As I begin to attempt to answer this question, I wonder whether it might not be too silly to consider seriously. First there is the problem of making broad generalizations about the arts. It is possible that some components of the arts to be a force for progress whilst others promote regress. Then there is the possibility that just by reflecting society the arts could be a force for progress. Even offensive and grotesque examples of punk art – which seem to reflect some of the worst characteristics of the societies we live in - might provoke some people to contemplate whether it might be possible to build better societies. Negative actions sometimes provoke positive reactions.
The point I was trying to get at when I posed the question was whether there is a strong component of the arts at present that is likely to be viewed in future as a force for the progress of culture - in the same way, for example, as we now view Shakespeare’s plays, the music of Mozart and Beethoven and the impressionist art of Monet and Renoir. And, if such a force exists, what might cause us to recognize it as a force for progress? What is it that has led us to regard the great historical achievements in literature, music and art as progress? Do we accept such developments as progress merely because the most powerful influences on our own personal development – including our parents, teachers and peers - cultivated our taste for them? If so, doesn’t that imply that we have to concede the possibility that one day a high proportion of the world’s population might come to regard the advent of punk art as a positive force for progress?
It seems to me that the best way to escape despair about current trends in the arts is to find criteria that developments could reasonably be expected to meet if they are to be viewed as progress. Frederick Turner’s book, ‘The Culture of Hope’ (1995) seems highly relevant in this context.
Turner nominates beauty as the test of all ideas:
Turner nominates beauty as the test of all ideas:
‘In the absence of the deep test of beauty, by which all true scientists and philosophers assay their ideas, cognition is increasingly arbitrary in its conclusions, the search for truth is bereft of its compass, and the connection between human beings and the rest of nature begins to get lost. … Without beauty, the difference between good and evil comes to be defined in terms of the avoidance of pain and the maximization of comfort. I think we are still aware that a human being whose sole desire is a state of painless comfort is scarcely a human being at all, since we ban the drugs that can induce such a state, but we are in danger of forgetting the intellectual or moral or perceptual beauty that might make someone choose the pain and struggle and deprivation of discovery, heroic charity, and art’.
In my view, this passage claims too much for beauty. We don’t actually need to apply a test of beauty in the search for truth and goodness. We test claims regarding the advance of scientific knowledge by confronting them with evidence. We assess claims regarding the ethical merits of changes in social norms in terms of whether or not they are good for the members of the societies concerned.
Yet, there must be a close relationship between beauty, truth and goodness. It makes sense to think of truth as having the quality of ‘epistemological beauty’ and goodness to have the quality of ‘ethical beauty’. The meaning which the author attaches to beauty comes through clearly in the passage in which he describes his personal experience as a teacher of karate and literature. He notes that young karate students begin to shift from the self-esteem ethic they learn at school and attain greater humility and confidence as they adopt ‘the pure pursuit of good karate form’. Similarly, the allegiance of literature students shifts from their own psychological comfort to the poem they are working on as they come to understand when ‘a rhyme is forced or a line stumbles’. Turner makes the point very well that as a ‘as a culture we are stunningly ignorant about beauty’.
It seems to me that Turner also has a strong response to the view that beauty exists solely in the eye of the beholder. Although recognition of beauty emerges from the neurobiology of the individual, the findings of scientific research suggest that it exists as a reward for ‘the recognition and creation of certain complex, organized and unified patterns – patterns traditionally known a beautiful’. Turner points out that beauty is a natural pleasure and intuition possessed by all humans which is activated, sensitized and deepened by culture.
It is not possible in the space I am allowing myself here to do justice to Turner’s concept of social progress and the role that may be played by the arts in reconnecting with science and improving our understanding of beauty and its links with acceptance of shame. The flavour of what he is suggesting is that progress involves ‘continuation of the natural evolution of the universe in a new, swifter and deeper way, through the cooperation of human beings with the rest of nature, bringing conscious intention and organized creativity to the aid of natural variation and selection’.
The arts are certainly a force for progress insofar as they promote changes that meet the test of beauty. It seems to me, however, that beauty is not the only relevant test. When I ask myself whether Adrian Bejan’s constructal law would shed any light progress in the arts (see a recent post for relevant links) the answer I come up with is that the function of the arts is primarily to facilitate flows of communications about the feelings and insights of the artist. In this context, progress occurs as the flows generate shape and structure which make communication more effective.
It is easy to identify artistic endeavours that are destined to fail because they generate resistance rather than facilitate flow. For example, self-respecting humans do not willingly subject themselves to communications that are insulting or degrading.
Troy Camplin has posted a response on his Austrian Economics and Literature site.