Anthony Wheeler

Humble Executive.  Literary Artist.  Altruistic Libertarian.

The Artist and Society

Mankind hates us: we serve none of its purposes; and we hate it, because it injures us.  So let us love one another “in Art,” as mystics love one another “in God.” (61)

The artist tends to go his or her own way; that’s what makes them artists.  They explore aspects of human experience and consciousness without restraint.  They challenge the world as they find it; alter human nature to suit their aesthetic needs; willingly rend apart the very threads that hold a nation together; attempt to topple the very ‘pillars of society’, demonstrating again and again the needlessness of such supports.  Artistic activities, the results of these activities (specific art objects) and the behavior associated with artistic activities often make ordinary people uncomfortable.  In totalitarian regimes smother artists first; they pose too great a threat.  Plato famously cast them out of his Republic, due to the dangerous nature of independent creative artists.

In fact, society—and culture in general—is far hardier than many believe.  Yes, the human soul can be crushed by oppressive regimes, or starved by brutal natural conditions, but given a minimum of structure and simple freedom, people will overcome their situation and make something of themselves.  This is because

The stability of our personal lives rests upon a consensus of perception and memory that in fact has no guarantee.  We are solipsists who in uneasy conjunction with other solipsists construct a society and a shared world. (62)

This shared world, to the extent it exists, will endure the sharp blades of actuality in the same way a wave remains unchanged by a thrust sword.  The true dangers to the human spirit are posed by an aggressive state (National Socialism for example, or Stalinism, or Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”), an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, or a super volcano like the one brewing under Yellowstone.  Human civilization will not founder because of gay marriage, promiscuity, drugs, long hair, rock music, strip malls, pornography, day-time TV, poor education, mind-altering drugs, illegal aliens, Democrats, Harley Davidsons, soap operas, Republicans, reality TV, or any one of a thousand cultural activities, icons, personalities, fads or trends.  None of these indicate society’s decay, but in fact speak largely to its creative resilience, flexibility and hardiness.  Social critics (many artists among them) have decried every age, complained about the degenerate youth, lack of respect for this institution or that custom, hailed the coming apocalypse, expressed disgust with just about everything. 

Really, what difference does it make?  According to the social critics, the world has been in decline since the Golden Age of Athens (and even then, Plato and Aristophanes, among others, were highly critical of the ‘perfect’ civilization – hell, that same polis executed one of the most exceptional men in human intellectual history).  History is filled with countless expressions of imminent destruction and dire warnings of catastrophic cultural failure.  If they’re right, we must be approaching the lower reaches of Dante’s famous Inferno. 

Does it really matter what some people believe is happening with society as a whole?  ‘Society’ is simply an abstraction used to support one perspective or another.  The term is dangerously misleading, and largely meaningless.  Any individual living within a reasonably civilized nation outside a war zone (and sometimes within) can cultivate themselves—or choose not to.  Within any given age and society, those people capable of living an autonomous life—always a small minority—will do so.  The rest is just statistics.

On the other hand

Does the cry in the tragic play muffle, even blot out, the cry in the street? (I confess to finding this an obsessive, almost maddening question.)  Coleridge thought so: “Poetry excites us to artificial feelings—makes us callous to real ones.” (63)

Most people who pay attention to such cries, the same ones that watch the daily news and read the editorials, get indignant once in awhile, perhaps a bit angry, then go about their business.  Tomorrow there will be another cry in a different street as the cycle turns another new day. 

There are those who feel it is the writer’s duty, if not everyone’s within a given society, to work towards its improvement:

To the measure of his powers, the artist should live in—and render—his own day: as a rule the great artist has done it.  But, though the business of the artist is to render his own day, it is certainly none of his duty to approve or to glorify it.  The artist is frequently a man of high intelligence or, at the least, he must be a man of sympathy for his fellow human beings.  So, no poet has ever fully approved of his own day…
            His duty, then, like that of every other citizen, is to persuade his day to improve itself
. (64) 

Without question, certain literary works have made a profound impact on how people live, what they believe, and how they behave.  Reforms have been initiated, regimes toppled, and economies shifted based, at least in part, on this novel or that.  Other works have left a less discernable, more subtle impression, but perhaps with even more lasting influence than those overtly political.  And of course fashion has much to do with the exposure and degree of influence a particular work has in any given age.

