Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Art Should Accomplish Something

[This is the second post in my Sequence on artistic value. The entire Sequence can be viewed here:

  1. Art Consequentialism
  2. Art Should Accomplish Something
  3. Art Has Barely Left the Womb
  4. Taste and Social Intuitionism
  5. Artistic Integrity

Together these five posts argue for a theory of artistic value that I have never encountered before.]

The theory of art consequentialism sees works of art and entertainment as cogs in an equilibrium of cultural output that ought to be optimized according to a consequentialist rubric. I suspect that this seems intuitively wrong to most people, as it fails to take into consideration originality, popularity, timelessness, emotional impact, profundity of ideas, or any other typical criteria for evaluating art.

These might be good criteria for judging whether or not a work of art has net good consequences on the world, but they aren’t so good that they override consequences altogether. If there are two works of art, and one of them has better consequences, but the other one is better in all the other criteria I’ve named, I don’t see how one could philosophically justify choosing the second work over the first.

Either the art you identify as the best art leads to better worlds than the art you prefer less, or you claim that a worse world can somehow be better than a better world, an incoherent thought. A better argument would be to disagree with what makes a world better. If this is realized as a criticism of consequentialist ethics, then I don’t think it has much potential. If this is realized as a criticism of an individual’s criteria for determining “goodness,” then this is not a criticism of consequentialism, but a criticism of that individual’s view. Consequentialism doesn’t specify what kind of consequences we should want, only that they need to be good.

For example, I believe that goodness should roughly be based on the maximization of wellbeing and the minimization of suffering. One could disagree with that definition without believing that consequences themselves are irrelevant to goodness. If one truly believes that his or her criteria for artistic greatness are more important than great consequences in the real world, then I challenge them to explain what about the specified criteria make that art so great. In justifying his choice of criteria, one might either list good properties, in which case, they fall under the category of “good consequences,” or bad properties, in which case, they are by definition inferior to good properties. Or incoherent or false properties, in which case, they don’t count or matter.

To clarify, in my definition of “consequences,” I’m including everything that happens as a direct result of an artwork from the large-scale social consequences to the fuzzy feelings caused in individual viewers to the amount of money that is invested in and earned from producing media to the amount of labour hours that could have been spent doing alternative things. Using such a broad definition of consequences, it seems obvious to me that we must accept the superiority of good consequences over all other attributes.

Art for the sake of art might be net good because a world with art is almost definitely better than a world without art. But why not optimize our landscape of artistic motivations by focusing on consequences rather than on mysterious attributes in the work?

A lot of extreme avant-garde art isn't valuable to me because it speaks to too small an audience, doesn't affect anybody particularly strongly, nor does it change huge portions of its audience in the same way. This art is valuable according to certain rubrics, but not to one that prioritizes good consequences. However, this isn't to say that a shortage of good consequences is inherent to avant-garde art.

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