Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Chris Port Blog #325. “Art & politics Now” - Transcript fragments from a Facebook forum discussion in September 2011 (no longer available online)

The following transcript notes should be read in conjunction with Is all art inherently political?

Transcript (September 2011)

Me: [Extracts from another discussion thread on Is all art political? at]

‘... Art is not separate from the world. The world is political. Therefore, art exists within politics - whether the artist agrees or not.

Brecht’s point is that apolitical artists unavoidably endorse the status quo. Their intentions are irrelevant. To avoid criticism is to implicitly endorse. In times of broad middle-ground consensus (which are now well and truly over) this isn’t a problem. However, when the political and economic system enters a period of crisis, it becomes more contentious.

I’m not pushing artists into making their art carry any political message. I’m simply pointing out an awkward truth. Artists can shrug their shoulders and say that it’s not their problem. But I would argue that, sooner or later, it will be...’

‘... No matter what definition you propose, it will always include things which are not art. It will also exclude things which are art. The only criteria we have for recognition is usage. This immediately places art in the political arena. What type of art is being used? Whose values are being promoted? Whose work is being sidelined? Et cetera. For this reason, art is ALWAYS political...’

See also: ‘But music and politics have always mixed’
The Guardian, 21 September 2011

‘ ... there’s a bigger question about music and politics at stake. You can’t separate the two, and the attempt to try is itself political. To pretend that the performance, reception, and composition of music are activities that exist in a separate realm from the social and political realities of the world is a dangerous, utopian fantasy. If it were true, music (classical music especially) would only ever have the possibility of being an aesthetic entertainment, as opposed to the foment of ideas, emotions, and poetry that it really is.’

MC: Have you dared consider the alternative, that art defines society much more than society defines art?

Me: Yes, I have dared :) But I reluctantly rejected such a notion. Although postmodernism played around with such ideas, it was a delusion. Power politics and economic forces will always define art far more than art will define them.

‘... For most of human history, the arts have been closely intertwined with religion. It could be argued that their primary function was to serve as religious propaganda by performing a ceremonial and commemorative role. It’s only in the last few centuries that the arts have broken free (much like the sciences) and declared their independence.

Although the arts are often regarded by traditionalists as being inherently ‘subversive’, this is a comparatively recent economic development. Until the advent of mass reproduction and distribution, the arts mostly survived under the protection of wealthy patrons. The quid pro quo was that they legitimized the status quo.’

[Extract from On Directing]

The Evolution of the Director (from hegemony to homogeny)

‘One possible reason for the comparatively recent emergence of the director is that the director's role, or its ancestral equivalent, previously existed in the homogenous social function of theatre. From the religious Dionysian ritual of Ancient Greek drama to the cynical commentaries on social mores in Restoration comedy, theatre may have prodded the conscience of its audience with an accusatory finger, but it did not seek to challenge the existing social order of pre-nineteenth century European societies. In essence, the social function of theatre was to perpetuate the hegemony of the status quo by portraying the common belief systems of its patrons and audiences. However, the fragmentation of European societies into class systems, with an awareness of conflicting interests after the French and Industrial revolutions, destroyed any such single purpose. As the theatre’s traditional patrons waned in influence, so a gap appeared between the social function of theatre and the social values of its audiences. This meant that the moral consensus of playwrights disappeared into a variety of (sometimes conflicting) artistic viewpoints, and so in performance there arose a need for the interpretation of playtexts.’

Your main connection to the arts is through music. Music is arguably the purest of the art forms because it is the most abstract. Although it has prostituted itself just as much as the others in the service of propaganda (e.g. hymns, national anthems, incidental music, TV ads, commercial pop) music can seem less proseltyzing precisely because it doesn’t have to ‘say’ anything. I would argue that this is a self-delusion however. Even silence can speak volumes.

Brecht argued (convincingly, I think) that ALL art is political. ‘For art to be “unpolitical” means only to ally itself with the “ruling” group’ (A Short Organum for the Theatre). Following on from this, I would argue that art is either FOR religion or AGAINST it, but neutrality is not an option.

I’m not suggesting for one moment that the arts should now become the atheist equivalent of social realism, all happy Soviet tractor drivers ploughing through the complete works of Richard Dawkins, etc. Actually, I’m arguing something very different. Rather than seeing the arts as a tool of atheism, I see atheism as a tool of the arts. The atheists have won the intellectual arguments, only to find that the majority of agnostics don’t really care while the majority of religious believers don’t really understand. Atheism needs the arts to communicate its humanist philosophy on a more intuitive and emotional level. I am simply arguing that this humanist philosopy is now the natural home of the arts anyway...'

MC: What on earth does the depiction of a bison or horse in the inner most part of a cave millions of years ago have to do with politics?

Me: Power? Identity? Collective behaviour (e.g. hunting)? Take your pick. Politics has an extensive remit. It’s the process by which human beings make collective decisions, involving social relationships of authority and power. We will probably never know the specific context of those cave paintings and the artist’s motives, but they appear to be celebratory. Celebration is the validation of power and is thus political. I would turn your question on its head. In what ways does prehistoric art NOT have anything to do with politics?

Me: Being mindful of the possibility that Western civilization may be sliding inexorably towards a war that will take us back to the Stone Age, here’s a more modern link between art and politics (if you follow my line of thinking...)

War is coming, because war is the continuation of capitalism by other means. If anyone can see how the inevitable collapse of European stock markets and economies WON’T lead to war, I would be happy (VERY happy) to hear their thinking.

“For most traders we don't really care about having a fixed economy, having a fixed situation, our job is to make money from it... Personally, I've been dreaming of this moment for three years. I go to bed every night and I dream of another recession.”

“Never in the field of human finance was so much stolen from so many by so few.” Where's Winnie When You Need Him?

How The West Was Lost (Or: How To Betray Your Country In 7 Easy Steps)


Analysis of Twenty-First Century Risks in Light of the Recent Market Collapse


Pentagon preps for economic warfare

How U.S. Economic Warfare Provoked Japan’s Attack on Pearl Harbor

“And this is top quality, long-term fear because it comes from an expert who everyone knows is a total shark but also has no idea whether or not to believe him and so will inevitably just do exactly what he says.”

How inspired are you today?

After Alessio Rastani’s little contribution towards self-fulfilling prophecy/profit, I’m inspired to write a song based on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” speech in 1933. Inspirational (although subsequent events did slightly contradict him). I think I’ll call it Fear Itself.

MC: In what ways does prehistoric art NOT have anything to do with politics?

Because it is not a social outcome but is generated internally and individually. Geographically it is anti-social and anti-political as it occupies the inner most recesses of the caves, in most cases in a space just big enough for one person alone. It is also shamanistic, not of this world, but of a dream world, parallel reality or alternative realty. Surely you must realise that not ALL art is based upon the real? But then, if you believe art is political or social you place it in the real and not in the imaginary, which is the central weakness of the argument.

Second, if war was the continuation of capitalism, then a necessary condition for war must be capitalism. But that is not so, many societies based upon other economic systems in the past have been equally war minded and they certainly were not capitalist orientated.

Third, collective behaviour is again not a necessary condition for politics. Birds fly south in winter because of biological necessity not politics. Same for identity, you keep quoting reasons that are not in philosophical terms, ‘sufficient and necessary conditions’, therefore most of the argument you make is made invalid.

Me: Thanks for your feedback M. This is exactly the kind of stuff I’m looking for.

Regarding your first point (that art ‘is not a social outcome’) I don’t think that this stands up to scrutiny. Even our reclusive caveman creating ‘private art’ (possibly an oxymoron, but I’ll go with the flow for now) was the outcome of the social memes of his tribe. Whatever private thoughts and feelings he was expressing (and expression is not, in itself, art) were the outcome of his socialization - which is an inherently political process. It is highly probable that he was taught some of his art skills - and this is another inherently political process. It is also highly probable that the content of his paintings had symbolic meaning within the narratives of his tribe - and these narratives and symbolic meanings are another inherently political process. The very notion of a dream world or alternative reality is inherently political because it suggests an escape or an improvement or a deeper truth than that which can be found in the ‘real’ world (‘reality’ is a highly dubious term, anyway!) Even dream worlds have politics. Imagination is a way of freeing ourselves from the prison of the moment and the tyranny of physicality, but we can never escape from the human need to place ourselves in a narrative. All narratives are political.

Regarding your second point, I didn’t propose that war was SOLELY the continuation of capitalism, only that it was the continuation of capitalism by other means. I agree that wars can have many different causes and contexts and characters. War (like art) is difficult to pin down to a single definition. However, after rephrasing one of Clausewitz’s dictums, perhaps I should quote his other observation verbatim: “War is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.” Both capitalism and war are competitive, self-aggrandizing and interchangable activities, differentiated only by the types of violence used. It could be argued that the death toll from capitalism is far higher than the death toll from wars, so perhaps a war that ends capitalism may even be the lesser of two evils? See “Unfortunately, some people are just dickheads”. World Peace and the ‘Dickhead’ Objection… Q.E.D.

Politics is variously defined as ‘the art or science of government’, ‘collective decision making’, ‘social relations involving authority or power’, etc. While other species also appear to engage in political behaviour, to the best of my knowledge they don’t engage in activities that are recognized as ‘art’ so I’m not sure of the relevance of your bird analogy. I’m also a bit lost by your follow up comments about ‘identity’ and ‘sufficient and necessary conditions’. In what ways do you consider my arguments invalid? Could you elaborate on what you mean here? With regard to art, I have gone into some philosophical detail in explaining the problems involved in proposing a single definition of art (see Is all art inherently political? - about a third of the way down)

[Extract from A Philosophy of Drama Education -]

“ … The problem with proposing a single definition of art is that we may unintentionally exclude forms which are, nonetheless, recognisable as art and include forms which are recognisably not art.

For example, Tolstoy (cited in Jones, 1994) proposes that art should serve a moral purpose. However, such a proposal fails as a definition of art since it is possible for something to serve a moral purpose without being art (for example, an act of kindness). Conversely, it is possible for art to be amoral (or even immoral) by the moral standards of the time.

Even attempts to define art as an overlap between two joint and necessary conditions (such as imitation and expression) fail because they are unable to account for purely abstract artworks (for example, music).

George Dickie (cited in Cooper, 1992) settles for a value-neutral definition of art as ‘an artefact of a kind created to be presented to an artworld public’ (Cooper, 1992,p.112).

I am heavily influenced (although still dissatisfied) with Wittgenstein’s (cited in Barrett, 1978) ‘family resemblance’ concept which recognizes art by strands of similarities rather than common properties. In essence (although it is usually a mistake to reduce Wittgenstein to any essence) art may be recognised by the common use of the term rather than a concept of any common nature.

This approach implies that we should abandon any attempt to define what art is and study (via Wittgenstein’s ‘language games’) the sociological processes by which some thing becomes art (and by whose criteria?).

However, before we turn to a sociological analysis of art in society, I wish to draw attention to an article which has profoundly influenced my philosophical understanding of why theories of art fail. Richard Kamber (1998) observes that theories of art fail not because art is by necessity an ‘open concept’ (users of art are free to change their minds about its use and its meaning) but because we are unable to demonstrate any continuing unity of the concept of art over time.

Kamber believes that in order to show such a continuing unity we would have to explain art in terms of what he calls ‘deep structures’ of the human condition. While there may be many contenders for such a deep structure (human emotions being one), Kamber believes that such theories ‘end up being untestable under any reasonable interpretation of testability’ (Kamber, 1998, p.45)...”

MC: I hope you realise the proposition you forward is completely circular, it’s like looking at a sign that says, ‘Please ignore this notice.” The only way you can be correct is not to have engaged with the concept or meaning in the first place. Once engaged with the meaning, not only can’t you enact its meaning but you realise that even meaning itself becomes circular in this instance.

So, example, if I point out that nearly all of the 20th century art is a reaction against social and political norms, one can counter this by ignoring the INTENTION of the artists involved and say instead that an anti-political act is nonetheless a political act, it’s a no lose and no win situation and a futile road to tread.

Again there are millions of artists working today who have no intention of showing their work, I am talking of the ‘Outsider’ phenomena here, and no political intent in their work either. But the circularity can be invoked here once more regarding their socialisation, even though many of these individuals have actively sought to bypass or live outside of society and do not share society’s values.

So it comes down to either accepting the intention of the art maker, that their art has no political agenda whatsoever or invoking circularity by maintaining they are part of a political system and it is a political outcome no matter what. If we chose the latter of course we chose to ignore the vowed intention of the maker and we devalue him and also art in its widest sense at a stroke, and all for the sake of a circular argument. We may also be imposing upon the maker political criteria he/she may be at odds with.

Dickie is an example of one who would impose a social explanation of art, by ignoring artistic intention he made the artist inferior to society’s whims, and in so doing did not realise that if society and/or politics actually did determine art or even what art actually is, there would be no logical need for individuals called artists and hence no art. As for Wittgenstein, like the structuralists his mistake is to believe that the only system of meaning we have is language and he fails to account for other systems.

I do not agree that we cannot have a definition of art as you imply. The problem has been that early attempts were not sufficiently analytical or rigorous enough. You should read Monroe Beardsley for an excellent workable irrefutable definition.

The problem remains, yours is a circular proposition where every proof can also be used as a disproof.

Me: I don’t agree that the proposition is a circular argument. It contains many exit points into aesthetics and socio-political theories.These theories are not self-evident and their evaluation is still ‘up for grabs’. However, even if it were a circular argument, circular arguments are still valid. The problem with circular arguments is not that they are wrong but that they are tautologous and uninformative. So if it were a circular argument, this would just be another way of saying that it was obviously true and unworthy of further consideration. This is clearly not the case.

You appear to attach great importance to the artist’s intentions and agenda. So do I. I am, after all, an artist as well as a critic. However, I view the artist’s agenda as only one factor. The art work itself may be perceived independently of the artist’s intentions, and the audience are free to introduce their own agendas. This is politics at work. If an artist protects their agenda from this ‘interference’ inherent in the world, then I would query whether this is art at all. Perhaps ‘therapeutic art’ or ‘self-expression’, but without the response of others these are not available for discussion - and if they are available for discussion then they are no longer ‘private art’. When you accuse me of having presented a circular argument I would respond that it may seem this way only because you have argued yourself into a paradox!

I don’t agree that Beardsley’s functionalist aesthetic definition of art is irrefutable. Duchamp’s fountain and other Dadaist works are clearly not created to afford aesthetic experience. Beardsley tries to allow such objects to be works of art by claiming that they are members of a broader class that IS typically intended to afford aesthetic experience. The function of ‘intended to afford an aesthetic experience’ therefore evaporates as a defining condition.

I think that you are unfairly caricaturing Wittgenstein (the later) as a reductionist. He was very much an expansionist philosopher. He implied that we should see art ‘within a larger frame of reference, to see it in comparison to other works of the artist in question and to see it juxtaposed with still other works from its cultural context, is to see what role it played in the dialogically unfolding artistic “language-game”. Words are just one aspect of such language games.

You seem to be implying that if I consider any agenda other than the artist’s, this is in some way ‘devaluing’ the artist or the work of art. I take strong issue with this. To me, such an approach seems overly reductionist, blinkered and dictatorial. It also seems disingenuous since such an approach would deliberately exclude different points of view - which seems suspiciously like a political act to me!

Beardsley seems to fit roughly into Kantian sophisticated objectivism. The question still remains, whose aesthetic rules? I find Beardsley’s approach useful for some contexts. However, I also find other perspectives useful. I am a pragmatic relativist. My proposition that all art is inherently political is not partisan. I’m not proposing any PARTICULAR political context. Such a debate would need to be far more context-specific.

Let me leave you with an imaginary ‘apolitical’ artist to consider. I’ll start with a close up. A man is painting a beautiful sunset with a rapt smile on his face. He appears to be perfectly at peace with the world and himself. Our imaginary camera slowly tracks back. It reveals him painting as he sits on a hillside overlooking Auschwitz concentration camp. A fresh trainload of women and children are being led to the gas chambers. The crematoria chimneys are glowing red against the darkening sky. A friend walks over to the artist. He admires the painting, then asks “Why haven’t you painted the women and children?” “Oh that’s all political” says the artist. “I don’t want to paint that. That’s not my agenda at all”.

Ludicrous? Obscene? Yes, I suppose it’s still art. But I argue the right to challenge the artist’s ‘apolitical’ agenda. Is it really apolitical? An extreme scenario, I admit. But it illustrates the point I’m trying to make. The artist can ignore politics if they so choose. That’s their right. But that doesn’t free their art from political context. Ever.

MC: It is amusing that those who refute Beardsley always throw out Duchamp’s fountain as an example that breaks the rule. The simple fact is that Duchamp did not propose ‘fountain’ as an art object at all, but as a test of some exhibition rules. He thought so much of its relevance at the time that he did not even keep it in his own care and was not perturbed in the least when Picabia threw it away shortly after an exhibition in which it was hidden behind a screen. Even Duchamp’s follow up statement does not even claim it as an art object but only asserts the right to “choose” what he wants to exhibit under the exhibition rules. So much for art as idea, it really is non-art, or at the very best a very weak form of visual philosophy.

The unifying factor in all art is clearly the aesthetic. I wonder how some future archaeologist who digs up a bed or a urinal will know what that object means if it has no aesthetic content? Is he/she to know this object is a work of art, and by what criteria? If art really is an idea, then our archaeologist faces the absurd prospect of classifying everything he finds as art, an insane proposition, but nevertheless this is the insane philosophy that underpins ‘art as idea’. Similarly, so much idea based art relies on context to be art. When walking past a rubbish tip (a different context to a gallery) this particular bed or that old urinal are just seen as rubbish, fact, but wow, here is a painting of a glorious sunset (painted at Auschwitz so it says) and here a Rembrandt, and you know them instantly as art, you cannot ignore their aesthetic content that strikes a chord with something innate in your inner being. You say you are an artist, if you are, and you are a man of your time, you should be acutely aware that the new aesthetic movement is challenging idea based art and showing the premises and philosophy that underpins it to be, like the tip analogy, total rubbish.

The fact still exists that many people in the past have lived in isolation and still do today (Outsider art) yet still produced aesthetic objects that have no other agenda (NOT political, NOT social, art NOT to be seen so discount “audience”, NOT to be placed in any “context” either) than to explore aesthetic qualities. The drive to produce art, to explore the aesthetic impulse is just as much a human constant as the drive to spirituality. It is innate and part of human nature, it has nothing whatsoever to do with politics since that is generated from human nurture.

Me: I would argue that politics is just as innate to human nature as art or spirituality.

I would like to suggest that we focus the debate on specific works of art. I invite you to propose one or more for consideration in which you believe:

a) the artist’s intention was demonstrably immune from political context at the time of creation (notice ‘context’, not ‘agenda’ - it is the CONTEXT which gives art its inherent political status, regardless of the artist’s intentions);

b) the audience’s reception was/is demonstrably immune from political context.

The difficulty here will be that ‘political context’ covers such a deep and pervasive range of human thoughts and feelings (inherited aesthetic values, intertextual references, language games, moral values, symbolism, etc.). All of these are shaped by the political context surrounding the artist and the audience, whether they acknowledge it (or are even aware of it) or not. However, I’m willing to consider each case on its own merits and test ‘after the fact’ without prejudice.

I have proposed that ALL art is inherently political. If we can agree on at least one art work which is a true ‘outsider’ then I think that I would need to modify the proposition to ‘NEARLY all art is inherently political’. If we can agree on several cases then I would need to modify it to ‘MOST art is inherently political’. If we can agree on a recognizable apolitical genre then I would need to dilute the proposition again. But it would still stand as a strong proposition.

Aesthetic responses to an art work can only be EXPERIENCED subjectively. However, they can only be CONSIDERED relatively (not objectively, since there is no true objective frame of reference). For this reason, I predict that the moment you propose an ‘outsider’ art work for consideration (if such a thing arguably exists) then it will lose whatever apolitical status you believed it once possessed. However, I am keen to try and falsify this prediction as this would be an interesting result.

What would you like to propose for consideration?

