On Wednesday, New York Review of Books editor Ian Buruma became one of the most-discussed people in media when he either resigned or was fired from the venerable journal of ideas amid his decision to publish a piece by Canadian radio personality Jian Ghomeshi, who has been accused of multiple counts of sexual assault by dozens of women.
But back on Sunday, Buruma was just a regular smart-guy editor, moderating the most thought-provoking event at the Brooklyn Book Festival. Buruma’s panel, Can Art Change the World, invited Mary Schmidt Campbell, Phillip Lopate, and Julian Lucas to unpack the fraught issue of political and social value of arts.
The quest for the proper place of the social value in arts is as old as the history of human thought. The ambiguity of this space has been at the nexus of the debate since Pythagorean times. Plato dived into the discussion head on. He deemed poetry immoral and proposed to regulate tragedy, insofar as, by way of mimesis, it imitated and inflicted objectionable emotions or behavior, which in turn would cause viewers to identify with and emulate these emotions or behavior.
Plato’s position that any practice that could produce immoral or anti-social behavior should be prohibited or regulated was likely the first ever example of using the process of identification as basis for censorship. “A moral blemish is an artistic blemish”, said David Hume, whose work “Standards of Taste” dealt with connection between the individual taste and aesthetic judgments.
By late-18th century a different view began to emerge. The focus shifted from the human responses to art – the subjective view – to the search for an objective value of beauty. By mid-19th century, Emmanuel Kant in his investigation of the aesthetic judgment arrived at the idea of“disinterested pleasure,” often understood as representation of pure aesthetics. L’art pour l’art, a doctrine, attributable to Theophile Gauttie, Victor Cousin, Edgar A. Poe, and Benjamin Constant, emerged on the other side of extreme – a reaction to the idea that art had to serve some moral or didactic purpose.
In the past hundred years, artistic expression has oscillated from revolutionary to decadent, from serving as a mouthpiece of the state propaganda to celebrating the outsider. Today’s elevated levels of social anxiety make it as hard as ever for the arts to find a proper balance between its basic prerogative as a challenger of the social norms vis-a-vis society that is jam-packed with ethically charged sensibilities. (The Fine Art Globe published a piece on the disorderly censorship matrix employed by the Facebook towards arts disseminated through its platform)
Against the backdrop of the tensions within gender, sexuality. post-colonial and racial issues, the conversation about the effect that arts impresses on reality feels especially relevant. The panelists discussed the social value of works of art. One of them, The Birth of the Nation, was a disturbingly controversial silent film that glorified the KKK as heroes. Yet the panelists all agreed it was a cinematically important film. It is both fortunate and ironic, as also with works of Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein (as it is with many others), that works designed as state propaganda emerge as influential masterpieces that, apart from exhorting aesthetic influences, often bring about social change. As Julian Lucas, an editor of the arts and culture quarterly Cabinet, pointed out, the purpose of artistic expression –conscious or not –is to raise awareness, bring to attention things either known, but lost to familiarity, or unknown. And often, as with The Birth of the Nation, uncomfortable. This heightened awareness is what propels the social change, and, crucially, more often than not, irrespective of the effect intended by the work’s creator.
The paradigm-changing works of art reside in the space between the emotionally uncomfortable and the socially disturbing. It is because we tend to notice anew or hitherto unknown only when we are taken out of our comfort zone – jerked to a halt. Art, by its virtue, stands at the horizon of the social, political, and aesthetic fabric of reality. Its vision is what brings our senses and judgments alive to the world. Yet, how do we deal with the constituencies in an artwork that has intentions with which we have real trouble identifying? Can we afford to enjoy Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia knowing that behind its production stood the same people who also masterminded the brutal annihilation of millions? Can we allow our children to watch The Birth of the Nation? How would the publisher of Nabokov’s Lolita survive these days?
The panel raised more issues than it has resolved. And, in light of Ian Buruma’s shocking downfall, it has produced a sad irony.
Artistic choices – regardless of the authorial intention – both raise awareness and bring social change. And it would also seem that, censored or endorsed, art percolates through the fabric of society and history, causing us to stop in our tracks and pay attention.