Sunday, May 6, 2012

Accomplishment and purpose in the Arts


We've talked about Charles Murray before on this blog. Indeed there is a link in the last post below to his argument the welfare state has drained the life out of life. 

Here is a new essay in which he argues that the arts in America will not flourish if there is no deeper sense of purpose. And elites have been avoiding that for decades.


Murray wrote a book in 2004 about the conditions necessary for human achievement to flourish (which I haven't read for now.) And he has been thinking since about what it means for the prospect of a renaissance in the arts in America.

We have the wealth and the infrastructure for great artistic achievement, of course. But this is not sufficient. Look at how little Europe has achieved in the arts in the last fifty years, he observes. Why ?

For him, the answer is Europe has lost confidence and vitality. There needs to be some sense of purpose in the culture for great art, he says. Without it, there is no urgency to make your mark, or do anything other than live and pass time pleasantly. There is less sense of "this-is-what-I-was-put-on-earth-to-do" calling which is necessary to master a field over many years.

In trying to think about how a renaissance might happen, I cannot put aside the strongest conclusion that I took away from the work that went into Human Accomplishment: Religiosity is indispensable to a major stream of artistic accomplishment.
Religiosity does not have to mean specific religious observance, however:

By “religiosity” I do not mean going to church every Sunday. Even belief in God is not essential. Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism are not religions in the conventional sense of that word—none postulates a God—but they partake of religiosity as I am using the word, in that that they articulate a human place in the cosmos, lay out understandings of the ends toward which human life aims, and set standards for seeking those ends.


In fact, it points back to Aristotle - which is why I find the essay particularly interesting.

A secular version of this framework exists, and forms a central strand in the Western tradition: the Aristotelian conception of human happiness and its intimate link with unceasing effort to realize the best that humans have within them. In practice, we know that the Aristotelian understanding of human flourishing works. A great many secular people working long hours and striving for perfection in all kinds of jobs are motivated by this view of human life, even if they don’t realize it is Aristotelian.

There needs to be a sense of transcendental goods for a society (and the arts) to flourish - some anchoring in conceptions of truth, beauty, and the good life. And that recalls Aristotle. In Murray's words,

When applied to human beings, the essence of “the good” is not a set of ethical rules that one struggles to follow, but a vision of human flourishing that attracts and draws one onward.
Without some conception of the good, art tends to become vulgar,

This for me is the huge lesson I've learned from reading Aristotle and work on virtue ethics. Morality and society are not just a matter of following universalized rules, or procedural neutrality, as we've generally come to believe. There has to be some concrete sense of the good life, and what flourishing means. It's not just an ethical issue. It's also an economic issue, because it has a fundamental impact on what we want the economy to do and how we want it to evolve.

State neutrality does not mean that everyone is free to develop their own conception of the good life. It just means the state tends to crowd out and dominate all other efforts and initiatives.

Murray says we have tried to ignore the big questions about purpose for too long. But that must ultimately change.

The falling away from religiosity that we have seen over the last century must ultimately be anomalous. From the Enlightenment through Darwin, Freud, and Einstein, religiosity suffered a series of body blows. The verities understood in the old ways could not survive them. Not surprisingly, new expressions of those truths were not immediately forthcoming, and the West has been wandering in the wilderness.

It won’t last forever. Humans are ineluctably drawn to fundamental questions of existence. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is one such question. “What does it mean to live a good life?” is another. The elites who shape the milieu for America’s high culture have managed to avoid thinking about those fundamental questions for a century now. Sooner or later, they’ll find it too hard.

Liberalism evolved out of a desire to eliminate bloody conflicts over religiosity and the good life. But avoiding a conception of the good life altogether is not a durable answer either.

(h/t Arts and Letters Daily)



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