Artistic Integrity and Diversity

Jason and Jasmine sit on the couch at Jasmine’s house on Friday to have a couple of drinks.

Jason: So, have you had a chance to read my story?

Jasmine: Yes, I have. It is quite good.

Jason: That is great to hear, and thanks for reading it. Any other feedback you would like to provide?

Jasmine: I quite enjoyed it. It avoids many of the tropes of classic science fiction and fantasy, but I still find it a bit problematic.

Jason: What do you find problematic about it? Is the characterization or plot flawed? Is my dialogue awkward? I always find it very difficult to create convincing dialogue.

Jasmine: Calm down Jason. There is nothing wrong with the plot structure or any purely technical aspect of the writing. In fact you have really improved in this area. But, I noticed that all of the lead characters are white, and most are male. It seems like there could be a lot more diversity.

Jason: There certainly could be more diversity, but part of the structure of the world of the story is that it is a military tale, and the military is predominantly male, and the nation of which it is a part is mainly white. So, while it may lack diversity, this is not meant as a suggestion of anything; the story just happens to have a set of characters that are predominantly white and male.

Kelly enters and sits down on a chair adjacent to the couch.

Kelly
: How are you two today?

Jasmine: We were just in the middle of talking about Jason’s short story.

Kelly: Oh. That’s interesting. Don’t mind me then. Continue your discussion. I have read Jason’s story, but would like to hear what you two are discussing before I put in my two cents.

Jasmine: Jason, given that this is a fantasy world that you have created that does not correspond to any actual existing nation on Earth, why should it be a predominantly white nation, with a predominantly male military? Surely, you could have told the story with more diversity without losing anything important?

Jason:
I might have been able to do that, but that would have unbecoming and excessively calculative. The difference between an author who is an artist and one who is merely a salesman, is that the artist does not worry about making sure that his art meets certain requirements that will allow it to sell, or to have critical acclaim, but just expresses what flows out of him.

When I created the world of my story I did not intentionally think this world should be predominantly white and male, and I did not base it on any existing models. I just began writing and as if I were possessed the world came to be, and it happened to be predominantly white and male. It would be crass to change this world just because it is deemed by public opinion that stories with more diversity are better than ones with less. That would just be servile, and then I would be no different from Dan Brown or a corrupt politician.

An artist, unlike a mere craftsmen does not simply create something based on existing accepted models, but expresses something that is uniquely new and that has not been done before.

Jasmine: Spare me your Eurocentric defense of artistry.

You are a white male and you are in a position of privilege. So you do not even consider the fact that while art is the authentic creation of a person, it is also something that becomes a part of the world we share, and can serve to reiterate existing stereotypes, images and a racist, sexist culture. If you cared about the world at all you would see that it is better to avoid reiterating these stereotypes and challenge them, but instead your work perpetuates them and thus reinforces existing narratives that render women and people of colour invisible and perpetuates their oppression.

Also, it is laughable that you think that your work is not based on existing models, because while it differs in many ways from other science fiction and fantasy worlds it still has ethnic and sexual characteristics that do not differ from most other works in these genres. It is just another military story whose characters are predominantly white and male. Your model clearly did not just come from the deepest riches of your soul, but from the existing forms of fiction within these genres that have preceded it.

Jason:
Why is it always about race, sex and justice with you? I am not trying to solve the world’s problems. I am just trying to write a good story.

I am sorry it does not meet the politically correct standards of good art that it does not meet. I guess my work would be better if I had a disabled black lesbian in the lead? That would surely make my story more interesting and better.

Jasmine: Please. I cannot deal with the righteous indignation of the privileged.

You’re awfully quiet Kelly. What do you think?

Kelly: I am afraid I don’t know how to articulate what I think, as it seems to me that both of you are wrong and right.

Jasmine: Come on Kelly. At least make your position clear. Don’t just try to avoid having an opinion on something because you are afraid of offending someone.

