The general theme among most of the people I talk to who actually care about such things (the minorest of minorities) have a general conclusion that the arts are dying, or at least dramatically reduced from some prior pinnacle of their former glory. The idea is that the various arts flourished "back in the day", and now languish in obscurity, where only a few poor kind souls attempt to keep the flame alive.
This brought me to a bit of accidental nuance to my view, it isn't so much how art relates to modern society, but how art relates to modern CONSUMERIST culture, where being a commodity is a goal unto itself, and salability is an ends-unto-itself beyond mastery or skill (the Latin ars root of art comes in here). How can something that we usually see as a means-to-itself (aesthetics) live in a world where the only thing that matters is consumer mindshare, and mass production?
With this new-found specifity (which MSWord has decided is not actually a real word) of my purpose flowing into my mind, also came its negation.
Art in the contemporary context is probably exactly what art has always been.
Yes, read that again, as I'm going against the popular conception, and my previous misconceptions.
Nothing has changed.
Now that I got the pithy single-sentence-paragraphs out of the way, let's explore this; there has always been two forms of public art, the art for the masses and the art for artists. By always, I mean since the first modern human sketched something in the sand with his or her hairy finger, up until now where we have massive film and game studios spending millions of dollars to release the next brown-and-beige ultra realistic WWII/Tactical Stealth blockbuster or romantic comedy.
The idea that art is languishing in current times is supported by the fact that there is so much "consumer grade" mass-produced pap floating around, and very little actual "deep" content to be found. Here are some quick observations to prove this point:
Hollywood is in the grips of acute sequelitus, and churning out purely derivative works (such as comic book movies). What little that is "unique" is formulaic and shallow. All romantic comedies are the same, all pure comedy movies are the same, all action movies are the same. They follow a predictable formula, have the same actors, and are extremely vapid and shallow. No intellectual engagement is involved, and upon experiencing them you remain unchanged. They are passive, shallow and trite.
Most of the bestselling books are also formulaic crap. Books seem to have a better chance of actually being good and innovative for some reason, but a quick glance at the various lists of books the people actually read will show that most books are mass produced crap. Poignant stories of families, stories of love, etc... Other books are purely iterations of older themes, such as the Harry Potter phenomena, which is nothing but a rehash of older themes, and completely shallow. It might be enjoyable (I say this only to avoid the flamewar), but is still requires no emotional or intellectual investment, something that we find essential to "real" art.
There is a lack of style in most video games. Mostly they go for a boring gray-brown "realistic" palette, and try for realism as much as possible, and most games, game-play wise, are boring cut-and-paste jobs from previous successful games in their genre, with perhaps a single added gimmick to sell themselves as better than I-XVI in whatever series. Boring stealth based first person shooters, and WWII simulators abound. When we actually move towards game with story (RPGs), we find the same trite "the princess is in another castle" clichés, where our young man grows up to be a man, and saves the world (same crap that infests 99% of fiction).
As for traditional visual arts (painting, etc) we are simply rehashing stylistic elements made popular in the 20's and 30's, with perhaps some Andy Warhol color hacks thrown in for good measure. The popular market is infested with Tuscan doorways and sad American Indians, with a good smattering of Bob-Rossian nature scenes, and boring Thomas Kincaid crap. It has grown largely into an exploration of "style" and not of "content". The clever has supplanted technique and mastery. Art is becoming a visual pun, and a statement of our individuality.
I could go on. The point of the above was to highlight how seductive this line of reasoning is, and also how common it is. Of all of you reading this, I'm sure the small percentage of you who actually care have muttered things like this before.
We must remember that there still are great things happening in each area of the arts, there are unique things, innovative things, and truly awe-inspiring things. But we perceive the ratio to be vastly different from what is used to be. Hence the idea that "art" is dying, or literature is dying (the recent spring book edition of the Nation claims this times beyond counting). Each academic field of the humanities spend more time lamenting their own death and irrelevancy, than actually creating or analyzing (their job) their field. Philosophy is very good at this, just about every major work in philosophy since Wittgenstein (or Heidegger) has claimed the death of philosophy at some point, while blithely continuing philosophizing after that. Philosophy is far from unique in this, though.
This perception is a lie.
Cultural memory is a strange beast. In the short term it focuses on the negative, holding the current up against some glorious (and mythical) past. In the long term, when we decide to call it history, it focuses on the unique, innovation, and grand achievements. Modern memory is largely negative, while long-term memory is largely positive. This creates the fallacious idea of "the good old days", and how everything is decaying more rapidly. This is a self-perpetuating lie. This is my revelation, or at least an important sub-clause to it.
90% of everything is derivative, shallow, and made for mass consumption (though it is usually based on some past moment of aesthetic glory). The 10% that is truly masterful, though, is what gets filtered through the lens of history to come to us. The lens of history, we can say, has a very limited bandwidth, so we only get the important bits, the rest of the pap gets filtered into some general "spirit" of the age.
I have two related premises that support this conclusion, as it relates to the various fields of aesthetics. There always have existed two distinct flavors of the arts, and the second a more general point about the content of culture as it moves through time.
There have always been two major motivations in the creation of aesthetic artifacts; means-towards-an-end, and the ends-unto-itself approaches. Artists can hop between these two classes, but a majority of work is created in the guise of the former, though the latter is where actual meaning is created, and innovation happens (mostly). In the means-towards-and-end mode, the ends can be financial, prestige, or furthering ones self-identity and social place. In the other mode aesthetics is the main point of the work, even if the creators want to sell or distribute their work the aesthetic integrity is the most important goal, with all the other ends being enslaved to that one goal. We can think of this as "mastery". The means-towards-an-end mode focuses on mass acceptance via incorporation of popular styles, easily digestible bits of the current popular culture, and marketing techniques/psychological tricks. We can simplify this as saying that the first, and more popular, mode values form, while the masterful mode focuses on substance.
Artists can fall into either mode, but most of the time they are in the formulaic one.
For every thousand WWII shooters, there is one Katamari or No More Heroes. For every thousand Stephen Spielbergs, or trite fart joke comedy, there is a David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick. For umpteen billion Dan Browns, Rowlings, or Anne Rices, there is a House of Leaves, or such. Etc... The lens of history will slowly erase all of the background noise, and purify it into just the shining examples of innovative culture. The other things are inconsequential, and thus not worth remembering, they all blend together into a gray, irrelevant mass. In short, the formulaic popular aspects of any culture just aren't worth remembering, given the limited bandwidth of history.
The second, and much broader, premise I would like to attach here is that of signal to noise ratio, as this directly relates to what we're discussing here, but is much more deep and general. For every pathway of communications there is a lot of meaningless chatter, and a small amount of genuine meaning. It is our job to filter out the noise, and focus mostly on the small meaningful amount of content.
The common myth is; as the amount of available forms and pathways of information transfer has increased, the amount of noise has become too prevalent, and thus lessens the value of communications as a whole. To bring this back to aesthetics, there are now being produced more types of arts, and in greater quantities, than there ever were in the history of culture, and this lessens the value of the endeavor. Because there is more production, there is more crap, out of necessity.
Being that our short term cultural memories focus mainly on the negative, things appear to be much worse than they were when there was less. And being that the paths of communication increase, as do their bandwidths, things must be continually worse than they were at any previous point. The fact that every generation has viewed themselves as in decline goes towards this point.
In short: the signal to noise ratio remains constant even as amount of communications rises, the end result is MORE signal, but harder discrimination. (I'm now using "signal" and "content" interchangeably)
The point we miss is that this ratio of signal to noise remains constant. So even if there is more crap, there still is more actual content worthy of our attention. The average value of human communications remains the same, even while increasing dramatically. But being that there is more noise, the difficulty arises in the discrimination of the content from the background. How do we find the actual substance in a sea of mere form?
