07 March 2006

The potential of art

From Dan Green's recent essay in The Quarterly Conversation:
It might seem that literature in particular--both fiction and poetry--is especially destined to reflect its genetic origins, given that its medium, language, is so obviously an example of a human faculty produced directly by natural selection and deeply rooted in the physical properties of the brain. [...] However, precisely as a consequence of these apparent constraints inherent in the use of language, literature is actually by its very nature an effort to escape the habitual and ingrained assumptions about the status of language that are involved in its ordinary applications.

Both poetry and fiction--the latter increasingly so over the course of its history, as distinctions between the two modes become less significant--are most immediately the deliberate assertion of language as something other than ordinary communication. [...]

I would contend that the simplistic and passive appreciation of the kind of unexamined storytelling that Pinker valorizes in The Blank Slate only encourages an approach to literature that sees it as offering lessons for life, intimations of a better way to arrange things. (Although Pinker himself does not suggest this; he’s clearly more inclined to regard art as mere entertainment.) Rather than understanding literature--all works of the imagination--as a potential tool of consciousness, helping us both to clarify the nature of aesthetic experience and to dispel the illusion that we cast over the rest of our experience, this assumption about what literature can do for us arguably allows consciousness to become the acquiescent screen on which fanciful stories are projected--another version of the blank slate. I don’t claim that only art and literature help us, in effect, to face reality--certainly science remains the most direct means of coming to terms with the real--but the converse view, that art is an escape from reality, arises primarily from a lack of interest in discovering the potential of art in the first place.
There is a curious correlation between the literary views of certain "evolutionary psychologists" and some religious fundamentalists. As Green mentions earlier in the essay, "Given the public’s presumptive preference for the familiar and comforting, the work of modernists and postmodernists alike is characterized not only as artistic failure but as a kind of moral decadence as well." Whether it be a preference for "harmonious" or "balanced" narrative or tidy, conventional endings that seek to give "order" to existence, the denial of the "disturbing" in art is a shameful omission of equally valid aspects of the glorious mystery we call human nature.

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