Three Functions of Art

In trying to write about aesthetic objects for Imaginary Relations, I’ve found myself sometimes needing to call attention to the gap between what we think a work of art is doing and what it actually does.  To facilitate that work, I’ve been trying to sort out the various expectation we have about what an aesthetic object, in my very broad sense of that term, is doing.

There are three functions we typically expect art to serve.  I’m going to roughly label them as Expressive, Affective, and Distantiating.  I’ll outline them briefly here, without trying to locate any theoretical warrants or too many examples.

The Expressive theory of art expects that somehow art tells us a truth that cannot be conveyed in scientific discourses.  We’ve all heard the claim that their are deeper truths in fiction than in real life.  This expectations usually suggests that great art offers us some kind of timeless truths about human nature, or about our place in the world.  It very often relies on claims of ineffability, on the impossibility of paraphrasing or interpreting a true work of art, whose deep eternal truth escapes mere words.  We hear these claims about Shakespeare, about Romantic poetry, and about painting and plastic arts, less often about novels, film and music.  

My argument is that these ineffable eternal human verities are simply the Romantic attempt to halt thought at the point of emotion, and so to prevent us becoming aware of the social construction of our affective construal of the world—of our imaginary relations.  As Spinoza explained, emotion arise when our thought remains unclear, and art is meant to keep it that way.  In a fascinating paradox, we generally use art to convince ourselves that we have reached the deepest truth about reality when our thinking is most muddled and unclear.

A second function of art is the Affective, which attempts to attach a value to activities and things in the world.  Aesthetic objects should arouse the right kinds of feelings, and teach us to have them in the right kinds of situations.  This is Matthew Arnold’s exclamation regarding Wordsworth’s poetry: Ah, but who will make us feel!  The work of art is meant to teach us subtle and complex ways of feeling, and guide us in how we ought to respond to the world.  Clearly this is closely allied with the Expressive function, both of them necessary for the complete Romantic function of art to succeed: the production of the proper bourgeois subject.

Then there is the third possibility, which attracted most attentions in the 20th century.   From the Russian formalists’ idea of defamiliarization to Brecht’s V-effect to Althusser’s theory of distantiantion, professors of literary theory were often persuaded that true works of art, unlike mass culture, worked to free us from the falls-consciousness of ideology.  This was sometimes mocked, back in the “epoch of high theory” that was the eighties, as “adventures in subversion.”  That is, in order to justify teaching a work of art, the bold and cutting-edge theorist had to make the argument that it was subtly subverting the ideology it only seemed, to the bad reader or artworks, to be producing.  So we discovered in the 1970s that Jane Austen had been a radical feminist all along; she had merely done the work of subverting bourgeois gender relations in such a subtle fashion, that she accidentally wound up reproducing them for almost two centuries.  Now, we would be taught to read Austen correctly, and be liberated from the oppressive sexism she only seemed to be advocating.  

My suggestion would be that works of art can, in fact, do this distantiation, but they almost never do. That is, a Brecht play might have this effect, but only on an audience prepared to experience the play in the way Brecht intended, and there are few such audiences at any point in modern history.  

Instead, it is left to the critic, of a certain kind (the kind we are looking for here at Imaginary Relations), to do this work of distantiation  which the aesthetic object does not set out to do, and which the audience is not predisposed to carry out on their own because of how we have been taught to consume aesthetic objects.

These varying effects of art can be seen, I think, in the different interpretations of Aristotle’s Poetics still common today.  The standard reading we all got in college, of course, is that art is Affective: the goal of a tragedy is to purge our emotions.  Oedipus Tyrannus is supposed to evoke our emotions, and allow us to vent the excess, supposedly leaving us in better condition (because we build up emotions over time, like pus in a wound, apparently), and perhaps even to allow us to begin to experience more sophisticated and subtle emotions.  Then, there is the Expressive reading in which the formal unity of the play offers us insight into the eternal verities: it is a play about the universal struggle between fate and free will, teaching us to resign ourselves to the human condition.  Finally, we get the more sophisticated reading from experts in Ancient Greek, and here we have the Distantiation interpretation of Aristotle: on this reading, catharsis is a purification or clarification.  What is being clarified is our confused understanding of the world, which leads to our having intense but misguided desires and intentions.  One this reading, Oedipus Tyrannus  is meant to show us that the problems we are facing are in fact due to a mistaken approach to politics.  The Persian model of tyrannical rule, with its practice of incestuous marriage, is beginning to seem acceptable in Greece, and this is the cause of the suffering of the populace.  What is purified in the catharsis is our misguided attachment to wrong ideas of government.  

