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Thursday, April 6, 2017

Why We Need Artists or Why Modernists are Letting their Guard Down


Eve L. Ewing has written an Op-Ed over at the New York Times reflecting on the penchant of authoritarian regimes for censoring and controlling the arts. While I think the article wrings its hands a little too much over the Trump administration's move to cut the National Endowment for the Arts (there is a significant difference between cutting government funding and outright censorship and control) the piece is well worth reading for its straightforward and elegant apologetic for the arts in a democratic society. She argues that artists, and particularly avant-garde artists, play a crucial role in critiquing the norms and institutions of a given society. Given the value authoritarian regimes place on defending established norms and institutions, it is unsurprising that authoritarians generally react against our more prophetic artists.

The piece has me thinking about the overall role that artists play in human society. Well beyond offering important critiques of existing power structures and institutions, I want to suggest that artists are able to communicate a consciousness of the world which is not fundamentally reducible to propositional language. My favorite example of this is the story that, when asked to explain the meaning of The Wasteland, T.S. Elliot replied by reciting the poem itself—art can be discussed and explored, maybe even understood, but it cannot be fundamentally deconstructed. Along these lines, I have become more and more convinced of late that we have both direct and modeled experiences of reality—let's call the modeled experiences physical and the direct experiences metaphysical as they do not require a sensory model. I suspect that we experience the world more fully than our five senses can adequately process or than our mental models can represent. And art, of nearly any type, communicates on both the physical and metaphysical level. Either that, or by being an unfamiliar representation of the familiar, art confronts us with the artificiality of our own model of reality, thereby shocking us into some sort of greater contact with reality as such. 

Or I could be entirely wrong about that. 

Either way, the fact remains that art is able to make an impression on us which prose and reason find far more difficult. The philosopher Peter Kreeft compares art, poetry, humor, and music to the burglar who sneaks past our critical thinking to take up unexamined (or at least, far less-examined) habitation in our minds. From the perspective of most philosophers. mentors, parents, and teachers this makes art exceptionally dangerous and exceptionally powerful. Art bypasses all of the carefully trained resistances we have against bad thinking and fallacious logic. And, of course, so it is. We cannot combat the negative influence of bad or evil art by critical thinking; it is, to quote Dr. Kreeft again, dark magic. And the only solution to dark magic is good magic—good art (total side note but is it any surprise that Evangelicals who, with a few notable exceptions have proved unable to produce much beyond the most anemic art, feel that they are losing a great culture war?). This has resulted in a considerable amount of hand-wringing on the part of those who hope to keep bad beliefs out of the heads of good people. And for good reason.

But I think there is a serious mistake we frequently commit when we start to worry about the powerful impact of art on our own minds; and I think that it is a modernist mistake. We tend to believe that truth comes from logic or reason and that any other communication represents, at best, a short-cut or an attempt to make the experience more palatable. Put another way, we believe that reason=truth and art=emotions.This is, as I have said, a mistake—for a number of reasons. First, it is a mistake because it fails to recognize that there is truth which cannot be reduced to rational propositions (if there weren't then the cosmos would be fundamentally reduce-able to a perfect mathematical model and I don't accept that it is), it amounts to a claim that our constructed models of reality can be tested for "truth" but gives up on the possibility of a more basic, more absolute Truth against which those models might be judged. Second, it is a mistake because it overvalues our capacity to recognize bad reasoning. If the recent elections and the ensuing brouhaha over legitimate and illegitimate news sources, or the crisis of internet polarization and sloppy reasoning have taught us anything, it is that the Dunning-Kruger effect and confirmation bias are far more powerful that any 18th century rationalist or empiricist would ever want to accept; a guard who can fulfill her duties is a great thing, but putting our trust in a guard whom we know to be only semi-competent at best is simple foolishness. And the fact of the matter is that with all of our careful reasoning and critical thinking, the rational guards on our minds are semi-competent at best. Wisdom demands that we recognize our own rational limitations and work within them rather than pretending that our critical faculties are able to perfectly sort good reasoning from bad.

And yet we can't and won't simply throw in the towel and accept an existence wherein we stop evaluating all experience for Truth. 

This, too, is a book of Truth
I want to suggest that we are left with only one option. We need to allow it all. We need the artists, the poets, the painters, the singers, and the story tellers with all their silver lies and golden Truths. And we need the Mathematicians and the physicists with their known unknowns and their limited models of reality. The quest for Truth cannot be avoided—to avoid it is to surrender—and the fight for Truth cannot be restricted to a single arena—that would be to invite summary defeat from another arena. Our approach must be mixed, it must be complex, and it must be alive. We need to ask about the aesthetics of our proofs and much as we ask about the logic of our dance. We are whole persons living in a real world. No partial measures will do.

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