Some Ideas on the Social Role of Art

Part 2: Art and Science

By Ardea Skybreak

Revolutionary Worker #1115, August 19, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org

Basic productive activities remain the most fundamental social activities--on which all else rests--but activities in the superstructural arena all have tremendous bearing on whether, and how, a particular societal division of labor is preserved or overthrown. In this respect the political sphere is the most determinant, but such spheres as science and art also have great bearing on the motion and development of the economic base of a society (including the social relations), both directly and through their influence on the political sphere. How could this not be so when through art, for instance, we chronicle the past, anticipate the future, depict current contradictions within society and vis-à-vis the rest of the material world, organize our perceptions and transmit them in some sort of synthesis?

The reason we need art is not primarily because we need to be diverted from our other concerns and activities, but because the process itself is crucial not just in interpreting our world but also in changing it, and because it is essential not only to the reflecting, portraying and transmitting of a world outlook, but also to the forging of such an outlook. This is what distinguishes the particular social function of art and its particular (and very great) importance.

Entertainment can certainly be a (secondary) aspect of art's social function, but it certainly cannot be put on a par with art's overall ideological role. Similarly, many other social activities can be pleasurable or even diverting in the broader sense: eating ice cream, athletic activities, appreciating things in nature, for instance, can all have an aspect of entertainment (although here too entertainment is not always the primary reason people engage in such activities, nor is it the heart of the matter), and in fact in most such activities people bring to bear a sense of aesthetics, i.e., an evaluation of what is or isn't "beautiful" or "wonderful," etc., which is of course highly socially conditioned and therefore highly variable among individuals and groupings with different social experiences and different objective social interests.

And certainly everyone would agree that a sense of aesthetics is brought to bear in the creation and in the appreciation of any work of art! But unless one is going to say that everything outside the realm of direct production of the essential requirements of life is "art," we have to go beyond questions of "entertainment" or even "aesthetics" in order to bring out the real specificity, the specific particularities, of art as art.

In this respect it might be useful to reflect for a minute on the similarities and differences between science and art as creative processes. The philistine bourgeois often stereotypically portrays scientists as cold, calculating, passionless technicians mechanically amassing mounds of "facts" in the hopes of perhaps coming up with a better lightbulb, while artists are more often than not portrayed as hopelessly erratic, out of touch with reality, often incoherent, etc., even if able to provide valued entertainment. And of course both are frequently portrayed as acting in a social vacuum, their work to be evaluated accordingly.

But consider the actual processes involved in "doing science" and "doing art." In both cases there is a question of observing, exploring, investigating the outside world, and an attempt to "make some sense of it" at one or another level, by uncovering underlying mechanisms of motion and development and patterns of organization of matter. And this process always requires (directly or indirectly) some form of active manipulation of the external world if the process is to lead to new insights: the scientist looks for patterns in observations, and conducts experimental manipulations, in the search for underlying material relationships; the dancer does the same with form and motion of bodies, the sculptor with materials of varying malleability, the painter with pigments and light, the writer with words, and so on.

Both the scientists and artists are manipulating matter to bring some underlying material "truths" to the foreground. And both then make specific, socially conditioned (though not rigidly determined) decisions concerning such things as which aspects to focus on, to highlight, to concentrate, systematize, and so on. In both cases the activity is done by social beings, in a social context, and is conditioned by this context: "what questions get asked," so to speak, in both science and art, and "how they get answered" has much to do with the prevailing social relations and the corresponding outlooks and methods they call forth, and with the degree to which the individual artist or scientist is "in step with" or "in rupture against" these prevailing relations and outlooks.

But if these are the similarities, what are the differences between the two processes? In some ways it is objectively difficult to draw a clear line of distinction, and sometimes a given social system can impose very exaggerated and artificial distinctions and barriers between these two spheres of activity (and I suspect this has never been more the case than in the bourgeois era!). But, on the other hand, there do seem to be some real differences worth taking stock of.

