Monday, December 04, 2006

Rousseau's Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences

Each artist much deal with Rousseau’s Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences in his own way.

Any cogent analysis of the document must first begin with an examination of how Rousseau defines and distinguishes between moral and immoral behavior.

According to Rousseau, in an ideal society, each man would be, “attentive only to the obligations of humanity and the necessities of nature,” spending his whole life, “serving his country, obliging his friends, and relieving the unhappy.” Men should be “resolute and vigorous,” should seek, “magnanimity, equity, temperance, humanity, and courage,” as well as “military discipline,” while working “unanimously for the happiness of mankind,” and studying “valour, prudence, and justice.”

“Idleness” is to be feared. The “effeminate and cowardly” are to avoided. “Every useless citizen should be regarded as a pernicious person.”

The only questionable virtue he describes is military discipline, which could be coupled with the obligation of man to serve his country – elements which receive much emphasis in the tract. Rousseau argues that the arts and sciences breed an idleness and fear of military involvement that frequently leads to the downfall of nations. Though this notion may be correct, his argument directly contradicts his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, written five years later, where he states, “Hence arose the national wars, battles, murders, and reprisals which make nature tremble and shock reason, and all those horrible prejudices which rank the honor of shedding blood among the virtues.” The matter becomes confused when you take into account the argument that military conflicts, and the systems that perpetuate their continuance, are in a sense, morally wrong. And unnatural, as Rousseau argues when he writes, “more murders were committed on a single day of fighting and more horrors in the capture of a single city than were committed in the state of nature during whole centuries over the entire face of the earth.”

However, in general, what Rousseau describes as “moral” seems to be in congruence with tenets preached by most religions and philosophies of the world – that people should devote themselves to the reduction of suffering. And here we find the troubling issue with which every artist must grapple. As Rousseau says, “We do not ask whether a book is useful, but whether it is well-written. Rewards are lavished on wit and ingenuity, while virtue is left unhonoured.” The arts, according to Rousseau, are motivated by vanity, pride, the desire to please one another, and encourage a society obsessed with luxury.

The desire to please one another is a curious one, opening the worm-can of complexities that is the audience/artist relationship. Rousseau speculates on what an artist would do if living in an age when “the greatest masterpieces of dramatic poetry are condemned, and the noblest musical productions neglected.” Answering a question that circulated through the blogosphere in the past year, he predicts 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.”

As for the vain pursuit of fame and luxury that frequently accompanies whatever seemingly noble justifications an artist may have for his work, Rousseau relays this advice: “Let us not covet a reputation we should never attain, and which, in the present state of things, would never make up to us for the trouble it would have cost us, even if we were fully qualified to obtain it. Why should we build our happiness on the opinions of others, when we can find it in our own hearts?”

And he concludes with a declaration especially relevant in our country’s current fame-obsessed atmosphere: “We must learn to be content without envying the fame of those celebrated men, whose names are immortal in the republic of letters. Let us, instead of envying them, endeavor to make, between them and us, that honourable distinction which was formerly seen to exist between two great peoples, that the one knew how to speak, and the other how to act…”

Rousseau’s arguments are difficult for the modern artist. One could certainly respond with talk about the lack of absolute morality, a notion which he brazenly dismisses. One could claim he merely replaces one method of finding satisfaction in life – the pursuit of fame, luxury, and acceptance – with an equally arbitrary goal – the reduction of mankind’s suffering – similarly allowing men to artificially create meaning by setting a goal and measuring the significance of their existence by the extent to which they can achieve it. However, these rebuttals leave me feeling like Ivan Karamazov. When Ivan learned that Smerdyakov used his cold, rationalist worldview as a justification to murder his father, Ivan spiraled into the depths of insanity, hallucinating conversations with the devil. Similarly, when I look deep into the eyes of the suffering created in a world with no absolute morality, I am even more certain of the existence of pure evil. Consequently, upon reading Rousseau’s Discourse, I conduct a long examination of my motivations and intentions as an artist, as all others should.


At 2:59 PM, Blogger Herxanthikles said...

Rob, is there any chance you could elaborate on works of art that Rousseau approves of? (I should know since he was a partisan in the French vs. Italian Opera wars, but French Baroque opera is not exactly my specialty).

I'm particularly confused by what I understand to be his ideal of producing "useful" things, which I take to mean relieving suffering in some practical way, and his embrace of the "sublime" which I usually understand as something transcendantly beautiful, but not useful in a practical way.

At 4:33 PM, Blogger Rob said...

