Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Absurd

In my previous blog about good art, I claimed that one of the prerequisites for good art is that it provides an escape from reality. And I would like to clarify precisely why I have come to think that way. This idea is not one I’ve invented, but rather comes from the realm of existential philosophy. I don’t consider myself an existentialist, but I do think that there is some truth to what some existentialists have said. One such idea is that of the absurd, spelled out most notably by the French author Albert Camus.

Camus defined the absurd as ‘a confrontation between ‘rational’ human beings and an ‘indifferent’ universe” (Solomon 15). Camus saw that we live in a world which is quite honestly indifferent to us and our expectations of it. We unconsciously expect from the world around us what we consciously expect from the people around us. We expect justice (that good be rewarded and bad be punished) and a satisfaction in understanding. But the truth is the universe in unfeeling.

We expect justice from the world, but the age-old problem of theodicy (the problem of evil) reminds us that although we expect justice, the world seems to be suspiciously lacking in that department. This is the absurd in action. Our rational minds project a desire (namely the desire for justice) on to a non-rational universe which, in reality, does not care.

The absurd shows up in another way. Many “scientific minded westerners” hold out the hope that we will find satisfaction and fulfillment in our understanding of the natural world. We expect that if only we could know a little more we could find satisfaction. But the truth is we won’t find satisfaction this way. We can understand much about the world around us, but it will always leave us wanting more. Once again our rational expectations are not fulfilled by the universe.

Our rational minds are at odds with the non-rational world around us. And Camus rightly saw that seeing the absurd can be a depressing thing. Left unchecked, living with the absurd can even lead to despair. But that is not usually the case. Why? Because we can escape from the absurd, if only for a little while, through art. We can, and probably should, also accept the absurd. What accepting the absurd fully means and where that leads is not completely clear to me at this point, but the alternative, despair, is not a viable option as far as I or Camus are concerned.

Albert Camus was an atheist and claimed that even “if there were a God, it would not matter¬– life would still be absurd” (Solomon 15). I agree with him on this point. Even though there is a God, life is still absurd. Looking around I can’t help but notice that the universe does not care about justice or providing human beings with meaning or purpose. The universe is absurd and there is no hope in it. But that is not to say there is no hope at all. There is hope, but to look for it in the universe, to expect that Nature will somehow provide us with a source of hope and meaning is to find absurdity.

Solomon, Robert. 2000. No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life. The Teaching Company.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Good Art

Not long ago, as I was trolling through the blogosphere, I happened upon an article inquiring about how Plato’s Theory of Forms relates to the subject of good art (For our sake art includes music, literature, and the visual arts). The author of this blog suggested that good art gives us a glimpse of the form, and consequently is itself more real than reality. (Actually, he says beautiful art more closely resembles ultimate reality, but that is a mistake as well). This got me thinking about what actually makes good art and beautiful art (and yes, there is a difference).

Let’s start with what makes beautiful art. Margaret Wolfe Hungerford once said, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and for what it’s worth I agree with her. Beauty is a subjective standard that shifts between places, times, and persons. Different cultures have different definitions of beauty and to argue with someone that this piece of art is beautiful or not will be about as productive as if you argued that I don’t like chocolate (which I do). Beauty is, in all fairness, a poor quality to look for in good art, partly because beauty is subjective and partly because good art does not need to be beautiful to anyone at any place or in any time.

To be art, the piece must do three things. Firstly, it must communicate to the observer one or more emotions. Art stimulates within us that very human component that is the passions. It is not a logical or rational experience. When I recently read White Fang I felt happy when White Fang was able to reunite with his beloved master. No part of that experience was rational. Neither the wolf-dog nor the man were real, and my feelings were for something that does not exist. But art doesn’t need to be rational, that is what philosophy and science are for. Art is for the passions.

Secondly, art must offer the observer an escape from reality. Reality is a rather frightening, troublesome, and absurd thing which we can not deal with on a constant basis. If we did we would find ourselves overcome with despair. Keeping despair at bay, art can separate us from reality (there are other means of separating oneself from reality, such as drugs, but art is a much safer escape). Getting lost in a book or a play or a song is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, art should provide our mind with rest from the absurdity of reality.

