Why 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.