Me: While we’re pondering, NOT one I think you would propose...

Cock of Stages. (Yes, I am a tad grumpy this morning). This looks like loathsome anti-theatre shit. ‘Harmless fun’ my arse. Ironically, in real life, the ‘evil property developer’ villains probably invest money in shows like this then go to giggle at them. May jeroboams of excitement explode in their faces :)

MC: You must have guessed by now that I have been playing the devil’s advocate in this discussion and my actual thoughts on the matter are more in agreement than anything else. It is just that I have a natural instinct to reject any hard and fast rules as a way of testing them, so as to view topics in a new light as it were. However, there still persists a nagging thought at the back of the mind that art in its most simplest and ideal form is an innate aesthetic constant of human beings as much like the uniqueness of laughter or spirituality and therefore bares no relationship, in this ideal form at least, to politics. I don’t know if this can be demonstrated by use of particular works of art, as a work of art never has one intention, to be totally aesthetic. The aesthetic drive may be a work of arts major aim but it can also have other intentions carried by the aesthetic, for example religion during the renaissance.

But a case in point that you may find interesting. I had an extremely talented artist brought to my studio many years ago now, who although only 14yrs of age was completely mute and had no understanding of language. Like a cat or dog his only response to words was to his name, Nicholas. Psychologists had determined using various verbally (the Wittgenstein’s disease) based IQ tests that his intelligence was well below idiot level. Fortunately some new visual tests were administered to him while I knew him and they realised that his personal meaning system, how he made sense of the world, was indeed visual. He turned out to actually have an IQ of over 190. I mention this because if I had to point to someone who was a tabula rasa, with no legacy to tradition, the past, to socialisation (he was kept on his own in a shed by the parents, who could not cope with him from a very early age) or to anything like the political it would be Nicholas. He produced beautiful work and would let no one remove it from his person and yet he had no understanding that his work had meaning in itself or for other humans, it was certainly not meant as communication, it was simply and purely the enactment of the innate need for engagement with the aesthetic.

When you first announced that all art is political I remembered Nicholas’s work and that is what provoked my response. There are many people like Nicholas, who do not share all our cultural baggage, people who because of a quirk of birth or mind or perception are outside our particular political box and the art they produce is dependent on these quirks of nature not nurture. When you mistake your wife for a top hat (see Oliver Sacks) it becomes obvious your perception, understanding and indeed representation is not based in the political or social world of here and now, but intrinsically within the distortions of the mind. There would seem to be this fundamental biological natural base to which we can relate all that we value, even such basics as good and bad, the fundamentals from which politics springs. Spinoza put it this way, (I am quoting from memory so the wording may not be exactly correct here) ‘We do not want, seek, or desire a thing because it is good, we think a thing good because we want, seek and desire it.’ In other words nature determines those things we would politically value when we nurture.

Me: This is a fascinating and worthy case study to bring to the debate. Devil’s advocate is fine by the way. I do much the same myself (so much so that I sometimes forget my own opinions ).

I completely empathise with your observations here. Whether or not Nicholas provides an exception that proves the rule is still debatable. However, my political fist would avoid hammering the art on the table in his presence. Instead, I would become far more interested in this pictorial window on an aesthetic soul. The political context would still be relevant (what external forces held him back from finding his worldview, and what allied aesthetics helped him find it?) but I agree that sometimes the artist and/or the art is more interesting than the politics.

Perhaps this is even a criterion for ‘transcendental art’?

SJ: Chris are you looking for an overarching definition of art?

Is your art overtly political?
In the same way that Sunday painter's aren’t? ;-)

SJ: Chris does tend to make the classic post-modern mistake by announcing with absolute conviction,

‘There is no grand narrative, no absolutes, no true values, no objectivity’


SJ: The art I like has changed over the years, in many ways my own tastes have developed along the same line as Philip Guston’s long career, in respect to his unhappy sojourn into abstract expressionism only to return to representation.

In a sense I find his later work more ‘meaningful’ than his abstract works, the same way I find the ‘colour and landscape’ of Philip Glass more talkative than Steve Reich’s music.

So I find an engagement in human affairs more satisfying, interesting, informative and therefore meaningful than an art form that perhaps shuns that kind of complexity?

If we take a very broad definition of politics to include nearly every human concern, attitude or activity then most of the work that I rate, is political, it engages with humanity.

Having said that I like David Hockney’ new landscapes, which on the face of it are not very political but decorative and nostaligic, so perhaps there is a sliding scale with a range that extends from not very to very political?

Surely it depends very much on the artist’s intentions, if it turns out that subconsciously they are making a political statement, then how important or relevent is that?

Me: Just a holding post M. A worthy case study. Don’t want to give a reflexive response. Been debating general philosophical issues arising from it down the pub. I need to think through the ‘empathy’ bit. Doctor Who/Story of Film tomorrow, so I hope to have thought it through by Sunday. Thanks for throwing that curve ball. Have a good weekend :)

Me: Hi M. Back after some hard plea-bargaining with the Devil’s Advocate.

