Saturday, December 16, 2006

Truth and Beauty

Guest Volokh-Conspirator Fernando Tesón has a post titled "AGAINST POLITICAL ART."

Some excerpts...


Art is a type of concrete imagery, and as such it evokes a “fact” that may activate default theories in the audience. Those willing to challenge the political stances represented by the artifact have to overcome the suggestive power of beauty.


The implication here is that the beauty of a piece of art gives it unearned credibility. I disagree.

I think truth has a certain beauty, and that the ease in which an idea can be translated into something beautiful can serve as an indicator for its truth.


Political art’s appeal to emotion usurps reasoned political argument. If you think big oil is responsible for the evils in the world, make an argument. The movie Syriana[sic] will not do.


For small questions, like whether a specific modern political party is better, or whether Saddam had WMD, or if big oil is responsible for the evil in the world, a work of art should not convince anybody. JFK was an entertaining movie, but it shouldn't have convinced anyone there was a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy.

For the purpose, I'm not considering things like documentaries. Obviously, it would not be out of line to be convinced an event ocurred by documentary film footage of that very event.


But for larger questions, like what kind of society we want to be, I think art servers a role. It can show us the perspective of people we might not otherwise encounter. It can filter out some of the complications and noise so we can see a question clearly.

But this can go wrong, too. I'm obviously biased, but in my opinon, the makers of The Cider House Rules abused their power as filmmakers by stacking the deck in favor of their point of view.


Political satire is an interesting case. One reason it is particularly effective is that it generates an additional cost for those willing to challenge its purported message, for in that case the challenger becomes the “party pooper” who spoils the fun by taking the satire seriously. So comedians like Jon Stewart not only ridicule political figures or views. Whether intentionally or not, they also preempt objections to the intended political message (“Give me a break! Where is your sense of humor?”).


This is interesting in terms of Volokh's long-running criticism of the Bushism feature. Satire can be a bit of a coward's game. If you have a point, you land a blow. If you don't, hey -- it's just a joke -- what are you getting so upset about?

Obviously, satire can be deployed substantially and effectively. But in the modern discourse, it does seem that cleverness serves as a substitute for rigor.

We expect David Letterman to throw some cheap shots. I don't think we should expect them from publications like Slate.


Thus, a novel may convince readers that their prior belief in the kindness of the police is wrong, and that in reality the police are henchmen of the ruling class. No doubt these readers may regard this novel as having transformed their beliefs on the matter, and in that sense political art may be seen as challenging their beliefs. At a deeper level, however, the novel may well have appealed to the reader’s default theories, for example by showing the role of the police in making some people rich at the poor’s expense – a zero-sum explanation that is inferior to explanations derived from reliable social science.


I'm not convinced this is a bad thing. Mostly because I think people are basically decent, but get worn down by life and some of the messages they receive. If a film can remind us of our nobler instincts, things like, "hey -- invading countries causes a lot of suffering, so we ought to be sure before we do it," and then we re-examine our positions in light of this reminder, I see that as a good thing.


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