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Value, Ideology and Context

by Geoff Wade

…music oft hath such a charm
To make bad good, and good provoke to harm.
[Measure for Measure IV i]


Gordon Giles, Michael Bulley and Ralph Blumenau all raise some engaging and controversial questions on the precarious topic of aesthetics and value (PN issues 1, 2 and 3, respectively). All take great pains to avoid elitism whilst at the same time attempting to elevate some cultural products above others, i.e. to separate ‘entertainment’ and trivia from art proper. Notoriously this argumentative path, though well trodden, is still strewn with innumerous pitfalls and obstacles into which these three essayists (like so many before them) stumble and fall. They fall because they are striving to tailor a ready-made ideology from within that ideology, in the hope of making it more acceptable. But to discuss aesthetic value in new ways necessitates reaching beyond those ideological parameters, and breaking out of the self-imposed limits of ‘analytic’ philosophy. It means accepting that there is no ‘disinterested’ discourse, no neutral vantage point; signs and symbols always have an ‘interest’ at heart. Giles, Bulley and Blumenau almost break new ground, but hover on the brink, as it were.

Art and criticism not only operate within the same ideological boundaries, but create each other. This is not an equal measure; taking what is termed ‘Literature’ (the sphere I am most familiar with), one can argue that it is criticism first that creates Literature as an object of highly serious contemplation, awarding certain works ‘canonical’ and ‘universal’ status, but not others; or decreeing that some works are not quite up to the mark. Whether or not Thomas Hardy and the Brontë’s have in the past appeared on school and university syllabuses has largely depended upon the whims of people like T.S.Eliot and F.R.Leavis (whether Ian McEwan, for instance, is Literature or something else, has yet to be decided). The sifting and sorting is based on ideological methodology, to a considerable extent. It is not simply a matter of years of study and acquired knowledge, as Blumenau would have it; knowledge is inevitably interested. At the same time, nonetheless, “every text intimates by its very conventions the way it is to be consumed, encod[ing] within itself its own ideology of how, by whom and for whom it was produced. Every text obliquely posits a putative reader, defining its producibility in terms of a certain capacity for consumption” (Eagleton 1986 p.48). In other words a context is prescribed. Context, however, is not uncomplicated; it is to do with ways of ‘seeing’, hence – as perception is socially and domestically nurtured – it is inextricably bound to ideology and convention. It would be impossible (say) for a modern Westerner to aesthetically, emotionally, appreciate the spiritual significance of cannibalism (other than that the Mass and Transubstantiation are inherited from it); though, as Antonio Gramsci comments: “A poem by a cannibal on the joys of [eating…] human flesh, may be considered beautiful, and require, in order to be appreciated artistically, without ‘extra aesthetic’ prejudices, a certain psychological distance from present culture” (1985 p.120). And mountains only took on their aesthetic prominence shortly after young Wordsworth thought he had been chased by one, in The Prelude.

The Politics of Interpretation and Value

For Bulley, art has cosmic relevance; it contains more points of reference and representation than do lesser creations. True art, he enthuses, perceives the ‘external world’ as ‘inhuman’, rejects a calculating ‘false security’, and forces us to gaze on that world from a fresh observation point; to contemplate it in such a way as to discover ‘what is serious in it’. If, then, art can delight, it can also lay bare the tragedy of human existence, sans cheap sentimentality. Now, I am partly in agreement with this, but with some strong reservations. Firstly, Bertolt Brecht (primarily with respect to drama) derisively contends that much art presents us with serious human dilemmas, only to either (a) provide temporary and unworkable (imaginary) solutions, or (b) leave us pessimistically with an unchangeable human nature: we become emotionally involved with the personae, saying to ourselves, “Yes, life’s like that isn’t it? We all do that don’t we?” Brecht’s project is to have us say, “Things need not be like that; it’s terrible; let’s change it!” (see Brecht, ed.Willett, 1974). A second objection might be that when the Allied troops liberated the Nazi concentration camps the guards and torturers were caught redhanded reading Goethe and Rilke, and listening enraptured to Wagner! Compared to this sort of behaviour, listening to (or hearing) ‘muzak’, watching Coronation Street, or attending a rave, seem innocuous, even noble, ways of whiling away the afternoons, being entertained, or accelerating one’s libidinal drives. Further, we might note here, Bertolt Brecht and the composer Kurt Weill used Broadway, Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood as resource for their works, which deal judiciously with matters ethical and political. So, as well as art getting mixed up in fascist atrocities, problems intensify when we try to draw a dividing line between art and non-art. This is not to refute Giles’s insistence that some kinds of music are designed to be listened to, whereas others are designed just to be heard (‘muzak’), and still others manufactured for the purpose of controlling our thought processes, i.e. to act as nostalgic levers, mnemonics. Giles veers away from the more ominous implications of this latter factor, but I shall deal with them in a moment.

It is not too difficult to ascertain how valuecategories arise. As noted (above) artifacts are predictively aimed at designated consumers, but it is unhelpful to maintain, as does Giles, that “The crucial factor in determining whether” something is or is not ‘art’ is “the spirit in which it was intended ” (my emphases). However, it is important that he comments that, “it is possible to…appreciate art-works in virtue of qualities we invent ourselves”; his remark that pebbles, under certain conditions, may have artistic value, is equally important (though he does not particularly seem to think so). What is ‘intended’ is often appreciably in opposition to what is ‘received’.

Taking ideology as shifting variously between : a body of ideas; the ideas and values of a certain group or social class; and (in)famously ‘false consciousness’, cultural products are infinitely astir with ideological conflict. Artists have gender and race; they have political beliefs, religious or atheistic beliefs; they may be poor or rich; they may be fathers, orphans, widows or pregnant; all of which helps determine what is going on in their heads when they are writing a poem or painting a mural, though not necessarily at a conscious level; moreover, what is going on in their heads may or may not be in agreement with the status quo (there is too the problem of history as opposed to history-as-ideology). It goes without saying, I think, that there may be a conflict between authorial ‘intention’ and authorial belief; and both of these could be stubbornly resistant to the dominant ideology of society. Beethoven could (following Schiller) jubilantly declare: “Alle Menschen werden Brüder ” (all men shall be brothers), while scornfully refusing to write music for the pleasure and inspiration of those not fortunate enough to have had special social training in listening. Artistic creators and their creations have very complex relationships indeed; the consumer/receiver (as a member of the same species, in a similar society) must ipso facto be constructed with no less complexity.

Of course what the artist wants to convey is important; but the upshot of what I have just argued is that the artifact has much more of a dialectical social meaning than is generally recognized. There is much more in Hamlet and the interior of the Sistine Chapel than could possibly have been ‘intentionally’ present in the minds of Shakespeare and Michelangelo when they were creating their respective masterpieces. Books and plays, particularly, will inevitably realize multiple meanings because of the referential and social nature of language, and the fact that it can talk about and judge itself.

The relationships between producers and consumers create, and are provided with, contexts; the stratified nature of society, its ideologies, will designate value and award status. Human beings do not listen and see in pre-given ways. With this weight of theory behind us, let us look again at the perceived dichotomy ’twixt one set of cultural objects, and another.

Michael Bulley draws our attention to the fact that by generally accepted standards, the authentic art work, Bertolucci’s La Luna, depicts some rather horrifying, socially unacceptable practices, whereas the soap opera The Cosby Show is fairly innocent. Others have contended that there is more sex-and-violence in King Lear (inter alia the blinding of Gloucester) and Paradise Lost (e.g. Bks IV & V – luxuriant sexuality, and war) than in programmes and films etc. which fall foul of the scrutinizing morality of Mrs. Mary Whitehouse and her acolytes. Maybe they are right, but it is not enough to respond by asserting that Shakespeare and Milton are engaging with superior ethics and canvassing higher ideals, that sex-and-violence here are incidental: they are frequently not incidental, and they are sometimes intended to arouse certain base feelings in us, amuse us in bawdy ways, or terrify us (consider for a moment the startling irruption of the gory heart on Giovanni’s dagger, in ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore; or the comic scenes, and comedies themselves, of Shakespeare). Again the criteria are political. Let me explain why they are political.

Writers of soap operas may be content to deal with profound social problems and psychological obscurities at the level of bar-room philosophy and disco sub-language: and tabloid newspapers at the level of gibberish about parental control, and other drivel. Art is not satisfied with such ephemeral gestures, preferring silence, as in Beckett, to scratching a spotty surface.

The text (and these principles apply roughly to other modes of artistic production and reception) obviously needs a reader for it to be ‘completed’, to be invested with social meaning, in a full sense. We might say that texts are resources, things to be interpreted; but the resources are also the reader’s own life-experience. Our object could be a John Fowles novel, Woman’s Weekly or a Mills & Boon romance. What would be the difference? Well, just to start with, if the resources are a bit thin on the ground in Woman’s Weekly (or Men Only, for that matter), then you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as the saying goes. That, however, I hear someone cry, is ‘elitist’; and why, it could be asked, do people settle for, why are they satisfied with and even relish, inanities that do no more than briefly titillate or serve as mere mnemonics for nostalgic recollection? And is there not an insult to the life-experience of millions of people? Now ideology-as-falseness works as much by what it does not say, as that by which it does (Beckett’s ‘silence’ is, in one sense, a retort to this); it works by omission. I may be asked whether or not works of ‘High Seriousness’ carry ideology by this subterfuge, of course. Does not Dombey & Son only articulate, but with a little more sophistication, precisely what Mills & Boon push at us? and what is the difference between Wordsworth’s something-or-other ‘recollected in tranquillity’, and pop-mnemonics? There is a difference, and I am agreeing with both Blumenau and Bulley slightly, but I am digging deeper.