I completely empathise with your observations here. As described, Nicholas seems to live in his own secret garden of ‘local truths’ (which are allowed in pragmatic relativism), uncomprehending of the babbling world outside its walls, playing his own delightful visual games (and I wish him well). We seem to be cast in the role of voyeurs, peeping over the wall, enjoying (and possibly envying) his aesthetic ‘innocence’.

However, Nicholas’s ‘private garden’ only exists because the world outside its walls allows it to exist. A less compassionate culture would either refuse to nurture such artists (e.g. deny them food, shelter and love) or break down the walls to force the artist to become part of the ‘real’ world. Either course of action (as far as I am concerned) would be brutal and horrifying.

Because I am a relativist, I claim that there can never be an objective frame of reference. We only ‘prefer’ our own position because we cannot experience any other perspective directly. Our experience of other perspectives is always mediated by an object or a process that is subject to influence or interference by other forces (‘language games’, photons, or ‘politics’).

Following on from this, there is no possible Platonic aesthetic which the artist and the audience can directly ‘access’ and ‘share’. The art work is a ‘forum’ for language games, not a ‘window’ on the artist’s soul (which is an emergent property of lower order insentient processes). Physically, there is no ‘I’ for us to engage with. There is no ghost in the machine. There is only the machine itself.

See Free Will: A Suspension of Disbelief in Our Own Ghost Stories (The Rugby Ball in the Mud, the Ghost in the Machine…)

If the artist is disengaged from the world of other minds, and has no agenda beyond physicalising their own thoughts/emotions for their own satisfaction, then they are conversing with themself, trying out different interior perspectives in an exterior forum. But that is still a political process because it is an assertion of the self, which is an inherently political act (increasingly so when others become involved in the process of ‘helping’ the artist to develop their ‘potential’ - all loaded terms).

However, a common (possibly ubiquitous) evolutionary trait of the human mind (even withdrawn ‘private’ minds, or disturbed and disordered ones) is a need/pleasure in recognizing and interacting with patterns. These patterns can take many forms (the arts and sciences being exemplary). So I would argue that we are not engaging and empathising with our ‘private’ artist’s imagination or perspective here. We are empathising with our own need to see patterns. The artist may be politically ‘innocent’ - but the world of other minds is not - and this still places our artist in the political arena. Regrettably, we seem to be moving toward an increasingly intolerant neo-positivist ‘culture’ which shows declining interest in nurturing aesthetic appreciation. The future for such ‘children of a lesser god’ fills me with foreboding. Remember the infamous Nazi euthanasia clinics?

Friedl was a "happy, friendly" little boy, who "laughed a lot", but who "just didn't speak".

I wonder how many children like Nicholas were left outside to die under cold stars because they didn’t fit the Nazi ‘aesthetic’? Our moral duty to care for such ‘private’ artists entails that their survival and art are still an inherently political act…

SJ: @Chris // I claim that there can never be an objective frame of reference//

if that is the case, then how can you know that?

Me: Einstein’s General and Special Theories of Relativity.

Einstein's Theory Of Relativity Made Easy

Simultaneity - Albert Einstein and the Theory of Relativity

SJ: Why is your argument for relativism not itself relative?

Me: The argument for pragmatic relativism IS relative in itself. That’s why it’s so useful...

[Extract from Humour in the Holocaust: Does Laughter Relieve Our Suffering or Diminish Our Objections to the Suffering of Others? CHAPTER 1: Introduction. (What are laughter, comedy and humour?) - Aesthetic judgments (about half way down) ]

‘The main attraction of pragmatic relativism is that it is an essentially modest theory (it does not assert its supremacy over other useful theories) and allows us to be receptive to competing aesthetic judgments by emphasising their differences rather than their similarities.

The main failing of pragmatic relativism is that, in failing to acknowledge the superiority of any one mode of aesthetic judgment (including itself) it cannot arbitrate between competing judgments.

Therefore, while pragmatic relativism may be useful in discussing the question of taste in humour, it is unable to provide us with any conclusion.

Despite the inherent inconclusiveness of pragmatic relativism, it is a nimble enough perspective to enable us to avoid the logical pitfalls which open up before each of the other perspectives discussed. We will therefore proceed to examine the question of taste using a sophisticated pragmatic relativistic perspective.’

The criteria for arriving at any particular CONCLUSION are more eclectic, rhizomatic and context-specific than any one necessarily limited perspective. The arguments here become necessarily complex, but a good way in may be Roger Scruton’s proposed resolution of the apparent dichotomy between determinism and free will (neither of which actually exist - in their common-sensical paradigms anyway).

“The conflict, therefore, is not between actions that are free and actions that are caused: our science of human nature applies indifferently to both and denies the reality of the contrast. The conflict is between attitudes that require us to overlook causality and attitudes that require us to attend to it, and to define what we see in terms of it.” (Roger Scruton, Modern Philosophy: A Survey, London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994, p.234).

The attached epistemological map of 'fit/unfit for purpose' paradigms may provide another useful way in:

PHILOSOPHY Epistemological Debate Map - Probability, Statistics and Bikinis

SJ: right, so you do aim to arrive at some sort of agreed conclusion, you just use relativism as a way of keeping the discourse fluid?

I had thought that relativists believed (erroneously) that everybody was right?

