Art and Culture Change

[Available in PDF format here.]

Cézanne painted at a time when European intellectual culture was in turmoil. Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols was in the air, as were Kierkegaard’s gyrations about faith and anxiety. God was dead, meaning that moral values, once underpinned by religious faith, looked suddenly footless. In Kierkegaard’s hands, religious faith itself had turned into the upshot of a necessarily groundless choice. Meanwhile, secular culture lacked the wherewithal to replace the lost stability with values based on Reason. Reason had killed God only to end up moribund itself. A decade or so after Cézanne’s death, T.S. Eliot wrote The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, ostensibly a poem of despair that took the world by storm. It turned into the keynote speech of a century of handwringing.

It was in that world, partly upon him and partly still in the making, that Cézanne labored to compose his perfect color harmonies and progressions. He even succeeded: a public that once shunned him beat a path to his door because people found themselves both loving his paintings and intrigued by them. God and Reason may have been dead or dying, but harmony and beauty were still very much alive, with neither particularly at risk of being killed off all that soon. It did not really matter what anyone believed about the foundations of value. Here, in the form of beauty, was value staring people in the face as they looked at those paintings, helpless to resist its pull and intimidated into silence about its purported groundlessness.

This brief sketch invites the thought that once he had found his feet, Cézanne’s paintings were subversive of the culture of his day. Whether it was his intention or not, they challenged its relativism, pessimism, and incipient nihilism. Elevated into an ideal and generalized, that thought becomes the romantic thesis that the business of artists is to subvert the larger culture when the latter fails in its mission to support human well-being. The thesis turns the artist into a crusader for the greater good.

This view appeals to some artists for obvious reasons. It puts a heroic face on an activity that may otherwise come across as mere self-indulgence, or, in Picasso’s language, as the trivial business of decorating bourgeois apartments. Unfortunately, however, it rests on a simple-minded understanding of culture. From a purely historical point of view, the only thing Cézanne’s paintings may be said to have subverted was the French academic painting style against which he pitted himself. Moreover, as these things go, the larger culture was quick to incorporate Cézanne’s alternative to that style in its pantheon of artistic achievements. Beyond that, little changed. Not only did relativism, pessimism, and nihilism persist, but they became more pervasive as dominant cultural themes. In other words, seen as attempted cultural subversion on a large scale, Cézanne’s paintings failed.

More to the point at issue is the fact that the intellectual discomfort characteristic of the time prevented no one from behaving in general as though life was the same as it had always been. Footless or not, people continued to take their values seriously. Writers labored just as hard to craft well-formed sentences. The sight of impeccable moral behavior still aroused admiration. Egregious moral defect or weakness still induced revulsion, as did conspicuous ugliness in all its forms. In addition, ostensibly sound reasoning also still commanded assent, even when it clearly suggested that all those value commitments were open to question. Although written 200 years earlier but still read, Montaigne’s Defense of Raymond Sebon comes to mind as an example. So does Kierkegaard, arguing that any reasoning purporting to validate one fundamental choice over another is ultimately circular. But he argued! He appealed to Reason. He invoked a value, rationality, respect for which was apparently not arbitrary.

The point is that culture, conceived as the sum total of active beliefs, attitudes, and practices, is not necessarily coherent. Practices may be at odds with beliefs, and beliefs with one another. Nietzsche considered it a remarkable fact that, at least as he saw it, Western Christianity is a religion commitment to which comes with a disposition not to take it too seriously in practice. Though Western nations may insist that they are Christian nations, their social and economic arrangements are often conspicuously at odds with some of the main tenets of Christianity, such as that loving one’s neighbor ought to take precedence over striving for status or wealth. A moral or religious purist may indict that fact as hypocrisy. A more reasonable person will see it as reflective of what culture is, namely a lived tension among competing beliefs, commitments, and practices. Hypocrisy is part of culture in practice and coexists uneasily with moral aspirations, also part of culture, that condemn it.

