In earlier essays, I talked about the problem of demarcating art from non-art, and efforts to judge art as either good or bad. All such efforts, it turns out, are elusive.
This raises another interesting question: Is art, in and of itself, (apart from its particular products) necessarily a good pursuit? Might it be a bad pursuit instead? Or if such a question is too parochial, resting on assumptions of "good" and "bad" that cannot be shown to be objectively true, maybe we could ask whether the assumption that making art is intrinsic to human nature is true and if it is, whether this fact gives it some special status.
A well-known critique of art (the arts in general, not just visual art) can be found in Plato's Republic. At the risk of oversimplifying it, the critique is along the following lines: First, art does not impart knowledge. Socrates asks why people should listen to Homer. Do Homer's tales tell us anything about reality, or are they just made up by someone who does not have direct knowledge about which he speaks and hence of no value? In the case of poetry and the arts, there is a danger of the artist "bewitching" his audience into emotive beliefs (under the spell, perhaps, of meter and line in poetry, or alluring colors in visual art) that do not correspond with right reason. This can be especially problematic because in Plato's Republic, people would carry out tasks according to their talents, and one such vital task is that of the Guardian. Guardians would be "bred" instinctively to defend the state against enemies, without ever acquiring the corrupted desire to turn upon the state (for they would be armed, and presumably have the power to do so). Also, guardians must be conditioned to never to desert those whom they defend in time of peril. Such people, Plato felt, needed to be trained to resist the "bewitchment" of art, which, he felt, could undermine their reason and hence their conduct.
Second, the arts are a form of mimesis, of attempting to imitate or represent reality. In the context of Plato's Forms – the idea that there are perfect and immutable universals, such a Bed, of which any particular bed in reality is but an imperfect representation – it then turns out that a painting of a bed is a still more-imperfect copy of an imperfect copy of the form Bed. However, the artisan who makes the bed must, if the bed is to be well made, possess expert knowledge of the form Bed; the painter of the bed needs no such knowledge, and hence his representation of it does not have the value of conveying knowledge. What is it, then, that the artist conveys? Mere appearances. Socrates suggests that if one were interested in conveying mere appearances, one might just as well walk around with a mirror. In that way one could reproduce the sun, the earth, other people and so on, but we see that this sort of effortless mimesis requires no knowledge on the part of the mirror-bearer, and hence can convey no knowledge to other people. Socrates says: "The real artist, who knew what he was imitating, would be interested in realities and not in imitations; and would desire to leave as memorials of himself works many and fair; and, instead of being the author of encomiums, he would prefer to be the theme of them."
Plato believed that music, poetry, dance, and the visual arts could, unless regulated, undermine the foundations of a well-regulated state, which for Plato involved division of labor among specialists. He did not wish to banish art, but to bring it under the purview of proper philosophy, of right reason. Practically speaking, that would mean state censorship of the arts, a proposition far from unfamiliar to history. Plato’s attack on the artist if often thought ironic, because he himself was a literary artist who produced his philosophy in the form of dialogues.
These sorts of criticisms of art as a general project, especially the view that art can undermine morale, and threaten the public order and the legitimacy of the state, have echoed down the ages. That the state fears art, and struggles to censor, repress, mold and guide it, finds its culmination in the 20th century totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and Maoist China. Each banned art that it deemed "degenerate" and mandated an art of social realism that validated and glorified the aims of the state. One shouldn't suppose, however, the Plato would have favored Nazi-style censorship, because presumably he would have condemned the leaders of such totalitarian regimes as being morally and philosophically unfit for their tasks.
There is another, less well-known critique of art, to which I alluded briefly in Part One of the two-part series that explored the question of what Art is. It is the nagging, atavistic notion that art, as a project, represents not a glorification of the human spirit, but rather is a symptom of its deformation. The idea is that art, strictly, is superfluous, and that the undivided psyche - the truly healthy individual - has no need to make art, or to experience the artworks that others have made. This idea finds expression in the view that rather than make works of art, one ought instead to be an "artist of life". Paul Klee wrote, "I paint in order not to cry." Presumably, then, had Klee felt no impulse to cry in the face of reality (i.e., had he been psychically whole), he would have felt no need to make art.
The anarchist-primitivist John Zerzan, in his essay The Case Against Art, argues that art has no place in an "unfallen social reality" because there is no need for it. What is an unfallen social reality? In Genesis, we read of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. This was their fall. Metaphorically, the expulsion story can be seen as an account of humans abandoning (for some reason) the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that they and their ancestors had pursued for millions of years, and turning to agriculture instead, a move that culminated in the rise of civilization (from the Latin civis, "inhabitant of a city".)