Sometimes there is an obvious distinction of purpose, when scientific activity is more directly geared to production. But such is not always the case, and this is I think insufficient to distinguish between the two realms of activity. However, it seems to me that science operates under sets of self-imposed constraints and restrictions which differ from those in the realm of art: science seeks primarily to uncover existing material relations in order to gain an understanding of one or many aspects of the material world which corresponds as closely as possible to existing reality, and to present it as such. The overall objective is to contribute to our understanding of matter in its past development, present state and likely future course, and to aid the conscious transformation of the external world in accordance with this reality. In other words, in the scientific sphere, the closest possible correspondence to existing material reality (hopefully in a non mechanical-reductionist sense!) is sought, and valued.

Art, on the other hand, derives its specific social value from the fact that, while it too takes as its point of departure the objective material world which it actively investigates and manipulates, and while it too ultimately reacts back onto that reality in ways which must ultimately have some relation to real underlying material relations, the process through which it does this need not seek to reflect and express such a close correspondence to existing material reality, past, present or future. To a much greater degree than science, art can afford to engage in "flights of fancy," can (and most often should, if it is to be effective as art) engage in various means of highly selective perception and expression, calculated distortion, even conscious subterfuge, all precisely in order to elicit in us new thoughts and perceptions not spontaneously generated by the material world as commonly perceived. The process of science (both in relation to the "natural sciences" and the "social sciences," including revolutionary theory) also elicits new thoughts and perceptions, seeks to break with spontaneity, contributes to the generation of new outlooks, and, ultimately, to the unleashing of one or another form of social action, but in order to do so, it must be differently restricted and, in a nutshell, it must be more strictly accountable to actual material reality.

A Skewing Proposition

The great specific social value of art, as I see it, resides in the fact that, precisely because it doesn't have to be so closely accountable to reality to be effective, and precisely because this is in one way or another generally understood to be the case by society, it can call forth entirely new ways of thinking and looking at things, undertake daring re-examinations of established norms, sometimes even "recklessly" or "fantastically" "imagine the impossible," and breathe life into it! In this way it can often contribute important social insights and--based as it is in material reality, but relatively unfettered by the actual pace of development of that reality--it is often quite striking in its ability to anticipate developments and act in some sense as a "harbinger of the future." And of course this can not only provide us with a "window" on possible alternative futures--it can also contribute to the basis for realizing one or another of these alternatives through its influence on people's consciousness (of which more later).

So people don't demand the same accountability from art as from science. And this is something which is inherent to its social value, not something we should try to get rid of! It has been said that in !Kung society, people have "no explanation for why their ancestors related to them such absurdities" as are deemed (by the !Kung themselves) to be concentrated in many of the old myths. Yet these stories continue to be told, cherished, and no doubt embellished, from generation to generation. No doubt they contribute to a sense of social continuity which is important to the !Kung. But no doubt they also contribute (quite likely in ways not originally intended) to the development of current worldviews, even if the social premises originally embodied in the particular works are no longer accepted, or exert their influence by providing a "foil" for newly emerging viewpoints to spar with ("Hey, the doings of the ancient times were foul, I tell you!" is how one storyteller ended many of these humorous stories which continue to be told and retold). The point is that art would lose much of its social specificity if it had to be "taken literally"--and this fact is an important clue as to its social role overall.

In relation to the question of the "relative accountability" of art and science, it is worth thinking about a point made by paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould (who also knows a thing or two about art, as evidenced by his literary abilities in his collections of popular natural history essays), in his introduction to a novel (Dance of the Tiger), written by another scientist, world renowned Swedish paleontologist Bjorn Kurten (my, it does get hard to keep these disciplines neatly pigeonholed doesn't it?). The novel in question is a lively, thoughtprovoking (yes, entertaining!), imaginative exploration of what the lives and social interactions of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons might have been like. Gould, who has had to expend much energy combating a lot of irresponsible fantasy and speculation in the realm of evolutionary biology, is particularly appreciative of the fact that Kurten (whose science he very much respects) has nevertheless chosen to present his imaginative speculations in novel--and therefore fictional--form, and clearly advertised as such. Gould writes:

"Let me, as a scientist, make a claim that may seem curious. I believe that Kurten's novel is a more appropriate place than the professional literature itself for discussing many of the truly scientific issues that swirl about the Neanderthal-Cro-Magnon debate. Evolutionary biology has been severely hampered by a speculative style of argument that records anatomy and ecology and then tries to construct historical or adaptive explanations for why this bone looked that way or why this creature lived here. These speculations have charitably been called "scenarios"; they are often more contemptuously, and rightly, labeled 'stories' (or 'just-so stories' if they rely on the fallacious assumption that everything exists for a purpose). Scientists know that these tales are stories; unfortunately they are presented in the professional literature where they are taken too seriously and literally. Then they become 'facts' and enter the popular literature, often in such socially dubious form as the ancestral killer ape who absolves us from responsibility for our current nastiness, or as the 'innate' male dominance that justifies cultural sexism as the mark of nature.

