Mini-Feature: Is Art Helpful or Harmful?

What benefits does art provide society? Does art hurt society in any way?

Let's put aside what we mean by "art" here. As Hollywood producer Joel Silver (Die Hard, The Matrix) once said: "I don't make art—I buy it." We don't have a sense of what might define "art" because we don't have a sense of the highest forms of human expression, and we don't have a sense of the highest forms of human expression because we don't have a sense of the highest things, including among the parts within ourselves. Art in the broadest sense is therefore seen as a kind of neutral recreational commodity or, at its highest, a practical political or propagandistic tool of "progressive" social policy, spreading officially approved ways of seeing the world. Of course, the powerful make and control most commercial art and persecute dissenting narratives. And therein lies the problem: you cannot remove the political or spiritual dimension from art. Stories and images teach us morality and ways of life and much deeper presuppositions regardless of whether or not you believe they do, whatever their creator intends. So art is always a good and a bad influence.

But what we most lack now is a) both the internal understanding and urge, even if just instinctual and inspired, to express what is most meaningful. We are impoverished and ignorant souls in terms of religion and folkways as well as education in the best of the human past. And b) anything that does venture outside of the crippling materialistic, transhumanist narratives that rule the day is attacked and persecuted. It's partly the right's fault, but this is also because if any serious art today went "mainstream" and threatened the hegemonically approved stories and images, it would be understood to be an extremely dangerous threat to the status quo and vociferously attacked accordingly.

-Matthew Peterson, founding editor of The American Mind

Art! Who knows what it is anymore? Who cares? Already the absolute masters of modern art, from music to painting to fiction, are being swept away and buried in our digital complex. Art—recycled copies-of-copies, losing their fidelity, no less than the old pagan religions which modern art got so high and rich off of recycling in creepily similar fashion. Art today is being disenchanted in the way religion was yesterday. Everyone knows, though few say and fewer still understand, that the digital medium, with its total recall machines triumphant, is to “blame.”

This is a special problem for America, where our triumph as the planet master of televisual technology made us think that “the death of God” was a strictly European problem—well, and Japan; a problem for LOSERS of world wars. Their loss, our gain—our Christianity embraced the televisual complex, with its manufacture of stars and superstars, its presentation of prosperity through the immediacy of divine reconciliation. Our Christianity jumped right into the slipstream of the equal emancipation and empowerment of the imagination of all, the ultimate dream broadcast to us all by our self appointed experts of magical ethics. A slipstream of boundless energy! One that would never run dry, never betray us...

Until one day we began to realize television was becoming obsolete. Suddenly artists didn’t matter like the used to. Not even celebrities did. Suddenly they even mattered LESS THAN they used to. If they were now more “just like us” than ever, they deserved our honors and our money even less! Even the possibility of high art, art high enough to justify itself against all criticism, became difficult to imagine.

But this reminds us now that the highest art, at least in the West, has always been religious art. And in an America where Christianity is increasingly emancipated (at great pains) from the formative context of the fading televisual environment, the religious will make more post-televisual art, and the post-televisual will grow more religious. The only question is how bogus and harmful the religions in question might be.

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind

Art is one of the material expressions of the human soul. It harms and hurts in equal measure. We don't have much of it in the West anymore, and that's bad. Or rather, some of what passes as art is the latest in Apple designs. That is boring and brutal. Then there is Damien Hirst's stuff, which is like McKinsey Fascism. I could go on and on. Want to make real art? Attempt an earnest depiction of the Apostles with Christ. If you're lucky, the MOMA will ban you. 

-David Bahr, managing editor of The American Mind

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I’m not trying to plug my podcast—okay maybe I am just little, but—there is an episode of Young Heretics coming up in the next couple months that will deal with exactly this issue at length. Effectively the problem as I see it is how to balance what Cicero and Quintilian identified as the three aims of rhetoric: movēredocēredelectare. Or, for you untutored heathens muddling through the world out there (somehow) with no Latin: “to move, to teach, and to delight.” 

This being an extremely fulsome and longstanding discussion—a golden thread stretching from Plato’s IonTimaeus,and Republic (Books III and X) to Aristotle’s Poetics on through Renaissance criticism like Sidney’s “The Defence of Poesy” and up to present-day contributions like Camille Paglia’s wonderful Glittering Images, with a few comments on the subject even to be found in such places as Polybius’ History (take a look at Book 2, Chapter 56 when you have a spare moment)—we will not do justice to it here. Suffice it perhaps for now to say: art exists to convey forms of truth which are not communicable any other way, to implant in the breast of its audience some inward reality of emotion or experience which cannot be described but only captured in images, in sounds, in movement.

As such art is beholden to truth—it must not lie, though it is not factual. It may therefore convey ugly and evil realities while still delighting us—this is one of the things about it that immediately strikes people as remarkable when they get to thinking about it (see Plato, Republic 427d-445e and Aristotle, Poetics 1448b).  

But—and here is where things get dicey—in our fallen world the delectare and the movēre can be divorced from the docēre, though they should not. The relationship between these things—the pleasure and emotional power of skillful art on the one hand, and the truth or falsehood it teaches on the other—is where art has its greatest potential either to grace the world or drive it mad.  

Show evil as evil—that is, show it with devastating consequences for the human psyche, as for example in Shakespeare’s Macbeth—and you have shown the truth of the thing. You will delight, move, and instruct all at once, in ways no other human effort can. But show evil or even just debauch as good—as edifying, as healthy, as fun, when it is really degrading, painful, and diminishing in its marginal returns—and you will have carved yet another piece out of the collective human mind which is, at present, riddled with holes. 

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind