. But morality is not an end in itself; it merely describes some of the necessities, and thus prescribes some of the rules, for becoming what God wants us to be. And what God wants us to be is "partakers of the divine nature" (1 Peter 2:4), i.e. gods by participation, through God's bestowing as gift what we can never have by nature. That's more interesting, and thus more artistically interesting, than morality alone. So I prefer to say that serious art should be spiritually serious. I see nothing in the post to contradict that.

Part of the problem here is the concept of art for art's sake. Art traditionally has existed to make a point beyond itself. To point a moral lesson, to praise the praiseworthy, to tell a good story, to amuse, or to entertain. But the idea that art is an end in itself makes art meaningless. It is like cooking for cooking's sake that experiments with many and strange recipes but never produces a real meal. And of course criticism follows art down the same road.

Some other quotes from him. On a point of criticism he seems to had an almost worship of art.

John Gardner, "Fiction is the only religion I have . . . ." From his On Writers and Writing.

John Gardner, On Writers and Writing

. . . at their best, both fiction and philosophy do the same thing, only fiction does it better — though slower. Philosophy by essence is abstract, a sequence of general argument controlled in its profluence by either logic (in old-fashioned systematic philosophy) or emotional coherence (in the intuitive philosophies of say, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard). We read the argument and it seems to flow along okay, make sense, but what we ask is, "Is this true of my mailman?" . . .

Fiction comes at questions from the other end. It traces or explores some general argument by examining a particular case in which the universal case seems implied; and in place of logic or emotional coherence — the philosopher's stepping stones — fictional argument is controlled by mimesis: we are persuaded that the characters would indeed do exactly what we are told they do and say . . . . If the mimesis convinces us, then the question we ask is opposite to that we ask of philosophical argument; that is, we ask, "Is this true in general?"

Mistake: "he seems to had" supposed to be "he seems to have"

I haven't researched Gardner yet. My guess from the long quotation I give in the main post is that he was not a Christian at all. Hence he would be more likely to use the word "morally" than the word "spiritually." Besides, I have to admit that the word "moral" is more _concrete_ than the word "spiritual." The word "spiritual" can have all sorts of silly connotations--as in, "I'm not religious but I am spiritual."

The whole issue of art for art's sake is an important one. I think the concept may have originally been developed _supposedly_ (though I don't know if everyone who spouted it was sincere in this) merely in reaction to a kind of "fable" approach to art. Obviously, it is reductionistic and unsatisfactory to approach some great work of literature and boil it down to, "What lesson can we learn from this and apply to our lives today?" Try doing that with, say, King Lear. So, yes, art should not be treated or tested by whether it "works"--e.g., politically--to get us to "do the right thing." We should all have good sniffers for propaganda.

But having said all of that, the idea that art _literally_ exists only for itself, that it has _no_ reference to anything outside itself and no responsibility to small matters like truth, is a pernicious one and ultimately encourages triviality dressed up as profundity and perversity dressed up as aesthetic greatness. And I think the Gardner quotation is a good corrective of that.

From his Wikipedia page:

On Moral Fiction was Gardner's central thesis: that fiction should be moral. Gardner meant "moral" not in the sense of narrow religious or cultural "morality," but rather that fiction should aspire to discover those human values that are universally sustaining. Gardner felt that few contemporary authors were "moral" in this sense, but instead indulged in "winking, mugging despair" (to quote his assessment of Thomas Pynchon) or trendy nihilism in which Gardner felt they did not honestly believe. Gore Vidal found the book, as well as Gardner's novels, sanctimonious and pedantic, and he called Gardner the "late apostle to the lowbrows, a sort of Christian evangelical who saw Heaven as a paradigmatic American university."

If Gore Vidal hates your views, you know there must be some truth in them.

There's art for art's sake, and then there's art for the artist's sake. It's the latter that gets us into trouble, I think. Art for art's sake, as distinct from art that arises from an agenda of some sort, results when properly undertaken in an artistic representation or indication of some aspect of the truth of things, which cannot but engender in its observers a radical shock (howsoever gentle) to their smug self-satisfaction, or a cathartic reconciliation with tragedy, or profound gratitude, or sublime joy, or at least a moment of simple rest, of laughter or serenity. I cannot think of a moralistic purpose for the Brandenburg Concertos, for example, or the Water Music. These works say nothing about morality per se. Yet they are profoundly Good; and in their fidelity to the truth of that order that limits and forms all things, they make me happier, and better. It is by their faithfulness to truth that they "[reassert] those values which hold off dissolution, [keep] the mind intact and preserve the city, the mind's safe preserve."

To get to the truth of things through art, it is good to start by divesting oneself of one's own doctrines about the world; to take away the map from in front of one's eyes, so as to see afresh and directly the territory it had obstructed by its interpretation. The work of the artist is to refrain from his characteristic obstruction of the flow of beauty. To understand what he should next do, he must attend, not to his own feelings or preferences, but to the truth of his subject. It's just like what ascetics must do. And it is just as difficult, and tiresome; I have often wondered whether writer's block is a species of acedia.

So the notion art for art's sake is a reaction to art that preaches by presupposing and seeking to express a doctrine, rather than partaking of truth.

Art for art's sake, then, is to art for the sake of the moral improvement of its observers as partaking of the very Body and Blood is to eating a bit of bread and sipping a bit of wine so as to remind oneself of the Atonement. Both procedures can redound to our benefit, but the former, more concrete and straightforward exercise cannot but be more efficacious.

None of this of course is to say that any particular piece of art composed for its own sake is either good or bad.

But art for the artist's sake is just the latest version of using the media and techniques of art to express, and thus to preach, a presupposed moral doctrine. An artistic project that begins with the prerequirement that it should transgress normal morality presupposes the gnostic antithesis thereto. It is about the artist's own beliefs; it is about the artist himself. That's why it is so whacked.

