Home > Emerson R. W., Kierkegaard S., Philosophy > Art as goad and as pleasure

Art as goad and as pleasure

In the past week, in the course of fulfilling my teaching (assistant) duties, I have been attempting to impress on young minds the emptiness of arguing that something is good because it is natural or bad because it is unnatural. For how do we determine what is natural other than by allowing as natural just what we think is good? So it was a rude surprise when, in reading Emerson’s “Art” (Library of America, Essays & Lectures, as ever), I came across this:

They reject life as prosaic, and create a death which they call poetic. […] Thus is art vilified; the name conveys to the mind its secondary and bad senses; it stands in the imagination as somewhat contrary to nature, and struck with death from the first. (439)

Is my beloved Emerson so crass as to make this ancient and ubiquitous error? A proper answer to that question would require a careful study of his shifting uses of the concept ‘Nature’, but I can make at least a move in the direction of his defense. Nature here stands in for the absolute union of usefulness and beauty. The artists Emerson is considering forgo this union and take art to be merely beautiful, and not just that, but also a correction of imperfect nature: nature without the prosaic details. Let us explore this idea.

Moreso than most Emerson essays, “Art” contains a fairly direct line of thought, one sustained across the essay’s entire course. But his method is to begin by accepting the thought he rejects, and work his way to its rejection. In the second sentence of the essay, Emerson writes: “This appears in works both of the useful and the fine arts, if we employ the popular distinction of works according to their aim, either at use or beauty.” (431) Emerson mentions, without endorsing, the popular distinction between use and beauty. We might, then, expect him to question it, but as the essay proceeds he seems to accept it. Already in the first paragraph Emerson is confidently stating that the artist should omit “the details, the prose of nature […] and give us only the spirit and splendor.” (431) Art improves upon nature, and it brings us pleasure in doing so. It is not useful, not necessary, but it is beautiful and hence pleasant.

So, for the time, at least, Emerson accepts the distinction. But as the essay progresses he begins to offer reasons to be skeptical of this hedonistic conception of the value of art. Emerson works himself out of his acceptance of the popular distinction. To understand how he does so we might start with the recognition that the sentence I have been considering is the essay’s second. It begins with the word “this”, referring to its predecessor’s contents. What is this “this”? It is the productive activity of the progressive soul. It is consideration of that activity that breaks us free of the division between the useful and the beautiful. Specifically, the distinction must be rejected because it is dangerous to the productive activity of the soul. Emerson considers four dangers, that I have discovered.

First danger. Art becomes about the exhibition of talent, and not about that “passion for form which [the artist] could not resist, and which vented itself in these fine extravagances.” (439) But talent is a dangerous concept, because it makes possible a universal exculpation. To experience art as the showcase of talent is to experience it in terms of what you, the person experiencing, lack. You do not have the talent to paint as did Raphael, so you can only admire passively. And you are excused for this, because you do lack the painter’s talent. We admire in art what lies beyond us, and thence comes our pleasure. In just this way, our experience of art strangles our incipient activity: we lack the requisite talent, so we need not act. Leave that to the talented. Kierkegaard is even stronger on this point than Emerson. In his diary, he rails against the concept of genius—his use is closer to Emerson’s use of “talent” than his use of “Genius”—because, in treating something as a work of genius, we negate any demand it makes on us, by denying that we are genius enough to receive any such demand. The work of art becomes something outside us, and so activity is lost.

Second danger. If art is beautiful alone, aimed only at producing pleasure, art becomes something final and not something initial. The worth of art comes to lie in its ability to produce pleasure, comes to reside in that psychological state. The pleasure lasts however long—if one is lucky, it may last even after one has parted from the work—and then it is through. Pleasure is in this way a stopping point: it does not lead onward to anything. And so the work of art, too, becomes final: it produces pleasure, or it doesn’t, and that is the end of it. There is nowhere left to go.