More is at work in that reality than that different people differ in their dispositions. They may, but even the same person may be differently inclined at different times, or, even at the same time, torn between what he feels and what his reason dictates. An individual’s mental landscape is not necessarily coherent either. It too is replete with tensions of which the uneasy coexistence in individuals of feeling and thought is but one example. On the one hand, virtually all of us resonate emotionally and positively to harmony and beauty, indeed even to the sight of morally impeccable behavior. We naturally cringe in the face of ugliness or egregious moral defect. On the other hand, not even our best thinking succeeds in rendering those emotional reactions transparent to our understanding. They seem irrational. Moreover, they are frequently at odds with what rational sense dictates we must do, such as hold down a disagreeable, perhaps morally repellent, job, for example, just for the sake of earning a living. The typical upshot is a self-division in individuals, a life simultaneously lived in two worlds that can present themselves as one only at the price of making their incongruity a taboo. Because one cannot afford to think too clearly, one does not think much at all. And because one’s feelings about some things must be kept in check, one learns not to have them.

We find those two worlds replicated on a large scale in culture itself. On the one hand, it celebrates art and moral decency. On the other, it champions rationality and practicality, this even when rationality issues in the widespread conviction that value commitments are irrational and the goals of practicality, therefore, very much open to question. For what are they, if not value commitments?

The taboo that is the individual’s solution to this conflict is replicated as well. Though it might be the rational thing to do, let’s not insist on asking how those worlds go together. They don’t. The only way of holding them together is not to ask such questions – not to induce a crisis that we sense has no solutions. To be sure, adolescents may ask such questions because they do not yet know better. An adult asking them invites astonishment at his or her naiveté or impoverished acculturation.

Now one may reasonably think that this problem is itself the doing of culture. The story that ours tells about us includes a parsing of internal human reality that privileges our rationality at the expense of our sensibility and that, therefore makes our rationality out to be more rational than it is and our feelings, less rational than they are. If that sounds confusing or untrue, you may want to consider that the compelling power of rationality owes something, possibly a lot, to the fact that we resonate emotionally and positively to the structure of a well-crafted argument, for example, where it makes no difference whether we are explicitly aware of the quality of that structure or merely sense it. There is emotion in rationality and rationality in emotion.

But culture is what it is, burdened, on the one hand, by accidents of its origins, and, on the other, by broad practical agendas that may include a more acute interest in survival than in what is actually true. Among others, the effects include the hard line between feeing and thought.

But speaking of what is true, the solution to the problem is not so much cultural as natural. The root of the taboo that makes it possible for our conflicting worlds to coexist, at least in individuals, appears to be neurobiological. Our brains are naturally averse to incongruity when it rises to the level of consciousness. And the only means available to us to maintain unity in the face of incipient incongruity is to suppress awareness of the latter. One avoids focusing on the incongruity at issue, discourages attempts by others to invite that focus or to force it upon one, and takes a pass on personal reflections and explorations that one senses are likely to issue in crises triggered by the brain’s aversion to incongruity. The truth is not worth a potential nervous breakdown.

Seen from that perspective, culture reflects the built-in imperatives of neurobiology, both in its perpetual quest for unity and in the means of achieving it in the face of incongruity. However capricious or stupefying they may seem, the silences, denials, and subterfuges of culture serve the purpose of keeping our sense of the world in one piece and are essential to the achievement of that goal.

Obliviousness to this fact is fairly common. It makes it easy to believe that ours would be a better world if, for example, capitalist acquisitiveness took a back seat to more constructive social dispositions, or if Christians more often brought their religious convictions to bear in their behavior toward other people, or if our sense of reality were more hospitable to the fact that we are feeling beings, and so on. If only we could be more consistent in this way or that, we would be ahead of where we are now. Attempts to change the culture in the direction of greater consistency are the natural upshot of that belief.

