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Does aesthetic creativity relate to or influence reality? Does art possess the capacity to heal society? These questions seem implicit to Walker Percy's understanding of literature and art in general. Literature is a thought-involved process concerned with communication; it selves as a moral guidepost to commend society as well as correct it. Literature represents and describes; it presents readers with a method of articulating and resolving problems in society.
"So it is clear that redescribing a world is the
necessary first step towards changing it" (Rushdie
Art, in one sense, creates its own political agenda. Percy pursues his diagnostic theory of literature having reckoned with the basic relationship between language and life. Percy seems to answer the initial two questions posed with a resounding yes.
The issue of art's impact upon a society is not quite so easily resolved, however. Not every person writes or thinks about art with the same set of assumptions. In order to strike at the heart of the question "what is the purpose of art?" we must first identify, understand and appreciate certain fundamental assumptions inquiries, mediating contexts, surrounding the political nature of art and the role of the artist in authentic creativity. I would like to frame my discussion within the apparent struggle between two ideological contexts: modernism and postmodernism. Using Percy's diagnostic theory of literature to facilitate the discussion, we can examine how modem and postmodern assumptions attempt to shape the purpose of aesthetic creativity.
Percy's approach to art is inherently modern. He is concerned with unity and truth and achieving them through the creative process. Modernism claims to Speak to some form of ideological absolute, a universal quality. All things ultimately move to reveal a unified whole, a universe bathed in Truth. Reason is the primary tool of the modernist. It is privileged above all other human faculties. Reason allows humanity to possess knowledge, to know, to assimilate, to unify. Truth and knowledge are hopelessly intertwined. The search for knowledge is thus the search for truth as well. Percy mirrors this modern reverence for the power of human thought, when he claims that literature is essentially cognitive. Art is an expansion and extension of the mind. Art is thus actively involved in the search for Truth.
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Equally important to knowing the Truth is the ability to communicate it to others. Language gives thought form and life.
"Modernism from its very beginning, therefore,
became preoccupied with language, with finding some
special mode of representation of eternal truths"
For some modernists like Habermas, language, the capacity for speech, is the defining characteristic of humanity. This ability allows us not only to learn the Truth but to communicate it to others as well. Language must be used perfectly, received without distortion, in order to communicate Truth. Language is more than simply mimetic to the modernist. If used properly, language presents the possibility of authentically altering reality .
Percy places responsibility for communication squarely upon the shoulders of the artist. Artists, especially writers, raise language to a higher level of communication. They push language toward perfection, toward Truth which lies at the center. Through language, art sets ideological standards and begins to change the face of society based on these standards. Art is innately political.
Integral to the use of reason and language is the subject who uses them. Modernism places the individual in a unique yet universal context. subjectivity and the freedom to explore its limitless possibilities is at the core of modernism. Is it possible, though, for an author to speak from both an individual and universal stance? Modernists (including Percy) would say yes. Each subject, each artist is uniquely creative yet centered in some absolute ideology, dogma of some sort. Paradoxically modernists suggest that precisely because all subjects are unified, connected to a universal sense, each subject exists as a unique distinct individual. The artist is thus deeply connected to aesthetic creation as both a process of universal revelation and self discovery. In this manner modernist art is an end in and of itself.
If modernism can be described as epistemological in that it promotes a specific truth, postmodernism can be seen as a shift toward the ontological, a discussion of Being (Harvey 41). As a method of critique and a possible set of abstract conditions, postmodernism takes issue with the modernist relation between reality and art. Postmodernism posits itself in the form of an ontological question. It calls absolutes and universal truths into question; it de-centers ideology without espousing one of its own, and it absolutely demands we sever language from life.
"There is in postmodernism, little overt attempt to
sustain continuity of values, beliefs, and
disbeliefs" (Harvey 56).
Every facet of Being is fragmented, disjointed, and isolated. Unity is nothing more than a socially constructed illusion.
Postmodernism calls into question a sense of identity on both an individual and a universal level. Rather than placing ideology in an absolute context, postmodernism suggests that ideologies are spontaneously created and later used to manipulate and control the masses. Even reason is suspect and scrutinized. Reality cannot be contained within the bounds of thought. Extended to another level, language also fails to capture even the essence of thought accurately. Communication itself seems futile and false. Truth becomes relative, factional, and disjointed in such a universe.
The authority/authenticity of the subject is also undermined. The artist has no ideological center, no creative source from which to draw upon. Art exists, therefore, on a particular rather than a universal level. Instead of effecting real change, art becomes commodified, a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Art is a tool for social and political control.
Parody is the most viable weapon of the postmodern artist. An artist must first become aware of the mediating contexts which surround him or her in order to transcend them. Postmodernism sets itself with an impossible task: to limit language and reason through language and reason.
"Postmodernism paradoxically manages to legitimize
cultures (high and mass) even as it subverts it"
Perhaps the 18th century Russian poet Fyodor Tiutchev captured the essence of postmodern parody in his poem "Silentium!" when he wrote, "A thought expressed is a lie." What he wrote is both true and false. He underscores the tenuous relationship between reality and language, and undercuts his own attempt to escape it. Where the modern artist like Walker Percy is dogmatic, the postmodern artist tries to remain critical.
There is something dissatisfying in a postmodern critique, however. Postmodernism is as extremist as modernism in that it does not allow absolutes. The postmodern critique presents relativity and fragmentation as ubiquitous and inescapable. Dissatisfaction with postmodernism may be rooted in the fact that it fails to deliver a substantive paradigm shift from the modern, or possibly because art (modern or postmodern) remains under the tyranny of an economic system.
Regardless of a modern or postmodern interpretation, the function of aesthetic creativity remains a mystery. Art can teach or question the nature of Being. In either event its power to create authentic political change is suspect. Art, whether epistemological or ontological, is a method of insuring the survival of the advanced capitalistic state in which it is allowed to exist and flourish. David Harvey suggests,
"the sharp distinctions between modernism and
postmodernism disappear to be replaced by
examination of the flux of internal relations within
capitalism itself" (342).
Modernism and postmodernism could themselves be subjects of economic domination. They may simply reflect power shifts within the scope of advanced capitalism. The function of aesthetic creativity may remain unassailable if we are allowed to approach the problem only from an environment of evolving capitalism.
The question may then become: can art express or alter reality through non-rational and non-theoretical discourse? Again the postmodern paradox arises, attempting to limit language with language. Tiutchev the Russian poet suggested using the abstract and symbolic nature of poetry to de-construct and re-construct language itself. Poetry would become a higher form of language, a more authentic method of communication. Even with poetry, only a limited victory is possible in the quest for the purpose of art. Without the ability to step away from or ignore the advanced economic state in which we live, we must approach art with the possibility that it may serve no purpose or function at all.
Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1990.
Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. New York: Routledge Inc., 1989.
Rushdie, Salman. "Imaginary Homelands" Rpt. in "London Review of Books". 7 20 October, 1982.
Tiutchev, Fyodor. "Silentium!"