This is the second post in my series of case studies attempting to hierarchize different uses of media according to a utilitarian rubric. See my qualitative methodology for assessing media effectiveness for background information.
My strategy is to choose iconic works that can stand in for larger genres or styles of work. Thus my first post examined Avatar, a film that can easily stand in for “Hollywood blockbusters,” and my second deals with Marcel Duchamp’s The Fountain, which can stand in for most conceptual art.
Strength of Impact:
1. How many people does the project reach?
2. How significantly does it impact the people it reaches?
3. How likely are the people it impacts to spread this impact?
4. How long lasting is its impact?
5. How grave was the issue pre-impact?
The Fountain does not have the mass appeal of Avatar, but it does have an iconic status that has lasted nearly a century. It is probably the most well known work of “found object” art. Although knowing of the piece’s existence is highly correlated with class, education, and geographic location, the work’s notoriety is wide enough that I don’t hesitate in answering SoI-1 with a “High.”
Answering SoI-2 through SoI-4 requires us to clarify what we’re looking to answer with these questions. On one hand, engaging with Dadaist art isn’t directly involved in the enhancement of wellbeing or the reduction of suffering – although artists do rank fairly high on happiness lists, despite earning less money than many other professions. Encountering postmodernist philosophy through art intuitively shouldn’t make a major difference in one’s wellbeing. On the other hand, the SoI questions don’t directly pertain to assessments of wellbeing. All they try to uncover is how forcefully an artwork alters people, not whether the alterations in question have any impact on happiness.
The Fountain probably impacts those it reaches more effectively than does Avatar. Although Avatar is likely to entertain viewers, the experience is short-lived and unlikely to change the person’s character in any way. Due to the de-emphasizing of the aesthetic experience in Duchamp’s work, The Fountain challenges viewers to engage with it intellectually. In other words, it raises questions that audience members are actually likely to grapple with: What makes something art? If this is art, what makes art valuable? Should there be rules to art? How should we view the artist? Do the artist’s intentions matter? Is provocation inherently good or bad? Is it bad to accept conventions?
In grappling with these questions, I submit that people are likely to change or clarify their views. At the very least, they are likely to be intellectually engaged, even if they wind up with silly interpretations of the work.
SoI-5 receives a “Low” for the same reason that Avatar and most other works of art and entertainment receive one: they appeal to people with enough money and comfort to take interest in them.
On the whole, I rate The Fountain’s ability to affect people as “Medium.” But are its effects net harmful or helpful?
Quality of Impact:
1. How much does it increase the accuracy of people's models of reality?
2. How much does it improve people's quality of life?
3. How much more likely does it make people to act altruistically toward others?
Although The Fountain affects people by provoking thought and challenging norms, its net impact is barely better than neutral.
One thing that stands in The Fountain’s way of positive effects is its unlikeliness to direct viewers toward truer beliefs. The piece is just as likely, if not more likely, to provoke incoherent philosophical thoughts than it is to provoke rational, correct ones. So while the work might awaken people from a mindless slumber, it doesn’t make them more likely to believe true things about the world.
Nor does it make people more likely to behave altruistically toward others. Engagement with narrative fiction is likely to have a civilizing effect on individuals, but general appreciation of conceptual art is not. Many Nazis were sophisticated, intelligent people, but that didn’t do them, or anyone else, much good.
The piece scores its only point by raising questions in readers. This is very likely to have net good effects. Although many people will come to incoherent or weak philosophical positions when provoked, some will not, and others will eventually outgrow their old positions.
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