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.  

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