Art and the Disrupted World View

Seems like Neil deGrasse Tyson causes a minor uproar every time he wanders outside the STEM fields to make a pronouncement. And since life is short, and he's prone to wander, the only such pronouncements worth bothering with are likely those that afford opportunities for doing justice to a topic he's treated superficially. Thus, this one, from earlier in the week:

If you squint a little, you can make out the judgment he was trying to express — that the most valuable creative works are those that confront, rather than reinforce, your biases — but he made a hell of a mess getting to it.

Part of the problem is that he's phrased the idea in a way that converts a value judgment into a categorical schema. It's not just that challenging art is the best sort of art — rather, art that doesn't challenge you isn't even art. It belongs to another category altogether, that of entertainment. That's similar to the high/low distinction that plagues art criticism, but Tyson's dichotomy depends less on an assessment of the qualities of the work than on the ideological orientation of the audience.

As I pointed out on Twitter, that dichotomy leads logically to a number of confounding and likely unintended consequences. The one that struck me most was the way in which Tyson's dichotomy makes the distinction between art and entertainment not just subjective, but contingent on the disposition who's asking. Consider, for example, Milton's Paradise Lost. Whatever else the poem might do, it presents a very vivid and detailed picture of a particular world view: specifically, the ornate moral and hierarchical order posited by a particular brand of Christianity. If you find your world view affirmed by Paradise Lost — if, that is, you are a particular sort of Christian — then the poem is entertainment. If it conflicts with your world view — if you are, say, a Buddhist, or an atheist, or even simply some other sort of Christian — then, tada! it's art.

Most of us will find that a rather odd consequence, especially since Paradise Lost has long been regarded as one of the peaks of the art of English verse by pretty much anyone who knows the field, regardless of their religious background. It may be that Tyson simply meant world view to imply something more constrained, something more like a political disposition than a complete explication of the moral and cosmic order, but even then the results tend to be rather counterintuitive. Birth of a Nation may well be entertaining to a white supremacist, but it's hard to see why it should only be Art for the audiences that find its racism abhorrent.

Whether he meant to or not, Tyson has wandered into philosophy of art territory, and in philosophy, one of the first tests of a concept is semantic: Does the proposed definition match the way we usually talk about the topic? It's entirely possible to say, "When I talk about art, I'm only talking about creativity that challenges and disrupts the audience's worldview." But if that definition doesn't really bear any relation to the way that we talk about art, then you're not so much interrogating the idea as you are commandeering an old word in order to posit a new idea.

Sometimes a concept is so utterly incoherent underneath the hood that rebuilding it from the ground up makes sense, but only if your renovation improves it. And here, too, there are some pretty basic philosophical tests. Is it self-contradictory? Does it lead to avoidable paradoxes? Does it create needless complications? Tyson's distinction between art and entertainment leads to some pretty thorny consequences:

  • If an artist is someone who creates art, then an artist is not an artist when their work reflects their own worldview.
  • If a work of art persuades you to adopt the world view it represents, then it ceases to be art.
  • A work that entertains you is not entertainment if it also challenges your world view in the process.

And things get really hairy when you're dealing with satire, which often depends on its audience's ability to discern the satirical intent. Put a libertarian and a socialist in front of a movie that satirizes libertarianism. If the socialist recognizes it as satire, but the libertarian does not, then despite their mutually exclusive politics, they are both watching entertainment, since both feel that the movie has affirmed their world view. If the socialist misses the satire but the libertarian does not, suddenly, they're watching art.

Why should anyone accept a distinction that creates so many problems? Is it logically unavoidable, the way atomic theory led inductively to the discovery of elements we had yet to observe directly? Does it provide modes of understanding that are useful enough to justify tolerating their complications? Earlier, I said that you could loosely interpret Tyson's formulation as an awkward way of saying that the best art is challenging, while reassuring art is mere entertainment, but even that leaves me unconvinced. The underlying assumption seems to be that the principle function of art is persuasive. Historically, though, some of the most celebrated art is more ritual than rhetorical. Think: Greek tragedy, Bach's church music — or Tyson's own paeans to the grandeur of the natural world, for that matter. Some art does challenge, but much of what we think of as art, even great art, falls outside of that category. Maybe Tyson could explain why it shouldn't be so, but maybe art is just a more complex concept than accounted for by his tweet. Go figure.

In his defense, art is a pretty slippery thing, and philosophers have put forward a welter of not-entirely-compatible definitions in hopes of nailing it down. If there's a more general principle suggested by the conceptual muddle that spirals off from Tyson's distinction, I'd say it's this: that judgments about the value of kinds of art are a very shaky foundation on which to build a definition.