Art and Effect

Art and Effect
James Carpenter

Among the many narrowing influences at work in the art world, there is a general assumption that for art to be impactful in any real sense, it had better concern itself with communicating a concrete message intended to effect change in the world around it—in other words, that it had better be, in some shape or another, political art.  The assumption is even taken up by artists ordinarily unconcerned with such themes, who in times of political upheaval are liable to despair of doing something so socially indifferent.  Yet the setting-up of an antithesis between political art, as a practical tool of communication that uses aesthetically appealing media to get useful messages across, and art for art’s sake, which (it is supposed) accomplishes nothing but a lot of superficially engaging ornamentation, is simply culturally destructive, and not just to the artists it causes to question their calling.  For a society that fetishizes “usefulness” in the way we do, we are often surprisingly shortsighted in our understanding of what constitutes it; and that political art has become not more powerful, but more dismissible over the years bears witness to the effect of this circumscription.  Far from giving art a platform from which to dynamically engage with other facets of life, the conception of a specific class of political art—complete with explicitly political media and forms, as well as political subjects—has reinforced art’s compartmentalization within that life, even as it has narrowed the range of art forms considered political, to the point that those forms, few as they are, are today almost entirely ineffective.  Most instrumental in this process have been the political artists themselves, who in further refining their genre, have made their work recognizable at a greater distance, and more easily avoidable by exactly the people they (presumably) desire most to reach with it. 

That explicitly political art is not the only artistic way to effect political change is to be hoped by anyone who notices this ineffectiveness; that it is not the best is conceivable to anyone who has been intensely moved by a non-political artwork.[1]  Yet I would take the argument further, and say that political art—and any art that addresses itself to a readily communicable rhetorical purpose—is not even an adequate way to effect change in the world, and that expressive art, and the arts of the beautiful in general—the sort of art practiced by those artists most liable to reproach themselves for doing too little to help their political situation—is in fact the art that stands to be most impactful in that sphere. 

There are a few grounds on which to make this argument, which I’ll follow through in the order that seems to introduce them most clearly.

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In the first place, political art is ineffective because it isn’t political.  What I mean by this is simply that political art isn’t actually meant to engage with the fundamental questions of action or motive that make for political life.  Politics is a form of practical action, a means of change in concrete terms.  When we vote, when we propose or approve or oppose a piece of legislation, when we run for an office or gather to boycott something, we engage in political action.  Political art, on the other hand, is rhetoric: a form of persuasion, of convincing someone to do something.  And though it is true that politics very often involves rhetoric, in the form of speech-making and sloganeering and so forth, politics is not itself rhetoric; and more importantly, the kind of rhetoric it does involve is very different from the kind that political art represents.  Properly political rhetoric, as Aristotle points out, deals with actions in the future: it commends one course of action over another, and tries to persuade us to take that course.  Political art, on the other hand, is a type of what the same philosopher calls epideictic rhetoric, the rhetoric of ceremonial display, which concerns itself with praising or blaming conditions in the present.  It could be argued that despite its epideictic nature, political art can be intended to spur political change, and perhaps often is so intended; but one need only recognize the difference between our experience of art and our experience of political discourse to sense the fatuousness of such an intention.  We do not enter a gallery or open a poetry journal to be told what course of action to take; if we want to be persuaded to do anything in these cases, we want to be moved: that is, to feel strongly what we do feel, not about some action to be taken in the future, but about something contained within the artwork we are experiencing.  In the case of political art, what we are supposed to be moved by is the thing the artwork is praising or blaming, and enjoining us to praise or blame along with it.  

Now it is an important point about rhetoric in general that in order to persuade us to do anything, it must meet us where we are.  A speech or an ad or a piece of political art is only able to get us to do or judge something in a certain way, if it first takes into account what we think and value, and begin with some appeal to that set of criteria.  In this sense rhetoric, like all forms of common discourse, is referential: it begins with a connection made with its audience, formed on the basis of its reference to something it assumes the audience will feel a certain way about already, and rises or falls on the strength of that referential connection.  Political rhetoric uses this connection to bring the audience around to a further conclusion, an action that much of the audience probably hasn’t conceived already for themselves; but epideictic rhetoric, in confining itself to thoughts and feelings in the present, remains referential throughout: it not only begins by meeting us where we are, but leaves us there as well.  It doesn’t use its referential connection with us to persuade us to some possible course, as political rhetoric does, but rather persuades us to build on that common feeling, whether of praise or blame, and feel it more.  Put simply, it preaches to its choir: it concerns itself with amplifying the feelings we already have about the subjects it brings up.  This accounts for the totality of its success, as well as of its failure: when it matches with the feelings we have and builds upon them, it seems to us to be more intimately effective than almost anything else; when it fails to do so, it falls utterly flat. 

Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of political art, whose subjects are either pre-judged by the viewer one way or another, or are meaningless.  An exaggeratedly ugly depiction of a political candidate or position, seen by someone to whom that candidate or position is unknown beforehand, achieves none of its desired effect; for him it is an empty criticism, a toothless satire.  And for someone of the opposed point of view, to whom such a depiction counts as a slur against a thing or person of which he approves, it backfires entirely, calling down his blame on the artist and artwork instead, and reinforcing his opinions just as it reinforces those of the audience for which it is intended.  Only in a viewer of this last sort, who already agrees with the substance of the work’s message, is the right effect produced; and to him the work might well come across as powerful and profound—to the extent that he feels his own convictions powerfully and profoundly.  But the important point is this: that whether the viewer is amenable to the work’s message or not, no real change is effected in him. [2]

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In a related argument, it could also be said that political art is ineffective because it isn’t art.  This draws a more pointed difference, because whereas political art and political rhetoric are at least both rhetoric—though rhetoric of different kinds—art as such is not rhetorical at all, but expressive.  I will try briefly to say what I mean.

Rhetoric, of whatever kind, is designed to persuade people to some end or another.  This requires that a few things be established in advance.  First, as we touched on already, the rhetorician has to have a definite idea of who his audience is—what they like and dislike, what motivates them, what kinds of emotion they are most susceptible to feeling, and so on.  Second, it requires that a certain persuasive end be formulated in advance: a rhetorician can only be successfully persuasive in light of a definite goal—an action, a feeling, a judgment—toward which he is trying to steer his audience.  Lastly, it requires that there be something called persuasion, some specific act or process, that can be undertaken in the first place: some ability the rhetorician is able to master in general, and apply in given cases to persuading certain audiences toward certain objectives.  In this sense the rhetorician must generally know the art of writing and delivering speeches, of producing and deploying ads, etc., separate, as it were, from any particular audience and end toward which those speeches or ads might be used.

Political art, as a form of rhetoric, has to meet all of these requirements as well.  The political artist must know who his audience is—the same commentary won’t work to the same ends among the conservative-minded as it will among the liberal-minded, for instance.  He must know what he is trying to persuade people of, since without some message for audiences to perceive and agree or disagree with, the artwork will not be intelligibly “political” at all.  And he must have a handle on the abstract virtues of his craft—he will need to be able to produce a recognizable likeness in order to effectively caricature someone, for instance, or will need some mastery of language in order to produce an impactful phrase.

The case is entirely different with art, which I will refer to here as expressive art to distinguish it from the term as it is used in the more general technical sense.[3]  The essential difference is this: unlike the generalized audiences, ends, and modes of rhetoric, which preexist the individual rhetorical object and determine its production, those of expressive art are all individually determined in the case of each expressive artwork.  The thoughts and feelings that expressive art expresses are not typic or categorical signifiers, as they are treated in every form of common discourse; they are the irreducibly individual complexes of thought and feeling that actually occur to the individuals who think and feel them, reflected in the equally idiosyncratic stylistic and motival patterns that constitute expressive artworks.  They are, in other words, the thoughts and feelings that can be expressed in this way and this way only.  This, after all, is what it means for a thing to express something, as opposed to communicating it in a more general or commonplace way; the meaning of the expression, the thing it expresses, is bound up with the form in which it is expressed, to the point that (we might say) it means itself.  In making a work of this kind, an artist is only concerned with “getting it out,” and not with what audience he might be getting it out to, or to what end, or in what way; none of these things can be known before the act of expression is accomplished.  They are determined, rather than determining, factors with regard to the expressive object. 

