The idea that art’s value should be understood in therapeutic terms is not new. In fact, it is the most enduring way of thinking about art, having its roots in Aristotle’s philosophical reflections on poetry and drama. In the Poetics, Aristotle argued that tragic drama can elevate how we experience fear and pity—two emotions that help shape our experience of life. The broad implication is that the task of art is to help us flourish, to be “virtuous,” in Aristotle’s special sense of that word: that is, to be good at living, even in challenging circumstances.
This understanding of art has been in abeyance in recent decades, but it is, I believe, the only plausible way of thinking about art’s value. Other approaches, as we have seen, must tacitly assume it, even when they deny it. To consider art from a therapeutic point of view is not to abandon profundity but to embrace it and to return art to a central place in modern culture and modern life.
I would find this argument intriguing, except … “the task of art is to help us flourish”? Not a task, or even an especially important task, but the one and only?
Why do people talk this way?
As I’ve already noted, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately in the company of Bach’s music and of some of his commentators, and in Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven John Eliot Gardiner writes,
Expanding on the celebrated formulation by the fifteenth-century theorist Johannes Tinctoris – Deum delectare, Dei laudes decorare (‘To please God, to embellish the praise of God’) – Bach had defined music’s purpose in his Orgel-Büchlein as ‘For the highest God alone honour; for my neighbour that he may instruct himself from it.’ Beneath its flowery surface, we are shown the underlying didactic purpose of his collection, one close to the twin purposes of music in the Lutheran tradition: die Ehre Gottes und des Nechsten Erbauung – for giving honour to God (the standard Orthodox position) and for edifying one’s neighbour (the slant favoured by the Pietists).
Once Bach is ensconced in Leipzig his views begin to lean towards the more ‘enlightened’ formulations of musicians such as Friedrich Erhard Niedt, embracing aesthetic pleasure as well as devotion and edification. We now find him adopting in his Generalbasslehre of 1738 a different two-fold purpose of music: ‘zur Ehre Gottes und zulässiger Ergötzung des Gemüths’ – ‘for giving honour to God and for the permissible delight of the soul’. He explains, ‘And so the ultimate end or final purpose of all music … is nothing other than the praise of God and the recreation of the soul. Where this is not taken into account, then there is no true music, only a devilish bawling and droning.’
Glorification, instruction, edification, recreation — these are all valid “tasks of art,” and they vary in importance not just according to the artist, but also according to circumstance and, for that matter, according to the needs of a given recipient at a given moment. In general I may listen to Bach’s choral music to feel more fully the glory of God, and listen to the keyboard music for pleasure — but sometimes those functions are reversed, and they are always to some degree mixed.
Anybody who has read much of my writing knows that this is a recurrent theme: I deeply dislike convenient simplifications of the richness and diversity of human experiences. This is the heart of my critique of the critique of digital dualism: it leaves us with an even more limited vocabulary with which to describe what we do and think and feel. I am fond of quoting the philosopher Bernard Williams: “We suffer from a poverty of concepts.” Indeed we do. And it seems to me that we are especially conceptually poor when we talk about art and technology.