Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Art Doesn’t Progress, it Varies

Not only do the results of scientific experiments confirm discoveries but the knowledge gained is accumulative such that further theories may be formulated and new experiments devised for testing them. Science makes progress in a way that no other field of human endeavour can equal, and this sets a challenge for art since the criteria used to evaluate art are predicated upon many of the very same assumptions as are applied to science, one of the most pervasive and misdirected being the idea that artists and the work they produce should improve. Art, according to this logic of achievement, must make progress.

One of the major contributors to this mindset would seem to be the fact that art has adopted and inherited a significant number of the core terms used to describe and evaluate science. Art involves research, development, exploration, experiment, discovery, inquiry, insight, knowledge and so forth and this sets up an expectation that art can, or indeed should, deliver results on the same basis or according to the same principles.

A few days ago James Atherton linked to a wonderfully iconoclastic and enlightening paper by the philosopher Eric Dietrich, entitled "There is no Progress in Philosophy". Dietrich makes an extremely persuasive case that philosophy has made no progress at all since the days of Aristotle:

“Except for a patina of twenty-first century modernity, in the form of logic and language, philosophy is exactly the same now as it ever was; it has made no progress whatsoever. We philosophers wrestle with the exact same problems the Pre-Socratics wrestled with.”

Applying the same arguments to art we find that the case is almost identical: art makes no progress whatsoever. Atherton goes on to speculate whether we might also question the progress of literature and the humanities in general and he also, quite rightly, reminds us that the humanities are already threatened in the academy. How could this be otherwise when compared with the formidable and measurable achievements of STEM subjects?

If a whole raft of disciplines have been found to lack some seemingly essential ingredient, perhaps rather than doubting the validity or contribution of these subjects we should instead examine both the validity and applicability of this required essence as applied to them. We might also do well to more accurately determine what goods we believe the humanities actually bestow upon the world and to ensure that we confidently champion these when faced with demands for such things as “new knowledge” and “progress”. Atherton makes a brief but brilliant connection here by introducing Michael Oakeshott's "The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind" (1962). The same was quoted –understandably - by the late Richard Rorty in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (where I first encountered it as a student) and is a fabulous piece of nuanced thinking that deserves to be read in full. Here’s a lengthy extract:

“In a conversation the participants are not engaged in an inquiry or a debate; there is no 'truth' to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought. ... Of course, a conversation may have passages of argument and a speaker is not forbidden to be demonstrative; but reasoning is neither sovereign nor alone, and the conversation itself does not compose an argument. . . . In conversation, 'facts' appear only to be resolved once more into the possibilities from which they were made; 'certainties' are shown to be combustible, not by being brought in contact with other 'certainties' or with doubts, but by being kindled by the presence of ideas of another order; approximations are revealed between notions normally remote from one another. ... Nobody asks where they have come from or on what authority they are present; nobody cares what will become of them when they have played their part. There is no symposiarch or arbiter, not even a doorkeeper to examine credentials. Every entrant is taken at its face-value and everything is permitted which can get itself accepted into the flow of speculation. And voices which speak in conversation do not compose a hierarchy. Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, not is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure. … It is the ability to participate in this conversation, and not the ability to reason cogently, to make discoveries about the world, or to contrive a better world, which distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilized man from the barbarian.” [my emphasis]

Is it not enough that art, the humanities and culture in general should contribute to - constitute even - this very discourse? For Richard Rorty this constant comparison and contestation of perspectives leads to a kind of discursive distillation whereby the most appropriate framework for the current moment emerges. Recently Hugo Mercier of the University of Pennsylvania and Dan Sperber of the Jean Nicod Institute in Paris have advance a very similar conclusion with their “argumentative theory” of reason:

“Reasoning is made for arguing. Because of this people have a strong confirmation bias that plagues lone reasoners. But when people argue, the biases of the arguers can balance each other out and lead reasoning to felicitous outcomes. Let’s reason together!”

Culture is a framework or lens through which we view the world. It informs our thinking and gives complexion to our ideas and expressions. Without exposure to other cultures though, it becomes practically impossible to recognise, let alone fully appreciate, our own perspective upon the world for the contingent and partial thing that it is. Our desire then should not be to progress to a single ‘perfect’ homogenised global culture but rather to share and experience the profound and subtle interplay of diverse perspectives, tastes and interpretations. This is why a diversity of cultures is so valuable to society, since monoculture discourages discourse and reinforces monotony and dogma. A good analogy here might be to think of cuisine. With all things culinary, we enjoy - and therefore crave - variety as much as perfection itself. If perfection were the only measure we sought in food then we’d be perfectly happy eating the same perfectly balanced meal ad infinitum. But where aesthetic matters are concerned variety is not just the spice of life, as the clichĂ© goes, but its very substance.


