“Bookends” is a New York Times weekly column in which they ask two writers to answer questions about the world of books. A few recent examples of questions include “Do We Romanticize Writers Who Die Young?“, “Should Art Be Timeless Or Should It Speak To Something More Current?” and “What’s The Best Book, New Or Old, You Read This Year?”
The questions are usually interesting and thought provoking, which is why I’m promoting the column here, even though I more often than not disagree with the answers. Last week’s question, “Are There Any Unforgivable Sins In Literature?“, for instance, lead to an answer that would be the exact opposite of my own. “For me,” said one of the writers, “the unforgivable sin in literature is the same as that in life: the assumption of certainty and the moral high ground.”
A critique of modern art is not my intention here, mostly because at this point in my life I don’t experience much art beyond watching my favorite TV shows and listening to my favorite musical artists, but I think most of today’s creators share the above writer’s viewpoint. God forbid I sound like a know-it-all, but in our culture, it seems to me, art we consider generic and simple, such as pop songs and action movies, tends to feature moral certitude, while art we consider sophisticated and exceptional and nominate for awards, such as cryptic “mood studies” and “authentic” character studies, tends to feature moral ambiguity.
We all generally agree, in other words, that good art is about questions, not about answers. Answers are for fools and good artists are not fools. The better artists revel in the complexity of life. They would never fall for the scam of understanding. They don’t “assume” they’re certain about anything because they “know” that no one deserves the moral high ground. They possess a great power, the power of influence, and they would never abuse that power by actually using it. Like good journalists, they consider all viewpoints without bias and represent them equally in their works so we, as a culture, can appreciate such works because we all feel included. Art is for everyone in general and no one in particular, certainly not the artist.
As you can probably tell from the shameless slant of my writing style, I disagree with this view of art and morality. I like certainty in my life and I like certainty in my art, whether I agree with the themes or not. It’s not merely a matter of taste to me, though. I know why it’s important to me. I know there is a deeper, more fundamental connection between morality and art, the recognition of which has been lost on us for about a century. I know, in both morality and art, certitude is not merely an option, but a requirement.
Morality is a code of values we use to distinguish good from evil. It’s part of our personal philosophy, the system of principles we apply to the choices we face in our daily lives. For instance, if you value your own intelligence, then you’ll admire it in others and seek such people out as friends. If you don’t, if you’re “plagued” by self-doubt, then you won’t trust “smart” people and will avoid them at any cost, even at the cost of you’re own self-esteem.
I want to be clear. How intelligent you are is completely unrelated to whether or not you value intelligence. You don’t have to be Einstein to value your own intelligence. Intelligent people are neither more nor less moral than unintelligent people. Whether you think intelligence (or anything else) is good or bad for you — that’s morality.
Now, how does morality apply to art? Well, imagine you’re an artist who does not value intelligence. What kind of artworks will you create? Will you write a story about characters who rely on their intelligence to beat their conflicts and achieve their goals or will you write about characters who rely on brute strength or good fortune or the kindness of others? Will you spend weeks perfecting the lyrics and melodies to a song you’re writing or will you play around in the studio until you stumble onto a catchy hook and then repeat it for three and a half minutes? Will you try to recapture that beautiful sunrise you saw last week in your next painting or will you study sunrises for weeks and work on the composition until you imagine something even more beautiful?
Let’s go even further. What if you’re an artist who doesn’t merely under-appreciate intelligence but actively despises it, like any skeptic? What kind of works will you create then? Will the characters in your stories even achieve their goals at all? Will your songs even make sense? Will your art show the beauty in life or its opposite? Will you enjoy it when people fail to understand your message? Will you enjoy it even more when they think they do but are wrong and prove your philosophy right?
Morality is connected to everything we do that requires decision-making, but it’s relationship with art is more intimate and personal because art is an expression of morality itself. For instance, when I see a movie where the bad guys win, or, as is the case these days, all the characters are bad guys, I don’t respond well to it. It’s not merely because I disagree with the artist’s view of good and evil. I’m not an egomaniac who expects everyone to share my values. No, I respond negatively to it because the artist thinks the bad guys are bad guys, too. This movie isn’t an expression of morality; it’s an attack on it.
Sure, in “real life,” sometimes the bad guys win, but art isn’t “real life.” Out of all the stories the above artist could imagine and share, he or she chose to tell that one. It is this selectivity inherent in all art that makes moral certainty a requirement.
Creating art is like choosing a tattoo, only much more important, of course. Even art that “speaks to something more current” is timeless. How many people have tattoos they regret? How many artists look back at their earlier works and cringe? When an artist gets an idea to write a new novel or song or to craft a new painting or image, he or she better be damn sure it’s something meaningful and important to him or her because the entire world is stuck with it forever.
Of course, I know that not everyone takes art so seriously, just like not everyone takes tattoos so seriously. Most people don’t mind looking back on their past and feeling remorseful. They consider it a part of life, a natural result of growing up, and it is. But whether or not that tattoo or painting was a good idea is irrelevant, what matters is that you did what you really wanted, what you truly believed in rather than being influenced by others and ultimately betraying your own values. That is something no one wants to regret.
Art is not a brief distraction from life. Art is forever. We all know this. We all enjoy art for the sake of experiencing something important, something life affirming. We are used to disappointment, of course, but the expectation is justified. That’s what art is. It has no didactic or utilitarian purpose beyond pure contemplation.
The only reason to contemplate anything ambiguous is to explain it, to figure out what you think of it. Creating a work of art before you’re certain you have it figured out, cowardly giving up and effectively immortalizing your own ambivalence, using art to betray its purpose, to me, that’s the only sin in art that’s unforgivable.
Self-doubt is natural. It’s a part of life. It’s not a part of art.
What do you think? Are you sure?