07 July 2010

Culture viewed through the three 'E's

All of culture can be examined on the level of entertainment, education and edification. Some cultural products score highly in one ‘E’ while neglecting the other two, while some address all three to a more or less similar degree. Yet the general vibe is that (too) many areas of culture emphasize only one ‘E’: entertainment. Variety shows, reality TV, no holds barred cage fights, Michael Bay movies; all these vacuous descendants of the ancient gladiatorial combats in the Colosseum have now annexed vast tracts of the cultural landscape into their sphere of influence. Meanwhile those aspects of culture that focus on educating and edifying their audience are shouted down by the cacophony of the spectacle.

Having recently watched Goya’s Ghosts, Miloš Forman’s film of the 18th/early 19th century Spanish artist Francisco Goya, it occurred to me that Goya’s paintings and prints can be considered on the respective levels of the three ‘E’s. As entertainment, they viscerally impress upon the viewer sensations that thrill, excite, disturb, provoke, titillate. As education, they teach the inquisitive about the factual reality of those turbulent, religious, Inquisitorial times. As edification, they enlighten us on the stunting effect that dogma and brutality have on the human spirit, and inspire us to engage with such issues in our own day.

Goya’s art is one example of a cultural enterprise that has struck a balance between all three ‘E’s. It may be argued that a certain level of sophistication on the part of the audience is required for them to suck out the educational and – especially – edifying juices from such artistic morsels. Nonetheless, with a little training and dedication any reasonably receptive mind can fruitfully engage with any cultural work. But this is only possible if the work has something of each ‘E’ to offer in the first place.

Aristotle believed that the purpose of education was to enable us to make noble use of our leisure. That is, education of oneself should ideally lead to edification of oneself. Yet far from ennobling us, modern education often serves to merely impart skills to make us employable, or move us up a pay grade. With funding cuts to the liberal arts and humanities (the April/May 2010 issue of Philosophy Now reports that the esteemed Birkbeck College in London has recently been forced to cut back on philosophy courses and shed staff), the demands of globalised commercialism puts unprecedented pressure on institutions to churn out workers whose primary – perhaps sole – requirement is that they be efficient in performing their tasks.

The four ‘R’s – reading, writing, arithmetic and reasoning – have to be complemented with a wider range of proficiencies if education is to be more than just an assembly line for the manufacture of commercial automatons. An education that rejects a whole cluster of non-vocational life skills and focuses only on job skills is an impoverished one surely. And self-education outside of a formal context can be just as valuable as a structured approach to learning, since the former has the benefit of subjects being studied for their own sake, with one’s own interest being the directive force.

Consonant with the institutional emphasis on efficiency and technical know-how is the professionalization of almost all cultural and intellectual pursuits. The decline of the dilettante, the scarcity of the Renaissance man (or woman), the marginalization of the amateur are all linked to both the specialization and monetary quantification of work. “How much do you earn?” has become the unspoken question when one is asked about one’s occupation, and not “How does your work benefit society?” Bestseller lists and top ten charts are the current indicators of cultural worth. Profit is now the main arbiter of value. Art has prostituted itself to collectors whose level of wealth is inversely proportionate to their level of self-esteem, thus explaining their need for status symbols to compensate.

In his Republic, Plato – using his teacher Socrates as his mouthpiece – argued that poets should be banned from his ideal city on the grounds that they disrupted the emotional stability of citizens, especially the young. Plato thought that because the poetry of his time mainly dealt with fantasy and not real life, it would have a corrupting effect on the delicate minds of children, who were not mature enough to distinguish fiction from fact. While he didn’t specify whether ‘entertainers’ as such would be similarly booted from his utopian society, it wouldn’t be implausible to imagine Plato being unimpressed with anyone who made a living by putting on trivial shows for the masses.

But we need not be like Plato. Entertainment for its own sake is no vice that should be expunged from culture. If we profess to be supporters of an inclusive society, then we must make room for fatuous diversions and their fans. Opposite one extreme which sits the Japanese otaku in his perpetual bubble of anime, manga, games and porn kneels the praying Puritan who rejects all of life’s pleasures as evil sins and insists that others do likewise. Plato’s own student Aristotle said it best, that “the virtue of justice consists in moderation, as regulated by wisdom.” This same man also gave us that excellent ethical theory of the Golden Mean.

Apart from accepting crass entertainment on principle, there are perceived benefits to be gained from escaping reality for a limited time, in moderate frequency. Many things that entertain also quicken the imagination and broaden the emotions. There is the upshot of people having their curiosity piqued by, say, a period film they saw and subsequently reading up on that era or about the depicted characters (I now know more about Goya and his Spain than I did before watching Forman’s film and then reading up on the artist). And of course, surrendering oneself to mindless, harmless fun can be just plain ol’ relaxing, a restorative for the weary soul. In all these, entertainment shows its worth, on the proviso that it be a supplement to living, and not the main business of it.


No comments:

Post a Comment