A significant distinction must be drawn between “works of art that Rousseau approves of,” as you say, and works of art that Rousseau deems morally beneficial to society - the answer to the latter being none. I’m uncertain where you got the notion that he embraces the “sublime”. The discourse is essentially, among other things, a scathing attack on the uselessness of sublime works of art.

At 5:44 PM, Blogger Herxanthikles said...

I got it from "than labour at sublime achievements which will not be admired till long after he is dead" and the quotes surrounding it. By accepting that there can be artists of "genius" who can create "masterpieces" and "the noblest musical productions," he is assigning value to art. But I guess as you say, there is a distinction between what he likes and what is "useful to society." Does he propose that people basically shouldn't make art? Or is there room in his formulation for political art, such as Dickens bringing attention to the plight of the poor in his novels? And more generally, is usefulness to society the most important measure of value in your estimation?

At 6:51 PM, Blogger Rob said...

As far as I know, virtually every religion or philosophy preaches that, in one way or another, men should strive to maximize their “usefulness to society.” Most artists that I know have found rationalizations for their career choice in terms of how their work can benefit society, though their drive is actually motivated by vanity and pride (or, in the best cases, by their innate need to “create” whether or not for a practical end).

I can see why you thought it seemed Rousseau was praising the sublime, but his point is actually the opposite – artists wouldn’t strive for the sublime if it didn’t lead to earning the audience’s good favor, indicating that sublime art has no true inherent value.

He argues specifically that, yes, people shouldn’t waste their time creating art. As far as political art, he doesn’t directly address it in the discourse, but my guess is that he would advocate direct education on the plight of the suffering through non-artistic mediums.

At 8:59 PM, Blogger parabasis said...

Harumph. That's what this post makes me feel. It makes me feel harumphish.

Art's uselesssness is part of its beauty. You can say that's rationalization if you want, but really any explanation of anything can be dismissed as a rationalization... Rousseau's essay could be taken as a rationalization for not pursuing the arts, for example.

Embracing art's useless/pointless nature is to me one step closer to realizing how to be really creative in your medium. From personal experience, trying to justify your existence through thinking up "uses" leads to a whole heck of a lot of pain.

Art can be incredibly valuable, but value and use aren't the same thing. For example, I think demonstrating the human animal's capability for creation, for performing beyond oneself, for reinvention is an incredibly beautiful and valuable thing. The art that demonstrates this constantly (acting) is fairly uselss, however.

At 11:00 PM, Blogger Rob said...

Can you elaborate on why you think art has value? And for whom is it valuable?

At 12:25 AM, Blogger Herxanthikles said...

Hey! So the Discourse isn't long, it's on-line, it's translated and so I read it. Score a point for this blog for making me read something I wouldn't have otherwise.

I was pretty surprised about how militaristic the Discourse is--you weren't kidding Rob about the value receiving much emphasis. To Rousseau it seems the highest virtues would seem to be farming, raising animals, and conquering and enslaving other nations. It's a good question to consider whether making art can possibly be worth the time when you could be working for social justice, but as you point out Rob, Rousseau's concept of justice in this particular work is corrupted by his virulent militarism.

I would make a short answer to your question to Isaac with Rousseau. Rousseau has sympathy for a kind of aesthetics, namely nude wrestling. He values the athlete who enjoys "exterting his strength." Why should it be a value for a person to enjoy exterting their god-given strength but not their imagination? To feshitize either nude wrestling or art and inflate their importance so you paid no attention to social justice is bad, but that's a sin of misuse. I could go on, but I'll leave this particular comment at that for now.

At 9:52 PM, Blogger Alison Croggon said...

Strangely, and unconnected with this discussion, I picked up Rousseau's Meditations of a Solitary Walker and read a couple of chapters. I found myself wondering about his deep suffering, which permitted him the luxury of indulging in long walks and solitary reflection and then the leisure to write about it: his withdrawal from human company quite possibly didn't include someone cooking his dinner, which presumably he could also, unlike many of his fellow countrymen, afford to buy. I could be quite wrong on all this, as I am very ignorant about Rousseau. But sometimes reading French writers of that era makes me think about who is dusting their studies and tiptoeing around the house so as not to disturb the gnius at work. I suppose it is the relentless and very specific insistence on the Brotherhood of Man, which leaves quite half of the human race out of the discourse. A suspicion only increased by his disgust with the feminine, of course.

So harumph from me.

For a wonderful discussion on the idea of use in art, I recommend Muriel Rukeyser's inspiring book, The Life of Poetry, in which she says:

"Poetry is above all an approach to the truth of feeling, and what is the use of truth?
How do we use feeling?
How do we use truth?"

And then proceeds to discuss those questions.


Post a Comment

<< Home