My claim is that this last way of approaching art is possible, but only if we develop a public prepared to consume aesthetic objects in this way.  We tend to respond in either of the more Romantic ways, and as a result today most people have lost interest in thinking about aesthetics completely.  But we could learn to perform acts of distantiation, even though they are in no way produced by the art objects themselves.  And we can do this even with works of art that are clearly meant to be consumed in the more traditional Romantic fashion, by including the ideology of art implied by the work in our analysis of it.  

If we begin to do this, we can begin to gain some agency, and perhaps begin to solve the problem of human suffering instead of romanticizing it.  

Call for Papers: Imaginary Relations

I’m working on an introductory message for Imaginary Relations, hoping to start posting essays there by January.  Below is a first draft of this message—my writing feels a bit rough to me, as I’m still trying to write through the pain, and having trouble focusing my attention.  I expect this will be better in a few months, so I will be able to do a better job with the essays I’m writing on The Good Place and on “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”  I may revise this somewhat before rebooting Imaginary Relations, but I thought I’d post it here to give folks some notice, some opportunity to ask questions, and to encourage contributions.  

My goal here is to produce an open access online journal to examine how our ordinary daily practices work to produce, and reproduce, our ideology.  The title “imaginary relations” derives from Althusser’s theory of ideology, which he defines as our “imaginary relations to the relations of production.” 

I expect that two points need clarification right off.  What exactly do I mean by “ordinary daily practices”?  What are “imaginary relations”?

By “imaginary relations” I mean that felt sense of how the world just naturally is, how things work, and how we can relate to or interact with it.  Althusser’s point is that ideology is not primarily in concepts about reality (as in science, say, or theology).  Rather, ideology is mostly in practices, in those things we do which seem natural and normal, which seem meaningful to us.  These usually entail a belief, which may be implicit or explicit; but what is crucial is less what we say we believe than what we do, especially what we do without much intentional deliberation.  Imaginary, then, does not mean made up or fanciful—this has nothing to do with the “false consciousness” idea of ideology.  Think, rather, of “image,” of the structure of our perception of the world.  Imaginary relations do not necessarily require false beliefs.  For instance, if one’s ideology is that hard work is ennobling, then one really does feel better about oneself after having worked hard—we aren’t “mistaken” or “deluded” about that sense, really and truly feeling awful but trying falsely to convince ourselves we don’t.  Imaginary relations are what primarily keep us doing what needs to be done for our way of organizing the human social world to be at all workable.  These go all the way from our sense of shame when we are unemployed to our sense of what is proper behavior in the grocery store.  What feels natural, normal, the ordinary thing to do, is our imaginary relation to our relations of production.

The kinds of daily practices I am interested in, then, are those that work to produce these imaginary relations.  This can include many things usually classified as “culture”: arts, sports, courtship rituals, clubs and organizations, leisure activities generally.  In short, anything from Proust to Grand Theft Auto, from attending the opera to playing in a softball league, can work to produce our imaginary relations.  This would include things like the kinds of technology we regularly use, how we organize and behave in a classroom, workplace norms of behavior, arrangements of public and private spaces…and the list goes on.  

My own personal focus is likely to be on certain kinds of art, particularly film, television, and most of all Literature of all kinds.  I would hope that others will at some point be inspired to submit discussions of the imaginary relations produced by things I am less familiar with: cell phones (I don’t own one), video games (I don’t play them), or the modern world of online dating (it didn’t exist during my dating days).  All of these things shape how we experience the world, what we think reality is like, and what seems natural for us to do.  

The aim here is to avoid an academic or scholarly discourse, and to discuss these things in ordinary language to the extent possible.  My hope is that if we can become more aware of the ideology being produced by our everyday practices, we can gain some ability to change it with deliberate intention.  

To many in the academic world, that last sentence will seem hopelessly naive.  So, at the risk of starting off in too academic a style, I am going to say something briefly about why this kind of project cannot be carried out in the academic world.  I will use the discourse of Literature as my example, with the hope that I can make clear both what I want to do that cannot be done in academic discourse, and what kind of practice I want to encourage.  