Anonymous said...

It is indeed enough that the Arts contribute to a discourse as long as they don't ask to be subsidised to so so.

I'm not sure I agree that the only difference between us and non-humans is our ability to chat aimlessly, that "discoveries" might be made by this means, or that even the most aimless of chats proceed under the idealistic circumstances described, but if all the humanities are doing is having a nice chat, why should society subsidise them?

Isn't this where the attempt to prove that the humanities are as valuable as STEM comes from? There's that bullshit cartoon which claims that the arts generate lots of money, and therefore constitute a rational investment of public money, but as Alison Wolf pointed out, there's no proof that subsidised higher education is a rational use of public money even if we include STEM. The benefits which accrue to the individual are clear, but societal benefits are not apparent.

Money put into the Humanities subsidises the privileged. That nice little chat the philosopher referred to is taking place round the tables of the chattering classes, and in the nicer parts of academia. There may be no gatekeeper, but most people simply are not invited - when someone like me crashes the party, we are put in our place pretty sharply, let alone the great unwashed.

I agree that there is and there should not be any point to the Arts, and furthermore I consider the social sciences to be simply arts in scientist's clothing.

These arts admit in moments of honesty that they contribute nothing tangible to society, yet they ask those who work for a living to subsidise their pointless activity on false grounds. Back to your garrets, artists! Get your hand out of my pocket!

J. Hamlyn said...

We obviously disagree on this issue but if I were working in a more instrumental business and contributing net value to GBP I’d still personally be more than glad to support culture since it enriches my experience immeasurably. I’m biased of course and if Mercier and Sperber are correct, as I suspect they are, I’m only ever going to use your arguments to help me entrench my own even more firmly. Perhaps that’s why I appreciate your comments so much, despite the fact that they’re bloody hard to counter sometimes! It's all part of the conversation eh?

Anonymous said...

So, my contrary opinions have seemingly hardened your view that contrary opinions do not harden views?

Since it's your site, your rules: we are just chatting, I won't try to prove a point, I'll just ask some awkward questions.

Is it unrepresentative that the artists I know work for free, will pay to be exhibited, and would probably continue to produce art if they made it illegal?

Isn't the fundamental problem with that self-serving cartoon which appealing for us to continue to subsidise the arts rather than giving the money to hospitals (because it's a zero-sum game)that it worked from the assumption that all artistic activity would stop if subsidy stopped, and that the subsidised arts were completely responsible for every penny spent on the arts?

Don't public subsidies mainly support those elitist forms of the arts which are hated, or at best ridiculed by the very public whose money pays for them?

Aren't I like most people in that the books I read, the films I see, the music I listen to, were all produced commercially by artisans rather than artists, and I wouldn't cross the road to see subsidised art?

If I am, how am I wrong? How are we wrong?

J. Hamlyn said...

As ever Sean, you’re not entirely wrong but you do make it all seem very black and white when in fact it’s polychromatic (as opposed to grey). Sure subsidies do support a lot of abject crap but they also support grassroots initiatives and individuals at the start of their careers as well as the occasional popular and/or edifying things. David Shrigley, who made the animation you so love to hate has become an extremely popular artist amongst a wide spectrum of classes and age groups. Like those artists you mention he often worked for free (very often still does) and probably would make work it if it were illegal too. I’m not sure how much he’s received in terms of subsidy during his career (probably not a great deal) but he certainly worked in subsidised spaces and institutions in his early career in order to put food on the table when nobody gave a shit about who he was or what he did.

Many people in the UK do like to moan about stuff, that does seem to be an ingrained part of our culture (not something I’m proud of though), but on the other hand Tate Modern is one of Britain’s most popular visitor attractions surpassed only by Blackpool pleasure beach. Do they really hate stuff though or what they believe it represents ie: “elitism” as you say? I wouldn’t expect to easily understand the products of any specialist practitioner in any field so why is it that people feel that art should be instantly accessible? Some is, some isn’t. Some that isn’t is just obscure nonsense and some is difficult to adjust to but does that make it elitist? Like most good things you have to work at it and if you can’t be bothered then don’t expect miracles or to have your prejudices contradicted.

One of the students I was working with last year said to me “I want to make work that folk understand”. I asked him to elaborate a little to which he said “I’d like to make work my mum or gran could understand. When I took them to the Art Gallery the other day I had to keep explaining things to them. I don’t want my art to be like that.” Unfortunately I didn’t have a ready response so I fumbled my way to a reply but I wish I’d asked “Do your mum and gran like the music you listen to?”

J. Hamlyn said...

In his short essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent" T. S. Eliot writes of poets and artists:
"He must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same."

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