In the long term, history will continue to play this role. As to how to achieve this end in the short term, I leave that up to the reader, I have no clue. This is one of the most important problems that we face today (as evident in most of our recent important developments being that of synthesis, as opposed to creation of new ideas).
Pessimism and fatalism are the human condition, but we should always avoid taking these as the truth. If we are constantly in decline, then how have we reached the pinnacle we currently stand upon? We indeed stand upon a pinnacle, but sadly the view is obscured by fog.
Reading the latest installment of Psyblog (which sometimes has semi-interesting missives) has reawakened, and given another point of evidence, towards my deep (and deepening) distrust of the human side of psychology. For those who cannot click on links, its talking about a test that highlights the participants "character" strengths. Most (if not all) psychological tests are about outlining flaws, deviations, and weakness, or assessing risks. The authors of this new test have decided that this focuses too much on the negatives, and we should strive to stroke off people as much as possible. Behind the test is the idea of an anti-DSM, the accepted guide to all that can go wrong with a persons mind, leading their lives into despair and disorder.
My first reaction to this, outside of a sardonic chuckle, was the pure uselessness of the endeavor. If you need to take a 240 question test to tell you what is RIGHT with you, you obviously have something wrong with you. Perhaps the willingness to take this test should be added to one of the various depression inventories out there (such as the Beck Depression Inventory). It's like going to the garage, and having your mechanic do a diagnostic to see what is actually working on your car. The desire to do this can be traced to desperation, to the motive of "what ISN'T wrong", implying that it seems that everything IS wrong.
The second reaction was one of sheer futility. The DSM and psychological testing exist to highlight problems in one's cognition that can hurt the ability to function in daily life. Actual mental disorders don't exist outside of this scope, without a functional impairment (can't hold a job, can't make feinds, can't live self-sufficiently) there is no mental illness. There is no point to testing for "functionality" in psychology, since it is the norm, and thus taken as a given. A test telling you; "Man, your bloody creative, aren't you?" is useless, it doesn't serve to seperate the metaphorical wheat from the chaff.
The only purpose of this project is to stroke egos.
Which brings me to the tangent I've been setting up here; why must we stroke egos? Our full society seems to be based on making people feel some deep sense of baseless pride. We start by trying to raise our children with some mythical sense of "self-esteem", we teach them to be proud of their VERY being, as if it was some profound accomplishment. Then we try to teach all of our society the same pride of difference, that we should be happy that we are individuals, as if there was anyone who existed who wasn't (should identical twins be less proud, being genetically identical?). Then we should all be proud of our cultural diversity, and thus our cultural backgrounds (but not too proud of that). Then we spend our adult life with our higher ups (under some HR sponsored program) trying to reward us for doing our obviously thankless and largly skill-less tasks, and even for mere attendance to our duties.
All this has done has raised a generation of closet solipsists with egos only matched in size by their sense of self-entitlement. This generation long line of thinking has made the terms "pride" and "respect" wholly meaningless, and utterly masturbatory.
Respect used to be an earned commodity, both for external and internal referents. Now all we do is expect others to respect us as much as we respect ourselves (for no reason). Currently we view respect as something that others must give you, and not something that you must give to others. YOU, and only you, are to be respected, there is no feeling of reciprocity.
This is true for courtesy as well, since one can only find a thing worthy of consideration is one can respect that thing. I'm led to believe that we are confusing respect, pride, and mere empathy here.
NO one is special, you are just another sweating body within our giant society, pulsating with thousands of anonymous faces just like yours. You are no different than the 5.9 billion other people in the world. You are functionally NO ONE. Respect comes from the act of differentiating yourself from the crowd. Achievement is separating yourself from the crowd, differentiating yourself. Achievement is the function of action and not mere being. You must DO something to be respected, it isn't a passive value.
I respect Da Vinci because of his paintings, and not merely because he is Leonardo Da Vinci. If I remove the lasting fruits of his talents, he ceases to exist in the historical sense. Obviously much respect cannot be accorded to one who is forgotten.