I haven't read Gardner's book, but am familiar with it, as a long, long time ago in a galaxy far away I was an English Lit. major. Anyways, one can find broadly similar sentiments to Gardner's about art and literature in Scruton, as Alex H hinted above, in such 20th century conservative stalwarts such as Kirk and Weaver, and in many of the literary heirs of the Southern Agrarians/Fugitives: Flannery O'Connor, Marion Montgomery, Wendell Berry, etc.

An author who writes this type of fiction will try to do what Mike L. says, to craft a work that makes a point beyond itself, while at the same time intensely avoiding didacticism (or at least striving to).

For examples of contemporary writers who excel at one sort of "moral fiction" or another see Mark Helprin, Madison Jones, Marilynne Robinson, Kazuo Ishiguro, P.D. James and Berry. I probably should include Cormac McCarthy as well. I'd call special attention to Helprin, as there's no one currently writing fiction, IMO, who pulls off writing about such old-fashioned virtues as honor, loyalty, love and courage with such inventiveness, depth, humor, and emotion. His novel A Soldier of the Great War is one of my favorite 20th century works of fiction. As one reviewer stated, "he writes like an angel."

And although he's no longer with us, Russell Kirk's supernatural stories are primo examples of this type of writing (forgive the self-promotion):



Thanks so much for sharing that excellent quote. I only have one quibble. When Gardner says "In a world where nearly everything that passes for art is tinny and commercial" I know he isn't necessary condemning commercialism in art per se, but my "sniffer" goes off whenever I read someone bemoaning the link between commerce and art. Some of the greatest art of the Western world was produced with commercial profit in mind under commercial pressures (here I'm thinking specifically of Shakespeare and Dickens* but I bet you could throw in a lot of opera, theater and film which basically wouldn't exist without paying audiences).

*Dickens came to mind as I just finished a good review of a new Dickens biography in "The Claremont Review of Books" that deals with the subject of Dickens as a writer -- how deeply involved he was in the business of writing.

Well, this was written in 1977, and I don't know what "commercial" art he would have had in mind in 1977. I suppose "commercial" could include extremely dumb and ugly avant garde art commissioned by clueless town councils for four figures while much better material languishes in obscurity. :-)

John Gardner was not a Christian, though he sometimes showed great respect for it and his father was a lay minister. Also, he did not despise commercial art. However, he was greatly concerned about the emphasis on "trivia" and nihilism in much contemporary writing. Feed an appetite with only things that are either "filler" or acidic, and you'll soon see a healthy body decline.

One of Gardner's best (and certainly his best-known) novels is "Grendel," in which he retold "Beowulf" from the monster's point-of-view while reimagining Grendel as a Sartre-like nihilist. For me, the central value in this book is its conservative vision of the human world, and its message is: civilizations do not build themselves. Much hard and precarious labor goes into constructing that unlikely sphere of security that most of us now take for granted.

Here's another of my favorite quotes from Gardner (and I don't hold his comment about "brainless fat religions" against him here, since at the time this book was published I was subjected to my father's weekly viewing of Robert Schuller's prosperity gospel stuff on TV):

"We need to stop excusing mediocre and downright pernicious art, stop 'taking it for what it’s worth' as we take our fast foods, our overpriced cars that are no good, the overpriced houses we spend all our lives fixing, our television programs, our schools thrown up like barricades in the way of young minds, our brainless fat religions, our poisonous air, our incredible cult of sports, and our ritual of fornicating with all pretty or even horse-faced strangers. We would not put up with a debauched king, but in a democracy all of us are kings, and we praise debauchery as pluralism. This book is of course no condemnation of pluralism; but it is true that art is in one sense fascistic: it claims, on good authority, that some things are healthy for individuals and society and some things are not."

If not even the artist exists for the artist's own sake, then much less does the artist's art exist for its own sake. In other words, art for art's sake is a blasphemy, intentional or not.

I think that the arts, in modern times, are a victim of their own success. As the audience for the arts grows, the population of arts professionals grows along with it. At a certain point, that population achieves critical mass: you end up with enough arts professionals, with their weirdly inbred tastes, and enough snobby non-professional camp followers of those professionals, to take over, for a time, and drive everybody else out of the building.

In time, the problem should cure itself.

I'm intrigued, Steve. How will it cure itself? Just by the economy's collapsing and our not being able to afford the junkie art or the good art? Is that supposed to "select for" the good art in the long run?

Just not sure I'm following the scenario here.

But if that's what you mean, I can sort of see a parallel in the humanities. I heard a couple of weeks ago about a philosophy department being eliminated in the UK. I was being asked to sympathize on Facebook. Looked it up and could not find _one single redeeming thing_ they specialized in. They were a "European center" for the study of such wondrous things as Freudian philosophy, critical theory, radical philosophy, blah, blah. I said something to the effect that this was a case of good Darwinism and was not popular among the other respondents to the thread. :-)

But it is, unfortunately, true that the downturn will also affect good philosophy, and I'm afraid the same is true in art.

I'm not quite to the point of saying, "Let it all burn down. The Lord will know his own." But I suppose I could get to that point.

Just as in the case of science, art, properly done, is a way of bringing together disparate elements into a new unified vision of the truth. As such, it cannot be a purely personalist statement anymore than science can be someone's idiosyncratic idea that is divorced from reality. Unfortunately, much modern art has become nothing more than an excuse for demanding that any old personal idiocity be accepted as a great work. Much modern art is like giving a trumpet to a duck. He just knows he could be really good at playing it if only the trumpet would cooperate.

The Chicken

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