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Art's Usefulness

Post #1693 • May 6, 2014, 6:27 AM • 1 Comment

Dwight Furrow refutes Effective Altruism, which holds that charity resources are better spent on the mitigation of the world's material ills than the arts.

Even if we accept the utilitarian orientation of Effective Altruism, the claim that art is relatively useless is utter nonsense. Most utilitarians argue that we should promote well-being, not merely reduce suffering. Since art produces enjoyment and edification, its considerable positive consequences cannot be ignored. The Effective Altruism movement seems to assume that alleviating suffering is more important than producing well-being, but I don't see a principled reason for that assumption. Obviously, the great master works of art history have produced much enjoyment for people who have the opportunity to view or listen to them. But we make a mistake when we think of art production only in terms of master works in the fine arts. The production of aesthetic objects—through craftwork, storytelling, cooking, gardening and the like, as well as painting, literature, sculpture, music, dance, etc—is pervasive throughout human cultures. There is likely no greater source of enjoyment than this creative activity. The countless small moments throughout each day in which we engage in aesthetic appreciation by noticing something to be attractive, fascinating, interesting, beautiful, pretty, or pleasant are a distinctive and essential component of life's meaning. To advocate that we subtract this from human life in the name of reducing suffering is to reduce life to a colorless trial of enduring monotony. The traditions of folk art are as robust as those of fine art and they emerge from cultures in which life involved much suffering. Presumably they did not view their art as a waste of time and found value in these activities despite the fact they did little to improve their material condition.

Granted, most artists do not produce individual works of enduring significance. But art is not the product of individual geniuses; it is the product of an artistic community that collectively produce something of great value. Without mediocre artists this community could not exist. The idea that we are only justified in pursuing an activity if we are doing something irreplaceable is silly. Human communities do not depend on this kind of perfectionism but rather on people making a contribution even if it not maximal.

Although it's sound in that it's meeting utilitarian ethics on its own terms, this is not how I would prefer to see this argument presented. In particular, this bothers me:

But simply pointing to enjoyment as the aim of art understates its real value. In addition to producing pleasure, art exposes us to new ways of looking at reality, stimulates the imagination, and helps people cope with the uncertainties of human existence, and these must be considered in a utilitarian calculus. One reason we value art is that art expresses the point of view of the artist; and we value that point of view, not just because it gives us pleasure but because it multiplies our view of the world—through art we see the world through the perspective of others in a very perspicuous way. In fact, much of what we learn about the larger world comes from artistic expressions.

But the pleasure's really the thing. We have other means of multiplying our world-views that aren't pleasures. Must it come to relegating pleasure to a lesser status than utilitarian effects in order to mount a defense of them?

Hat tip to Arthur Whitman.



Andrew Fearnside

May 20, 2014, 7:00 PM

To my mind, art (taken as a whole) is the most important activity the human species has. More than the investigation of new kinds of plastics, pharmaceuticals, or political maneuvers, art practice produces the psychospiritual gestalts that underlie all other work any culture produces. Art is where the foundations are re-laid. Art is where modern psyche is wrestled into new form. Art is not useful because it is pleasurable; it is useful because it defines the scope of pleasure in the first place.

Art is activist work in itself. To engage in creative practice is to engage with human consciousness as a whole. Those who have the courage to take that on, mediocre or not, achieve success just by stepping up to the plate.



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