Hence, unlike with rhetoric, there is no general, preexisting audience for artworks, or even groups or epochs of artworks; there is the audience for this work, those able to judge it according to its merits—who, accordingly, can’t arise before those merits do.  There is likewise no end or goal of expression, beyond expression itself, in this concrete case; to know beforehand what any particular expression is going to express, would be to circumvent the need for it altogether.  And there is no characteristic mode of expression—no expressive rules or standards for better and worse—no art of art; there is only the form it takes here and now, and its success or failure (as we might call it) in being what it is.  A painting by Francis Bacon certainly has a proper audience, as it has an expressive end and a characteristic mode or style; but none of these exist outside that painting, or as generally transferable to other paintings (even by Bacon himself).  They are determined by the painting, rather than prefiguring its construction; essential as they are to it, they do not inform the act of expression, but arise from it, as warmth and visibility arise from incandescence, as resulting concomitants.

What this means for political art is that not only does it not change its viewers rhetorically—since as epideictic rhetoric, it isn’t meant to—but it doesn’t change them aesthetically, either.  To do that would be to determine its audience as an expressive work does, setting the terms by which their experience of it must proceed, by being its own meaning and having its end in itself.  Instead, as a rhetorical work, a piece of political art is entirely determined by factors outside it: its cues are set out for it in advance by the disposition of the audience that it must appease, along with the message of the artist that it must convey and the formal rules that it must adhere to, to be rhetorically successful.  It does not express a feeling or thought that exists nowhere but in it, but refers instead to thoughts or feelings that, insofar as they are “political” at all, necessarily can be communicated in more ways than one; and in so doing, it makes itself dependent on those generalized thoughts and feelings for its substance.  In short: to reach preexisting audiences, political art contents itself with depicting those aspects of political situations that are already shared and communicable among those audiences; and being restricted to these meanings precludes its ability to bring new insight to its appreciators, or give them any reason to enlarge their viewpoint beyond what it already is.

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There is a more radical point to be made about the ineffectiveness of political art than either of the foregoing—one that leaves off all rhetorical considerations, and takes up the question on a strictly aesthetic basis.  Given its importance to artists, I think this point is not nearly often enough brought up; taken to heart, it has the power to do away with any doubt as to the artist’s crucial importance, in political life as everywhere else.  The argument is this: that in the final analysis, however we formulate its shortcomings as politics or as art, political art is not effective because it is not beautiful; and that beautiful art, solely by virtue of being beautiful, stands to effect a much more singular and far-reaching kind of change in society than almost anything else people are capable of doing. 

I realize that to make this argument cogently, I will have to venture on a definition of beauty: a sin, in our culture, not likely to seem less egregious for my assertion that it isn’t the only definition of beauty I espouse, or even the one I like best.  Yet the definition that comes to mind now will do for my purposes: beauty is the peculiar kind of enjoyment, taken in the perception of something, that also suggests to us that there is more to enjoy about that thing than we already do. 

Notice, this definition is not contradicted, but rather supported, by our saying (as we often do) that a beautiful thing is perfect.  Perfection being an avowedly ideal quality, impossible to realize fully in experience, it is exactly the right concept to express the sense I mean, of an infinite ideal enjoyment suggested by a more limited real one.  The definition also accounts at once for the excited pleasure we feel in perceiving something beautiful, and for the almost sad desire or longing it inspires in us: again, the pleasure we are actually able to take in it seems to point the way to other, transcendent pleasures beyond our reach.  The enjoyment “all at once,” possible only in imagination, of an artwork that unfolds for our senses in time and space; the perfect intelligibility of an argument that underlies the piecemeal development by which we come to know it; the total ideal possession of a bodily, or natural, or material beauty, actually perceptible to us only in fleeting moments—all of these are ideal pleasures, to which the enjoyment we take in beautiful objects directs us, and of which, in contemplating those objects, we are aware to a greater degree than we feel able to enjoy completely.  Because our experience of this enjoyment is ideal, it is in a sense frustrating; but because it is ideal enjoyment that we are so experiencing, even that frustration is wonderful and desirable to us. 

So far this only takes up beauty as an effect, in a sense comprehensive of natural or personal beauty as well as the beauty of manmade objects.  But expressive art, in the aspects I have already described of it, lays a particular claim to this effect, the description of which will both elucidate the broader value beauty provides to the rest of our experience, and show the inherent shortcoming of political art with respect to that broader value. 

