"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Karnick's Law of Culture

I was recently reminded of a formulation about culture in free societies, which I have used in the past but have perhaps not commited to print. To wit, what I call Karnick's Law of Culture:

Bad art drives out the good.

The idea is analogous, of course, to Gresham's Law, which states that in a free economy, bad currency drives out the good.

I think that Karnick's Law helps explain why contemporary American culture has so often seemed to appeal to the worst impulses of human beings and to downplay or even deny the very existence of our higher and better impulses. It is easier for artists (of any level of talent, from the very lowest to the highest) to create a deep and widespread reaction in audiences by appealing to sensations, which are nearly universally understood, than to the intellect, which fewer people can access at its highest levels. This is true regardless of the personal morality and intentions of the artist; it is an obsevation about human psychology, not morality.

Obviously, the best and healthiest art will appeal to both the sensations and the intellect, and will be accessible to a wide range of people. Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Bach, Dickens, T. S. Eliot, and David Lean, to provide just a few examples, demonstrate this achievement beautifully. On the other hand, a preponderance of sensation over intellect, or of intellect over sensation, will create a work of degrading baseness in the first case and of unnourishing aridity in the second instance.

In the economy, government intervention overcomes the perils of Gresham's Law. This is done through coercion, although such government intervention is a measure which most people would agree is salutary.

In society, the church and government seem to be the natural repositories of response to the problems identified by Karnick's Law. There is, however, much less agreement on this, and in particular on who should decide these matters even if we can agree that something should be done collectively, than is the case with our protection of the value of our currency

The question that naturally arises to the liberal mind is this: Is there a way in which society can overcome the perils defined in Karnick's Law by means of voluntary cooperation rather than coercion?


Jay D. Homnick said...

I love this question, and if I don't keep a tight grip on myself, I could write five pages just to get warmed up.

To keep it short, let me say this: I would define this phenomenon a tad differently, which in turn might make the solution seem clearer.

I don't agree that bad art drives out good, rather that all art appeals FIRST to the emotions. Therefore the easy way out for the artist is just to leave it there, which equals bad art.

But the great artist uses the emotions as a bridge to an idea or an inspiration. That is good art.

However, good art can still be used for bad purposes, if the artist packs a bad idea in behind the initial emotion.

So, good art is adding the idea behind the emotion, Good art is when that idea represents the Good.

It seems to me that all this is modeled on God's basic design for the world, where He shows you beauty to inflame your emotions. From there, people are inspired to an awareness of a great plan for humanity.

In the first book of Samuel, Hannah says, "There is no Rock like our Lord", but the Hebrew word that is commonly translated as Rock, meaning someone that you can lean on for support, is "tzur". This word implies also "tzayar", meaning painter, leading the Talmud to deduce her implication: "There is no artist like our Lord".

S. T. Karnick said...

I should define here what I mean by bad art and good art. In doing so, I will attempt to keep to a level of generality I think apppropriate at this point, but which others may wish to see spelled out in more detail in future.

I would suggest that bad art establishes and conveys ideas and impressions that point people away from the best that life has to offer. Conversely, good art points the way toward an increase of what makes human life most fulfilling and healthy. And of course this defines a continuum, not two discrete categories.

I shall not at this point go into the necessarily lengthy discussion of how art pushes people toward a particular impression of life's possibilities, but I will note that our notion of beauty suggests that although such truths may often be unutterable, they are nonetheless easy to apprehend.

In addition, I should like to note that some very disturbing sensations, images, and ideas can point people toward the good, and hence be elements of good art—as in the tragedies of Sophocles or the paintings of Bosch. Likewise, some very pleasing sensations, images, and ideas can point people away from what is best in human nature, as in the objectification of human beings that occurs in sexual pornography and sensationalistically violent narratives.

Ideas and emotions are of equal importance in both good and bad art, but the use of those ideas is very different. In general, one might characterize bad art as appealing to people's baser inclinations, and good art as pressing us toward a greater appreciation and development of higher ones.—STK

S. T. Karnick said...

You will also notice, undoubtedly, that I have set aside aesthetic considerations in this first discussion of artistic quality. I have done so in consideration of one important factor: our judgment of a work's artistic quality depends in great part on our assessment of its meaning. It is necessary first to establish and understand a work's meaning before we can appreciate its aesthetics.

I recognize that this proposition sounds decidedly unusual in these times, but I believe it to be entirely true. Consider the following.

It is through a work's aesthetics, the tools by which it is made and the use of those tools, that a work establishes meaning. (The raw materials of human life and the nature of the cosmos provide a work's content, but these must and will be formed into a meaning. They always are formed into a meaning of some sort, regardless of what an artist or critic may claim about a particular work.)

Both our apprehension and assessment of a work's aesthetics must follow from at least an initial assessment of its meaning, and the more fully we understand a work's aesthetics, the better we will understand its meaning.

For example, to place a great value on the aesthetics of Van Gogh's self-portrait requires that we understand and accept its meaning, that we acknowledge and accept the emotionalism or primitivism others may see in it, as necessary to the meaning that Van Gogh has chosen to establish. Otherwise, we should necessarily dismiss it as junk. This applies even to our intuitive, nonintellectualized appreciation of the work.

In addition, it is worth noting that this is exactly what people actually do when judging art, even those critics who seem to be most aesthetically oriented. One's judgment of Dickens's use of plot and characterization, for example, will largely accord with one's comfort level regarding his alleged sentimentality and intellectual simplicity. (His supporters would refer to these elements as passion and directness.)

This proposition applies equally to so-called abstract art, and to music.

This is not to say that there is no heirachy of aesthetic value, nor that we should not judge a work based on its aesthetics. Quite the contrary. We must study aesthetics to understand how art creates meaning—a subject of endless variety and interest—and better understand specific works of art.

An understanding of a work's meaning, however, as the examples above show, is essential to any understanding of its aesthetics. Thus we must consider a work's meaning first, using the tools of aesthetics to apprehend it in all its complexity—STK

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Art is moral passion married to entertainment. Moral passion without entertainment
is propaganda, and entertainment without moral passion is television."---Rita Mae Brown

Always liked that one.

I'm in agreement with Mr. Homnick. The visceral comes first. It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.

Appreciation of Van Gogh's self-portraits may deepen with context, but only after the first visceral connection with his actual art is made.

IMO, it's the quality of authenticity and depth of communication that qualifies art not as "good" and "bad," but art and "not art at all." I hate to quote the French, but the mantra "Only Connect" applies.

Since I believe that nothing but truth can be authentically transmitted, I believe art will drive out non-art.

But although the "moral passion" part of our program is timeless, the entertainment portion is not. "Good" propaganda will be driven out by the more entertaining.

If anyone is to blame, it is those with the ability to make art, but choose instead the "easy way out" of simply making a buck.

As for what constitutes good ideas and bad ones, I have no idea how to communicate what I believe are good ones to those who don't share my moral vocabulary.

Except through art, but it's gotta have that swing, y'know?