Art Imitating Life, or Vice Versa

Working in a library, I encounter strange books fairly often. A few days ago, SPASM: Virtual Reality, Android Music, and Electric Flesh, by one Arthur Kroker, crossed my desk. It was exceedingly weird, postmodern and “futuristic” but really dated by the fact that it was written in 1993. I posted a quote at random as my status on Facebook:

“Art is now a quantum fluctuation: a phase shift where all the old classical certainties dissolve, and where everything can finally be uncertain, probabilistic, and indeterminate. …art can finally become a violent edge…”

…along with the comment that I didn’t know what to think about the quote (or, for that matter, the book). A friend of mine responded:

The dissolution of Western Culture. Art following in the footsteps of Ethics. First definitive truth passes away, then definitive goodness, and finally definitive beauty.

To which I responded:

Maybe. Assuming that Western Culture exists as a singular entity. And I think I would say you’ve got it backwards: Art, then Behaviour, then Ethics.

Now that I’ve had a day or two to stew on it, I’d like to modify and expand my answer. Firstly, I think “Western Culture” (or “Western Civilization”) can be a useful concept, so long as one keeps in mind the obscenely tangled mess contained within it. Whether western civilization is declining or dissolving at present, and, if so, whether that’s a bad thing or a good thing, are questions I’m not going to address at present, mostly because I have no idea how I’d answer them. The question that interests me is whether Ethics changes first, followed by Behaviour, followed by Art, or the reverse, or whether Behaviour changes first and Art and Ethics change to match.

Of course, when you lay it out like that, it seems very Hegelian and deterministic, which ought to be a sign that we’re headed in the wrong direction; so let’s stop now and try a different approach. First, let’s reduce our scale to something a bit more manageable: the individual. And let’s leave out Art for the moment, on the grounds that most individuals don’t create (or don’t think they create) Art; but everyone does things and believes things, even if they have no idea why they do what they do or what they believe.

So: does my behaviour determine my beliefs, or do my beliefs determine my behaviour? Well, yes. If I believe that consuming alcohol to the point of drunkenness is bad, I will endeavour to only consume it in moderation. If I believe that drunkenness is bad, but drink myself stupid four or five (or six or seven) times a week anyway, I will either change my belief or ignore it (or, maybe, change my behaviour). And, of course, there are a variety of other internal and external factors which affect both belief and behaviour – and Art is one of them.

Art is a dangerous thing. It is dangerous precisely because we don’t expect it to be; and if we’ve encountered enough Art to have learned that it is, in general, dangerous, we can very rarely defend ourselves against it, because it never attacks where we’re looking for it. Art is dangerous because it affects (and sometimes totally alters) our beliefs and our behaviours without announcing that it’s going to, and usually without our noticing it until it’s too late.

Of course, we can’t really enalrge our scale to the level of a whole culture again and hope this model will still be useful. Even so, a culture’s Art is a fairly reliable guide to its Ethics and Behaviour, and if I had to back one for the instigator of cultural decline, elevation, dissolution, or apotheosis, I’d back Art.


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