Sunday, March 7, 2010

Why politics and policy are less important than music and art

I'm reading Confessions of a Philosopher, a 1997 book by Bryan Magee. It's the best long-form account I've read of how philosophical issues impose themselves on one's life. (I deliberately speak of the issues as animate things acting upon a passive person — this is a main theme of the book.)

In a chapter called "Mid-Life Crisis," Magee describes his anguished struggle with the problem of the absurd (which I recently blogged about at the end of this post). He says:

I used to look at people going about their normal lives with everyday cheerfulness and think: "How can they? And how can they suppose that any of what they're doing matters? They're like passengers on the Titanic, except that these people know already that they're headed for total and irremediable shipwreck. . . . Above all, I was baffled by the fact that the middle-aged, who were so close to death, tended to be even more cheerful than the young. . . .

Under the influence of these thoughts my values went through sea changes. Everything that was limited to this life and this world came to appear insignificant. Only what might possibly point beyond them, or have its basis outside them — beauty, art, sex, morality, integrity, metaphysical understanding — could even possibly be worth anything. . . . Success and fame were worse than nothing, because anyone pursuing them was actively throwing his life away. (253)
This leads him to contrast following politics (apparently as a hobby or an occupation) with experiencing art (again, apparently as an audience member or performer, amateur or professional). I was pleased to see his description, because it articulates why I've been feeling increasingly uninterested in politics:
Even on their own terms the politics and business of the world were absurdly evanescent. One week politicians, people who worked in the City, and people whose job it was to report their doings would all be kept out of their beds by a financial crisis which, six months later, would be little talked of. By that time perhaps there would be . . . a corruption scandal in local government, which would then be followed by a flurry of public concern over crimes of violence, which in its turn would be pushed out of people's minds by their fury over some proposed new tax; and so it would go on. Each of these things would seem important for a time, then each would pass away and scarcely matter again except to historians. In fact, the truth is that most of them made little or no difference even to the daily lives of most of the population living through them. People immersed in this stream of ever-changing events were filling their minds with . . . ephemera and trivia, what people in electronics mean by "noise." (254)
I should note that he was a Member of Parliament for about 10 years, so he's not simply apathetic about politics by nature.

Not only do I agree with that passage as a description of current-day American politics (even though it was written in the UK in the '90s), but I find it especially silly that people get so worked up about one tax or one appropriations bill without seeming to care much about what taxes are like on the whole, or how much the country spends on different kinds of things overall. The specific bills that happen to be pending in Congress can only be validly assessed against this backdrop of broader understanding. But the media rarely gives us this information for fear of seeming to lack "objectivity" (whatever that is). And those who aren't concerned about being objective are usually too unreliable to be taken seriously. A subtle, balanced analysis of the tax structure is never going to achieve the level of interest generated by a report on the latest dumb comment by Sarah Palin (for the left) or President Obama (for the right). Magee goes on:
It is not as if were no alternatives. Time spent listening to great music, or seeing great plays, or thinking about issues of lasting importance, was not in this category. In those cases the object of one's activities retained its interest and importance for the rest of one's life. If I spent an evening listening to Mahler's Third Symphony, that symphony was still going to matter to me in six months' time, or ten years, or thirty: it was part of my life, for always. In fact such things more often than not increased in interest and value with the passage of time. If I spent two or three months saturating myself in, let us say, recordings of Mozart's piano concertos, and then did not return to them like that for another four years or so, I would find when I came back to them that I engaged with them on a deeper level than before. And the same was true of most great art. . . .

There were times when I felt, after all, that I was living to the full in face of death. Many men of action who are also writers have described the bliss induced in them by the sound of bullets smacking past their ears, and said that it intensified their awareness of being alive to an intoxicating level. The things that came closest to doing this for me when I fully realized I was facing death were my love affairs and friendships, philosophy and the arts. Never have I reacted to these things more intensely than I did in my late thirties and early forties. It was as if Shakespeare and Mozart were addressing me personally. . . . Had it not been for my need to earn a living I would have immersed myself in them entirely. (254-5)
Although I was more than satisfied by this explanation, some would respond, "But what about political art?" His answer to this is, again, exactly how I feel:
Those that treated political, social or historical levels of explanation as fundamental now seemed to me to be treating externals and surfaces as if they were foundations, and to be superficial and point-missing. In the world as it was at that time the most conspicuous example of this was Marxism, though there were others too. Marxism had a complete explanation of the arts in terms of political power, economic interests and social classes, and this seemed to me a grotesque attempt to explain the greater in terms of the less. Not only was there a lot of Marxist criticism around at that time, there were innumerable Marx-influenced stage productions which had the effect of superficializing the works they dealt with for precisely this reason, that they treated social and political externals as fundamental, while remaining oblivious to what actually was fundamental. Arguing with people who produced or supported this kind of thing was a dislocating experience, because it seemed self-evident to them that the metaphysical, personal and interpersonal dimensions of things were of secondary importance compared with the social and political. Indeed, they often denied that there was any metaphysical dimension at all, either to reality or to works of art. (255)
Some people will respond: "But art should say something about society. It shouldn't be just meaningless fluff to make you feel good. It should disturb people and wake them up to social injustices." (Yes, I've heard all of this said.) Of course I agree that art can say important things about society and that this can be a fine thing to do. It's not that I totally dismiss this function, and I don't think Magee does. But these aren't the most important functions of art, nor are they requirements of great art.