This is true for yourself and others. You have no reason to respect yourself, until there is an action worthy of pride. I am proud of myself for hammering out this pile of crap your reading. I, on the other hand, am not proud of existing. I had no choice in the latter, there was no skill involved, no choice, where the former was an active choice, and required some modicum of skill. Even then, I'm not proud of MYSELF for writing this, I am proud of what I wrote. The external result of action is a valid target of pride, not the creator. I can respect my ability to write, perhaps, but this is not a reflection of the whole.
Even more inane is respecting the culture/race you were born into, or share heritage with. My being is, at least, somewhat shaped by myself, whereas me being of x decent is wholly incidental. What basis can there be of being proud of being x, when we have no influence over it, no choice in picking it, no individual responsibility whatsoever.
At most I can identify with the culture/racial group. This is a far cry from being proud though. I might even "like" my self-identification with that group (since these things are largely a choice). But this still is not a reason to be proud.
Even more odd is the strange modern move towards being covertly proud of mental illnesses. How many misguided idiots are proud of their mythical aspergers or adult ADD (or any other nebulous and almost universally applicable illness, like mild depression)? I say mythical for reasons outlined above, a mental illness isn't an illness if it doesn't impair your ability to function in the society in which you are embedded. Without matching this criteria, it is a mere quirk, something we all have, and thus doesn't fulfill the need to differentiate ourselves from the faceless crowd.
This is the crux, WE ALL WANT TO BE SPECIAL. This striving (and destruction) of respect and pride are not external goals, but internal ones. We want to differentiate ourselves from others. With this in mind, handing out self-respect and pride like candy is harmful to the worth of society as a whole. When we are all well dosed with baseless self respect, we have no reason to actually do anything useful to earn it. It allows us to be passive. Why paint that painting, or lead that social revolution, when your perfect as who you are.
The conspiracy theorist in me would like to paint this as an issue of social control. Perhaps Foucault would have something to say about this, passivity is always useful to the status quo, whereas dynamism might be harmful, thus supporting the latter over the former is always beneficial by definition.
Misplaced pride and respect are harmful. And instilling it as a perverse virtue should stop. If you can't find a reason to feel good about yourself, you should DO something to earn it. If your wholly dissatisfied with yourself, DO something to change it. Action is panacea when it comes to mental issues.
Here is the direct link to the test (registration required): http://www.viasurvey.org/
And for the record, my strengths are: a love of learning, curiosity, and creativity. See, now you know so much about me that I can be truly unique in your eyes. Which brings me to a more technical problem with this test (and many of the ones that are popular now online), the questions are vague, so vague as to be almost universally applicable. This is an especially evident onus in "positive" tests of self-identity as we generally have a far more positive outlook of ourselves than allowed by reality. We like to be good people, we like to identify with positive attributes, even if they are wholly lacking in us in reality.
Technorati Tags: philosophy, self-esteem, psychology, tests
I just finished reading Yale Law's Akhil Reed Amar's America's Constitution: A Biography last night, it was a very interesting, but dry read. Basically it is a front-to-back interpretation of the US Constitution, taking into account the historical context of each section, and major point, and what social factor came to play in their drafting. His self stated themes are that the founders were more democratic than we give them credit for, but also that they were more "slavocratic" as well.
Slavery plays a massive roll in the story, with its tendrils reaching from the founding, to the more modern enfranchisement amendments of the late 20th century. The effects of slavery, and later the Civil War are really the over-bearing themes of the book. The yoke, it seems, was written into the document, and took almost 100 years, with the enactment of the twenty fourth amendment, to be purged.
I suppose we all realize this on a subconscious level, those Southerners often don't let us forget how... backwards... they are. From the founding, where the pro-slavery bits had to be inserted to guarantee the South entering our "more perfect union", to the Civil War, from Jim Crow laws, to largely opposing all voter enfranchisement acts besides the most recent (fixing the voting age at 18), the South has been the bulwark of racial and sexual oppression. Just think of their race (and gender) relations from 1776 to 1962. Sometimes I think Lincoln should have just let them go, and saved the rest of us some trouble.