Anything that has the ability to communicate emotion and to provide safe haven from reality can be called art. But the last prerequisite is what separates regular art from good art. That last quality is transcendence. Good art has the ability to transcend time and space and personal experience. Good art can provide us with an escape and can stir our emotions no matter when it was created or where or by whom. And it can do those things to people everywhere and everywhen.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Two writers at the beginning of the twentieth century prophesied the death of Western culture. One writer imagined culture being crushed to death in the grasp of a totalitarian government bent on obtaining absolute control. The other envisioned laughter, distraction, and frivolity as the weapons which would drive off culture. Both authors were correct. George Orwell foresaw the reign of the communist states which nearly smothered Russian culture. And Aldous Huxley anticipated the surrender of American culture to soma. However, it appears that the drug has not taken the form of a pill, but it is “Television [that] is the soma of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World” (Postman 111).

American culture is dying and television is what is killing it. Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death seeks to spell out how television is killing our culture. It is not an evil plot by nefarious individuals that has orchestrated the death of our culture, instead it is the way television has reshaped the way we carry out discussions about ourselves and the world around us. Simply put:

Our conversations about nature and about ourselves are conducted in whatever “languages” we find it possible and convenient to employ. We do not see nature or intelligence or human motivation or ideology as “it” is but only as our languages are. And our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture. (Postman 15)
The media that has been increasingly used to carry out our public discourse (that is, our informational, educational, political, religious, and commercial forms of conversation) is the television. In the past, the written word was the main vehicle for such dialogues, but today television is the primary mode of cultural communication. And “as typography moves to the periphery of our culture and television takes its place at the center, the seriousness, clarity and, above all, value of public discourse declines” (Postman 29).

The seriousness of public discourse has suffered because television works best when it is not being serious. There is no conspiracy, just the fact that “good” television is entertaining. If it isn’t, then no one will choose to watch. But entertainment is not what is causing damage to our culture, on the contrary, “the problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining” (Postman 87). Even this fact would not make television powerful enough to destroy our culture. As long as we could separate what makes “good” television from what makes good public discourse we would be safe. But we have not been able to do that. Now, what makes “good” television is the same as what makes a good debate or sermon or class.

For example, in the political sphere, we no longer choose candidates, mainly, on their policies or their grasp of the issues, but on the character they “play” on television and how well they are able to appear in “debates” (which have little resemblance to the actual debates of the past). In the commercial arena, TV commercials no longer provide us with information about the product or service; instead they try to make us laugh or to identify somehow with the slogan or logo. At church, sermons and the “worship time” are not intended to provide parishioners with an atmosphere in which they can commune with and worship their God. No, “good” churches are the ones that have rock musicians playing lyrically and theologically simple songs and a pastor that tells funny jokes and looks good on camera. At school, the “good” teachers are not the ones that force their students to sit still and study, but are instead the ones who sing songs or play games with the students. Our public discourse in education, commerce, religion and politics is all about being good entertainment.

Television promotes the idea that everything should be entertaining. This idea is not only harmful to the seriousness of our public discourse, but destroys the clarity and value any viable thought may have had. There is practically no way of effectively forming complex ideas, constructing arguments to support those ideas, and providing documentation to strengthen those arguments using television (you could conceivably do this with TV, but chances are very good that practically no one would watch such a dull program) . An undertaking like the one I have mentioned would be much better suited for the written word. Television provides people with a wide variety of entertaining images that change every few seconds and require little or no previous knowledge to enjoy. Every episode is a self contained package. Even shows that require a minimal understanding of the events that preceded the current episode open with the phrase “Previously on …” and a dizzying montage of images and one-liners can catch you up completely in less than thirty seconds. However, complex ideas are not self contained packages. You can’t watch a thirty second montage to catch you up on Trigonometry or the history of the United States or Aristotle’s metaphysics. Serious, valuable ideas and concepts cannot be conveyed adequately via television. It simply isn’t the media for that kind of discourse.

Television has done a great deal of damage to our culture already. The effects it has wreaked in politics, education, commerce, and religion are more obvious now in 2008 than when Postman penned his book in 1985, but our culture has yet to completely die. And it may have hope yet. Television and other new technologies will continue to affect our culture. Any attempts to stop the effects of new and existing technologies are already futile. Instead, the best we may be able to hope for is a recognition of how television affects the way we communicate with each other about important matters so that we don’t become the world Huxley imagined: “for in the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking” (Postman 163).

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Viking Penguin. 1985.