But art, for Emerson—for anyone with a progressive soul—should be initial and not final. Their “real value” lies in their being “signs of power.” (437) It should be the product of the artist finding “in it an outlet for his whole energy,” and should point others in that direction.

Art should exhilarate, and throw down the walls of circumstance on every side, awakening in the beholder the same sense of universal relation and power which the work evinced in the artist, and its highest effect is to make new artists. (437)

Whereas pleasure is final, being awakened to a “sense of universal relation and power” is initial, because the exercise of power still follows. Far from placing itself above the one who experiences it, art must be “practical and moral,” must “make the poor and uncultivated feel that it addresses them with a voice of lofty cheer.” (437) It has a use, it is productive, has effects beyond pleasure, and does so precisely through its beauty.

Third danger. If use is split from beauty, and the latter made art’s sole province, the progressive soul is led into an error: following the judgments of critics. It is an old notion that some pleasures are higher than others, that some have a better developed capacity to feel pleasure than others. Some find this thought inherently elitist and abhorrent. I do not. I find it obvious. A person with a thorough knowledge of music theory will hear far more in a piece of music than I—who know nothing whatsoever of the subject—and so their pleasures will respond in a more fine-grained way to the relevant details of the music than will mine. And this training, this talent, as it were, has its value. I do not find it elitist in the slightest to commend those who have trained their sensitivity to works of art for having done so.

No, the elitism comes in earlier, when use and beauty are separated. Once this happens, it is inevitable that the cultivated should be the best judges of beauty, since they are more sensitive to the actual workings of the artwork than most. That is not to say that their pleasure is really more intense than mine, though it might be, but rather to say that it is more sensitive. If they contest my judgment, they will be able to point to features of the work that I never noticed, and I will have to take this into account going forward. I will have to listen to the experts. And this easily leads to the dangers of imitation, of adopting another’s views for one’s own.

Only when art is viewed as essentially useful is this danger overcome. “The knowledge of picture-dealers has its value, but listen not to their criticism when your heart is touched by genius.” (437) But why not listen to them? Because the usefulness of art comes from nowhere else than from your making use of it. And you are the only adequate judge of that. The open-endedness of art lies in its usefulness, but even more in its not having any predetermined usefulness. Its use, or lack thereof, will depend on into whose hands it falls, and no one can say in advance what use another will make of a work of art.

A friend of mine has remarked to me that artists tend not to be very good critics. Perhaps this helps to explain why. Gripped as they are by their own vision, their criticism of art by others is subordinated to that and distorted by that. Their criticism of art then gives a better insight into their own art than that which they critique. And perhaps that is as it should be.

Fourth danger. The fourth danger is that, if use and beauty are wrenched apart, art may become an escape from life, from the ugliness of life. Art becomes something selective, picking only select aspects of the world to affirm. It becomes a correction of what is found in human life, and of necessity makes that life appear as something mean, base. “They reject life as prosaic, and create a death which they call poetic.” (439) If poetry is beautiful alone, and not useful, then it cannot be connected with all those tasks of living that cannot be avoided, and poetry must then call them mere tedium. The ideal becomes something apart from “the day’s weary chores” (439), and life gets split in two: the tediously useful and the ideally beautiful. And it is just this that is “contrary to nature”—not in an empty sense but in a quite definite sense: when use and beauty are separated, art becomes a rejection of life, something set apart from it. If art corrects life by rejecting it as prosaic, then it cannot be useful to the one who has to live. And the progressive soul is nothing other than the living soul. “In nature, all is useful, all is beautiful.” (440)

Insecure safety. To escape these dangers, “beauty must come back to the useful arts, and the distinction between the fine and the useful arts be forgotten.” And this fundamentally requires a way of approaching art that is not hedonistic. “As soon as beauty is sought, not from religion and love, but for pleasure, it degrades the seeker.” (439) To seek beauty from religion and love, however, brings its own dangers. When art becomes initial, becomes a goad to activity, a sting, it becomes unpredictable. It lies at the doorstep of an uncertain future. But that is, I think, preferable to the alternative insecurity.

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