Expressive artworks, again, represent singular, irreducible complexes of emotions and thoughts not communicable in any other way.  This is the source of all true novelty in art, and of the ineffable one-of-a-kind-ness that distinguishes artworks from other manmade things; in their complex uniqueness they seem to represent not so much particular things said, as ways of saying anything—whole worlds in themselves, or (to use Nelson Goodman’s phrase) ways of worldmaking, rather than statements on the world.  In the usual phrase, they are made to stand alone: they point to nothing outside of themselves for their meaning, but bind meaning and medium together in a single expressive whole.  This absolute uniqueness of form—this quality of ultimate irreducibility to anything else, of self-sufficient wholeness—is an ideal quality present in every expressive work; and to perceive it, to be fully aware of the vital one-of-a-kind-ness that an expressive object, manmade as it is, shares with all of nature, is to appreciate that object as beautiful. As an ideal quality, this absolute uniqueness of the expressive object transcends any particular perception, so the pleasure that it provides us is apperceptive—an extension and amplification of the qualities particular to the object—the instances of it-ness, so to speak, that we are able to perceive in it—to a transcendent, whole singularity definitive of that object alone, which we can only appreciate in imagination.  And because the expressive substance of such a work is always individual, and because our apperception of the work’s total form always transcends the concrete perceptions we are able to have of the work itself, our experience of the expressive work as such always represents a radical transformation of mind: rather than being assimilated into the rest of our experience and reducible to its terms, the work adds to those terms, broadens our ability to imagine realities beyond the ones we know, and enriches our vision of the world by an apperceptive value that inherently outpaces what we are able to perceive at any given moment.

This inherent outpacing of what is concretely perceptible in them makes expressive works participate in the longing for more that beauty inspires, and which lingers in us even after our experience of the beautiful object is past.  In this sense, beauty gives us more than simply a new way of seeing the world, incomparably valuable as that is; it gives us a new way of wanting the world, of being devoted to the increase of ideal enjoyment everywhere.  Political art, on the other hand, is not beautiful precisely because it is designed for absorption within the world as it is.  In service to the clarity of its message, it reduces all the values pertinent to that message to pre-packaged, readily communicable entities; and as a result, any enjoyment it provides its viewer—though real—is simple, present enjoyment only, had in applauding and reviling exactly what that viewer already applauds and reviles.  It is the kind of enjoyment that we get from happy culinary experiences: a suitability to the tastes we already possess, which vanishes almost instantly, once its object is gone.[4]  And though, as enjoyments, these things are far from bad in themselves, because they are strictly present enjoyments, they can engender a certain cynical narrowness of mind in those who dedicate their lives too exclusively to them.

The complex experience that beauty offers us is exactly the remedy for this narrowness.  It teaches us to want more and seek more than present experience gives us—but not in a frivolous manner, ungeared from real experience, since the pleasure we take in beautiful objects is real and concrete as well as ideal and transcendent.  Beauty’s singular co-involvement of real and ideal pleasure brings us further than either would do on its own; it allows us to project universal value into even the smallest and most everyday details of our experience, and see unlimited potential not only in the objects around us, but in our life as a whole.  The response we have toward the conception of such a life, a life that we envision as beautiful, is not simply to take pleasure in it, but also to believe in it, to feel that it will lead us somewhere better if we only undertake to follow it there. 

This conviction, it seems clear, is precisely what is now most lacking in our culture—whose deep discontent is evident, in spite of the unprecedented variety of its sense-pleasures—and in this regard, the artist of the beautiful is granted more power for change than anyone.  Beauty, effected by a human hand, gives us not only the substantial evidence of someone’s having brought about a real creative change, but the desire for, and belief in, further change of that kind—and even the motivation to bring it about ourselves.  Where political art, by dint of its appeal to forms of communication already established, necessarily finds us and leaves us exactly where we are, beautiful things truly make us want to change the world around us, and make it more beautiful still.

[1] Being moved is evidence of effect, if nothing else; and in this respect political art is on the whole less effective than the average Hollywood thriller.

[2] That such a work might change someone’s mind, or sway someone without a preexisting opinion one way or another, by sheer force of novelty or impressiveness, is rather an argument against political art than for it, because it points to the superficiality of the level on which it is effective.  Only the weakest wills are turned in a new direction by epideictic rhetoric, and that only accidentally; it’s hard to imagine even a cynic being satisfied with such converts.

[3] Fine art would do as well, but my emphasis here is on what I take to be its characteristic function of expression.

[4] This absorption in the present and perceptible is also why, though we may use the word beautiful in an honorary sense for food we thoroughly enjoy, or to praise the visual arrangement of a dish, no one ever seriously uses the word to describe the taste of food.

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