Even so, the ‘committed’ writer, one who writes principally to support a specific political cause or ideology, finds it difficult to render a successful work of art.  The polemic tends to overpower the aesthetic, leaving most readers impatient.  Ayn Rand serves as an interesting example, as she so thoroughly infused her novels with Objectivist philosophy that those who remain unsympathetic with her views often despise her work.  Yet I believe, despite her philosophy, that she succeeds in creating free-standing art objects, ones that can be enjoyed by anyone, in the same way Dostoevsky, another Russian with very strong views, can be appreciated by non-Christians.  This is because Rand, as did Dostoevsky, recognizes the primacy of art:

A story is not written to accomplish any purpose beyond itself.  (Not even a propaganda story—and I’m the chief living writer of propaganda fiction, I think—at least I think I’m the only one who knows how to do it properly—and I still say that: the propaganda is not the purpose of the story.)  A STORY IS AN END IN ITSELF.  It is not written to teach, sell, explain or destroy anything.  It is not written even to entertain.  It is written as a man is born—an organic whole, dictated only by its own laws and its own necessity—an end in itself, not a means to an end.  Therefore, a story cannot be concerned with its future readers.  That is a different consideration entirely.  A story must be written for itself, for its own sake. (65)

Most writers, if not all of them, believe in something they wish to share.  I am no exception: I started my first novel as an ideologist and finished it three years later an artist.  That first novel, however, is marred by an overtly political agenda, one that aimed at specific ‘disclosure’:

Thus, the prose-writer is a man who has chosen a certain method of secondary action which we may call action by disclosure.  It is therefore permissible to ask him this second question: ‘What aspect of the world do you want to disclose?  What change do you want to bring into the world by this disclosure?’ (66)

I could answer Sartre’s questions explicitly in my first full-length literary effort: I knew exactly what I wished to disclose, and what change I wished to bring about, but this didn’t make it a better book.  My second novel, however, while still infused with important thematic content, is almost purely literary, and therefore significantly better than the first. 

Everybody must decide their priorities: are they first a citizen? parent? son? teacher?  Or are they principally an artist? 

The artist, [Proust] repeatedly insists, is not another citizen, a social creature with social duties; he is a solitary explorer, a pure egotist.  In a great parenthesis he explains that “when human altruism is not egotistic it is sterile, as for instance in the writer who interrupts his work to visit an unfortunate friend, to accept a public function, or to write propaganda articles.” (67)

If the artist is not just another citizen, but instead, focused almost exclusively, perhaps even maniacally on their art, what good are they to society?  Adorno argues that

Artists today are intellectuals, whether they accept that fact or not, and as such they are what social theory calls “third persons”: they live on profit that has been diverted to them.  While they perform no “socially useful work” and contribute nothing to the material reproductions of life, it is they alone who represent theory and all consciousness that points beyond the blind coercion of material circumstances. (68)

The function of the literary artist is important, essential even to a person sensitive to the nature of being, and concerned with something beyond their next paycheck and what it can buy them. 

For the disenchanted world the fact of art is an outrage, an afterimage of enchantment, which it does not tolerate. (69)

Independent thinking, autonomous individuals generally produce the best art, and as such, pose a standing threat to structured society.  Those who advocate ordered society crave conformance and cultural homogeneity. 

If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway. (70)

People who look, think or talk in an odd manner are distrusted, often excluded, sometimes persecuted.  Countless examples exist: Koreans in Japan treated as second class citizens (actually, any non-Japanese residents in Japan are so treated, despite the ubiquitous courtesy).  Caste still exists in India, and of course the history of Black Americans stands as an obvious example, along with the persecution of Jews throughout history.  Despite increased visibility and acceptance over the past couple of decades, the gay individuals still face hate and harassment.

This is unfortunate, as the greatest threat to any society (outside of natural disasters) is the Nation State (Canada, the United States, Russia, Uganda, Iraq, Israel, etc.).  In fact, the only justification for the existence of Nation States is to protect its citizens from other Nation States.  In other words, if we didn’t have Nation States we wouldn’t need any. 

The Nation State is not synonymous with ‘government’.  In order for people to prosper in peace, freedom and prosperity, government is required.  Government is the sole institution in society empowered with the legal use of violent force.  With this power, the government’s uses violent force—or the threat of violent force—to provide basic legal structure and lawful protection of its citizens from criminals.  This includes contractual structures defining and protecting property rights and the formal redress of wrongs done by one party unto another.  The alternative to government is anarchy.  In an anarchic society, unless individual behavior is effectively bound by family and/or tradition, nobody is safe, free or at peace.

