Plato’s Crito explores many issues I feel relevant to the discussion, not necessarily pertaining to the artist’s usefulness or moral relevance, but to his motivations and intentions.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Socrates, wrongly condemned to death, sits in his cell awaiting execution, and is visited by his friend Crito, who desperately wants to help him escape. When Crito reveals his primary motivation – the fear that people will think he didn’t try hard enough to save his friend – he steps right into a very deep and complex exploration of whether men should act in accordance with the opinion of the many – an issue highly relevant to any artist interested in genuine communication with his audience.
As Socrates says, “Why, Crito, should we care about the opinion of the many? Good men, and they are the only persons who are worth considering, will think of these things truly as they happened.”
He later continues with a more direct examination of the plight of the artist: “Was the disciple in gymnastics supposed to attend to the praise and blame and opinion of every man, or of one man only – his physician or trainer, whoever that was?” The answer is clear: please you trainer, not the audience. For if man “disobeys and disregards the opinion and approval of the one, and regards the opinion of the many who have no understanding,” he will suffer evil.
Crito has a good rebuttal: “the opinion of the many must be regarded, as is evident in your own case, because they can do the very greatest evil to anyone who has lost their good opinion.” And as Socrates later adds, “the many can kill us.” But his response to the dilemma is this: “not life, but a good life, is to be chiefly valued.” And, after a complex description of why he cannot escape because he feels it’s morally wrong, he concludes: “neither will you nor any that belong to you be happier or holier or juster in this life, or happier in another, if you do as Crito bids.” Thus reveals the self-serving nature of Socrates’ decision – it makes him happy.
These issues are relevant to the difficult dilemma facing the artist who strives to appeal to the masses while simultaneously remaining true to himself. Socrates would seemingly advise to not play to the groundlings, though one could make the case that it is in fact the artist’s job to entertain, and whether or not his drama professor would approve of the work, he has succeeded if the audience walks away entertained. Rousseau would most likely agree with the latter argument, viewing art as idle intellectual distraction, generating an elite culture exchanging “ideas” and “tastes” that aren’t in any way morally beneficial to society.
Which side would Oscar Wilde fall upon? What would he advise for the artist who finds himself in a time when, as Rousseau says, “the greatest masterpieces of dramatic poetry are condemned, and the noblest musical productions neglected?” Would he agree with Rousseau that the artist “will lower his genius to the level of the age, and will rather submit to compose mediocre works, that will be admired during his lifetime, than labour at sublime achievements which will not be admired till long after he is dead?” Would Wilde advocate highly formal non-naturalistic art forms, as he does in The Decay of Lying, if there were no audience for it? If such creations had no potential to win the artist the audience’s good favor?