Following on from my previous post and the distinction made by Ishiguro there between literature that is “improving” in the sense of providing “spiritual and intellectual nourishment” and literature that is “improving” in the sense of being a way of climbing up the “class ladder.” This distinction interests me, and also has some slight tangential relevance for what I’m currently writing (Eden 3), so here is a bit more thinking aloud about it:
I’m aware first of all of an immediate (and somewhat priggish) reaction on my part which says that the first of those two meanings relates to the true function of literature (or other kinds of artistic activity), and the second meaning does not. “Real art is about improving the soul, not about showing off,” this priggish part of me wants to say.
My second thought, though, is that this initial reaction is similar to that of a Christian who complains that we have lost the true meaning of Christmas. The celebration of the birth of Christ is actually not the true meaning of Christmas, but is a meaning that has been grafted onto a winter solstice junket that existed long long before Christ was born. And my best guess is that the idea of art as a form of spiritual nourishment (or the even more recent idea of art as subversion) is likewise a meaning that has been grafted onto a long pre-existing activity. The status aspect almost certainly preceded any idea of art as some sort of personal exploration by the artist.
For surely it is obvious that artistic activity, even way back in history, was all about status, power and conspicuous consumption? The paintings in the tombs of pharoahs, the colossal relief carvings of muscular Assyrian kings: these things not only depict the power of these rulers directly, but also demonstate it. Look, they say, I am so wealthy and powerful, that I am in a position to have thousands of skilled craftsmen devote their time entirely to me!
In the same way, the tapestries and paintings hanging on the walls of stately homes demonstrate both the wealth and the discernment of their owners, while the artists who made them would have been almost entirely dependant on those wealthy people’s patronage. And this extends beyond the visual arts. The praise poets employed by Anglo-Saxon and Brythonic kings, for instance, demonstrated the power, wealth and taste of their masters, not only by singing their praises, but by the wit, skill and beauty of their verses.
The conspicuous consumption aspect of the visual arts is really no less blatant now than it ever was. Claims that contemporary art serves some kind of subversive purpose often seem quite ludicrous to me when that same art is snapped up by billionaires for huge prices that are then trumpeted in the media. (Indeed, in some cases, artists seem to have been granted a kind of alchemical power to turn essentially dull and uninteresting objects into investment opportunities and status symbols.)
In respect of books, music, film, plays, which can be consumed relatively cheaply, the link is a little less obvious: simply owning or consuming them does not directly demonstrate our wealth (unless of course you choose to pay for a box at the theatre: you don’t get much more conspicuous than that!), but it certainly can (as per my previous post) demonstrate how refined, discerning, fashionable or “hip” we are.
I’m not even sure that we can know for certain ourselves whether the “improvement” we seek from a book or an exhibition of pictures is of the first or the second kind. We humans are such status-seeking creatures. Just like our closest primate relatives (and most other social animals), we are constantly aware of and concerned about our position in the social hierarchy. It’s as fundamental as sex, and like sex is all tangled up with our other motives. You go to some fashionable arthouse movie, say, to be elevated by the cutting edge ideas and the ground-breaking cinematography, but can you really be sure that you aren’t least partly motivated by the agreeable awareness that, unlike others, you possess the necessary degree of refinement to enjoy these things?
I guess, if we can speak about pure aesthetic pleasure (pleasure unsullied, so to speak, by the status-climbing instinct) then the times we can be most certain that we are in its presence, are when we are enjoying something that isn’t fashionable, and that won’t win us status points for being seen to consume it.