Monday 3 February 2014

Artistic Integrity

[This is the fifth and final 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 world's ideas about art are especially crazy.

People believe things about art, considering it to be sacred, that they don't believe about anything else - except for maybe religion, which they consider to be sacred. 

In this post, I'll look at the concept of "artistic integrity," which I consider to be crazy.

Hollywood is a smart system. It has an end goal - to maximize its profit - and it efficiently optimizes toward that goal. It hires the best people it can get for the cheapest it can pay them. It invests a large chunk of its budget into marketing to get more people interested in paying for its products. It has established conventions, formats, genres, and dramatic techniques that make films more likely to be profitable. It spends money on eye-tracking, biometrics, focus groups, surveys, and other research methods to determine what will sell and what won't. And it optimizes toward its end goal of maximizing profit.

Art is not quite so smart as that. It's driven by heuristics, intuitions, and impulses. Its end values can be aesthetic beauty, high praise from peers, accurate self-expression, feelings of catharsis, pride in one's own abilities, the exchange of ideas, or a million other things.

When a "great" artist makes an unconventional creative decision, the producer could veto it on the grounds that it will hurt the film's commercial potential. When both parties insist, a struggle for "creative control" ensues. Fans usually side with the filmmaker, claiming that the producer is stepping on the artist's "artistic integrity." Apparently, "artistic integrity" refers to the idea that an artist is given the control to make whatever creative decisions she wants to achieve her end-values. For a producer to step on this fundamental artistic right would be to prioritize profit over artistic quality. As we know, trading the sacred good of artistic quality for the decidedly non-sacred good of money is blasphemous.

Where does this idea of artistic integrity come from? We don't expect chair-makers to be given "chair-making integrity" - we expect them to take orders from dollar-maximizers. We don't expect philosophers to be given "philosophical integrity" - we just expect them to do philosophy to the best of their ability, according to certain political and economic realities. We don't expect mathematicians to be given "mathematical integrity" - we just expect them to do math on whatever problem they happen to be working on. If a mathematician cannot find funding for his work because the problem is deemed to be without real-world application, well, he finds another problem to work on.

Maybe there's something different about art. Maybe, unlike those other disciplines, art is precisely about pure creativity, about not having any rules to follow, about not making sure to maximize cost-effectiveness, and about not having any practical use. If that is the case, then, unlike those other disciplines, art must not take place in the real world.

The production of art uses up real resources. The products of art are really experienced by real people. Art has real effects on the world. Why should we create it if it really serves no practical purpose? Now, I happen to think that art does serve many practical applications and that it generally helps society. We all know the reasons why art exists: people enjoy it, people are inspired by it, people exchange ideas with it, people have deep experiences with it, people can talk about it with others, etc. As much as some may want to classify these as spiritual, sacred, or non-practical, there is no good reason for them to be exempt from utilitarian calculations. 

Will my paintings inspire ~5,000 people? That's great! How much money does it cost to produce? What else could I do with that money? Oh, I could save 1 life with that money by donating it to AMF. What's better, inspiring ~5,000 people or saving 1 life? That sort of shit. Art is created with real money that could otherwise be used to save real lives. It should therefore be made with the utmost care to have the best real-world effects possible. Copy the intelligent Hollywood system but optimize in a different direction: in the direction of maximizing wellbeing.

Where does the concept of artistic integrity fit into all this? The artist's job is to maximize wellbeing. I know of no artists who attempt this. Instead, they heuristically maximize according to their own aesthetic tastes and preferences. In struggles for creative control, the artist is pitted against a producer whose job is to maximize profit. Where does artistic integrity fit into this picture? Is the artist's goal fulfilled more desirable than the producer's goal fulfilled? This is like a creative struggle between the scientist that wants to rig the experiment toward achieving his desired result and the funding organization that wants the scientist to rig the experiment toward achieving its desired result. What about just getting the correct answer? In art, no parties involved are after the correct answer. The artist is after spiritual fuzzies and the producer is after material fuzzies.

The concept of "artistic integrity" is fundamentally at odds with the concept of "effective altruism." Consequentialist ethics is the correct answer. It is the optimal driver of artistic decision-making.

There is one last possibility. Maybe optimizing to artist tastes and preferences reliably leads to better consequences than does optimizing producer profits. +Trust Artists, Not Producers+ might be a good rule to follow if we want to generally get decent results over the long haul. This is true if we're talking about struggles between artists and producers, but it isn't true of struggles between The Rational Way of Art and the individual artist's taste, which is unlikely to be in line with The Rational Way of Art because there are no Rational artists. Generally trusting artist judgments over producer judgments may very well be wise. The problem is that artist judgments are highy sub-optimal. 

In addition to most artists not having +Maximizing Expected Utility+ as their primary goal, no artist can possibly know what they're doing given the lack of information available to them, and thus we should be cautious of assigning too much weight to their decisions.

Even in the case of artist vs producer squabbles, how would we know who to route for? Is there any research on the correlation between the standard criteria of artistic greatness and positive real-world consequences? Does a more sophisticated movie do more good than a less sophisticated movie? Does tragedy have better effects than comedy? Is narrative cinema more useful for world-optimization than non-narrative cinema? Is theatre a more effective medium than radio or literature at reducing suffering? Does sad art teach people valuable skills or does it glorify counterproductive negative thinking?

We cannot answer these questions 
because nobody has ever attempted to research them
because nobody has ever asked the questions
because the world's ideas about art are especially crazy.

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