Thursday, August 30, 2007

Generosity, Art, and Conventions

Jeff Maynes has a couple of questions. First,

Can babies be generous?
No. Generosity requires recognizing a need in others, an understanding of what one could do to help satisfy that need, and acting on that understanding. Babies do not have any of those capacities. Very young children do develop it, and while their attempts are often off the mark, it is really cute and touching to watch little ones when it is clear they are led by the purest of empathy to try to help someone.

Next question:
Aesthetic value is clearly not the only value we use when evaluating media forms. We also are interested in simple entertainment, etc. What role ought these other considerations have when considering the general direction of contemporary media?

That isn't really clear, because I'm having a hard time getting clear on it myself; so I'll use an anecdote that will hopefully help. I enjoy all manners of film, from thought provoking and evocative works of art to standard blockbuster cinema. Rather frequently, after a long day of thinking over complex issues I actually prefer a movie that is straightforward, mass media entertainment. At the same time, I lament that other types of film don't get a chance since they aren't going to make money. How do you balance these two competing forces, since I think simply demeaning the non-artistic media is to mistake aesthetic value as the only merit for media?
It's a very good question and a slant on something that was discussed a bit in the Harry Potter thread a week or so ago. Kerry and Gwydion were contending that there is no line (or at least not a clear one) to be drawn between art, on the one hand, and mere entertainment, on the other. Even if we begin by granting that, it is certainly true that art can entertain and that entertainment value has some bearing on our artistic judgments. The greatest of musical compositions tend to be those we can hum.

But, of course, there's more to being a great composition than "it has a good beat and I can dance to it." Most people use entertainment as Jeff does, as a break from their daily labor while engaging good art is often work.

Great art does something better or something new. Art occurs in a context, a social historical context and an art historical context. Great works may find a prescient means of expressing some aspect of the spirit of the times -- op art, for example, in addition to being cool, weird eye dazzlers, also clearly said something about the hypnotic state of post-war American society induced by technology. Alternatively, a great work may challenge the times and the social norms -- think Moliere or the Vagina Monologues. But art also is created in its own community and often the great works are ones that show a mastery of technique -- Rembrandt or Vermeer -- or that develop a new technique -- Georges Seurat pointillism -- or that challenge long-standing axioms of how art is to be produced at all -- think Schoenberg, Cage, Duchamp. This last category is often the sort of thing held up as examples of the excesses of modern art, but this is only because it takes acquaintance with the context to figure out who is saying what to whom with that piece.

Great art does something and that something may make us uncomfortable, and the appreciation of what it is doing may take work. There was a thread over at Gwydion's a little while ago talking about Moby Dick and how much work it is to get through, but how revolutionary it was once you can get through it (it's in the comments). We have the advantage in philosophy that there have been so many incredibly deep thinkers who have been terrible writers that we are free to concentrate solely upon content in our work. Artists, on the other hand, labor under the weight of so many who have produced works that both challenge and entertain that they are always expected to entertain whether they challenge or not.

I suppose the real problem would be that our culture is so inherently anti-intellectual that we generally don't take challenging to be entertaining, we construct a dicthotomy where one shouldn't be. That's not to say, there's anything wrong with enjoying something light, but generally we don't as a society appreciate "that artsy crap" the way we should.

C. Ewing asks,
Can you give me an example of one convention being better than another? And, to follow that up, please expound on what way the one is better than the other.
Utitlity is generally the criterion we use to assess the successfulness of a convention, although ethical or political reasons could be operative as well. We could choose any of a large array of units of measurement for our speed limit signs. We choose miles per hour or kilometers per hour, but could, if we so decided, write them in light years per fortnight. Ours is better because we don't need scientific notion or really, really, really long speed limit signs. It is a convention because either way would convey the same information, but one conveys it in a more easily digestible way, especially when driving past at .00000000343 light years per fortnight.