Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Utilitarianism and the Arts

The founding father of utilitarian philosophy was Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). He argued that everything should be judged by its "usefulness"; by which he meant its ability to increase pleasure and diminish pain. These two concepts were self-defining: "pleasure" = "what I to like to experience": "pain" = "what I dislike". The purpose of the arts was obvious: namely, to give people pleasure. But this led to a famous controversy, which has been summed up in the phrase, "Poetry versus Pushpin" (Pushpin being a trivial game played in pubs). Some people enjoy reading Shakespeare; other people enjoy playing pub games. But can we say that in any sense it is "better" to read Shakespeare than to play pub games? Bentham thought, "No". The purpose of both poetry and pushpin is to provide pleasure to the participant: if it achieves this, it has fulfilled its purpose; if it does not, it has failed. It is quite futile for me to tell someone that he "ought" to like Shakespeare, rather than "wasting his time" playing pub games which he enjoys.

Bentham's most famous follower, John Stuart Mill (1806-73) took a very different attitude. Mill was a mid-Victorian, and an exact contemporary of Karl Marx, and like Marx he was obsessed with the idea of "Progress", a concept quite unknown to Bentham's contemporaries. The western world was industrializing, creating a completely new form of society, and in consequence was rapidly taking over the rest of the world. Nothing like this had ever happened before in all human history. Why had this progress occurred, and how could it be maintained? Mill's answer to this was different from Marx's. To Mill, progress was achieved by individuals who dared to think for themselves; to experiment with new ideas and new ways of living: conformity led to stagnation and the likelihood of being overtaken by more progressive cultures. Mill has been accused of being interested only in a "clerisy"; a small elite of enlightened individuals who would provide leadership and guidance, but this is most unfair. What Mill wanted was for the whole community to be "a mentally active people", who would be prepared to think for themselves and make rational judgments, not simply blindly accept what they were told. Mill therefore argued for greater democracy, including votes for women, because he believed the mass of people in his day were capable of independent thought; and, furthermore, that participatory democracy would encourage it.
     Mill therefore profoundly disagreed with Bentham on the "Poetry versus Pushpin" issue. There was no question that, from the point of view of achieving progress, reading Shakespeare was much better than playing pub games. Reading Shakespeare encourages you to think about important issues! It involves exercising what Mill called the "mental muscles", which, he believed, just like the physical muscles, would atrophy and decay without frequent use. The purpose of the arts is educative: they should be a stimulant, not a sedative. If a poem or a painting is "difficult" to understand; so much the better! By striving to understand it, even if you eventually decide you don't like it, you have achieved something; exercising your brain and expanding your field of knowledge. If we are to progress, both as individuals and as a society, we must always be open to new ideas, to accept that other people might know more than us, and to listen to them. Of course, this does not mean we always have to accept the new ideas, or to believe what the so-called experts tell us, but we should always give such things careful consideration, although we may ultimately reject them. Without this process, replacing the old ideas with new ones where necessary, there can be no progress.
      (Living in the 20th century, Mill would have made the point that taking time to study Shakespeare could, at the very least, be highly utilitarian in that enables you to pass exams and thus qualify for a better-paid job. Nowadays, with soap operas and pop songs being the subject of university dissertations, this has become more questionable: though Mill might have conceded that the important thing is the exercise of the critical faculties rather than the subject itself. And we shall pass over the people who are able to earn a good living by playing, not pushpin, but other pub games!)

I once discussed with a conservative philosopher the question of whether there had been any "progress" in the arts (he thought not). The point I made was that where there has undeniably been progress is in access to the arts. The great mass of the people can now experience good art, literature and music (however we choose to define "good"), at little or no cost, in a way unimaginable until quite recently. I'm sure Mill would have approved.    

What, and who, ultimately decides whether one poem or painting is in any sense "better" than another? Bentham would have said, what is best is what gives most pleasure to most people. Mill undoubtedly thought that some poems and novels and paintings were better than others, and if pressed he would probably have said, listen to what the experts have to say and then make up your own mind. But are there any objective standards by which the arts can be judged? A rigid classicist like, Doctor Johnson in the 18th century, would unhesitatingly say, "Yes!" But things are less clear today. If merit were to be decided by democratic vote, then the latest soap-opera would be judged better than Shakespeare, chocolate-box art better than all abstract expressionism, and a pop song better than Mozart or Beethoven, and we are right back to Jeremy Bentham. Should instead the evaluation be done by a handful of cognoscenti, as Mill was accused of favouring? But that sounds distinctly elitist, and furthermore calls into question the validity of democracy in other fields as well, such as the assessment of the government's economic policy. I cannot see any easy answer to this question.

Once when I was talking to a man who lectured in modern art, I admitted that I found much of it difficult to understand. He replied (rather loftily, I thought) that a mere layman like me couldn't be expected to understand these things; it should be left to the experts to provide guidance. I told him that he was in danger of converting me to Socialist Realism. This is a term which merits explanation.
    It is often forgotten that Russia at the start of the 20th century was one of the great centres of experimental abstract art, with such masters as Malevich, Tatlin, Chagall and many others. Several of these artists supported the Bolshevik revolution, but when things had settled down, Lenin instructed them to start producing revolutionary art. They replied that their art was revolutionary, but of course that was not what Lenin meant. To Lenin, art served no purpose unless it was easily accessible to the mass of the people: pictures painted with photographic accuracy, straightforward novels and stories about ordinary people's lives, poems which could be readily memorized and recited, tunes which everyone could hum on their way to work. Anything over and above this was elitist and (the ultimate hate-word!) "bourgeois". Also, the arts had a propaganda purpose, pointing the way to the communist future. As our guide put it on my first visit to the Soviet Union, "'Art for art's sake' was replaced by a superior concept: 'Art for the people's sake'". This was utilitarianism in the arts returning with a vengeance! What resulted was Socialist Realism.
    What was so destructive of the arts in the USSR was not so much Socialist Realism in itself as the fact that soon nothing else was officially permitted, and that under Stalin all the arts became instruments of crude propaganda. Paintings showed mostly scenes of heroic workers and peasants, and literature was full of the most servile praise for the Soviet leadership and its achievements. Many of the brightest literary talents, like Mandelstam and Isaac Babel, perished in the purges; others, like Anna Akhmatova, were officially denounced but managed to survive. Even in music, Shoshtokovich found his opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtensk" savagely attacked and was forced into a grovelling recantation. (It has been pointed out that Stalin shared with Hitler the artistic tastes of a mid-19th century conservative: a preference for paintings which had a clear and obvious "message", for poetry which rhymed, for music which had recognizable tunes) Russian cultural experimentation was damaged beyond recall.
    In the end the Soviet Union and the whole communist system collapsed, largely because it was unable to keep up with the capitalist west in productivity or in living standards. This would not have surprised Mill. He never had any faith in the ability of the state to plan progress, and always cited Russia (under the Tsars in his time, of course) as a country whose progress was severely retarded by an oppressive government and a lack of individual freedom. We in this country are fortunate in that the artistic tastes of our political leaders are of no importance whatsoever!  

 George Orwell once said that the only true test of the arts is survival: will the books still be read decades or centuries later? By any literary standard, George Meredith was a much better writer than Conan Doyle, yet hardly anyone reads Meredith's novels nowadays, whereas Sherlock Holmes is one of the best-known fictional characters in the world. (Interestingly enough, Conan Doyle thought his best work was his historical novels, which are now completely forgotten). Orwell's definition is not foolproof, but I have yet to hear a better one.  

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