Rulers are unteachable

The Wounded Angel - Hugo_SimbergWhy does art not reliably improve people?

After all, the argument that it has transcendent, even spiritual value has been used to justify investment of time, money and care in its acquisition since the Enlightenment. It still is today, except among the Utilitarians who foolishly persist in their belief that other people can – should – be remade according to their designs. Self-improvement is intrinsic to the idea of culture and separates it from heritage: to be ‘cultivated’ has been an ideal in European society since Classical times.

Theodor Adorno, who believed in art’s value, recognised the challenge to that belief implicit in German culture’s gallop on the back of the Nazi party into nihilism and genocide. How could that happen, if the claims made for culture’s improving power were true?

In What Good are the Arts? John Carey demolishes many unfounded beliefs about the value of artistic experience but still goes on to argue for the value of literature in opening our hearts and minds. The admirable Simon Leys, who has recently died, takes the same position when he writes, in an essay entitled I Prefer Reading, that he believes:

At least political leaders and statesmen should try to read more literature. This might enable them to acquire an elementary self-knowledge.

The problem is that books, paintings and music do not affect us the way that aspirin does. Drugs have a broadly predictable, consistent effect on us over which we have no control: they act on us. Art is a meeting of minds – the artist’s and the audience’s. What we take from it depends entirely on what we bring to it. Much of that, we can’t help or control. We may not even be conscious of how we are filtering it through our selves.

But we can come with more or less humility. We can be more or less open to the possibility of being changed by a work of art, even when we don’t understand or even like it. If there is little evidence yet to support Simon Leys’ hopes for the influence of literature on our rulers, it may be that leadership, like belonging to the master race, is not much associated with humility.

Attentive readers might remember that I’ve used this painting – The Wounded Angel, by Hugo Simberg – before on this site, but I can’t think of a better image for this post. I saw the painting only once, nearly 20 years ago at the Ateneum in Helsinki, and it has lingered in my imagination ever since.


  1. I can understand your predicament on why the arts have no effect or affect. Even Picasso and Auden said art has no effect. I believe that the political system is at fault: economics and all that our culture entails.
    However, there is a small solution to these ills, and that is for artists to change their mode of performance; their attitudes and relation to how they ‘deliver’ their art. I am working on a book ‘Crashing Culture’ due in 2015 that links up with a film being made during 2015 about Cultural Democracy.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ken. I agree that there’s always scope for artists to change their ways of working, and that will surely lead to different results. But my underlying belief is that it’s a mistake to think that A causes B where human beings are concerned. A might cause B, but it might alternatively or additionally cause C, M, blue,strange and metaphor (i.e. effects in completely other categories) and most of the time we can’t be sure even when we’re involved. The key thing, I believe, is to recognise the agency of all people, so that when we are audiences or listeners or readers we are recreating what an artist has done, which is why an artist can never control how they are interpreted or the effects of their work. Your book and the associated film sound very interesting – I’ll look out for them.

  2. I agree Francois that recognising the agency of all people is important however I’m not so sure about fully dismissing A causing B etc nor being uncertain whether we are involved or not. Surely we interpret, not recreate, what artists do ? And being human, that which is important to us rises to our interpretive surface first. So A may indeed cause B. An artist may choose for this to be so e.g. Heironymous Boschs’ Gardens of Delights. I fail to see how we can be uncertain of being involved, when we are listening, seeing or audience we are involving ourselves, our sensibilities.
    Economics is a factor in the ‘arts’ whether it be the consistent financial challenges the artist faces or the ever present silent force to produce work to current ‘fashion’ and so be of ‘value’. In my form, dance, the athletic or exquisitely technical are funded and lauded – parallels with current preferred western economic models are there. Shiny product equalising success.
    We all have bodies yet to ‘perform’ in such a manner requires decades of discipline.
    Very Protestant Work Ethic which completely ignores the valuable work of dancers who are viewed as pioneers and icons. Shiny is rewarded and thoughtful consistency is not.
    Perhaps rulers are unteachable because their notions of rulership rely on heirarchy, linearality, a certainty of outcome. And art, as we agree, can have numerable effects.

    1. It’s not that there aren’t causal links between what an artist creates and what an audience experiences, only that the effects of the first on the second cannot be predicted, controlled or guaranteed – and one reason for that is human agency.

      I resist the idea that artists are different from other people for two reasons. First, because creating, like talking, is something anyone can do. We do it differently and some people do it better than others. Talking well might bring you more listeners but it doesn’t bring you any more rights.

      Secondly, because I don’t see any justification for treating any group of people as more ‘special’ than any other. It’s very common – kings, aristocrats, priests, scientists, celebrities and artists are just some of the groups given special status in different societies – but I don’t have to agree with it because it happens. Economics, like power (of which it is an expression), affects everyone, not just artists.

  3. I prefer revolution in the arts because that is what art is. In this context A cause B is not on. More to the point there has to be an advent of things and ideas. You have mistaken my belief that artists can change things by acting differently. Any inroads into any community, whoever they are, have bodies, as Karen says. These ‘bodies’ have feeling and sensations as receptors of the world. But do they have possibilities of expressing their concerns about the world? Our culture in the arts, science, technology, social, political and educational are all tantamount to a separation of art, nature and society. So the task is immense and the way community art is assembling itself does not look good; nor does the idea of participation in the arts with its attention to learning seem right. What seems to be happening is that since the 60s an institutionalizing process has been set in motion. ignoring the force and passion of the initial force for something different to the power of money based directives and influence.

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