Kelly: Well, Jason is surely right that part of what makes art valuable and distinct from mere salesmanship is that when we create art we do not think about what will be popular, sell well or get critical acclaim and then try to create it. Instead we try to create something that is great whether or not it well sell well, or get critical acclaim by meeting existing standards of what good art is.

Jason: So you agree with me and think that it would be ludicrous for me to add diversity to my story just because that is something that a segment of public opinion deems necessary?

Kelly: Not exactly. While I agree that artistic integrity is important, I think part of the process of artistic creation involves the revising of the work and recognizing that the work will be shared with others and have certain effects. If the work of art’s integrity can be maintained while ensuring that it has the more salutary effect of challenging existing stereotypes then, all other things being equal, the work should be changed.

Similarly, it is ludicrous to think that the artist just creates something out of the depths of their soul, and does not adjust it in light of the effects they want it to have it on their audience. As long as the artist is trying to get a point across they have to consider what the audience will think of their art. So Jasmine, is right in recognizing this social element of art, and that art cannot be merely understood as the authentic expression of the artist, apart from its presentation to an audience.

Jasmine: So, are you saying that Jason ought to add more diversity to his work?

Kelly: I wouldn’t go that far, although I would say that his work would be better if it had more diversity.

Jasmine: So, what are you saying? If his work would be better with more diversity why wouldn’t you say that Jason ought to add this diversity?

Kelly:
It is hard to put into words. Jason, do you think your story is able to speak to everyone, and that it matters that the cast of the story is relatively homogenous?

Jason:
No, it is meant to be a universal story that can speak to anyone. The fact that the characters are mainly white males does not prevent it from its ability to speak to people, and does not reiterate any stereotypes or images that truly negatively impact someone. I am not saying that white men are better than others; they are just the subject of the work.

Kelly: This is precisely the difference between you two. I agree with Jasmine and think that the story does perpetuate harmful images, but this claim is contestable. Furthermore, for those who reject this claim it would be inauthentic, calculative and show a lack of artistic integrity to just include diversity as a mode of placating others.

Jason: But you are still saying that my story would be better if it included more diversity?

Kelly: Yes, I am.

Jason: But then you are suggesting that the best art can only be created by people who share your views?

Kelly: Not those who share my views necessarily. What I am saying is that the best art must necessarily be created by those with a proper understanding of not only how to create something that is beautiful to them, but who understand how their art will be received and how to create something that will enrich society.

I may be wrong about art’s role in society, but I don’t see how an artist can be great if he does not understood how his art will be received, and try to say something important through it, that will have a positive effect on the souls that confront it. One positive effect art can have is to combat images that perpetuate injustice and oppression

Jason:
Doesn’t this enslave art to society?

Kelly: I wouldn’t say so. Art is by its nature a social thing, as art is not created for an artist to appreciate, but as something to be shared and appear in the world. Thus any construction of art must be evaluated, in part, based on the effects that it has on society, and its role in social life.

Advertisements

The Preoccupation with Novelty in the Arts

Within the culture of industrialized liberal democratic societies people tend to be more interested and preoccupied with new music, new literature, rather than forms of art that have flourished  in earlier eras. For example, music aficionados tend to be driven to explore newly released music rather than exploring earlier forms of music. Likewise, connoisseurs of literature tend to be on the lookout for the next great book series, rather than being preoccupied with some earlier literary tradition. Of course I am not suggesting that there are no people who are enamored with older forms of the arts, but there is a general tendency towards the new and novel and against older forms. Now this is not something unique to modern liberal democratic societies, but it is peculiar in that unlike in many other previous societies it is fairly easy for a member of a modern liberal democratic society to experience arts that have flourished in previous eras because of the growth of technology and the ease with which art can be shared. A member of the learned class of Renaissance Florence may have been interested in the poetry of Ancient China, but it was relatively difficulty for him to access that poetry, whereas we today can access it through a simple search on the internet.

