Saturday, July 23, 2005

Whether Art Can Ever Be Ethical

There are many people who would be gravely, dangerously ill if not for their ability to express their suffering in art. This is really the great mystery of art. It is a testimony of suffering. It is the most awful suffering expressed in the most sublime beauty. The fact that an artist can take the worst thing they have ever lived through or could imagine living through – genocide, assault, natural disaster – and actually think it through, imagine the response of an audience, even attempt to profit from it, brings the morality of art squarely into question. Is art exploitation? What is being exploited? Something like the deposit of human experience. Perhaps it is only being developed? What is the difference? For instance, when Elie Wiesel wrote "Night," did he take into consideration such details as the kind of audience the book would be marketed to, or adapting certain events to make them of greater interest to the reader, or what the cover would look like? It may seem absurd but was Wiesel "exploiting" the Holocaust? What I mean is that any artist must answer this question for him or herself. This is the same reason why religions are always being accused of hypocrisy. How can anyone "profit" from God, and how can any religion succeed without doing so? Is this just the relentless logic of capitalism? There is another paradox at work, which might be called the "loser paradox." For instance, when I read a certain type of confessional novel which invites me to feel that the author through this text understands my failures, the spell will only work as long as I forget that this author is by my definition already a success. After all, Nick Hornby is a famous, successful author, not a failure at all! How is it that anyone who suffers is ever even coherent enough to actually go through the steps necessary to make that suffering known, i.e. to create art about it? One would think that art, which is a tremendous accomplishment, can't ever be fully commensurate with the suffering it depicts. My original point was that art is very important for the emotional stability of some people who would otherwise literally be unstable and dangerous. I mean it. Art saves lives. That is why it is such an important practice. At his or her best, the artist is a relentless exploiter of every situation, every opportunity to develop and express the creative impulse which is their only reason for living.

No comments: