Humanism, Reason, and the Arts (1992)
[This is the text of a talk presented to various audiences in the 1990s. Its author was at the time executive director of the American Humanist Association.]
We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.
With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world’s great cities,
And out of a fabulous story
We fashion an empire’s glory:
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song’s measure
Can trample an empire down.
We, in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself with our mirth;
And o’erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world’s worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.
These lines are from Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy’s “Ode” and they speak, through the rhythm of poetry, to the power of the arts.
Literature, drama, dance, music, painting, sculpture, architecture, and other art forms often allow a culture to find its identity and crystalize its vision. And through these same media, a culture can be destroyed or transformed.
Armies march to war with songs on their lips. Religions spread their message through passion plays, poetic writ, and awesome temples. Ethnic groups find their roots in music and dance. Giant sculptures: the Colossus of Rhodes, the Great Buddha of Japan, the Statue of Liberty, symbolize the ideals of nations.
And when new groups triumph over old, songs and dances of the vanquished regime are outlawed, scriptures burned, temples razed, and sculptures sent crashing to the earth.
A case in point. When I visited Russia in the summer of 1986, I found statues and busts of Lenin everywhere—so many that it seemed pointless to take pictures of them. But now I wish I had, since there may be few or none left by the time I chance to visit again.
Counter cultures identify themselves, and modify or overthrow the dominant society, through a variety of art forms including music, dance, poetry, cinema, fashion design, poster art, painting, and sculpture. As examples one can think of various “Bohemian” movements at the turn of the last century or the hippie phenomenon of the late 1960s.
But why are the arts so central to culture, to movements and revolutions, and to the expansion and downfall of empires? And why are alternative art forms and messages so much feared and opposed?
It is simply this: artistic expression, when effective, often bypasses the human reason and appeals directly to emotion. It may even appeal to something primitive or primal, in us. This was the aesthetic theory set forth by Winwood Reade in his book The Martyrdom of Man. He wrote:
When the poet invokes in his splendid frenzy the shining spheres of heaven, the murmuring fountains, and the rushing streams; when he calls upon the earth to hearken, and bids the wild sea listen to his song; when he communes with the sweet secluded valleys and the haughty-headed hills as if those inanimate objects were alive, as if these masses of brute matter were endowed with sense and thought, we do not smile, we do not sneer, we do not reason, but we feel. A secret chord is touched within us: a slumbering sympathy is awakened into life. Who has not felt an impulse of hatred, and perhaps expressed it in a senseless curse, against a fiery stroke of sunlight or a sudden gust of wind? Who has not felt a pang of pity for a flower torn and trampled in the dust, a shell dashed to fragments by the waves? Such emotions or ideas last only for a moment; they do not belong to us; they are the fossil fancies of a bygone age; they are a heritage of thought from the childhood of our race. For there was a time when they possessed the human mind. There was a time when the phrases of modern poetry were the facts of ordinary life. There was a time when man lived in fellowship with nature, believing that all things which moved or changed had minds and bodies kindred to his own.
Such a view of art was certainly taken seriously by the philosophers of ancient Greece. They had seen the irrational excesses of the mystery religions, best expressed in the bloody finale of Euripides’ tragedy, the Bacchae, and therefore they had ambivalent views about anything inspired by what they termed “the passions.” Passionate art, to them, was an incredibly potent irrational force.
Aristotle saw this direct appeal to the emotions as resulting in catharsis, or a release of tension, which he held to be good for the health of the individual so affected. Centuries later the psychologist Havelock Ellis, in his book The Art of Life, would support this idea. He said:
Just as we need athletics to expand and harmonize the coarser unused energies of the organism, so we need art and literature to expand and harmonize its finer energies, emotion being, as it may not be superfluous to point out, itself largely a muscular process, motion in a more or less arrested form, so that there is here more than a mere analogy. Art from this point of view is the athletics of the emotions.
Plato, on the other hand, saw such emotional appeal as potentially dangerous, a force capable of influencing ideas, ideals, and behavior for good or ill.
In Book II of The Republic, Plato has Socrates in dialogue with Glaucon on just this topic. Socrates says:
And shall we just carelessly allow children to hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part the very opposite of those which we should wish them to have when they are grown up?
Then the first thing will be to establish a censorship of the writers of fiction, and let the censors receive any tale of fiction which is good, and reject the bad; and we will desire mothers and nurses to tell their children the authorized ones only. Let them fashion the mind with such tales, even more fondly than they mould the body with their hands; but most of those which are now in use must be discarded.
This conversation continues into Book III as the two interlocutors become more and more specific about what is reprehensible in literature—so specific that they get down to deleting particular lines from Homer! After a number of sample lines have been selected for deletion, Socrates says:
And we must beg Homer and the other poets not to be angry if we strike out these and similar passages, not because they are unpoetical and unattractive to the popular ear, but because the greater the poetical charm of them, the less are they meet for the ears of boys and men who are meant to be free, and who should fear slavery more than death.
The argument continues into the realm of music. Plato has Socrates observe that a song “has three parts—the words, the melody, and the rhythm.” Now, since we already know what sorts of words are to be discouraged, and since melody and rhythm depend upon the words, then censorship of music can logically be derived from censorship of prose and poetry. Further, since certain harmonies are expressive of certain undesirable emotions, in particular the sorrowful tenor and bass Lydian harmonies, then such should also be banished from the ideal state.
The topic is returned to in Book X, where it is argued that art is not life but only a poor imitation. Hence, though Socrates is very conscious of the charms of art, he may not on that account betray the principle of truth. The conclusion of the argument is that those who listen to poetry should be on guard against its seductions and should fear for the safety of their principles.
Plato’s concerns have been echoed throughout the centuries by tyrants and totalitarian regimes and in recent years in this country by the religious right and those who would stifle the freedom of the National Endowment for the Arts. Tim LaHaye, a leading political activist for Christian Fundamentalism, is opposed to certain art forms which he and others feel are socially harmful. In that vein, he writes the following about the Renaissance and Renaissance Humanism in his book The Battle for the Mind:
Florence, Italy, became the cultural headquarters of the Renaissance. The glorification of mankind, particularly in his human form, was soon reflected in art. The giant replica of Michelangelo’s magnificent David stands nude, overlooking that beautiful city. Quite naturally, this contradicts the wisdom of God, for early in Genesis, the Creator follows man’s folly by giving him animal skins to cover his nakedness. Ever since, there has been a conflict concerning clothes, with man demanding the freedom to go naked. The Renaissance obsession with nude “art forms” was the forerunner of the modern humanist’s demand for pornography in the name of freedom. Both resulted in a self-destructive lowering of moral standards.
The suppression of art deemed harmful is soon followed by the dictating of art deemed ideal. Plato’s Republic treats of this also. Socrates declares to Glaucon,
we must remain firm in our conviction that hymns to the gods and praises of famous men are the only poetry which ought to be admitted to our State. For if you go beyond this and allow the honeyed muse to enter, either in epic or lyric verse, not law and the reason of mankind, which by common consent have ever been deemed best, but pleasure and pain will be the rulers in our State.
Perhaps the most dramatic effects of such ideological control of art can be seen in the works of Nazism and communism. The accepted literature, art, and architecture of Hitler’s Germany, Mao’s China, and Stalin’s Soviet Union, by ordinary artistic criteria, are sterile and flat. Their functional role as propaganda generally dulls their impact as art, limits their originality, and hampers their universality. Such art forms do not speak to people, only at them, and not about their aspirations but only the aspirations of the state. Such art is not for catharsis, only for control. Eric Hoffer addressed this issue in The True Believer when he wrote:
Napoleon and Hitler were mortified by the anemic quality of the literature and art produced in their heroic age and clamored for masterpieces which would be worthy of the mighty deeds of the times. They had not an inkling that the atmosphere of an active movement cripples or stifles the creative spirit. Milton, who in 1640 was a poet of great promise, with a draft of Paradise Lost in his pocket, spent twenty sterile years of pamphlet writing while he was up to his neck in the “sea of noises and hoarse disputes” which was the Puritan Revolution. With the revolution dead and himself in disgrace, he produced Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes.
Emotive art, that which reaches the heart with a universal appeal, is constrained in an atmosphere of repression. The cause of this relates to the artistic process itself. Artistic ability, I think it safe to say, is not a skill like computer programming or salesmanship that can be offered to the highest bidder. Because it appeals to the emotions, to the imagination, the free spirit, it often must spring from the emotions, from the imagination, from a free spirit. It seems to arise best from a spontaneity that the artist does not try too hard to control.
In accepting her 1987 Humanist of the Year Award from the American Humanist Association, novelist and poet Margaret Atwood had this to say:
Artists worthy of the name are difficult to coopt completely. They are messy, obstreperous, and unpredictable; they are contrary minded and dislike total authority. They especially dislike being told what to say, think, paint, or write, which is why they have ended up on the wrong ends of execution teams in so many countries in so many historical periods. . . . The kinds of truths art can convey are not literal—as Plato pointed out when deciding to banish all poets from his republic—nor are they consistent with the stated beliefs of the artist through whom they are conveyed.
But another novelist, Ayn Rand, begged to differ. She took the position that art could rightly be made the handmaiden of one’s personal ideology. And she wrote books to prove it. Unfortunately, those not endorsing her brand of libertarian rationalism, and in some cases those who do, regard her novels as third-rate—as having nothing to do with art. Readers often complain that her works are excessively preachy, her heroes too ideologically pure and emotionally consistent, and her villains mere straw-man caricatures, brute personifications of evil. Her work seems to verify Eric Hoffer’s observation that the artist motivated by the “practical” goal of disseminating propagandistic messages “does not create to express himself, or to save his soul or to discover the true and the beautiful. His task, as he sees it, is to warn, to advise, to urge, to glorify and to denounce.”
And this Ayn Rand does in spades. The passage I will now quote provides a clear example of the way her heroes speak. And through this particular hero, the musical composer Richard Halley, Ayn Rand pontificates on her philosophy of art. Halley declares that art is admired through the faculty of reason, and that the vision of artists is similar to the vision of engineers or industrialists. To him the artist is a devotee of truth, as opposed to being—
a sloppy bum who goes around proudly assuring you that he has almost reached the perfection of a lunatic, because he’s an artist who hasn’t the faintest idea what his art work is or means, he’s not restrained by such crude concepts as ‘being’ or ‘meaning,’ he’s the vehicle of higher mysteries, he doesn’t know how he created his work or why, it just came out of him spontaneously, like vomit out of a drunkard, he did not think, he wouldn’t stoop to thinking, he just felt it, all he has to do is feel—he feels, the flabby, loose-mouthed, shifty-eyed, drooling, shivering, uncongealed bastard!
In the summer of 1797, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge awoke from a dream with an entire epic poem in his head. Writing feverishly, the following lines spilled onto his page:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
He went on writing more lines until, suddenly, a man came to the door who called Coleridge out on business and detained him for over an hour. Afterwards, on his return to his page, Coleridge found, much to his mortification, that the inspiration and the words had passed from memory. He was able to write little more, and the poem was never completed.
Even so, Kubla Khan stands as one of the great poems of the English language, a poem that came out of its author spontaneously, without thought, and without the author knowing immediately what it meant. Great art can indeed result from such a process.
Furthermore, art can express views, or present images, that directly contradict its creator’s personal philosophy or faith. A classic example is John Milton, a devout Christian. His Paradise Lost is a startlingly heroic poem about Satan, one which airs so many questions concerning faith that religious scholars still occasionally seek to justify or reconstruct the work.
In Book I, Satan and his minions have been cast down to hell by Jehovah. With ringing oratory worthy of the valiant figure that he is, Satan rouses his fallen army to stand up and defy the powers of heaven.
Warriers, the Flowr of Heav’n, once yours, now lost,
If such astonishment as this can sieze
Eternal spirits; or have ye chos’n this place
After the toyl of Battel to repose
Your wearied vertue, for the ease you find
To slumber here, as in the Vales of Heav’n?
Or in this abject posture have ye sworn
To adore the Conquerour? who now beholds
Cherube and Seraph rowling in the Flood
With scatter’d Arms and Ensigns, till anon
His swift pursuers from Heav’n Gates discern
Th’ advantage, and descending tread us down
Thus drooping, or with linked Thunderbolts
Transfix us to the bottom of this Gulfe.
Awake, arise, or be for ever fall’n.
In Book V, the story is told of Satan’s revolt in heaven. In order to make sense of such an event, and to render it believable, Milton had to give the rebellious angels good reason to follow Satan’s promptings. And in giving them good reason, he inadvertently gave the reader good reason to reject the faith. Milton’s Satan argues against the monarchy of God by appeals to the rights of angels, by appeals to liberty and equality. And his oratory is persuasive.
In Book IX, Eve convinces Adam that she should be free to wander alone in the garden, fearless of demonic temptation. And in doing so, she convinces the reader of yet another heretical point: the notion that no perfect creator would be foolish enough to fashion beings vulnerable to temptation. And after eating the forbidden fruit she continues the argument with Adam, noting that her fall is God’s also. From this conclusion she surmises that God will be loath to destroy her, lest Satan—
Triumph and say,
Fickle their state whom God
Most favours: who can please him long?
Me first He ruin’d, now Mankind.
Whom will he next—?
which suggests that God is an inept creator who, for all his power, still manages to generate rivals and failures.
There is even the suggestion that God’s knowledge of human psychology is lacking or, if it is not, God is himself every bit the tempter Satan is. This comes out in Eve’s musing before eating the forbidden fruit when she reasons that, by God’s own words the fruit is a good, and by God’s own actions it is placed within reach, hence God is forbidding Adam and Eve to taste a good, and by so forbidding, commends it all the more.
It is no wonder that the Great Agnostic, Robert G. Ingersoll, was notably influenced by this poem.
Other artists of traditional faith have gone further, often speaking with more effect against religious excesses than the fiercest atheist pamphleteer. Take for example Charles Kingsley’s Hypatia. There we get a chilling depiction of belief gone mad, one that flows through an entire novel centered on the brutal murder by a Christian mob of Alexandria’s greatest female philosopher. Literature is filled with such examples of authors hinting or expressing views seemingly or actually contrary to their own.
This is not to say, however, that no artist produces works consonant with his or her professed philosophy. Most do. Euripides wove in tragic verse his protest against war, against superstition, against the subjugation of women. Beethoven put the spirit of liberty to music, a principle in which he fervently believed, and audiences rewarded his stage with a sea of flowers. Harriet Beecher Stowe inflamed a nation to civil war through her heart-felt prose expressing the evils of slavery. And Isadora Duncan gave to the dance the freedom of her personal lifestyle, delivering her art from the shackles of rigid fashion and bringing back into vogue the liberated spirit of the ancient Greeks.
It is possible, then, to speak of art as emanating from or reflecting a given philosophy. But such art cannot always be planned. Many in the arts find that their work must grow freely out of sincere lives, from philosophies buried deep in their souls.
Those individuals who, in their personal and artistic lives, express a profound humanism are a prime example. Authors like George Eliot, Mark Twain, and George Bernard Shaw; playwrights like Moliere, Voltaire, and Henrik Ibsen; poets like Percy Bysshe Shelly and Matthew Arnold; the historian Edward Gibbon, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the painter Rockwell Kent, the filmmaker Stanley Kramer. Such a list could go on, a list of humanists who have liberated us through their work.
But, ultimately, a work of art will stand on its own, stand separate from its creator and become the possession of humanity. As such, it can be judged for the role it plays and the impact it has. Whether we speak of Prometheus Bound by Aesculus, the Overture to La Belle Helene by Offenbach, or a photograph of Lassen Volcanic National Park by Ansel Adams, we can find an expression of some aspect of the humanist and liberal spirit.
For whenever a work of art has been created in an atmosphere of freedom, or whenever the artist has felt internally free despite outward conditions, there we will most frequently, I think, find expressed that which the humanist and religious liberal can admire, and that which will humanize the beholder.
We need not, then, attempt to lay out a specific humanistic theory of aesthetics; we needn’t attempt to dictate, in the fashion of Plato, the proper details, expression, and message of the arts. We need only provide the atmosphere of a humanistic society, a society of freedom, compassion, and rationality, and let matters of art take care of themselves. What flowers up will many times be to the humanist’s liking.
Perhaps, rather than speaking of a humanist art, or attempting to define that art which is most liberating, it would be better that we foster more artistic humanists and liberal religionists, more liberated freethinkers, individuals who can live their lives more aesthetically, who can set aside for a moment the rugged pursuit of truth in the interest of seeking beauty.
A greater appreciation and use of the arts in liberal religion and among humanists would go a long way toward promoting not only joy and pleasure but the expansion of the movement as well. Human beings are not mere intellects on legs, as Beverley Earles once put it. The traditional faiths have long known this and used it.
Now we can too.
Copyright ©1992 Frederick Edwords. The electronic version is copyright ©1995 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Frederick Edwords. All rights reserved.