Me: I’m not particularly bothered by agreement or disagreement. Both have their uses. If any of these different perspectives were entirely and eternally correct, we wouldn't be having this conversation. I’m more interesting in clarifying insightful questions and developing more useful paradigms. The conclusions will have to wait until the essential arguments become more clear. I believe that this will involve a resynthesis of art, philosophy and science. That requires a real education system (which we don’t have).

Only the most dogmatic and vulgar of relativists (those are technical terms, not terms of abuse) ‘proceeds from the rather pessimistic premise that, since we cannot incontrovertibly prove universal standards or values, all standards and values must logically be equally valid (or worthless).’ I'm neither dogmatic or vulgar - in the technical sense :)

My methodology is essentially Socratic...

[Extract from On the Need to Relearn the Socratic Method ]

‘He was a pseudo-ignoramus. By asking a relentless series of Columbo-like faux-naif questions, he would eventually force the pseudo-intellectual to expose the inconsistencies in their story. And he usually landed a knock-out blow. The tyrants tried to defeat him, not by logic, but by trying to get blood on his hands. They ordered him to take part in bringing an innocent man for execution. He quietly refused on principle. His death was highly ironic. His friend asked the Oracle whether anyone was wiser than Socrates, to which the Oracle replied no. Socrates believed that he was not wise because his philosophy proceeded from a starting point of ignorance. He questioned a lot of so-called wise men but concluded that they were pseudo-intellectuals. Socrates was the wisest man because he was aware of his own ignorance. The so-called wise men, having been made to look foolish, conspired to accuse Socrates of corrupting the minds of youth. He was, of course, found guilty and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. A model philosopher and teacher’ ;)

“I know you won't believe me, but the highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others.” ~ Socrates

SJ: In that case you either don’t know or don't care if all art is inherently political.

I’ve always regarded internet discussions as a creative process myself. :-)

Me: My short answer is that I both know, and care that I know, that all art is inherently political (unless it can be demonstrated otherwise). I also know that this is just one story amongst many...

A more meaningful response to your point requires clarification of:

1) what you actually mean by 'know'
2) what you actually mean by 'care'
3) whether your restricted options are the only two reasonable possibilities available to me!

For example, I ‘know’ that 2 + 2 = 4.

I also ‘know’ that Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems prove (in the mathematical sense of the word) that there is no complete and consistent set of axioms for all of mathematics.

I also ‘know’ that any formal system interesting enough to formulate its own consistency can prove its own consistency if and only if it is inconsistent.

What I don’t yet ‘know’ (or, at least, have not yet decided) is what criteria are most fit for purpose (and in which contexts) for determining whether a formal system is ‘interesting’ (and what is meant by ‘interesting’).

Put in another context: I ‘know’ that I experience free will.

I also ‘know’ that my apparent free will is a teleological fallacy.

I also ‘know’ that ‘I’ am an emergent property rather than an underlying one.

I ‘know’ that I hold people fully responsible for the consequences of their actions in some contexts.

I also ‘know’ that I hold people less responsible in other contexts.

All of these are different types of ‘knowing’ (and there are many, many more). Knowledge is more than just 1/0 information theory. It is (primarily, I would argue) a selection of narratives (which brings us back to aesthetics). “There is no such thing as a fact. There are only stories. Choose different facts and you get a different story”.

I agree that internet discussions should be a creative process. Now, what do we mean by ‘creative’? ;)

As for what is meant by ‘care’ (and what other options may reasonably be available to me) that’s far more aesthetic and complicated :)

Do you have any specific context in mind when you use the term ‘know’?

Me: I’ve actually posited a question (“Is all art inherently political?”).

As one way into exploring the question I’ve proposed a hypothesis (“All art is inherently political”). This is, in itself, a provisional conclusion from other thought experiments and debates.

I’ve summarised and referenced some of these other thought experiments and invited respondents to provide counter-examples which may falsify or modify the provisional conclusion.

This is not the same as seeking ‘universal agreement’ or a ‘universal truth’. As a relativist, I find such concepts untenable.

The proposition that “all art is inherently political” is, at best, a ‘local truth’ and is not dependent on universal agreement.

Valid arguments guarantee true conclusions provided that their premises are true.

Valid arguments with one or more false premises may or may not have true conclusions. We can’t be sure of this simply on the basis of their validity.

Validity should not be confused with truth. Validity is always a quality of the STRUCTURE of arguments. These structures are one of the things being examined in this debate thread.

Statements are true or false (locally, anyway). Arguments can never be true or false. Statements can never be valid or invalid (except in the colloquial sense).

I’m not bothered by agreement or disagreement because both possibilities lead into interesting (and not necessarily mutually exclusive) contexts. This is not the same as claiming that I ‘don’t care’. This is where language games become important as you may be ‘over-extending’ localized claims then mistaking them for universal ones. ‘ALL art is inherently political’ is not actually a universal claim. If there was an end to politics (not foreseeable, I admit) then the statement would no longer be true. In such idealized circumstances, whether or not much of what is now recognized as art would still be recognized as art is dubious. Not that I’m a theist, but what place for art in heaven (unless we see God as a dictator)? Kant’s antinomies may be a useful concept to bear in mind here (

“ ... what practical use it to the artists to be aware of the ‘fact’ that ‘All art is inherently political’?”