Zerzan argues that with the rise of civilization, humans adopted in earnest for the first time symbolic thought, which includes visual art, writing, music, numbers and mathematics. Zerzan makes two broad arguments: the first is that civilization, and the agriculture and predated it, is bad, not good; and from this it follows that symbolic thought (including visual art) is a symptom of psychic deformity. Pre-civilized people, he argues, failed to make art, not because they were the intellectual inferiors of modern, civilized man, or not because they wished to make art but lacked the material means or time to do so, but because they had no need to make art.
This critique stands Plato's on its head: rather than being a threat to the state, Zerzan argues that art is a symptom of it. At the same time, Zerzan's critique seems to have something in common with Plato's concern that mere mimesis is empty, because behind each work of art stands a Form, or Idea, that is itself perfect and of which the imitative artist has no knowledge. Zerzan's "perfect" resides not in Forms, but in pre-civilization. He argues that pre-civilized life – the life of hunter-gatherers – was characterized by "the longest and most successful adaptation to nature ever achieved by humans, a high degree of gender equality, an absence of organized violence, significant leisure time, an egalitarian ethos of sharing, and a disease-free robusticity." He cites a number of archaelogical studies that support his thesis.
In his essay, Zerzan writes: "The primary function of art is to objectify feeling, by which one's own motivations and identity are transformed into symbol and metaphor. All art, as symbolization, is rooted in the creation of substitutes, surrogates for something else; by its very nature therefore, it is falsification. Under the guise of 'enriching the quality of human experience', we accept vicarious, symbolic descriptions of how we should feel, trained to need such public images of sentiment that ritual art and myth provide for our psychic security."
Zerzan's account of art (his whole account of human history) reverses the traditional account. But we must remember that the traditional account – of man's steady "progress" from prehistory to agriculture to civilization to moon shots and the rise of the Internet – is an account generated from within the context of civilization. It should be unsurprising that civilization would have a favorable story to tell about civilization. But that just means that the civilizational account of art – and of all history – is theory laden, and presupposes a set of values that remain unexamined.
In the context of art – or, more broadly, "symbolic thought", as Zerzan calls it – we have the following civilizational account, for instance, of the Neanderthals: they were similar to, but crucially different from, Homo sapiens. It appears that they were smart, but not quite as smart as us, and that is why they died out. Their lack of "smarts" can be seen in the fact that they did not appear to have much symbolic thought. It appears that they did not, for example, make art. The making of art, one supposes, is the product of a higher intellect, and the presentiment of culture. And, of course, from within the context of the civilizational critique, culture obviously is good.
But Zerzan and others offer a different account. The Neanderthals, we should remember, had brains that were slightly larger than those of Homo sapiens. To believe, then, that they were not quite as smart as Home sapiens, is to accept without critical analysis the idea that not making art (or not tilling the land or not building cities) indicates a certain mental "lack". But what if the opposite is true? What if the refusal to make art, to build cities and to wage war indicates, instead, a psychic wholeness that modern man lacks? This is the idea that Zerzan and others put forward.
In his essay Running on Emptiness, Zerzan quotes James Shreeve, author of The Neanderthal Enigma:
... where the modern's gods might inhabit the land, the buffalo, or the blade of grass, the Neanderthal's spirit was the animal or the grass blade, the thing and its soul perceived as a single vital force, with no need to distinguish them with separate names. Similarly, the absence of artistic expression does not preclude the apprehension of what is artful about the world. Neanderthals did not paint their caves with the images of animals. But perhaps they had no need to distill life into representations, because its essences were already revealed to their senses. The sight of a running herd was enough to inspire a surging sense of beauty. They had no drums or bone flutes, but they could listen to the booming rhythms of the wind, the earth, and each other's heartbeats, and be transported.
It is worth looking at the critiques of Plato and Zerzan and attempting to reply to them, both in where they differ and where they overlap.
Where they differ most, it seems, is in their presuppositions about civilization. For Plato, civilization was obviously a good thing, though it was important to build the "right" kind of republic. It is curious that Plato's Socrates, who consistently subjected the presuppositions of others to the scalpel of critical inquiry in the form of questions, never exactly (it seems) asked a couple of key questions: First, why was it good, or necessary, to ask the sort of questions he asked? Was it possible that he was attempting a reductive analysis of many topics that resist reductionism? And second, isn't it possible that Socrates' whole project of questioning, and reductive analysis, relied on the implicit assumption that civilization was a good thing? In the absence of civilization, would his questions (or any philosophy) have made sense? (Of course Plato, through Socrates, defended the project of civilization, but it does not seem that they conceived an alternative to civilization that would have involved anything other than chaos.)
