Utopia series: the role of culture
The Utopia Series
Calling an idea ‘utopian’ is normally a way of saying it’s pie-in-the-sky and not worth paying attention to. Far from it. Throughout the ages, a number of philosophers have put forward some highly provocative and interesting utopias, describing ideal arrangements of everything from schools to religion, government to holidays.
Utopian ideas aren’t meant to be immediately practical. That’s precisely why they are so useful: they take our minds off the problems of the here and now and offer us a grander vision of what there is to aim for.
We generally hold culture – by which we understand art, museums, cinema, literature and the study of history – in extremely high regard. But, equally, we tend not to look very closely at why culture has such prestige. In fact, we are encouraged to think it is unsophisticated, even vulgar, to ask what culture is for. And yet, as it will be argued here, this is a question that no society should shun – for an enormous task lies before culture if only it can become conscious of its true purpose.
The present ‘guardians of culture’ – art and literary critics employed by media organisations, professors in the humanities and museum curators – are deeply devoted to the idea that art should exist ‘for art’s sake.’ This idea achieved dominance in the late nineteenth century and continues to determine the frame through which we (largely unknowingly) view culture. It dictates that culture should never be appropriated for practical or ideological ends. The theory was meant to release culture from the clutches of three tainted forces – religion, politics and commerce – each of which was deemed to want something rather too urgent and practical from cultural creators. In flight from these forces, critics asserted that culture was to be kept free of any sort of clearly stated ‘goal’ or ‘end’. It should exist in its own sphere and not be asked to ‘do’ anything much in the world (as religions, political parties and certain pre-modern societies, especially those of Greece and Rome, had explicitly asked it to). On the back of this idea were born all kinds of notions that persist to this day: the veneration of ambiguity and paradox (witnessed in elite discussions of contemporary art), the disdain for clear unironic ideological pronouncements on the part of artists as to their role in society (compare the suspicion directed at Tolstoy’s rallying cries compared with the elite enthusiasm for Marina Abramovic’s gnomic pronouncements), the preference for studying the formal qualities of literary texts as opposed to their meaning (it sounds absurd to suppose that Proust might change our lives), the ridicule directed at anyone who might study history ‘to learn lessons from the past’ (which was the whole pre-modern point of history) and the constant assertions that the point of culture is merely to raise questions rather than find answers.
It should be added that this is not generally how artists themselves have seen their purpose. George Eliot, Nietzsche, Van Gogh, Heidegger, Picasso and George Orwell, to name but a few, would all have begged to differ. The point is that the guardians of culture in whose hands their work rests have carefully stripped these voices of their more urgent and utilitarian aims.
In the Utopia, however, the idea of culture as a practical force would be taken very seriously indeed. It would be recognised what a historical anomaly the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ has been, running counter to centuries of historic mainstream thinking about the purpose of art. Almost all the art and culture that is to be found in museums, art galleries and libraries was produced by people who believed that art had a purpose which could be stated thus: it was meant to teach us how to be wise, self-aware, kind and reconciled to the darkest aspects of reality. The anti-utilitarian view is a rejection of more than 2,000 years of philosophising on the practical role of the arts.
It was Aristotle who shaped the mindset of the West by proposing that watching tragedies was first and foremost useful – useful in shaking us free of self-righteousness, prejudice and moral blindness. In the amphitheatres of Attica, one would be invited to see how easily a hero might make a small error and then pay a huge price for it, a spectacle that would induce fear and pity in audiences, leaving them readier to forgive others and better able to examine their own consciences. As Nietzsche emphasised in his The Birth of Tragedy (a powerful rehearsal of the Greek argument as to the utility of the arts), Aristotle insists that drama should be entrusted with the core social role of educating the emotions.
Likewise, in the 19th century, Hegel rejected the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’, proposing that painting, music, architecture, literature and design all had major missions to perform. We need them, he suggested, so that important insights can become properly powerful in our lives. Art is ‘the sensuous presentation of ideas’. The point of art, Hegel, realises, is not so much to come up with startlingly new or strange ideas; but to take the good, important, helpful thoughts we often already know and make them stick in our minds.
In the Utopia, culture would be given a single, ambitious role: to function as a form of therapy. The various branches of culture would serve the same purpose in different ways: they would all compensate for our natural weaknesses and emotional frailties, they would guide, correct and encourage us, they would open our eyes and console us for our griefs, so that with their help we might become better versions of ourselves.
Currently, there is almost always a knee-jerk response on the part of critics to suggestions of the therapeutic within the cultural sphere: ‘The idea that art should help people to live is a piece of babyish absurdity we should all have grown out of long ago’ according to a statement in the Guardian; ‘Reducing art to self-help is the greatest imaginable insult to the masterpieces of culture’ echoed the New York Times.