"Yet these stories have a role in science. They probe the role of alternatives; they channel thought into the construction of testable hypotheses; they serve as tentative frameworks for the ordering of observations. But they are stories. So why not treat them as such, get all the benefits and pleasures, and avoid the wrangles that arise from their usual, inappropriate placement?" (Stephen J. Gould, in his Introduction to Dance of the Tiger by Bjorn Kurten)

Further insight into what I am calling the accountability question is provided by some comments made by Ursula K. LeGuin (an artist with more than a passing familiarity with some scientific questions) in her introduction to her science fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. She writes:

"Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, There! That's the truth! In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we're done with it, we may find--if it's a good novel--that we're a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before." (Ursula K. LeGuin, introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness).

The point then is not that art need have no basis in truth, or that it need not be concerned with expressing truth. The point is rather that art is a "skewing" proposition. By this I mean something that is a "deviation from the norm": I mean that art brings out the truth of something by "slanting" things, "stepping off to the side," looking at reality "from a sideways view," so to speak--from atypical angles or perspectives--that it presents things in a new light, in a way that is not an exact replica of everyday experience, that captures reality in such a way as to call forth responses to it that are different from the "norm."

The process of art can only stem from material reality, and can develop only in accordance with the laws of motion and development of matter.* But the product of this process (the work of art itself) is never a mere, nor a precise, reflection of this reality (and usually should not attempt to be). It is a consciously "skewed" representation of reality which creates something altogether new--at the very least, a new "slant" on things. Whether or not there is truth in what is expressed in a particular work is primarily a question of whether, in this skewing of reality, the artist has ultimately contributed to our insights into actual relations in nature or society--however indirectly--or whether the work's effect has been to further obscure our understanding of these relations. (Of course, minimally, any work of art is bound to reveal quite a bit of "truth" about the artist who created it, if about nothing else!)

Parenthetically, it should be said that this "accountability" question is also what makes artistic criticism so tricky at times. On the one hand, there is no such thing as art in a social vacuum, existing "above" human social relations and having no bearing or impact on these relations one way or another. The particularities of the artistic process in no way free artists from having a social role and social responsibility, whether they recognize it or not. But the fact that art can, and should, present "a wide range of alternatives" and fresh insights into life and that it can contribute to the forging of new outlooks through a conscious skewing of reality and by being freed of the strictest accountability in this regard, underscores at one and the same time its specific social usefulness and its social limitations and potential for serving backward interests, regardless of the intent of the particular artist (more on this later).

All this doesn't mean that the province of art is the "irrational," or some realm of idealized, absolutized "feelings" seen as qualitatively distinct from thought (whereas the province of science is "the rational"). And certainly the terms of the debate in the artistic sphere should not be whether to encourage or stifle this supposed "irrationality" of art!**

Forging the New

The point is that art is a crucial vehicle for the socializing (systematizing and transmitting) of human understanding in a myriad different ways, by selecting certain angles, aspects, etc., on which to shine the spotlight, and by employing various means (such as symbols and metaphors) to force a new look, a fresh perspective, a sideways view. When it succeeds in doing this, art is often deemed moving, disturbing, inspiring, thought-provoking, and so on, and it is frequently controversial (if not directly on the political level then usually on some ideological level, and in terms of the artistic criteria themselves--one way or another people will argue about such works!); it is art which can provoke subjective jolts, inspire wild thinking and daring "forays of the imagination," and which may well provide insights into actual (true) relations in nature and society. And again, this can be done in ways which are simply not open as conduits for responsible scientific investigation and formulation, since here we would (correctly) require a tighter scenario, a closer correspondence to existing relations whose distortion through the prism of human subjectivity we seek to consciously restrict rather than enhance.