But apart from the fact that those attempts rarely succeed, even when they do, the result is not necessarily a world in which one feels more at home. The main reason is that an increase in integrity in one part of the cultural landscape may actually translate into a decrease in the integrity of that landscape as a whole. That potential result would make itself felt in more pervasive silences, denials, and subterfuges. Just as many feel a need today to obscure the connection between capitalist acquisitiveness and economic misery, chances are that the disappearance of the former would give birth to a similar need to obfuscate the likely connection between that disappearance and the loss of all its former collateral benefits — from economic efficiency, through creative individual incentives, to the flourishing of the arts. For all its merits as a quest for greater social and economic justice, the virtues of the former Soviet Union did not include economic efficiency or hospitality to creative individualism. But just as American public rhetoric about capitalism distorts realities, so Soviet rhetoric tended by necessity to obscure the opposite realities.

Soviet institutions were an attempt to achieve a greater integrity between wide-spread moral convictions, on the one hand, and social and economic realities, on the other. The unforeseen price was an increase in tension in the cultural landscape as a whole. That tension then had to be papered over by making it out to be the effect of Western propaganda. Some of it undoubtedly was, but Western propaganda could not have gained a purchase on Soviet consciousness in the absence of native uneasiness with a state of affairs on the ground that felt at odds with ideals. In any case, however, cultural and mental acrobatics – in the form of silence, denial, and taboos – were needed in order to keep the culture in one piece. Moreover, recourse to such acrobatics was no less pervasive than it was — still is – in Western Europe or in the United States.

Similar reflections induce wariness of the idea that the world would be a better place if Christians acted more often on their beliefs. If anything, history tends to suggest the opposite. The separation of Church and State, both in America and in Europe, owed much to a desire to avoid the detrimental effects on citizens’ well-being caused earlier by a more robust Christianity.

So while it might be nice if Christians restricted themselves to loving their neighbor in a gentle sort of way, familiarity with past history instantly conjures up the likelihood that they can’t be counted on to do that. They are human beings like everyone else. After fleeing from oppression in England, the Puritans, for instance, turned into enthusiastic oppressors in American New England.

But let’s set history aside and suppose, purely for the sake of argument, that the gospel of neighborly love could be made to take hold in a culture, without any of the excesses of so-called tough love historically associated with it. No bullying, no overzealous missionaries or other fanatics, no burning anyone at the stake for falling short. Wouldn’t that culture be well-served by that religious disposition?

I am inclined to doubt it. While that aspect of the Christian message appeals to me personally, I suspect that I am not unique in finding other people occasionally unlovable. And while there are times when their behavior appears to justify my negative response to them, or my indifference to their well-being, there are also times when nothing justifies it. For some inexplicable reason, they simply irritate me or get on my nerves. Or I lack the wherewithal needed to step back and make the effort to understand either them or myself. Indeed, there are times and situations where I could understand if I wanted to, but deliberately refuse to be generous.

In the face of those realities and troubled by them, I can tell myself some version or other of the Christian story, such as that being human comes with a supernatural congenital disease called Original Sin. Not only am I morally weak, but occasionally given to relishing doing the opposite of what I know is right. The best I can do, other than beating up on myself, is to hope eventually to come into possession of the supernatural remedy to my character defects that is God’s grace – a gift that God apparently hands out mysteriously and capriciously.

As it happens, however, I am skeptical about the truth of that story, and I suspect that I am not unique in that sense either. It flies in the face of my sense of reality that, on the whole, does not greatly differ from everyone else’s. There are no supernatural congenital diseases. I am strongly inclined to believe that what the Christian story calls Original Sin is simply being human. Human nature is not consistently gentle or loving. I should not have to beat up on myself because I am human and cannot successfully pretend that I am something else. I might do better facing the fact that I am getting myself into this fix because attracted by the gospel of gentleness, I aspire to ideals that are unrealistic in relation to the being that I actually am. The results include disconcerting incongruities between my behavior and my beliefs, incongruities that I cannot overcome by any means that fall short of burdening my life with a story about myself and humans in general that strikes me as implausible in relation to my sense of reality.