© Toronto Star/Getty
Part of the problem is that we’ve become confused about the basic meaning of the word therapy. A therapy is a treatment intended to help a person to function well. It might be a medical therapy: a vaccination that strengthens our resistance to disease or an intervention that cures an ailment. But equally, the idea of therapy applies to the mind. Therapy, in this core sense, is the deliberate attempt to help us to lead better lives. To suggest that a person does not stand in need of the therapeutic flies in the face of everything we know about human psychology in general – and ourselves in particular.
The idea of art for art’s sake was originally motivated by a noble desire to honour culture, to say how special and important its fields were in a world sullied by meaner, utilitarian aims. Yet, inadvertently, this entrenched view has come to stand in the way of a full engagement with culture, suggesting that its disciplines should not in fact be consequential in the world; that they should not guide our beliefs or shape our habits; that they should not be appreciated for their wisdom or consoling power – for this would be to ‘use’ them…
A lot of the prestige which culture currently enjoys has been won at the expense of another field of human experience, the status of which has declined in direct relation to the rise in the status of art: religion. From the middle of the 19th century onwards, many people (Matthew Arnold, Nietzsche, Heidegger among them) came to the view that, as religion weakened its hold on society and upon people’s inner lives, it would be culture that could step in and perform many of the same roles as the faiths. Culture too could guide, exhort, reassure, console, inspire and censure. It was with this big ambition in mind that a period of vast investment in culture (in museums, in art galleries, in opera houses and libraries) proceeded. Culture would replace scripture. The great institutions of culture – the galleries and the universities – would be the new Cathedrals of Christendom.
In truth, art really can do for us a remarkable number of the very things that religion once did. Culture truly is in a position to replace many of the functions of scripture. Art too has the power to console us, it too can bring meaning and purpose, it too can increase our powers of empathy and generate a sense of community.
© REX/Eye Ubiquitous
But in practice, we tend to pay only lip-service to these ideas. You used to go to the cathedral for some clear reasons: because you wanted to save your soul, because you were looking for comfort, you needed community, you wanted to develop your moral character or you were hoping for consolation and redemption. But if you turned up at a gallery or a university arts faculty with similarly intense, focused concerns, you would be considered very strange, regarded with suspicion and perhaps even declared insane.
However, in a wise and mature society, the therapeutic resources of culture would be taken very seriously. The visual arts, architecture, the humanities, galleries and museums would be deployed to help us cope with our troubles and to flourish, both individually and collectively.
In universities, the past would no longer be studied under the banner of ‘history’, novels would not be read in ‘literature’ courses, there wouldn’t be a category called ‘art history’. Instead, students would enrol in classes whose psychological purpose was evident, perhaps ones with titles like The Role of Error; The Need for Status; The Sorrows of Love and The Challenges of Mortality. Art galleries would similarly be reorganised to track our true needs. Instead of grouping works according to where they happened to have been produced and when, they would be grouped according to the human needs they best addressed. Instead of a room devoted to 18th-century French painting, one would find ones titled Anxiety or Envy.
© REX/c.IFC Films/Everett
The Utopian government would be similarly ambitious for film, the most influential of all art forms. It would, for example, focus on the classification of films. Instead of just suggesting that one needed to be above a particular age to watch a film, the government classification board would see its primary task as that of helping a film to reach the audiences it was in an optimal position to help. Thus a film might be rated A, meaning that it was regarded as being good at getting us to address and cope with Anxiety. Or it could have an MC rating, meaning that it was of benefit to those experiencing Marital Conflict. In the Utopia, films would be expected not only to entertain us (and ease the pains of long flights), they would be appreciated – and used – for their ability to better direct our feelings of sympathy, offer comfort for our unmanageable fears, correct an unworkable sense of what is normal, edge us towards good conduct and arm us against our follies and vices.
One of the key concerns, in the Utopian society, would be with topping up the therapeutic effects of cultural experiences. Our insights fade. It may be that at 8am, having just had a cup of coffee and walked across the park from the station to work, we are ready to look with patience on the flaws of our colleagues; but by midday this benign attitude may have become seriously frayed. An ideal society would be acutely aware of this risk, so it would make sure that we were likely to encounter reminders at regular points through the day – as religions once did. When we nipped out to get a sandwich at lunchtime, we might be confronted by a work of art articulating themes of kindness and empathy. Or we might participate in a quick cloud-watching event, restoring (briefly) a more mature perspective on the harried demands of the afternoon.
© REX/Dan Callister
Ultimately, and to put it with deliberate bluntness, the great works of culture amount to a giant ‘how to’ manual that a society writes for itself. At present, the manual has been muted and its power fatefully constrained. The messages we hear most days have been written by advertisers and corporations – while the guardians of culture have prevented their medium from shaping mass consciousness, fearful that culture’s supposed commitment to ambiguity and paradox might be damaged.
In the future, the resources of the public environment – buildings, institutions, events and educators – would ideally all be organised for the sake of helping us to lead better lives, guided by a recognition of the real troubles we face and by a grand and ancient ambition that culture should support our better natures.