The Greeks had the right idea when they determined that the polis (city-state) was the ideal unit for effective government.  Only when the Greek polis’s banded together in the semblance of a Nation State to protect themselves from Persia (an imperialistic Nation State) did things begin to founder.  After defeating Persia, the members of the Athenian League continued to provide Athens with tribute to maintain protection from the foreign threat.  On the one hand, the additional wealth funded the art, drama and culture so admired in the west; on the other, the circumstances eventually led to a quarrel between Athens and Sparta, resulting in the Peloponnesian War, a conflict that lasted a quarter century, effectively ending the Golden Age of Athens.  As indicated earlier, it’s been all downhill since.

I suspect that the majority of people disagree with this analysis, and believe that the Nation State is necessary and good: the Third Reich, Star Spangled Banner, God Save the Queen, I Pledge Allegiance, John Philip Sousa, etc. etc.  Citizens desire uncomplicated order, feel patriotic and proud of their nation, and generally think it’s the best one that ever existed, and can do no wrong.  How many terrible wars and bloody battles have been waged for “God and Country”?  “Kill them all and let God sort them out!”  “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”  “Bomb them back to the Stone Age.”  As Graham Greene put it, “When war began, the absolute moral code was abolished; you were allowed to do evil that good might come.” (71)   But ‘good’ never comes from war; only death and destruction, and the foundation for future wars.

George Steiner poses the fundamental issue in the following way, questioning how society copes with autonomous individuals:

The ‘examined life’ demanded by Socrates requires that each and every one of us serve on that Athenian jury.  How would we have voted?  Goethe’s dictum, ‘rather injustice than disorder’, puts the prosecution case concisely.  It argues, as does Hegel in respect of Creon’s conflict with Antigone, that the preservation of social-legislative order makes possible the reparation of miscarriages of justice.  Disorder, the dispersal of civic solidarity through anarchic individuality and ‘the inner light’, destroy not only daily life, but the eventuality of progress, of amelioration in the understanding and performance of justice.  Is the price paid for autonomous feats of conscience too high? (72)

I would answer that autonomous individuals only threaten societies that require threatening, that is, societies that have lost their mandate to govern due to their restrictive nature, one that unreasonably limits how people live, think or behave.  A truly free society is not threatened by autonomous individuals; only a society injurious to its citizens is threatened by such people.  (Actually, the people who rule unjustly are the ones threatened, including state bureaucracies, the undeservedly privileged, the ruling class protected by its self-made and self-serving laws and regulations.)

The Statists have the firm advantage over artists, though, because, as Faulkner points out, “being individuals, not even two artists could ever confederate…” (73)   So the autonomous artists have no political influence, lacking the will to join and follow others.  And besides, according to Joan Didion, “Writers are always selling somebody out.” (74) so you can never them.  How can you respect such a collection of societal misfits?

Dali provides what might be considered the artist’s manifesto:

If you decide to wage a war for the total triumph of your individuality, you must begin by inexorably destroying those who have the greatest affinity with you.  All alliance depersonalizes; everything that tends to the collective is your death; use the collective, therefore, as an experiment, after which strike hard, and remain alone! (75)

So with that, artists remain defiantly, gloriously alone.

The public education system is designed to inculcate societal values within the mass, to shape and mold each student into a good, obedient, abiding citizen.  Most people submit mindlessly to this process, and little harm comes to them.  For those who stand out, though, or don’t fit into the basic molds, school can be a painful, denigrating experience, as they feel the stress that comes with being the square peg pounded relentlessly into a round hole.  Sometimes the process works, and their edges become suitably rounded until they resemble everybody else.  Other times they break altogether and simply drop out:

It is important that the artist should be highly educated in his own art; but his education is none that is hindered rather than helped by the ordinary processes of society which constitute education for the ordinary man.  For these processes consist largely in the acquisition of impersonal ideas which obscure what we really are and feel, what we really want, and what really excites our interest.  It is of course not the actual information acquired, but the conformity which the accumulation of knowledge is apt to impose, that is harmful. (76)


61 - Lionel Trilling, The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent
62 - Flaubert, quoted by John Updike in Hugging the Shore
63 - John Updike, Odd Jobs
64 - George Steiner, Real Presences
65 - Ford Madox Ford’s The March of Literature
66 - Susan Sontag, Where the Stress Falls
67 - Ayn Rand, Letters
68 - Jean-Paul Sarte, What is Literature?
69 - John Updike, Odd Jobs
70 - Adorno, Notes to Literature
71 - Adorno, Aesthetic Theory
72 - Stephan King, On Writing
73 - Graham Greene, The Confidential Agent
74 - George Steiner, No Passion Spent
75 - Ludwig von Mises, Human Action
76 - Faulkner, Essays, Speeches and Public Letters