I would say that depends on the artist. Awareness of political context (in the broadest sense of the term) and ‘political art’ are not the same thing at all. Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Mozart, Beethoven, Picasso, Orwell, Jim Morrison (to name a very few) seem to have artistically thrived on awareness of political context (e.g. ‘Mozart was a political revolutionary’

Creativity, like success, has many fathers. I find different proposals useful for different contexts. However, having just surfaced for air from an oppressively uncreative education system, I would generally empathise with the following blog post which caught my eye the other day...

“Creativity is not something that can be taught like Maths; there are no real correct answers...” (Try telling schools that!). ‘Openness... Curiosity... Preparation... Passion... Sharing... Serendipity [a happy accident]’



    Sam Harris (world famous neuroscientist philosopher) is offering his critics a chance to put up or shut up. He's offered a cash prize of $20,000 (about £12,800) to anyone who can convincingly refute his central argument for a scientific morality.

    Assuming no-one can refute him, there's a consolation prize of $2,000 (about £1,280) for the most interesting response.

    See FAQs in link for further details. Closing date for entries is 9 February 2014, so you've got time to buy his book and boost his royalties.


    Hmmm… Traditionally, science has been regarded as descriptive and morality as prescriptive. But science is also predictive. So, in Sam’s moral landscape, do good* predictions = good** prescriptions?

    * Falsifiable
    ** Beneficial

    Possibly. But if they’re truly equivalent, does it work vice versa? This leads out onto some very thin ice…

    The real question is always “Cui bono” (to whose benefit?). So I suspect that Sam’s thesis could only be refuted by reference to de facto cynicism rather than de jure principle (i.e. selectivity and performativity)


    I don’t actually want to refute Sam’s thesis (fortunately for me). I just want to qualify it (modesty is my only flaw). But, in order to qualify it, I’ll have to fail to refute it in a way that grabs his interest. So, all I’m really looking for is a fascinating aesthetic conundrum at the heart of his argument…

    See also:

    Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

    First Draft PhD Proposal

    Woolwich Threads

    A Crash Course in Aesthetics

    Metamodernist Case Notes on a Think Tank Thread: Why Us and Why Now?

    Notes on Metamodernism: The Pit and the Pendulum...

    The Name of the Ghost

    Teachers Talking Rot (1 of 2)

    Teachers Talking Rot (2 of 2)

    See also: "Perhaps description is the key?"

    Marty Solves One of the Problems of the Universe

  2. WG: If morality evolved for the purpose of fostering community, can we deduce anything about what is moral/immoral without committing the naturalistic fallacy? If so, what?

    Naturalistic fallacy

    CP: Assuming evolution (and discounting intelligent design) we would be committing a teleological fallacy if we claimed that morality evolved for any purpose.

    See Teleological Argument

    It would be less erroneous if we simply claimed that community evolved as a successful survival strategy. From this we can deduce that morality evolved from a natural hierarchical pecking order into etiquette.

    See Etiquette

    The problem of the 'Naturalistic Fallacy' arises because of a manmade distinction between natural and manmade.

    This distinction seems to be an inverted form of the anthropomorphic/pathetic fallacy.

    See Pathetic Fallacy

    Man (i.e. homo sapiens) evolved IN the natural world. However, our intelligence evolved as another successful survival strategy. Eventually, this sapient differential resulted in misrecognition. We began to see ourselves as SEPARATE from the natural world.

    However, this separation is a fallacy. In (physical) reality, sentience is an emergent phenomenon. The artificial is still part of the natural world.

    From our initial premises, we can deduce that morality (i.e. evolved etiquette) can only exist in higher level consciousness. Therefore, we can deduce that morality is a complex emergent property.

    After that, we can only deduce that we are playing Wittgensteinian language games.

    See Language-game (philosophy)

    In 'The Moral Landscape', Sam Harris proposes we should discard cultural relativism and quantify these language games in terms of 'the well-being of conscious creatures'. It's a logical deduction and a valid premise.

    See 'The Moral Landscape'

    Whether his arguments are sound is still up for grabs though.


    CP: If morality is ‘the well-being of conscious creatures’, then consciousness must precede well-being.

    This is a one-way logic gate. We can talk of consciousness without well-being, but it makes no sense to talk of well-being without consciousness.

    Ergo, existence must precede essence (sans Sartrean Free Will).

    Ergo, survival must precede morality.

    But survival of what? Individuals, communities, genes, or memes?

    These qualities are entangled and interdependent. But which is most important?

    Ironically, we cannot be equitable from first principle here. Unfortunately, we do not live in a deathless paradise. Therefore, in the physical universe, we can only talk of survival and morality in terms of priorities (e.g. dilemmas or conflicts of interest).

    The scientific method can quantify well-being. But can it qualify existential priorities? If not, then a scientific morality without aesthetic qualification has no system of prioritization.

    Ergo, does ‘scientific morality’ encounter similar inconsistencies to those identified in Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems?

    Raatikainen, Panu, "Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)