Differently put, the point is that my keeping the Christian show on the road comes at the price of silences, denials, and mental subterfuges that, though natural, testify to the precarious integrity of my overall mental landscape and make me feel chronically uneasy. When I imagine that state of affairs generalized in a culture, I do not see an improvement in the well-being of its members over life in a culture where people take that same gospel with a large grain of salt. On the contrary, I see a culture that would strive forcefully to overcome its discomfort with the associated uncertainties and apparent implausibilities by pretending that they don’t exist. In other words, I see a culture seriously at risk of drifting into religious fanaticism and excesses in order to sustain itself, which, ultimately, would only make the problem worse.

True as it is that our brains are hard-wired against incongruity, and in favor of maintaining a sense of our mental landscape as unified at virtually any cost, it seems that they are also hard-wired to prefer genuine unity to the kind that is cobbled together by means of suppressions of awareness and mental acrobatics. Culture makes us feel uneasy just to the extent that its unity depends on such expedients. The reason may be that though effective, suppressing awareness brings the risk of mental accidents, moments of shattering truth in which problematic awareness (re)asserts itself, and, once in place, cannot be suppressed. The normal effect is a crisis, the more severe the more the unity of the mental landscape it disrupts was, so to speak, artifactual in that it owed its apparent coherence to silence and subterfuge. If that is the reason, then culture makes us uneasy whenever we sense, or our brains sense, that its quality places our survival at risk. It might explain the sense of foreboding or the malaise that our current culture induces in many people.

In any case, however, these reflections encourage the view that while culture change may recommend itself for multiple reasons, trying to bring it about may be not just a zero-sum game, but downright dangerous. Despite the best intentions, when they succeed, such attempts may actually make things worse. The touchstone of what counts as better or worse in this context is the extent to which the degree of artifactuality of the changed culture is lesser or greater than that of the one it replaces. In simpler language, the question is whether the change brings about a greater or lesser genuine integrity of the culture as a whole. If, measured against the current state of affairs, the change requires more mental acrobatics and subterfuge to maintain the illusion of overall integrity, then it is making things worse.

Now every culture draws an obscuring veil over our mortality. Though an inescapable and emotionally huge fact – the elephant in the room, our eventual death is not a reality that it is useful to dwell on. Even just saying that comes close to violating the taboo that veil represents. I mention it only as a reminder of the fact that no culture can do entirely without recourse to artifactuality in maintaining a unified sense of reality. It invites the question how much genuine integrity is actually possible. To what extent are the incongruities in our culture inescapable facts of life akin to our mortality, and to what extent are they, by contrast, correctible effects of our past foolishness – of our neurobiology going haywire, so to speak?

To bring the question down to earth, to what extent, for example, is the division between thought and feeling, and all that goes with it, an inescapable fact of life that we can only cope with by obscuring it and surrounding it with taboos, and to what extent is it a cultural fact that our own foolishness has brought down upon us? If it is the latter, then it seems that we would be ahead if we dismantled that fact. No doubt, doing so would be hard, but not either impossible or impossible without making things worse.

Put another way, the question is whether we are being irrational or childish when we feel alienated by our culture to the point of sensing ourselves to be fish out of water, or whether, instead, the negative feelings our culture induces in us involve a perception of a correctible incongruity. As is perhaps already obvious, I strongly suspect that it is the latter.

That said, however, I have no faith in attempts to correct that incongruity by means of arguments, or art, that encourage openness to feeling at the expense of thought, or that tend to belittle thought when it conflicts with feeling. They are understandable as knee-jerk reactions to a state of affairs that offends sensibility. But they are not ultimately effective, not because they convince no one, but because when they do convince, they merely replace one imbalance by another. That dubious achievement comes with new silences and subterfuges, new artifactualities, more likely than not to leave the overall quality of the culture exactly where it was, and that’s supposing that it does not make it worse.

