22 December 2006

"Great Works of Art are Thugs" (2)

I posted yesterday on this quote from Simon Schama for whom the use of art is to unsettle our established perceptins and judgements rather than to placate or sooth us. All day this has bugged me a bit, not because I disagree, but because it seemed so obvious. And I knew I'd seen others make the same, or at least a very similar, claim. Eventually, I recalled this remark by John Dewey (1927): "The function of art has always been to break through the crust of conventionalized and routine consciousness." This seems to me to be largely correct, even if more or less completely un-Marxist in the sense that it doesn't assume that the function of art is somehow (usually unspecified however vigorously asserted) to sustain the established political-economic order. So perhaps the Schama view seems innovative insofar as we are under the sway of some sort of functionalist view (of whcih Marxism is only one version) of social arrangements?

PS: [Added later that same day] And here is a remark from James Baldwin (1962) that I might've used instead of the Dewey. For Baldwin the artist is an "incorrigible disturber of the peace" ironically because she is responsible. As he explains:

"A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven. ... The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the quesiton the answer hides.
... I am really trying to make clear the nature of the artist's responsibility to his society. The peculiar nature of that responsibility is that he never cease warring with it, for its sake and his own. For the truth, in spite of appearnaces and all our hopes, is that everything is always changing and the measure of our maturity as nations and as men is ow well prepared we are to meet these changes and, further, to use them for our health."

All this talk of responsibility and maturity and health surely will make the postmodernists among us sit up and take notice. But the point here is that, again, Schama's broad point about the function of art being to unsettle taken for granted expectations and judgements hardly is a new one.

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