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Friday, September 12, 2014

A Weird Trick about the Autonomy of Art

A Martian came to earth and wanted to know the "purpose" of music. He went to a musical performance or two and got some answers:

An economist explains that music is an economic exchange. Why do musicians play? To get paid.

No, actually musicians are expressing themselves, says the psychologist.

The evolutionary psychologist explains that music is a sexual display. The males play in front of the females to prove their worthiness as mates.

Well, of course music is a way of praising the gods; music is really just ritual.

Or of sticking it to the man, destroying fascism, expressing ethnic pride.

It accompanies movies (but what are movies for?)

By now the Martian is getting really confused about these different explanations. Of course, they could all be partially correct, or relevant for some but they don't really get to what music really is, he feels. He lacks the sensory organs to be able to "hear" music, but he suspects that something else is going on.

Finally, he comes to my office at the University of Kansas. I explain to him that there are some objects whose purpose is to be really good examples of the type of thing they are. The purpose of the musical performance is to be wonderful. He asks me about the other explanations he has heard. I cannot dismiss them, of course. Music has many functions and uses, secular and sacred, economic to medicinal. All those uses, however, depend on its being music first.


The Martian goes down the hall and talks to some other professors. They explain to him that Mayhew's explanation is a Western idea that doesn't apply to most artistic phenomena. The autonomy of art only arises late in human history. Before that art was always bound up with other human activities. So music really is just a sexual, ritual, economic, or some other thing. Pure music is the exception.


So the Martian comes back to my office again and gives me the cultural studies line fed to him by my brilliant colleagues. He is right that music is not "pure." But there is a weird internet trick I show him. It is true that the tribal drummer or potter does not have a modern Western sense of art being autonomous or pure. But it is also true that these creators of culture do not have a "utilitarian" view of art as simply being "for something else." This utilitarian idea in fact only arises as a reaction to the same dynamic that produced the idea of autonomy. So to say an ancient potter made a pot so that the Pharaoh would have an object to take into the other world is true enough, but that's like saying the rock drummer drums so he can get laid.


Thomas said...

Maybe I've misunderstood what you mean by "wonderful" (but not, I think, what Andrew meant). If you just mean "exceptionally good" then I think you give too narrow a sense to "art for art's sake". It's simply too circular to say that the purpose of a guitar solo is to be a great guitar solo.

But I agree (with you, I think) that it's going too far in the other direction to say that the purpose of a guitar solo is to get laid. (Though it may be used that way, to be sure.)

The purpose of art when it's done for it's own sake is to improve our capacity for aesthetic experience, i.e., our capacity to feel pleasure. This is sometimes achieved by producing a moment of artificial pleasure, training our capacity for real pleasure. (I say "sometimes" because the art experience need not always be immediately pleasurable, and may yet improve our capacity for pleasure.)

The purpose of drumming is to impose rhythm on experience. This has effects on our experience of time, i.e., the actual, sensual experience of time. The effect lasts beyond the duration of the song. These effects can rightly be called "wonderful", i.e., in the sense of the quality of an experience that transforms experience itself. Art can only (or best) produce such effects by being wonderful in the simpler sense of "really good". But that's incidental, actually.

The purpose of a pick-up line is to get laid. "I'm the drummer," can certainly be a pick-up line. And merely being the drummer in the band (without saying anything at all) can of course get you laid. But you are an artist if the purpose of your drumming is to entrance (be- wonder?) the audience by imposing your rhythm on their experience.

You may be doing this entirely for your own sake, of course. You may be doing it for the pleasure of making the poem, or the rhythm, or the clay pot, or whatever. But whether or not it is, autonomously, art, depends on its transformative effect on the subjective experience, the imagination, of the beholder.

Against the hip irony of Koch's "What's it for?" I would put your much more earnest "To really love literature is to love how it rewrites your subjectivity, how it kicks your ass with its transformative power." That is the purpose of a poem.

Jonathan said...

I agree completely with most of what you're saying, but I think I interpret Koch's line differently, not as hip irony but as an existential question. Like "'why does it exist in the first place?" It evokes a nervous laughter because we don't know what to do with it.