Before some Southerner reads this, and tries to tear me a new one, I'm focusing on the States, and not individuals. When I state that my home state is Republican (I'm sick of the red/blue fallacy), I do not state that everyone in my state is such, nor that I am, just that the majority are, and thus in spirit the whole state is.
As a point, the author avoids being Whiggish as much as possible, while still voicing his disdain at inequality. Sometimes his historical neutrality is somewhat questionable in the aforementioned slavery issues, but that is understandable.
An interesting, though completely unstated, contained in the book is the parallel between women's suffrage, and black rights. The rights (or lack thereof) of black people were debated since the drafting of the constitution, and continually a conscious issue for the American government, while women's rights were barely even thought of until the late 19th century. The Constitution itself has things to say about blacks (mostly disparaging, and pro-slavery, like the 3/5ths rule), but is completely silent on the issue of women's rights. To me this proves that the very idea itself was unthinkable, a woman voting, or holding office wasn't even an imaginable course at the drafting. It wasn't repression as much as a lack of imagination. It wasn't even an idea, much less an actual rejection.
The rights of blacks was imaginable at the time, so their denial can be seen as deplorable without risking being Whiggish, where women's legal rights wasn't even a “thinkable” proposition, and therefore we can't judge it since there was no freedom to choose the “right” course of action. Only when we become aware, do moral actions become possible, and only then can we start judging.
This brings me to my major revelation, much of the post-founding history of the Constitution was based on inclusion. Most of the post Bill of Rights amendments enfranchised various neglected sects of people, until all were included. It is almost a Hegelian process. You can almost tangibly sense the expanding sphere of liberalism in the process.
The second revelation is that voter participation has been slowly expanding to allow those of us who were enfranchised to slowly participate in more and more in our federal government, and generally become more powerful as individuals. Tangentially, I would say that the influence of this trend is rather mixed, leading to greater control and representation, and a greater dose of “the tyranny of the masses”. The only real bar remaining on this front is the Electoral College, which comes across as a hack, or quick fix, quite frankly. It seems to exist mostly for technological reasons, and not for any valid political reason, especially so now when much of the technical reasons are moot. The author even hints (in a very subtle manner) at this institution as fodder for future amendments.
Another interesting trend is the move away from states rights. This develops hand in hand with the various civil rights amendments. This is another mixed move. On one hand the move fixed (and was prompted by) the repressive trends that they seem predisposed to, on the other hand it removed the ability of states to line their laws up with the needs, wants, and character of their populace. While this move killed Jim Crow, it also bars states such as California from experimenting with medical marijuana (for example).*
The author's discussion on the Second Amendment is also insightful, in that he invalidates both prevalent modern positions on it. Neither the libertarian “everyone may have guns, with no restrictions”, nor the liberal “there are no militias, and thus gun ownership must be regulated” are correct, or textually informed. The death of state militias after the Civil War made the second amendment empty. Militia, in the historical context, meant an organized, standing, military within the control of the states, and not, as we now think, an unorganized body of citizery. He states this by looking at the phraseology of the amendment, it is the right of “the people”, and not “persons”, meaning it is a collective right, and not an individual one. Also the very term “bear arms” has a clear historical military meaning, and not a recreational one. Hunters and hobbyists don't bear arms, military units do. What practical impact this has, though, is left largely to the reader.
Another interesting, and currently pertinent, item is the term “misdemeanor” when applied to impeachment. In context, a misdemeanor is not necessarily the consequence of breaking a law (as in the legal sense), but more exactly just misconduct, such as lying to congress or corruption. No actual law must be broken to be impeached, the bar only sits at conduct unseemly of the position.