This excessive preoccupation with novelty in the arts is problematic as it prevents us from learning from the vast intellectual wisdom of the past and prevents us from experiencing the beauty of previous art forms and consequently impoverishes our lives. Now towards the end of this entry I will go into more detail as to why I think this excessive preoccupation with novelty is problematic, but in the meantime I want to try to give a basic sketch of why we have this excessive preoccupation with novelty in the arts in our society.

One plausible cause of the preoccupation is the societal prejudice that dismisses the relevance of the wisdom of early ages. Any person who has studied the canonical texts of Western Philosophy knows that for many, most of these texts within this tradition can only be of antiquarian, academic interest.  For such people there is nothing we can learn from Aristotle, as his teachings are irrelevant to our present situation, and they represent a backwards past. In sum, this idea suggests that we should be more interested in newer art forms as they speak more to our present predicament whereas earlier art forms do not speak to the issues that arise within our live.  This idea tends to lead people to be dismissive of earlier art, as it does not relate to their particular experiences, and to be preoccupied with novelty in the arts. Nonetheless, there is a grain of truth within this idea in that while I may appreciate Moliere it is difficult for me to fully understand all the dimensions of his work, as it was developed against the background of an entirely different context than the one that I now inhabit. However, the problem is that art often speaks to what is shared across all human lives, rather than what is particular to a given time within a given society, so even if newer arts speak more to our current predicament, older art forms can speak equally well to the general human predicament as it is experienced across varying historical eras.  So we have little reason to be preoccupied with newer art, as there is no reason to think that we cannot learn something about the human predicament from older art forms.

 

The second cause reinforces the preceding cause. This second cause is our desire to share our appreciation of arts with others.  If others are preoccupied with novel forms of the arts we will tend to follow suit, because sharing our appreciation of the arts with others is much better than enjoying them on one’s own. I may love the works of Mahler, but I find myself less drawn to being preoccupied with his work then newer composers, as I have not found a friend yet who I can discuss and appreciate his music with. We don’t simply want to enjoy the art on our own we want to discuss the art with others and share our appreciation with others. This is a perfectly valid desire, and I have no criticism for it, but unfortunately it has the problematic consequence of reinforcing conformity as people are drawn to forms of art that are widely appreciated within a particular social context.

Earlier, I laid out a couple of reasons as to why the preoccupation with novel arts is problematic. The first was that is prevents us from learning from the wisdom of earlier ages. This is problematic, because novel arts tend to simply reinforce our existing prejudices, whereas earlier art forms often present us with wisdom which can supplement and critique our current beliefs. For example, after reading  Moliere’s the Misanthrope I may have a new appreciation of the importance of politeness and tact, and the danger of always being completely authentic and honest. Furthermore, this new appreciation would cut against the tendency of modern thought to extol the virtues of brutal honesty and authenticity.    Thus, earlier forms of art often provide us with unique resources to supplement and correct our understanding, by confronting us with alternative perspectives, which allow us to properly assess our own beliefs.  But if we are preoccupied with novel arts we do not encounter this wisdom and thus our growth is inhibited.

The second reason was that an occupation with novel arts can impoverish our lives by preventing us from experiencing the beauty of previous art forms. No matter how many great pop songs one hears, one’s life is richer if one has also experienced a great classical symphony. The forms of beauty of the pop song and the classical symphony are distinct, and are lives are enriched as we are exposed to a wider variety of beautiful forms. A focus on novel arts tends to limit us to a more narrow selection of beautiful forms and consequently impoverishes our lives. Furthermore, one additional benefit to experiencing earlier art forms is that we also begin to see certain flaws in novel arts as we are exposed to other earlier art forms and see what they do well, and what is missing from novel arts, and this helps us to develop a more refined appreciation of the arts.  Consequently,  our preoccupation with novel arts is something that we should try to overcome.