Saturday 20 December 2014

Response to Gwern

This is a response to Gwern’s “Culture is Not About Aesthetics,” which argues that:
  • "There’s more fiction then anyone could hope to consume
  • People would be happier reading only the best fiction
  • It’s easier to figure out what the good old fiction is, than it is new fiction
  • There’s also more good old fiction than good new fiction
  • People write too much new fiction
  • They also read too much
  • Society shouldn’t subsidize economically inefficient things like new fiction
  • We might go so far as to suggest a Pigovian tax on new works because they encourage their own consumption
  • The uses of fiction are much less than one might think, and many of those uses are propagandistic, dangerous, or both
  • Subsidizing the nonfiction market may be justifiable"

I agree with most of these claims but I think it sells the biggest advantages of fiction short. Here are some points that I think Gwern ignores or underestimates:

People like different stuff
Gwern acknowledges that people have different tastes while kind of laughing at the idea that one person could be so picky as to not find much of interest out of the millions of existing artworks. I think the dismissal assumes that you’re part of a demographic that is heavily targeted by the culture industries. If, for example, you live in a third world country and speak a language that is unique to your nation, there may not actually be such an abundance of art at your disposal. Apart from the fact that you’ll likely have difficulty getting access to most art, especially if its required to be dubbed or subtitled in a specific language, the art that you do come across might not be relatable, comprehensible, or appealing to you.

New art allows for the discussion of new ideas
New stuff comes up: social movements, cultural events, wars, policies, scandals, fashion trends, technological advancements, natural disasters, popular memes, etc. New art allows new generations of people to express new opinions – possibly even with new mediums that were only recently invented. For example, queer people now have queer cinema, literature, etc. In the past, this sort of content wasn’t freely available. This art in turn pumps life into the gay rights movement. It is now possible to find creative content on the terrors of factory farming, the controversy over the latest privacy laws, etc. Shakespeare never wrote us any classics on speciesism.

Art’s persuasiveness can be hugely beneficial
More importantly, narrative fiction possesses tremendous potential to do good in the world in a controlled, systematic way. Organizations like Development Media International use a brand of fiction called entertainment-education (E-E) to change behaviours and save lives in the developing world. E-E might not be able to compete with the classics in terms of artistic value, entertainment value, or other popular criteria for “greatness” but it often blows other artworks out of the water when it comes to what I think matters most: the degree to which it makes people’s lives better. This is counter-intuitive because we evolved in times when persuasiveness wasn’t one of art’s most relevant functions. But now, fiction can target specific demographics numbering in the millions of people around the world, bolstered by decades of psychological and sociological research into behaviour change. Using narrative devices to deliver the right health and social messages to the right communities can now play a crucial role in fighting death and disease – in short, making the world better. There is no evolutionary precedent for a time when art could reach such large audiences that its persuasiveness would become more profitable to humanity than its emotional and intellectual appeal. But here it is. According to GiveWell, producing new fiction in this way could even rank among the most evidence-backed, thoroughly-vetted, and underfunded methods of improving the world.
I think everybody in history has been wrong about the effective use of art. As a result, the greatest art of all time likely hasn’t been created yet. Rather than banning new art, we should hope to reform art culture into something that isn’t terrible.

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