Being wonderful gives it the capacity to re-write subjectivity in multiple ways. I guess my argument is that it cannot do it unless is is wonderful, whereas you are starting with the effect rather than the cause. In any case, I thought somehow you would be more Poundian here.

Any way of stating this seems to run the risk of narrowing down the "purpose" of poetry, but that is not my aim. Rather, I think the circular quality of the argument is a plus, a way of bringing us back to the irreducible quality of it.

Vance Maverick said...

I must have burned out on this discussion a long time ago, around the time I was hanging out with Andrew Gelman in Berkeley. I think I am profoundly content not to have an answer to the question of the purpose of art.

Someone was asking me the other day about what I took to be meaningful in life. I told her I didn't even know what that meant. Linguistic meaning I understand, that is, I get what the problem is, and know from experience that it's broad and deep. Meaning in life is probably a metaphorical extension of that concept, making it even broader and deeper, and again I'm quite content to live without an account of it.

In saying that there's no answer to the question of the purpose of art, of course I'm not saying that art is purposeless. Just that there's no general account of that purpose, and that that's not a problem.

Thomas said...

I guess I'm just not as awed by art as some. I do admire it when it's good, but I have little reverence for it. So I'm not puzzled by the existence of poetry at all. I do feel like I've developed (at least for my own use) a pretty good "general account of [its] purpose". Poetry is the art of writing emotions down. If that seems narrow to you, it's because you have a narrow notion of either writing or emotion.

Now, obviously, you can use the art of writing emotions down to tell the story of your favourite empire. That is, history can be written as a series of emotional episodes, and this can be very useful as propaganda. I like what Pound said about Virgil: we should distinguish the part of the Aeneid that he was really interested in (as a poet) from the parts he wrote because he was trying to write an epic.

You can use the art of masonry to build homes for families or walls to keep out the barbarians. Either way, there's an art there that you're putting to various uses. And the purpose of that art can be specified more clearly than simply in terms of the ambition to be good at it.

Jonathan said...

I guess you could say the purpose of a painting is to cover a stain on the wall. That might be true for any given painting and wall. It might also be true that the entire debate makes little sense (Vance) or that not everyone shares the existential wonder about the very existence of music or poetry. In fact, my experience in academia shows me that my own position is not universal even among people who devote their lives to that study. I fear I have fallen into "Mayhew's fallacy" again: the fallacious universalization of my own experience. Curiously, I am most prone to this fallacy when I am trying to arrive at statements that are completely bland and non-controversial, like "the purpose of poetry is to be wonderful poetry."

Vance Maverick said...

I was probably influenced by the passage of Tolstoy which Google tells me was quoted by Marianne Moore:

Where the boundary between prose and poetry lies I shall never be able to understand. The question is raised in manuals of style, yet the answer to it lies beyond me. Poetry is verse: prose is not verse. Or else poetry is everything with the exception of business documents and school books.

(Developments since then have put the exception in question, of course -- though the catalog of ships might already have suggested that business documents couldn't easily be excluded.)

I like the chutzpah of Thomas's formulation: "If that seems narrow to you, it's because you have a narrow notion of either writing or emotion." Another handy rhetorical swipe might be to accuse naysayers of repressing their own emotions.

Thomas said...

FWIW, wasn't really meant to be a swipe, Vance. It was a more or less sincere suggestion to let "writing emotions down" cover a lot of territory, distinct mainly from "writing concepts down" (philosophy), "describing facts" (science) and "prescribing acts" (politics). It's in the same spirit as distinguishing poetry from "business documents and school books" but, I would argue, a bit more precise.

A commenter on Andrew's blog quoted Simon Leys: "for Chesterton, one of the greatest poems ever written was, in Robinson Crusoe, simply the list of things that Robinson salvaged from the wreck of his ship: two guns, one axe, three cutlasses, one saw, three Dutch cheeses, five pieces of dried goat flesh… Poetry is our vital link with the outside world – the lifeline on which our very survival depends – and therefore also, in some circumstances, it can also become the ultimate safeguard of our mental sanity.”

A list of ordinary things can be a poem under the right circumstances: precisely those under which they constitute the accurate notation of an emotion. Robinson's list, under Robinson's particular circumstances, would certainly qualify.