The Social Impact of the Arts: An Intellectual History

January 1, 2009

In the conclusion to their compact survey of the purpose of art, Eleonora Belfiore and Oliver Bennett state that their aim was neither to explain current debates nor to "direct us towards a better future". To which my response is: "Why not?" What is the point of writing a book if you are not going to at least try to cast some light on a problem or fire up your audience? That's the trouble with so much academic writing: it lacks ambition.

Their modest proposal is to explore what they call "trajectories of ideas" about art. And they are so right-on. They are not going to indulge in "false progressivism"; they are not going to question post-colonial discourse. They are not going to break new ground. Hence they rely heavily on secondary commentary about their chosen authors. Oh dear.

Belfiore and Bennett declare that F. R. Leavis was an elitist. The only evidence they offer in support of this claim is a single quotation found in Chris Baldick's The Social Mission of English Criticism: 1848-1932, a quotation that, if put in the context of Leavis' other writings, can be interpreted quite differently. This is not the only time our guides are led astray. They accept uncritically Felicity Nussbaum's assertion that the Greeks made no distinction between works of truth and works of entertainment. Try telling that to Plato, who raged against popular spectacles where the whole audience would vote for the most entertaining act.

Reading this book is like listening to the announcements you hear on trains, which are clearly intended for the person who has never travelled on one before. My patience was tried by the dynamic duo telling me what they were going to do at the beginning of each chapter and then again telling me what they had done at the end of it. So if you are in a hurry, you know what to do. Undergraduates would appreciate the plodding style if they could afford to buy the book, but it is priced well beyond their means. Do publishers want to sell their books or not? You do wonder.

Something else I wondered was why this book is called The Social Impact of the Arts. The introduction contains a few vague references to "impact studies" and "measurable evidence" of how the arts influence behaviour, but nothing tangible emerges. Most of the space - and the authors waste a lot of words lamenting their lack of it - is devoted to the proposition that thinking about the arts has changed little since Aristotle decided to take on Plato.

A poem is not a good imitation of reality, a poem does not promote good behaviour - although reading one means you are not actually doing anything that might get you arrested. Plato's criticism was taken up by others, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who claimed that theatre encouraged us to take more interest in imaginary rather than in real happenings. Rubbish, said Aristotle. It purges us of excess emotion and restores our mental equilibrium. So does sex, but let that pass.

Others who took up Aristotle's cause include the deeply melancholic Schopenhauer who valued art for its ability to make us forget, temporarily, that the world is "a penal colony". Many more claims are made on behalf of art. It offers a complete experience, it helps us to grow, and it makes us virtuous. For all of which there is not a single iota of hard proof.

Belfiore and Bennett place themselves in the tradition of writing about culture and society pioneered by Raymond Williams in the 1950s. They claim to have a more sophisticated understanding of history than their illustrious forebear. It is ideology, it is fiction; there are many stories that can be told about an event. Yes, yes. But some are more true than others. And, in any case, such thinking is often no more than an excuse for, shall we say, insufficient research?

For example, we are told that allegory was first introduced by Fulgentius and used by Italian Renaissance critics to justify the study of pagan poetry, which the Christian Church, led by Saint Augustine, routinely denounced. This is at best a half truth.

Long before Fulgentius, the 6th-century poet Theagenes of Rhegium produced an allegorical reading of Homer. By the 5th century AD, the Christian Church had begun to use classical literature for its own ends. A little later Conrad of Hirsau was advising his readers that Virgil's Georgics "instruct[ed] mortals in how to live the simple life". And Augustine himself, far from being hostile to the ancient authors, recognised that "the doctrines of the pagans contain (some) disciplines suited to the use of truth and some most useful precepts concerning morals".

No book is free from errors. But they are outnumbered here by just and reasonable accounts of the nature and purpose of art. The authors achieve a degree of subtlety in their presentation, which is no mean feat given the material they have to cover. They are thoughtful on the question of art's relation to class and they do more than justice to the complexity of Kant's idea of the aesthetic. Those new to the field will find this an enormously helpful introduction, while those who are not will often be refreshed, some-times stimulated, and occasionally irritated. What more could one ask?

Actually, one could suggest that the authors look at their index. It is missing a number of entries. We have abreaction but no allegory, Aristotle but no Augustine. And so on, and so forth.

The Social Impact of the Arts: An Intellectual History

By Eleonora Belfiore and Oliver Bennett. Palgrave Macmillan 248pp, £45.00. ISBN 9780230572553. Published 16 September 2008

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