The majority of people, for sundry reasons, are often too tired, busy, or anxious, to spend hours contemplating the finer points of Little Gidding; or The Four Seasons; they may even feel inhibited about doing so; they possibly have not even heard of Vivaldi or T.S.Eliot; they may not even know how to use a library properly, which, considering the present lamentable state of the education system, would be hardly surprising, so they will endure the products of the “amusement artist” who “uses his imagination as some means to the achievement of [a…] substitute gratification of desire” (Lewis 1989). This, ultimately, becomes normality, as the whole texture of modern life is shot through with the all-pervading presence of a gigantic industry dedicated to distortion and extortion, which cynically prevents critical toil, mockingly negates history, and imposes immediate mollification and/or excitement (again Brecht: “Yes, I feel like that too, but we can’t change human nature, can we?” “Fancy that, Princess Di likes the same TV shows as me!” There is a blocking of inventiveness and the accretion of satisfaction, which finally safeguards the status quo. There are two objections I want to forestall, (1) Why do representatives of the ruling class occasionally bemoan the passing of certain cultural values if they are antagonistic to the status quo; (2) I am surely promoting the worship of high bourgeois art-forms. The answer to the first is that this happens because there is a contradiction between the drives of the marketplace, the needs of capital and the need to control the consciousness of the lower classes, on the one hand; and on the other, there is a morality which frowns on such conduct, looking backward in the hope of finding a tradition to cling to. To the second objection, I would reply that the greatest works proceed from a long gone period when the bourgeoisie was a revolutionary class, or at least when it retained traces of that revolutionary spirit; a spirit which, incidentally, found its apotheosis musically in Beethoven. As the modern bourgeoisie fervently wish to forget their revolutionary past (England in the 17th, France in the late 18th Centuries) they are looking in the wrong place for their ‘traditions’. Beethoven created a ‘progressive’ totality, whereas modern administered society – where the only difference is the difference of sameness – is a reactionary totality. Governmental pronouncements on our ‘Cultural Heritage’, are mere empty epithets. Mass culture protects the status quo far more effectively than Wilson Knight’s chauvinistic reading of Shakespeare could ever hope to do.

Within the entertainment and culture industry everything is pre-packaged – whatever tries to be progressive, popular and artistically intelligent, simply gets swallowed up in the general noise and glamour of the Spectacle, or is deliberately marginalized – the scriptwriter for instance must sell all rights to the film company before rehearsals start. As for ‘intention’, artists produce for a specially constructed market; the writer may become ‘alienated labour’ before the first words hit the page. Pulp fiction and pop-music and soap operas become political weapons by being emptied of politics; political weapons which would have been the envy of prelates and princes, years ago. Now whatever the social class of the great artist, whatever his or her ideological conflicts involve (and they have often involved skillfully deceiving the censor – yes, in Britain), s/he is not entirely in the same obscene grip as the pulpfiction scribbler, who writes solely for money, to make money and power for others.

Great art can be distorted, incorporated into what Marcuse called the “one dimensionality” of present dominant culture (1969 passim); the cartel of the ‘thought police’ (and, paradoxically, the Romantic artists, from Schubert to Coleridge, broke from patronage by establishing themselves as independent producers, ‘marketing’ their products); but such art will ever resist incorporation and emasculation; it will fight back, and point to a utopian ‘moment’ of ‘redemption’ (see my article on post-modernism, PN issue 4). However reactionary the later Wordsworth may have become, his work still is critical, to a degree, suggesting that something better can be had. A stream of entertaining images points to Nothing, as it “constantly…militates against the development of conceptual thinking” (ibid. p.84). If art creates thought, struggle and thought create art, which is inexorably invested with fresh meaning. T.S.Eliot was an arch-conservative, but one can read him ‘against the grain’, so to speak. Language and meaning are always on the move, as Derrida puts it; our interpretation may be valid, but rub against what the author thought s/he was writing about. In any case, though I insist that Eliot was facing the wrong way historically, his work reveals something desperately wrong with the status quo. Sadly, Modernism (as opposed to modernity), was crushed in several quarters, leaving us with the irrationalism of Eliot, Pound and Dali (see my ‘Modernism & Marxist Aesthetics’ in The Politics of Pleasure, 1992, ed.S.Regan). Finally, I would like to quote Marcuse again:

“Describing to each other our loves and hatreds, sentiments and resentments, we must use the terms of our advertisements, movies…and best-sellers. We must use the same terms for our automobiles…colleagues and competitors – and we understand each other perfectly[!]” [ibid. pp.155/6]

Terry Eagleton, Criticism & Ideology, Verso, 1986, first pub. NLB 1976.
Antonio Gramsci, Cultural Writings (trans. & ed. by W.Boelhowler, D.Forgacs and G.Nowell-Smith), Lawrence & Wishart 1985.
Peter Lewis, ‘Collingwood on Art & Fantasy’, in Philosophy 250, Oct. 1989 (a review of Art & its Objects by Richard Wollheim) CUP 1989.
G. Lukacs, The Theory of The Novel Merlin: London 1988, first pub. Berlin 1920.
H. Marcuse, One Dimensional Man Sphere Books 1969, first pub. in GB 1964.

© Geoff Wade 1993

Geoff Wade teaches English at the Academy Tsekleni in Athens.

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