For Plato, civilization, specifically in the form of a well-regulated state with a precise division of labor, was unquestionably a good thing. The bewitchments of art, however, posed a threat to the social order, and needed carefully to be monitored and censored. Zerzan notes that in the modern world, "Freud, Marcuse and others saw that civilization demands the sublimation or repression of the pleasures of the proximity senses so that the individual can be thus converted to an instrument of labor." Seen in this light, the making of art could be interpreted as an effort to subvert or overthrow these control mechanisms, to defeat sublimation and bring to the surface man's uncivilized psyche. From this perspective, Plato was right: art represents a threat to the social order, to the well-regulated state. Certainly the Nazis knew this, although again we need to distinguish between the form of control over the arts that Plato espoused, and that which the Nazis practiced.
But for Zerzan and other primitivists, the making of art – indeed, all symbolic thought, including the use of language – represents, not a threat to the state (civilization), but a manifestation of it. For Zerzan, symbolic thought stands in relation to civilization as the tumor does to the underlying cancer. Remove the underlying cancer, and the tumors will wither.
Where Zerzan and Plato overlap in their critique of art, it seems, is in their belief that mimesis is pointless or destructive. For Plato, the imitation is two steps removed: a painting of a bed, for example, is the imitation of a bed in the real world that itself is an imperfect (though less so) imitation of the Form or Idea Bed, which is all that really exists. For Zerzan, the imitation is removed at a single step: we should not worry about Forms but about reality, and reality is all that there is. What need is there to imitate reality, except for the damaged psyche that has been civilized or domesticated, and has retreated into the damaging virtual world of symbolism? Recall the example of Neanderthals who failed to make art, not because they lacked the requisite materials or mental skills, but because "they could listen to the booming rhythms of the wind, the earth, and each other's heartbeats, and be transported."
Let me try a brief reply both to Plato and Zerzan, one that necessarily will be summary and nature and limited in scope.
Let's start by examining Socrates' complaint that art does not embody any true knowledge. After all, what do we learn by standing before a realistic painting of a meadow or field? Well, we could learn what the meadow or field looked like, but we could do that by standing in the middle of a real meadow or field. What do we learn by standing in front of a work of non-representational art (which sort of art Plato did not consider, because it did not exist in his culture)? It would seem that we could learn very little by way of propositional knowledge, or scientific knowledge, or knowledge of that sort.
But is that the only sort of knowledge worth having? Surely not. This would reduce to the doctrine of scientism, that the only knowledge worth having is that acquired by scientific inquiry or, more generally, the proposition that only scientific statements are meaningful statements, a proposition that seems to be self-refuting, in that the statement does not seem to be a scientific sort of statement.
Rather than look for knowledge of this sort in works of art, I suggest that we look for other kinds of knowledge that can be equally valuable, or more so, than a scientific or philosophical kind of knowledge. In art we can find beauty; we can have our emotions stimulated, and the work of art (whether paintings, or literature, or music) can stimulate thoughtful reflection. Yes, perhaps this sort of stimulation might be "bewitching", in the sense the Plato feared, but to accept this sort of objection, one must accept Plato's argument that there is a certain type of person or persons who "know best" what society need: the wise men. This idea is open to severe objection, but to muster the counterarguments would be beyond the scope of this essay.
In non-representational works of visual art, we are presented with visual music, and the eye might respond to it with the same rapturous delight that the ear finds in rhythms and harmony. In literature, a work of art invites us to empathize with the characters (if they are well-drawn) and in so doing we might gain insights into own lives, and the lives of others. Literary works like Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov tackle the great themes of philosophy: is there a God? What is man's relation to God? Where does good and evil come from, and can the beneficence of God trump great evil, like the torture or murder of children? Surely such reflections – such knowledge – will be valuable to some people. I would argue that if only one person found value in such works, then the works are valuable, and the argument that art fails to present knowledge is defeated.
Also, recall that Socrates said: "The real artist, who knew what he was imitating, would be interested in realities and not in imitations; and would desire to leave as memorials of himself works many and fair; and, instead of being the author of encomiums, he would prefer to be the theme of them." But, if the Homeric artist needs to be shunned or at least controlled, then who would make the art ("bewitching" heroic poetry, in this case) of which the Great Man would be the theme?