Yes, I'm a bad citizen, I've paid less attention to the actual written constitution than I have the Bible. You see the irony? The sad part is that I don't think I am in a minority in this. How many households have Bibles, versus how many have a textual copy of the Constitution? Incoming (legal) immigrants have a deeper understanding of our country's most important document than we (born citizens) do. This is especially interesting in an age where we clamor for increased constitutionality in our government, who wants to discard it completely it often seems. How can we tell someone to respect principles that we, ourselves, are unfamiliar with?
* The spirit of this move also bars states from changing their drinking ages, speed limits, and a plethora of other “soft control” enforced laws. This aspect is largely negative. I have the idea that states should participate in a form of “ideological market”, with various locally reflective laws, and thus reaffirming their identity by luring like minded individuals, and serving as a test-bed for new legalistic, and moral, systems. Popular states will make more tax money, and grow in power, forcing less reflective states into line, without the influence of an aloof, and disconnected, federal government. Laws should reflect the needs of the governed, and NOT the ideological will of the governors. Politicians are often moved to action for our perceived “protection”, and lose sight of the mandate that gives them power, the will of We the People. They think they know better, and are some sort of parental figure to the people, and not just a mere servant. Moving the power closer to US, is generally a good thing.
Civil laws should be the domain the federal government, to keep states from oppressing any aspect of their population. The federal government should also serve as a check against state tyranny. While states themselves should regulate themselves in regard to the morals, ethics, and themes, of their individual societies. If a state votes to legalize gay marriage, ban abortion, or legalize various drugs, then who is the impersonal federal government to disagree? This is largely a hypothetical view, since there are definitely thorny issues involved. Is loosening our larger identity and country loyalty a good thing, it was, after all, an indirect cause of the Civil War? What ARE our rights, and where will the sweeping inclusion move next? Perhaps the ability for homosexuals to marry is a civil right, and this the government must protect against states infringing on it, the same goes for both sides of the abortion debate. A women might really have the right to choose, or the fetus might really have the right to life, and thus either party would need to be protected federally. These contentious issues, thus, remain so.
Ethics, themselves, are probably universal, but it is what we define as worthy of their consideration that changes.
These universal ethics are probably the result of evolutionary pressures, and thus completely innate, meaning any theory of ethics would have to be descriptive, not normative. Also meaning that there are not to be confused with "Morals" which are socially, or institutionally prescribed (normative), and thus can vary from place to place and time to time.
These universal ethics would have to somewhat resemble Kant's Categorical Imperative, in that they are broad, and requires treating others as you would be treated. Including reciprocity and altruism, both of which contain an essence of mapping yourself onto others.
Thus ethics becomes a game of similarity, we map these ethics onto those we can feel familiar or similar too, people (and things) that we can identify with. This allows their application to vary from place to place, and from time to time. This would also explain why dehumanization is an important part of atrocities, and often precedes unethical behavior. We apply ethics to that which we consider "human-like", and things that do not fall into this class do not have to be treated ethically.
Anecdotally we can see this in various behaviors that we see as unethical today, such as slavery and the historical mistreatment of Jews. Slave owners were justified in treating blacks as animals because they saw them as such, whereas they still treated their, white, families and neighbors humanely, and ethically, precluding any real lack of ethics. This can also be applied to more modern situations, like how one can say "I believe in the sanctity of life", and "I believe in war" without a tone of irony.(1)
The paradoxical solution to universal ethics is that they are BOTH universal, and situational. Though it shoves "humanity" into a more nebulous form of being, one that can exclude similar beings, and include the animals and the inanimate (if suitably complex and familiar).
Universal ethics could be seen to by synonymous with "Human Rights", or at least the intrinsic basis to Human Rights. The basis for a system of universal human rights has been eluding me for some time, and this seems to be a potential answer to this problem, while avoiding a concept of human rights being merely socially constructed.
Again, this is a tentative idea, needing much more work and research. I just figured I throw it out there and see what nibbles.
(1) As in many of the participants in the recent GOP Debates.