Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Utile et Dulce; Utile et Non Utile

"Usefulness and pleasure" -- what Horace thought the purpose of theatre is; Aristotle did without the utile (although it is difficult to believe, given what he seems to appreciate most in the drama of his time). A lot of ink (and now electronic pixels) has been spilled over whether utile is necessary or even desireable (I'm trying to entertain Freeman as much as I can by repeatedly using utile in sentences -- Matt, this one's for you).

Utile and non utile -- Horace vs Wilde. Wilde and his cohorts argued for art for art's sake, art as an end in itself, art divorced from effect. The New Critics obliged by, when evaluating the work of art, removing it completely from it's historical context and connection to an individual artist.

Rob over at We Read Books discusses Rousseau's Discourse on the Moral Effects of Arts and Sciences and sets off a predictable, and understandable, chorus of harrumphs. To put art and morality in the same sentence today is to invite the chill wind of fundamentalist narrow-mindedness into the rehearsal space. However, I think it is important that we not follow the New Critics, but rather read Rousseau in his historical context. His article is written in 1750, when Europe was in the midst of a rejection of the aristocracy and the rise of the middle class. In literature, there was a strong rejection of the witty and morally decadent work of the English Restoration (thus, Rousseau's attack on the "effeminate and cowardly," "useless citizens," and his comment"“We do not ask whether a book is useful, but whether it is well-written. Rewards are lavished on wit and ingenuity, while virtue is left unhonoured.”), and the rise of sentimental comedy and domestic tragedy as theorized by Denis Diderot and embodied by plays such as George Lillo's The London Merchant (which, by the way, has an amazing speech by the villainous femme fatale, Millwood, that still sizzles today). Rousseau, like we in the blogosphere, is reacting to a specific time and place, and his comments, which at the time were seen as revolutionary, now within the context of the triumph of the Modernist rejection of morality, the Postmodernist embrace of irony and disbelief, and the rebirth of religious fundamentalism comes across as "conservative." No doubt, Rousseau the Revolutionary is spinning right now.

Rob feels that "Each artist much deal with Rousseau’s Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences in his own way." Would that it were so -- that the contemplation of one's attitude toward the intersection between art and good behavior, and toward the artists' role as a member of a larger society was truly and deeply undertaken by every artist, as George does and Isaac does. While one can reject Rousseau's starting premise, it is nevertheless important that artists grapple with this question in more than a perfuctory way.

For my part, I think it is important that we not define "utile" to mean "commodification;" Roussea is more interested in the soul than the pocketbook.Usefulness, in this case, means useful for the improvement of humankind. Given the choice between improving humankind and worsening it, I suspect that there are few artists who would choose the latter. I think we all strive in some way to make the world a better place. This does not mean we are committed to directly solving the world's problems through our art (although art can be used in this project, and be valuable as such -- cf Rhodessa Jones and the Medea Project, for instance). But unless our focus is entirely onanistic, what most artists want to do is affect the spectators (else why go through the trouble of creating productions?), and to affect them for the better. This might be through the creation of things of beauty, or the prompting of critical thinking, or the strengthening of empathy. What we don't like, and what leads us to react negatively to Rousseau, is not morality but rather moralizing.

Art that moralizes oversimplifies life. It takes issues that are fraught with internal and external struggles and makes them seem easy and obvious. It sacrifices complexity for shallowness, profundity for naivete. Such art is an insult to those who deal each day with the labyrinths of life and living. Such art is the opposite of "utile."

Rousseau looks at a deadent society and he throws his intellectual weight on the other side of the fulcrum. If society is decadent, then morality must be found in its opposite. If decadent art is filled with empty wit and pointless flourishes, then moral art must be sincere and simple. The technique itself is useful. Perhaps, to be truly useful, artists should throw themselves on whatever is the opposite side of the current imbalance. If today's society is filled with crass commercialism and commodification, then perhaps art needs to emphasize opposing values; if the world is heartless and oppressive, perhaps art needs to be caring and open. Herxanthikles, responding to Rob, may have it right: "Things are bad enough on this earth that there’s no reason to make things worse by spreading nihilism, sadism, and meanness under the cover of artistic license, which, incidentally, is why I hate the movie of A Clockwork Orange." We can agree or disagree with the example, but the orientation is interesting: why jump on the side of the teeter-totter that is already weighted down by society?

To me, this is what utile means -- and what I think Rousseau was doing, if not exactly what he was saying.