What about the Platonic idea that visual mimesis is an imitation of an imitation of The Real Thing? This idea presumes that the concept of Forms, or Ideas is valid; and surely this, too, is open to severe objection. In fact, I do not think that most contemporary philosophers subscribe to the notion of Platonic Forms, although many do believe in the existence of universals of a certain type. But even if Plato were right, and that real reality inheres in Forms, so what? If it were true that mimesis of the kind that Plato talks about were somehow bad or pointless, then it would seem, following this logic, that it would be bad or pointless not only to paint a picture of a bed, but even to build a bed! Sure, the artisan has more knowledge of the bed (under Plato's account) than does the painter, but his version of the universal will still be flawed and imperfect. Then why build it? Because one needs a place to sleep!
And likewise, maybe one paints a picture of a bed because it gives one pleasure to do so; and also, no two paintings are alike, and in painting a picture of a bed, an artist will inevitably be making a statement about his own values, perceptions, and his inner life – and this might be thought valuable for any number of reasons. If I paint a picture, I make a statement about myself, and someone might find such a statement useful in getting to know more about me. It seems hard to argue against the potential value (at least) of this state of affairs. Also, again, the argument against mimesis of a bed, or anything else, presupposes that there is only one sort of knowledge worth having, broadly a kind of scientific or philosophical outlook, whereas in fact there might be proliferating knowledges worth having that Plato does not consider.
What about the Platonic objection that art, if not regulated, can pose a threat to the state? This idea interestingly seems at odds with the argument that art is somehow pointless, an imitation of an imitation of the Real Thing. Which is it? Is art pointless and therefore futile, or a threat to the state and therefore potent? In reply, I suppose, the defender of Plato would point out that, through his mouthpiece Socrates, he was making the case that a certain type of art is pointless: the painting of a bed, for example, a reproduction that could more efficiently be accomplished by holding a mirror before it. Other types of art – Homeric poetry – are potentially threatening, for the bewitching spell that they could cast, undermining reason.
Art is a threat to the state (or can be) and can serve as a rallying point, an icon, for certain ways of thought or living. We saw, in the essay on Guernica, how Picasso's work has become an iconic statement of opposition to war, and through it one can feel empathy for the victims of war, and the victims of suffering in general.
Plato's distrust of art presupposes that the state takes precedence over the individual, and that the individual must be subsumed to the state, and pushed into specialized roles. This idea has waxed and waned through history; today it is widely thought (or at least espoused, perhaps as propaganda) in Western societies that individuals are more important than the state, and that the latter derives its powers from the consent of the former.
Zerzan thinks that this Western idea of how the individual stands in relation to the state is wholly false, and that civilization is based, today as ever, on slavery: In the past civilizations had real slaves (unpaid, kept in chains) but the need for such slavery passed away only with the arrival of ghost slaves; i.e., hydrocarbon slavery, the energy provided by the remnants of living things that died millions of years ago. Still, Zerzan argues, all people in modern society (except perhaps for the elite at the top of the pyramid) are slaves: wage slavery, he says, is slavery. After all, the real slaves of the past actually were paid: they were given food, because they had to be kept alive to do the work that was required of them. Today, wage slaves are given food in the form of money. In the past, slaves who rebelled or tried to run away were constrained, tortured or killed; today, civilization has more subtle methods of dealing with its slaves. A rebellious wage slave is free to trade his wage slavery for poverty, hunger and homelessness whenever he wishes, and no one will stop him because there will always be somebody to replace him.
Be that as it may, let us now turn to Zerzan's critique of art: that art is the manifestation of the deformed psyche, and that this deformation has its roots in civilization. Remove civilization, he argues, and you remove art. For millions of years, man and his immediate ancestors did not make art. Art – and symbolic thought in general – arose in tandem with civilization, Zerzan says, and represents civilization’s contaminants, as complicit in the deformation of the human psyche (and as reflective of it) as the division of labor, the invention of war, and the existence of armies and police departments for the purpose of controlling the wage slaves and enforcing division of labor and productivity. Remove these corrupting underpinnings and art vanishes; one becomes the so-called "artist of life", transported, as the Neanderthals purportedly were, by the thundering of the herd, the booming rhythms of the wind and by their own heartbeats.
Plato complained that visual art was an imitation of an imitation of the Real Thing; Zerzan’s views overlap to this extent: that art is an imitation of the Real Thing but one step removed from reality, not two steps as for Plato, but removed nevertheless. He writes: "Part of training sight to appreciate the objects of culture was the accompanying repression of immediacy in an intellectual sense: reality was removed in favor of merely aesthetic experience. Art anesthetizes the sense organs and removes the natural world from their purview. This reproduces culture, which can never compensate for the disability."
