Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In


Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

November 27, 2010

After Keith Richards’s autobio, Life, which I read on my iPad, I’m on to The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant, a slightly funky 1933 edition I found on the exchange rack at the food coop, having remembered it from my parents’ bookshelf (written in 1926 and still in print). In its time it generated popular interest in philosophy and a rash of imitators in the form of “Story of….” books, which no doubt led to the “Idiots” and “Dummies” manuals so ubiquitous today. All should be written so beautifully.

In making his argument for the validity of philosophical pursuit, Durant writes:

Science seems always to advance, while philosophy seems always to lose ground. Yet this is only because philosophy accepts the hard and hazardous task of dealing with problems not yet open to the methods of science—problems like good and evil, beauty and ugliness, order and freedom, life and death; so soon as a field of inquiry yields knowledge susceptible of exact formulation it is called science. Every science begins as philosophy and ends as art; it arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement. Philosophy is a hypothetical interpretation of the unknown…it is the front trench in the siege of truth. Science is the captured territory; and behind it are the secure regions in which knowledge and art build our imperfect and marvelous world. Philosophy seems to stand still, perplexed, but only because she leaves the fruits of victory to her daughters, the sciences, and herself passes on divinely discontent to the uncertain and unexplored.

….Science tells us how to heal and how to kill; it reduces the death rate in retail and then kills us wholesale in war; but only wisdom—desire coordinated in the light of all experience—can tell us when to heal and when to kill. To criticize and coordinate ends is philosophy; and because today our means and instruments have multiplied beyond our interpretations and synthesis of ideals and ends, our life is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. For a fact is nothing except in relations to desire; it is not complete except in relation to a purpose and a whole. Science without philosophy, facts without perspective and valuation, cannot save us from havoc and despair. Science gives us knowledge but only philosophy gives us wisdom.

And since, like a fact, an object is also nothing except in relation to desire, where does art figure into it? Are we just making stuff to put up on a wall, like an elaborate Show and Tell, or can we ascribe some purpose to it? This is dangerous territory in our age, where we’re so afraid of meaning and feeling that much art has become didactic and empty.  We want things to be radical, yet can no longer define what radical is; out of fear of treading into the quicksand of significance, everything becomes watered down.

As soon as I posed the question, following a thread from an unrelated NY Times article, I found the answer in Tolstoy, who wrote: The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.

And searching further, I found the context:

Problems of the zemstvo, literature, and the emancipation of women, etc. obtrude with you in a polemical manner, but these problems are not only not interesting in the world of art; they have no place there at all…The aims of art are incommensurate (as the mathematicians say) with social aims. The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations. If I were to be told that I could write a novel whereby I might irrefutably establish what seemed to me the correct point of view on all social problems, I would not even devote two hours to such a novel; but if I were to be told that what I should write would be read in about twenty years time by those who are now children, and that they would laugh and cry over it and love life, I would devote all my life and all my energies to it*

Well that certainly raises the bar.
PS: Much as I love the Internet for the ease of access to information, it distresses me to see so many quotes floating around without any indication as to their sources. Not only do we have no way of ascertaining whether so-and-so actually said that pithy phrase, if our interest is piqued we can’t investigate beyond the sound byte. I was lucky this time in finding the context of Tolstoy’s quote, but it’s rare. People think they are pedantic, but I believe in footnotes, and if mine is the only blog to use them, so be it. Maybe I can start a trend.

* Part of a letter to a fellow novelist (1865), from Tolstoy’s Letters, selected, edited and translated by R.F. Christian, University of London, the Athlone Press, London 1978, Vol. I p. 197, and quoted in the Wordsworth Editions introduction to Ânna Karenina.