Saturday 25 January 2014

Art Has Barely Left the Womb

[This is the third 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.]

People often complain about a perceived decline in artistic quality. Now, there have been documented complaints of this kind for over a century and there are many reasons why we should expect this sentiment to consistently be present in generation after generation, whatever the true quality of that era's artistic output. In 1893, one writer bemoaned the newspaper trend of reporting increasingly on gossip and sports rather than on scientific and religious affairs by rhetorically asking, "Do newspapers now give the news?"

In hip hop, the sentiment is often expressed that "hip hop is dead." If you want to find "real hip hop," you need to go back to the 80s or 90s, apparently. But there's a reason why Common wrote I Used to Love H.E.R. in 1994. Back in the "golden era," hip hop was also said to be dying. Not only is hip hop regularly proclaimed to be dead but so are Hollywood, mainstream music, radio, the printed word, and art.

I don't want to argue that art is dead, but that it has, in contrast, barely even left the womb as an intellectual exercise. In this post, I situate the discipline of art alongside the similar fields of theology, alchemy, and Freudian psychoanalysis. What all these fields have in common is that they were hotspots for naive introspection, Dark Side epistemology, and plain bad thinking that eventually launched legitimate academic fields capable of making real progress.

The cosmologist and atheist spokesman Lawrence Krauss likes to pick on theology for barely making any progress in the millennia since its been around. The reason is that theological methods, whatever those are, simply do not work. They cannot settle questions, anticipate experiences, or advance our state of knowledge. As a result, theologians continue to ask themselves the same questions and deal with the same issues that concerned Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. There continue to be theologians working on the major issues in theology, but the field itself makes little to no progress.

Art is remarkably similar to theology in this sense. It's old, it's been around for a while, and it's been of the utmost interest to some talented people for generation after generation, who have spent their lives trying to unravel its deepest mysteries. But can art be said to have made progress? 

Regarding the production of art, our tools are constantly being upgraded, equipment is becoming more accessible and easier to use, and we have whole mediums to create art that never could have existed in the past. But is our artistic output steadily improving alongside these technological advances? As more and more art is created, there is more stuff out there for new artists to draw inspiration from. Yes, artists take bits and pieces from other artists and when one artist invents a really great technique, it might become an important tool in the toolkit of future artists. But can artists be said to be standing on the shoulders of giants?

Regarding the theory and philosophy of art, the situation highly resembles that of theology. People debate the same fundamental subjects over and over, never getting anywhere. To a lesser extent, this is true of all philosophy, another discipline that is diseased at its core, but the philosophy of art is yet far less accomplished than other branches of philosophy such as ethics, the philosophy of science, and the philosophy of mind.

When we have an imprecise method of doing something (such as drafting in sports), we sometimes say about it that it's "not a science, it's an art form." It is intuitively understood that art is not a science. It is less well understood that art does not exist alongside science - it is simply in a pre-scientific stage. The reason why so few people attempt to make progress in art is because we hold double standards about art, considering it sacred, just as the fruitless project of theology fails from holding double standards about religion, which it considers to be sacred.

Art consequentialism suggests that artworks should be treated like other man-made works such as mass manufactured chairs and lampshades. Should chairs exist? I think so. Why? Because they make our lives better by giving us comfy places to sit and rest. I may be wrong about that but it seems pretty clear to me that a world with chairs is better than a world without chairs. Should lampshades exist? I think so. Why? Because they allow us to control a room's lighting and so make our lives better in that way. Things gain value in accordance with how much they make the world better or worse for the persons living in it.

I think art as a whole makes the world better for several reasons. I also think most individual works of art make the world better. But not because artists are intentionally optimizing in that direction. What our society completely lacks is a sense of considering art in terms of the effects it has on the wellbeing of conscious creatures. Art has no value outside of this. Rather than thinking of artistic value in terms of qualities possessed by the work - profundity of ideas, emotional magnitude, popularity, originality - which are only indicators of a work having good consequences, we should place our emphasis on the consequences themselves. In fact, the production of every work of art, like the production of every chair and every lampshade, has an impact on the world and that impact can be good or bad. Making works of art with better consequences for humanity would be better for humanity, axiomatically.

What we need is a more precise science of how art affects things and thus, the knowledge of how to optimize our cultural output by focusing on their end effects on society. This would launch the true birth of art and allow the discipline to progress in a way it never has in its long history.


  1. Progress is in the eye of the beholder. Theologians believe they've made a lot of progress. I think philosophy has made significant progress (despite being a diseased discipline in some ways, as Luke Muehlhauser explains). Perhaps many artists would say that thinking of "progress" is the wrong way to look at art. To them, art is not instrumental but is an end in itself.

    Obviously I personally largely share your viewpoint, but I'm playing artist's advocate here.

    1. Many artists *would* say that we shouldn't think about art in terms of progress. Some even explicitly define art as something people create that doesn't have any practical function.

      This is the first and biggest double standard people have about art. The idea is immediately exposed as crazy when you apply it to anything else. Assuming some kind of utilitarian theory of ethics is "true," why should some acts be exempt from utilitarian calculations?

      The only explanation could be that a culture of un-optimized art is better than a culture of optimized art because in intervening we might somehow do more harm than good. Otherwise, it's like claiming the natural world is inherently good and that we mustn't intervene, even to reduce suffering.