I’m torn on how to answer this question. Not torn, rather just unsure. Eisenberg says it so beautifully—there is a romanticism to feeling that art enables goodness, and romanticism seems like a soft sword to wield against the worst elements of living in a world stewarded somewhat ineptly by flawed people throughout history.
I also don’t know that our happiest, most fulfilled selves represent the best members of our society. Literature, the art that I’m constantly devoting my life to (in the consuming, making, editing, administrating, circulating, loving, criticizing, complete nose to tail sense), has if anything made me more likely to be the kind of person who stays home grappling with a book than the kind of person who goes out into the world to make the material conditions of living better for anyone.
What are our best members of society? Are they the members who participate responsibly and from a well informed vantage in civic duty? Are they the members who instruct children in literacy and other skills necessary for living a suitably ethical life? Are they the farmers who raise the rice so that we all can eat? There are no best members, I don’t think. But I nonetheless, like you seem to, think art helps.
This is perhaps an evasive answer to your question, but I can’t help but think of Sheila Heti’s book, How Should a Person Be?. The hero of the book, Margaux, is a painter, and she struggles with this problem of being unsure of how a person could devote their life to the vanity inherent to devoting oneself to the creation of art rather than the moral glory of working toward materially better conditions for others in the world.
"Margaux worked harder at art and was more sceptical of its effects than any artist I knew. Though she was happier in her studio than anywhere else, I never heard her claim that painting mattered. She hoped it could be meaningful, but had her doubts, and so worked doubly hard to make her choice of being a painter as substantial as it could be…Sometimes she felt bad and confused that she had not gone into politics—which seemed more straightforwardly useful, and which she thought she was probably suited for, having something of the dictator inside, or something of a dictator’s terrible certainty. Her first feeling every morning was shame about all the things wrong in the world that she wasn’t trying to fix."
So I suppose the only answer I have for you is the same as the one I’ve made do with myself, and the same as the one Margaux has: make sure your choice is as substantial as it can be, and just keep making that choice. Until perhaps you can’t anymore, and need to make another choice. Then make that one as substantial as you can.
…if I’m going to spend my time writing fiction rather than, say, lying down in the path of a proposed tar-sands pipeline, and if I’m going to use my share, or more than my share, of the world’s resources to lead this pleasant writer’s life, I’m going to want to think there’s some value in it—if not in what I myself write, at least in writing in general.
Perhaps I should be more suspicious of my belief that there is inherent value in literature. It could be pure, self-serving, soft-brained romanticism, the belief that probing the most delicate and subtle areas of the mind by, say, listening to music or reading, will develop what is human in you. There are abundant examples of reactionary, loony, virulently prejudiced artists and art lovers, so one can hardly insist that art is definitively good for the brain. But I believe that a lack of art is really bad for the brain. Art, itself, is inherently subversive. It’s destabilizing. It undermines, rather than reinforces, what you already know and what you already think. It is the opposite of propaganda. It ventures into distant ambiguities, it dismantles the received in your brain and expands and refines what you can experience.
— Deborah Eisneberg, in her Paris Review interview from last year. I picked up her collected stories the other week and have been reading them in order, one a day, so revisited this, and was pleased to see her take on a thing that’s been troubling me, again, for the past few months. The thing is nothing new, in fact is as old as politics; how can I tell that I have made the right choice in dedicating my life to something other than, as Eisenberg has it, “lying down in the path of a proposed tar-sands pipeline”?
The fact is I can’t, but the good news is that I’ll have the rest of my life to keep making that choice, every single day.
I barely get out, and I don’t go away. When I was younger, I would fantasize about getting on some bus, like Enid Coleslaw at the end of Ghostworld, and never looking back. I liked the idea of eloping with an ambiguous future; the only commitment I wanted to make was to something totally…
LB4 Is here, friends! Right here.
— David Balzar, on Alain de Botton’s truly terrible #artastherapy, winning my heart.
what is it about certain punishing deadlines that make me suddenly, for the first time in months, feel the need to visit linkedin.com?
UPDATE: I followed a bunch more porny tumblrs and now my dashboard is more porn than books and I no longer feel chill looking at tumblr on the streetcar.
— Sina Queyras, MxT.