Consider the common assumption that a poem cannot be paraphrased.  Decades ago, when things like Literature and art and philosophy were still studied at universities and sometimes at the better high schools, this was drilled into us as an essential truth. Something about a poem must exceed any attempt to paraphrase it, or else it is not art.  Art somehow addresses the ineffable, and poetry speaks in words about what is beyond words.  One of the most famous statements of this was an essay we all had to read as English undergraduates, Cleanth Brooks’s “The Heresy of Paraphrase.”  But as Stanley Cavell pointed out back in the sixties, in fact Brooks himself paraphrases poems all the time.  The problem was not that a poem could not be paraphrased, but that once the poem has been paraphrased the critic “has to do everything at his philosophical disposal to keep paraphrase and poem from coinciding: in particular, speak of core and essences and structures of the poem that are not reached by the paraphrase”(“Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy, 71).  The point, what I take from Cavell’s discussion, is not to say “aha, Brooks has really been paraphrasing after all!”  Rather, we need to recognize that there is something about the poem, and the practice of reading it as a poem, that is somehow more than the conceptual content.  We need to try to explain what more a poem does, other than what it says, and why it is so important to the critic to obscure this function behind talk of ineffability and essences.  That is where we will locate the ideology of the poem, the work it does to produce our imaginary relations.  

Let me offer a brief illustration.  We all know Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.”  We could all easily paraphrase this poem.  In fact, when teaching it, students will often think we have accomplished the task of “close reading” once we have gotten them to see that the speaker did not, in fact, take the “road less travelled by” at all. On a first reading, they universally take the poem to say something like: if you follow the harder path, you will succeed.  Of course, a proper paraphrase would be more like: later in life, you will claim to have made the harder choice, to convince yourself that things would have been worse if you had made different choices.  Or something to that effect.  We can argue about the best paraphrase, but we can’t think that the former example is anything close to what the poem actually says—it isn’t a paraphrase at all, and misses the whole point of the poem.  

However, once we’ve paraphrased the poem, we haven’t yet begun to explain the ideological function it serves.  In fact, for many readers, almost all apparently, its ideological function depends exactly on failing to really read the poem at all.  That is to say, the affective experience of reading the poem (the way most people will read it) is to convince us that we ought to set out to do the harder thing in life, and we will be rewarded later on.  It is often invoked, from high school graduations to car commercials, to inspire us to do what in fact is—no, not the less common thing—but exactly the thing demanded of all of us collectively.  Go to college, that’s the “road less travelled”!  The demand is that we all must follow this “harder path,” like everyone before us, if we hope to survive in the world.  Sometimes it’s “go into debt for this really expensive car” or “play this cool new video game” (both television ads I’ve seen the poem used for), but it always functions to inspire us to pay up now for reward later. Or, it is meant to. And we think we are special if we do this, among the few who did the harder thing.  

And once we’ve corrected our “reading”?  Well, then the poem still works to produce an affective response. We come to feel a sense of ironic detachment from the petty business of choosing what to do in life.  We feel special, among the few who can correctly read a poem and appreciate its subtle irony—and we let go of our concerns for things like political and economic reform. What matters is achieving calm detachment and contemplative humor.  

My point, with this little example, is that we generally focus on what a poem says, and miss what kind of imaginary relation to the world it works to create in us.  That, in fact, cannot be captured by paraphrasing the poem, because it is not in the content of the poem.  Instead, we need to look for it in the practice of reading and appreciating poems.  

The goal of educational institutions is to avoid contemplating exactly this.  They are meant to mystify the function of art, to talk of ineffable essences, so that art can go on doing its work. Film studies will obsess about cinematography or montage or technique, and avoid discussion of the ideological function of actually watching a movie on Netflix.  Or we obsess about the vacuous content of instagram feeds, but ignore the imaginary relations to our real conditions of existence created by the very fact that we must use our phone for absolutely everything now.  

My hope, in Imaginary Relations, is to explore what we are usually trained to ignore.  The question I want to ask is: when we do this, what kind of a subject does it make us into?  What kind of a person do I become, with what abilities, tendencies, desires, and assumptions about the world, when I play this game or read this book or us this phone?

I hope others will join in, and I’ve had some promises of contributions, but if I don’t get them I’ll just keep right on posting my own thoughts every week or two until I do.  In the works are essays on The Good Place, Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and The Witcher.  Others have mentioned writing about Gilmore Girls, Friday Night Lights, and Fox News.  I hope I get some of these submissions, and more.  If you’re not sure what this project is all about, I hope you’ll check back, read some of the essays, and engage in the debate.  Because the goal here is a debate.  I hope to open the conversation about the imaginary relations of our everyday practices, not settle it.  Attempts to outline ideologies in this way may be tentative, subjective, open to complication or revision.  

Feel free to email me at wtompepper@cox.net, or post a comment here, if you have any ideas for possible contributions.