Perhaps he is right. But so what? Another way to look at the situation is like this: art is a defense mechanism against culture, not a manifestation of it. Presuming Zerzan's thesis to be true, that prehistoric man had a superior life to that endured by modern man under the bit and spur of civilization, then art can be seen as the antidote to conformity, the manifestation of the rebellious spirit. This certainly would seem to be valid for the artist who goes against the established norms, who refuses to conform to conventional theories of art (and we have already seen the accounts of Manet, the impressionists, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso and others smashing the platitudes and certitudes of what civilization determined to be "art"). Maybe Zerzan is right, that there existed some Edenic pre-civilized world in which art, and symbolic thought, was superfluous. If that is true, then one might suggest that today, art in the hands of the artist would be like guns in the hands of slaves: If the slaves use the guns to good effect – overturning the rule of their masters – then afterward, they can put away their guns. If Zerzan is right about the discontents of civilization, then maybe art is the gun to blow it away, and when the job is done, the artist can lay aside his gun: his paintbrush, pen, flute.
Zerzan argues that the rise of art, and of symbolic thought in general, occurred in tandem with the start of agriculture, which prefigured civilization. The making of pictures and sculpture, the invention of numbers and math, and the rise of the written world, he says, went hand in hand with the start of civilization, and were used to reinforce it. Hence, he argues, art can never be value free, but is a tool for promoting the worldview of those who would divide labor and introduce commodification, production and inequality into the world. The early purpose of art, he says, was shamanistic: the shaman was one of the first specialists (division of labor) and art's purpose was to inculcate the doctrines of those who held power. As an example, think of Michelangelo’s paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. While we celebrate them for their beauty, it is reasonable to suppose that their main function was propagandistic, to flatter the vanity of the ecclesiastical authorities of that period, and to validate both their authority and the narrative of Christianity.
But Zerzan's account of art faces a challenge. Paleolithic man - prehistorical man - was making art on cave walls 30,000 years ago! This is long before the start of agriculture, which is approximately 10,000 years old. How does Zerzan account for this discrepancy?
He doesn't, because he can't. This isn't necessarily an indictment of his account, because no one knows why Paleolithic man began making cave paintings, or what purpose they served. But, because we don't know the answers to these questions, Zerzan is free to invent his own answers. That's OK, but we must note that he begs the question, presuming what he must prove: that art represents the outer manifestation of inner deformity, and is absent from the undivided (pre-civilized) psyche. Thus Zerzan assumes that Paleolithic man began to paint (in certain places) because those particular tribes were suffering from some psychic dislocation, some phenomenon that was prefiguring the division of labor and the invention of agriculture, even though these phenomena were still millenniums in the future. He writes:
The veritable explosion of art at this time bespeaks an anxiety not felt before: in Worringer's words, "creation in order to subdue the torment of perception". Here is the appearance of the symbolic, as a moment of discontent. It was a social anxiety; people felt something precious slipping away. The rapid development of the earliest ritual or ceremony parallels the birth of art, and we are reminded of the earliest ritual re-enactments of the moment of "the beginning", the primordial paradise of the timeless present. Pictorial representation roused the belief in controlling loss, the belief in coercion itself.
Now, for all I know, he might be right, but again notice that he is begging the question. Zerzan's thesis is that symbolic art arose hand in hand with agriculture and then civilization, and that it served a shamanistic function of diverting people from authentic contact with reality in the service of the state. In the case of cave art, to save this thesis, Zerzan must assume, without evidence, that there was some disjuncture in the Upper Paleolithic, tens of thousands of years before agriculture was invented, that somehow prefigured agriculture and civilization. As speculation this is fine; as an argument it is weak. Just as readily, we can tell this story: the rise of cave painting, thousands of years before agriculture, is a defeater for the notion that art and symbolic thought is a product and enabler of civilization. The artists of the Upper Paleolithic made their art for some reason but that reason had nothing to do with civilization. Maybe they tried it and found that it was fun!
What should we conclude? Maybe that to be against art, for any reason, is to adopt a particular narrative whose assumptions must be examined on their own terms. Of course, to be for art, is to do the same thing. That is one reason, I guess, we have philosophy: to make us critically examine our own presuppositions. But then, alas, philosophy ideally should tell us why we should even bother to do this. Because for Zerzan (as for Nietzsche?) philosophy is as superfluous as art is, as indeed morality is for that matter, with morality being yet another symptom of the cancer of civilization that Zerzan thinks is destroying the human psyche and killing the world.