And as for anyone who considers art "meaningless" if it doesn't contain a social critique, or if isn't "appreciated in the social context in which it was made," I feel sorry for them for what they're missing . . .

(That's Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20, conducted and performed by Mitsuko Uchida.)


kentuckyliz said...

So he was an MP during a time when the government advanced unprecedented levels of surveillance and intrusion into the private lives of its citizens, er--subjects as they call them there.

And he thinks that doesn't matter.

Everything he cherishes is a brain fart. Most middle aged people I know are concerned about building a legacy through their work and/or their children--which contributes something to others and the world. It's generous. It's not sitting around eating bon bons.

hombre said...

Most middle aged people I know are concerned about building a legacy through their work and/or their children--which contributes something to others and the world. It's generous. It's not sitting around eating bon bons.

Speaking of brain farts ....

Regardless of their concerns, the "legacy" created by the work of most people will be forgotten the day after they retire and the life of a child is hardly the legacy of the parent. To think otherwise is not "generous," it is self-absorbed.

On the other hand, there are a few folks outside the bon bon circuit who think that great art and music have contributed something lasting and important to the world.

Queezy Malanga said...

I'd love to be able to let politics slide further down the list of important things that occupy my mind and time, but alas, some of my fellow citizens will not allow me that pleasure.

Once the do-gooders decided that every aspect of life is political, and deserved the "wise", guiding hand of politicians, they forced me pay attention... if only for self-preservation.

Once the unsatisfied decided it was easier to make a living by marching and voting that by learning and working, I was again forced to get involved... if only to keep some of my well-earned paycheck for myself.

Once the busybody hysterics decided to fill the government's ear with horror stories about behavior "a" and speech "b" and thought "c" I was once again forced from the theater... to defend the right to do "a", say "b", and think "c".

I'd love to go back and live the life I was living, the life you advocate, but I can't until the people who influence much of the agenda, the artists, go back to advocating the only type of government that allows such uninvolvement... strictly limited government. You see, the only way to get people to stop spending their time trying to influence the government is to make the government not worth influencing. Retie their hands with the constitution.

Mark said...

Elevating the higher at the expense of the lower seemingly makes perfect sense when the threat from the lower to the existence of the higher is negligible.

However, a punch in the throat can induce a life-long change in outlook just as effectively, without having to be produced by a genius.

Politics is definitely at the punch-in-the-throat level, and thank your lucky stars there are those who can appreciate your perspective while still recognizing the threats from below.

Foobarista said...

The danger is that music and art can be thought of as outside politics only in a relatively free society. Totalitarians argue that _everything_ is political, so politics should and must dominate your every thought and action. This is just as true for today's soft-lefty PC totalitarians as it was for the Nazis and Maoists.

It's awfully hard to appreciate great art if it's banned or dismissed and cast aside as the useless product of dead white guys.

Weary G said...

I find this line of thought very reassuring and intriguing, because it certainly seems at times that my mind will be swallowed by the absurd events of the day which follow one after the other.

However, it is hard to think of politics as ephemeral when it has the potential to so affect our lives, and usually not for the better.

For example, an encroaching Sharia law in some European countries would make listening to any classical music illegal and even punishable by death.

Hard to remain above it all when the iron fist grabs hold of you.

RJ said...

Yes, art and music can be beautiful things, and enrich a life far beyond petty politics. On the other hand, Hitler, the artist, listened to Wagner as he plotted the creation of a new European empire and racial genocide. So, no. I don't think I'll be taking the advice of a man who apparently had his head in the clouds as his country slid further and further into nanny-state socialism.

Anonymous said...

And as for anyone who considers art "meaningless" if it doesn't contain a social critique, or if isn't "appreciated in the social context in which it was made," I feel sorry for them for what they're missing . .
Loved this comment, how true.