Art doesn’t deliver a message, art provokes questions

I’ve been reading The Book of Life, an online philosophy book discussing concrete ways to live more fulfilling lives.  It’s a cool enterprise. As explained in the introduction, the online format allows it to be free, accessible, collaborative, and it can be constantly updated and changed.  Overall I’ve loved the perspective of first two sections I read.  I jotted down several notes and insights.  Like the best traditional philosophy books I’ve read, it has given me some new and useful frameworks for looking at the world.

But one thing that has constantly made me uneasy about The Book of Life is its attitude toward art. Here’s a quote from the introduction that gets to the heart of what makes me uneasy:

We believe that one of the tasks of art is to be a repository of attitudes that are elusive, but much needed.

Throughout the first sections, The Book of Life talks about books, paintings, and movies as powerful purveyors of the attitudes that citizens cultivate.  The authors suggest we use art to convey healthy, helpful attitudes instead of unhealthy ones.

At first this all sounds very logical and laudable, but the more times I encounter this idea, the more it makes me uneasy.  Art is not some kind of delivery system or storage system for human values and ideas.  Art is a stimulus that provokes people to think.

Last week I finished reading To Kill A Mockingbird.  I’ve been aware of the book and its general plot for years.  I expected the book have a moral (to be a repository for anti-racist attitudes).  I was really surprised and delighted to find out that To Kill A Mockingbird was so much more than a vessel for a moral.  The story was complex, human, messy.  At times I felt deep sympathy with a woman whose attitudes were reprehensible to me.  At other times I was confronted with the reality of member against member prejudice within an oppressed minority.  Several times I questioned the precise motivation of Atticus, champion of justice.  I’m not entirely sure his attitudes and mine completely align.

The beauty of To Kill A Mockingbird is that it’s not a tool, a vehicle, a repository of attitudes and ideas.  To Kill A Mockingbird sets up an enthralling world that draws the reader inside a situation where all hell is about to break loose, then as the tension mounts, it provokes the reader to start questioning.  Art does not convey attitudes, art asks questions.  In answering those questions we begin to define who we are, what we want to be, and the kinds of communities we want to build.

In a discussion on the role of film in our lives, The Book of Life calls on film to:

set out in a more determined and systematic way to offer us the help we really need

If that help means probing a questioning light into places inside ourselves we rarely look, then I’m on board.  In the rare cases such a light truly shines, the power is strong enough to ignite passionate thought across generations.  But to write or film a story in a determined and systematic way, with the goal of cultivating a certain moral stance or attitude, feels stiff and disingenuous.  I doubt such a method has the power to engage us in an epic, internal struggle.  Truly powerful works of art, like To Kill A Mockingbird, always ask more than one question.  The answers are never clear cut, never obvious, never easy.  They evoke a situation of perfectly tuned people, place, and situation to bring ourselves into a place of struggle where we are compelled to look for our own answers.  Depending on who is engaging with the story (and when, and what is happening around them) the answers that come out of that struggle will not always be the same.