What does that leave as a remedy? It leaves honest and assiduous exploration. What is the truth about the connection between our rationality and our sensibility, or between our capacity to think and our dispositions to feel? More ambitiously, what, hosting both, are our brains up to? Finally, how could it happen that we got the answers to those questions so wrong in the past? The explanation can’t be that we were stupid and are only now finally emerging as the clever species we are supposed to be.

Culture is always an experiment the outcome of which remains obscure until it starts to fail. But one thing about it is not obscure, namely that it is always an attempt to achieve integrity across the board and is only as good as our sense of genuine integrity is subtle. If anything may arguably be said to be emerging, it is the increased subtlety of that sense, forged in the fires of some 200,000 years of collective human experience.

Which brings me back to art, an integral part of culture. To the extent that the makers of art have an agenda larger than entertainment and decorating bourgeois apartments, one that includes culture change for the better, the question is what art can contribute on that front. Ill-equipped by training and temperament for that role, artists are not normally competent social engineers (supposing that there is such a thing). They are more often ineffectual blunderers in that enterprise, as when they seek to recommend emotion at the expense of thought. Conceived as artists, philosophers generally do no better. They usually push the opposite proposition, trying to elevate their personal predilections into quasi-universal ones. Wouldn’t it be a better world if the reign of irrationality and thoughtlessness yielded more often to that of their opposites? No, it probably wouldn’t.

But it would be a better world if we knew more often what it is that we do when we do it, if our goals were clearer to us, and if their attraction burned more brightly in our consciousness. Art can help bring that about.

Broadly conceived, the business of art (also broadly conceived), is the depiction of genuine integrity. Cézanne’s paintings do that, as do those of many other artists, including poets, writers, sculptors, composers of music, and even some philosophers. The effect is beauty that induces love. And whether we know it or not, in that love we recognize our deepest yearning, our goals in life, and the objective of our striving as human beings.

Good art is a beacon beckoning to us from afar, illuminating parts of the paths that we must travel in order to get where all of us want to go. It is the only light in an otherwise dark and confusing world. That is why even the much maligned bourgeois, who is, after all, also one of us, wants it hanging on the walls of his or her apartment. He or she wants something to love in a way that does not appear either accidental or trivial, something that reminds them, however mysteriously, of the beings they are and of what those beings want more than anything else, namely genuine integrity.

Every painting ends at the edge of its canvas. Beyond that edge or its frame, there is the real world with its troubles and heartaches. But from inside the frame and on the canvas, when the painting is good, there beckons another world that, by virtue of its integrity, is the image of our deepest desires. At the risk of pushing the metaphor, it radiates badly needed light into the surrounding darkness.

The artist as heroic crusader for the greater good? If you insist, but actually just someone who tells the truth. That’s what, among many others, Leonardo did and Cézanne, as well as, despite his maddening obscurantism, even T.S. Eliot.

At its best, art is not about the world. It is about what we ultimately want from it and it reveals it. Understood and appreciated as such, art can be an enabler of intelligent culture change.

Finally and somewhat paradoxically, even ostensibly bad art can trigger apt efforts to change the culture. If recognized as bad, along with the reasons that make it bad, it may turn its perceptive viewer temporarily into an artist seeing what he ought to see instead of what he does. Arguably though, in such a case, it is the viewer who is the good artist, not the original creator of the work. The latter is either inept or exceptionally clever.

That’s the news from Cape Cod, where the snow is waist-high, the temperature hovers far below freezing, and another winter storm is coming our way. Seen from my studio window, the world looks stunningly beautiful. It hangs together. Unfortunately, there is a mismatch between that world and the possibility that the power may give out in my house.

©Serge Kappler 2015

This entry was posted in Art, Emotion. Bookmark the permalink.