By contrast the artist can concoct wild collages with assorted fragments of social experience, consciously highlighting certain aspects and distorting the usual "fit" of all these bits and pieces to such an extent that sometimes the connection to the actual configuration and unfolding of reality is very tenuous indeed (as in the case of much "abstract" art, for instance). Nevertheless, since in fact the bond to reality can never be completely severed, and since there is a tacit acceptance by all but the most philistine sectors of society of the "non-literalness" of art, the artists' distortions can provide a new "skew" or "slant" on things which can often reflect and uncover some very profound truths about our experience as social beings.

But if such is the case, would it after all be correct to view the social role of art as "education" rather than "entertainment"? In my opinion the education/entertainment dichotomy as pertains to art is a false dichotomy which fails to understand that art is above all a means of giving expression to something new. It is after all a creative process, is it not? Its social function cannot be reduced to entertainment, even in the broadest sense of the word, because of the importance of art's role in systematizing and promoting a social outlook and worldview; and it cannot be reduced to education in the pedagogic sense, which suggests the systematizing of understanding and outlooks developed through activity in other spheres (such as political struggle perhaps, or the struggle for scientific experimentation) and in mere need of transmission.

There has been an undeniable historical tendency among Marxists to confound art with education, and in particular to confound art with political agitation and propaganda (which have themselves often been confounded with education in the pedagogic sense!). But this doesn't make the formulation "art is entertainment" a correct answer to the problem. We need to break out of this vicious circle by focusing on the specificity of art as art. (While there is no "art for art's sake," there definitely is art "in its own right"!) Art is able to uncover, systematize and transmit aspects of social experience through indirect means (which have their own specific particularities, such as the "less strictly accountable" aspect) and in so doing contributes to the development of worldviews and social outlooks, at times playing a crucial role in mediating radical ruptures and forging entirely new worldviews.

The social role of art is primarily ideological, but this does not mean that this role can be reduced solely to contending with opposing ideologies. While waging ideological struggle through art is certainly one very important aspect of the social role of art, a view of "art as essentially protest," for instance, once again would rob art of its crucial role in forging the new, not just countering the influence of, or destroying, the old. People need art not just as a weapon in political/ideological struggle as such, but as a key aid in summing up life experiences, helping us to grasp contradictions and act upon that understanding, in accordance with our objective social interests.

Through art we can scale the unknown, take a deep breath, and have a good look around from a new vantage point.

Here, too, as in the sphere of scientific investigation, getting at objective truth is important, not just to counter the enemy, but also to help formulate our own worldview. Of course in a society marked by class division and class struggle all of this --construction as well as destruction--has a class content, but again, the role of art should not be reduced in a one-to-one way to its role in combating the bourgeoisie, even ideologically. This is particularly important to grasp, not just in order to fuel the development of revolutionary art, but to fuel revolution itself! For it is indeed quite true that:

"It is not possible to carry out the socialist revolution and the transition to communism without creating a whole new culture, including literature and art, which, for the first time in history, puts forward the outlook and promotes the interests of the proletariat in overthrowing everything reactionary and revolutionizing all of society." (Bob Avakian, Bullets, p. 224).

* In a sense it can be said that every artist is constrained by his or her own prior development as a particular social being in a particular social context, as well as by the physical constraints of the human body; and the artist's materials are also constrained and restricted by various particularities of matter--neither is infinitely flexible and mutable, although all good artists continually test their own limits and those of their material. Here too freedom lies in the recognition of necessity and in acting accordingly to transform reality.

** In fact this whole argument, based on the supposed dichotomy of thoughts and feelings or reason vs. emotion is an archaic holdover from the kind of mechanical materialist worldview promoted by Cartesian dualism (whose influence is unfortunately still so prevalent today) which never quite could reconcile itself fully with materialism and the absence of gods. Those who view the material world only in the most sterile, mechanical-reductionist terms often feel compelled to invent some mystical realm to which they can attribute qualities such as beauty, wonderment, etc., whose intimate connection to the material world they are unable to see. Thus some particle physicists in the late 20th century still believe in god, the process of artistic creation is endowed with mystical properties, etc,. etc.

Next Week: Part 3: Art and Revolutionary Politics

 


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