Friday, 7 November 2008

Art and Morality

Hugh Mackay writes in today's SMH

Sydney is endowed with a rich artistic life. Writers, painters, poets, photographers, singers, dancers, actors, architects and designers thrive here. From the beginning, serious attention has been paid to theatres, galleries, concert halls - as well as public art - for the delight and stimulation of the populace.

Yet Sydney continues to suffer from the social ills that plague most large cities. Our enthusiastic attendance at galleries, theatres and concert halls doesn't appear to subdue our anger, relieve our stress, or incline us to become friendlier to each other. Those of us who love the arts like to believe we are "improved" in an almost mystical way by our exposure to various art forms. But where is the evidence that theatre or concert goers are better citizens - more attentive, say, to the needs of the marginalised or disadvantaged - than non-attenders?

In her modern classic, Everyday Ecstasy (1985), the English writer Marghanita Laski examined whether the ecstatic response to art is translated into enthusiasm for, say, charitable works designed to alleviate the suffering of those who may never experience such ecstasy. Is that how it benefits society, by making us more sensitive or compassionate? Her reluctant answer was no.

Art is for enjoyment. We shouldn't confuse it with something that's doing good to art consumers.


Mikey Lynch said...

Interesting excerpt, thanks Gordo.

A couple of reactions:

1. Art is for enjoyment... and creation of beauty, expression of opinion, formation of personal identity, religious worship (in some religions) and on and on - not just enjoyment.

2. The book referred to may say something about high culture, not necessarily about art. I doubt the effect of art is simply and easily measurable, to be honest.

3. If we wanna say art does nothing good, does that also erode the argument for censorship: that art can have a negative effect?

Gordon Cheng said...

Hey mikey.

1. Sure. Enjoyment's a good start, however, and very closely related to thankfulness.

2. Wouldn't know. But there is a hypothesis frequently advanced that art makes us better. One way of testing that hypothesis is by testing whether charitable deeds are greater amongst concert-goers, making due allowance for having the sort of income that allows you to go to a concert.

3. Wouldn't you need to take a (biblical) step backwards and ask what it is that produces 'good'? If doing good is a work of the Holy Spirit, then art is irrelevant to the process, unless you want to argue that the Holy Spirit works to produce goodness through art (if so, Bible verse please).

Doing evil is a straightforward matter, and any number of things can be found that help promote evil. Removal of censorship may well be one of those things.

The question of how to promote evil, however, is of a different order to the question of how to promote what is good—since only God is good, and only God can produce good. Evil may have any number of causes, and the ultimate cause is unknown.