What Would a Stoic Do? On entertainment

soccer-TottiI must admit that one of the toughest aspects of practicing Stoicism is that it is pretty difficult to justify spending one’s time on entertainment. Not to add to the already pretty stern stereotype of the Stoic that is widespread in the general culture, but here is what Epictetus says, for instance:

“When you’re called upon to speak, then speak, but never about banalities like gladiators, horses, sports, food and drink – common-place stuff. Above all don’t gossip about people, praising, blaming or comparing them.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion 33.2)

This I find to be generally good advice, but it seems to imply that entertainment is “banal,” and hence not really the sort of thing a Stoic should indulge in. I mean, I’m not too fond of gladiatorial games, but I do go to see a live soccer game once in a while, and occasionally I even watch them on television.

And here is Marcus, listing the things he learned from influential people in his life

“From my governor, to be neither of the green nor of the blue party at the games in the Circus, nor a partisan either of the Parmularius or the Scutarius at the gladiators’ fights” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations I.5)

Well, at the least the emperor went to the games! But does that mean I cannot be “partisan” to A.S. Roma or NYC FC (my favorite soccer teams)? You see my problem.

The issue extends far more broadly than spectator sports, of course. It includes watching one’s favorite TV show (Doctor Who, anyone?), going to the movies, eating out, reading a book for leisure (as opposed to studying philosophy), attending a museum exhibit, going on a vacation, and so forth.

And yet, Stoicism is not Cynicism. It isn’t supposed to be a philosophy of strict minimalism and asceticism, regardless of how much Epictetus occasionally veered toward that extreme. So, how is a modern Stoic to approach the issue of entertainment, without either giving up on Stoicism (c’mon, forget about virtue because I want to watch my favorite TV show?) or engaging in unsustainable rationalization to make one’s favorite pastimes fit the bill?

Something like the same problem afflicted early utilitarianism, which is what brought John Stuart Mill to introduce his famous distinction between high and low pleasures. (You see, if all pleasures are created equal, then Jeremy Bentham’s famous “hedonic calculus” immediately leads to some nasty consequences, like that it’s okay to kill an innocent person if this gives pleasure to a sufficiently high number of people.)

Here is how Mill explained it (in Utilitarianism):

“It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.”

This is the same reason Epicureans (who influenced Mill) emphasized the distinction between bodily and intellectual pleasures, which distinguished them from the Cyrenaics. But we are Stoics, so hedonism doesn’t enter into it, and we can’t use the Epicurus-Mill solution to the problem at hand.

One answer is to simply admit that we are not Sages, we are imperfect human beings, and thus also imperfect Stoics. So we do un-Stoic things, from time to time. While this is true, it just isn’t good enough. We plan our entertainment, which means it is the result of deliberate choices made by our “ruling faculty,” not “mistakes.”  To err is human, but to persevere in one’s errors…

But perhaps engaging in entertainment isn’t an error at all. For one, it has value in terms of social bonding. Marcus was by all accounts a rather solitary individual, who likely did not actually enjoy attending games. But he did it because it was one of his duties as emperor, something to be done in order to help maintain the good will of the people, as well as social cohesiveness more broadly.

While I’m not an emperor, much (but not all!) of my entertainment is indeed of a social nature, shared with family and friends, and therefore perfectly justifiable (within limits) in this vein from a Stoic perspective.

Yet another way of approaching the “problem” (yes, I’m aware that for most people entertaining themselves isn’t a problem) is by treating games, movies and the like as “preferred indifferents,” that is falling into the broad category of things that the Stoics don’t think are relevant to one’s eudaimonia (because only the pursuit of virtue is), but are nonetheless things that can be pursued (or, in the case of dispreferred indifferents, avoided), so long as one doesn’t mistake them for actually important things — think people for whom playing video games becomes the defining activity of their life.

This is indeed promising, and I think Seneca would have agreed. As he put it in On The Happy Life, “I prefer to display the state of my soul clad rather in the toga and shoes than showing naked shoulders and with cuts on my feet,” meaning that there is nothing wrong with a bit of comfort, and by extension, pleasure.

(Incidentally, Piotr Stankiewicz wrote an essay over at Stoicism Today on whether Stoics are or should be ascetic. His answer is a resounding no. However, this rebuttal is actually pretty convincing, based mostly on Musonius, and a bit of Epictetus. Then again, I think this essay by Camden Gaspar strikes the wise middle ground, and sure enough is largely supported by quotes from Seneca…)

I would, however, argue that a good Stoic would want to lean — other things being equal — toward entertainment that has value from the point of view of flourishing. So, avoid whenever possible what might be termed “mindless” entertainment (the “common-place stuff” that Epictetus was complaining about), and steer toward things that have a point, in terms of learning and, ideally, virtue. For instance, rather than watch another episode of The Kardashians, maybe a documentary going behind the scenes of Scientology? The first would truly be a waste of one’s little grey cells, but the latter will teach you important lessons about humanity and how people can be taken advantage of. (An interesting study recently suggested that watching good television drama is good for your social skills.)

In this respect I must say that I have always had a tendency to enjoy entertainment “with a point,” so to speak, so the above considerations already sit very well with my natural self, independently of Stoicism.

But there is yet another way of looking at the issue from a Stoic perspective: it is possible that entertainment is a bit like sleep for human beings: it doesn’t have anything to do directly with virtue, but it is necessary for normal functioning, and therefore indirectly necessary to pursue virtue.

Indeed, there is empirical evidence that primates have a need for play, at the least throughout development, and likely throughout their lives. If this is the case, however, one could still say that just like one wants to have the proper length and quality of sleep, so one should want the same with entertainment: proper length, and good quality — or it risks getting in the way of pursuing a flourishing life, and one then turns into a Epicurean or, worse, a Cyrenaic…

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Categories: What Would a Stoic Do?

35 replies

  1. I’ve been wondering about this lately, thanks for the clarifying thoughts.

    The link to the Don Robertson essay isn’t actually by Don Robertson. Is it the wrong link or did you just mean, “this essay appearing on Don Robertson’s site?”

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  2. This is an appropriate post, coming as it does, just after your review of The Martian. The book was most enjoyable and now I will go to see the movie.

    I think the question is all about balance, restraint and intelligent choice. We need entertainment, the relaxation and the cathartic release it offers. A Martian sociologist visiting Earth(Mark Watney?) would conclude that the need for entertainment was an important part of our nature except that Mark would say ‘anything but disco and ’70s movies’!

    We also need to differentiate between entertainment and recreational activities. Entertainment is passive while recreational activities are anything but. The danger is that we allow entertainment to dominate and thus impoverish both our recreational activities and our social activities.

    t primates have a need for play, at the least throughout development, and likely throughout their lives.

    I see this in my dogs. Sharing in their play makes them more lively, more alert and happier. But play is a recreational activity and not entertainment. Well, actually it is entertaining to watch my dogs play.

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  3. Jim,

    thanks, I meant Robertson’s blog, but I changed the writing to include the name of the actual author.

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  4. Thanks for this insightful essay, Massimo. Awhile back (indeed spurred on by a passage in one of your prior posts) I wrote of similar concerns about scratching the entertainment itch in Buddhism: “On the Skillfulness of Refined Taste“.

    There is a difference with Stoicism, at least in that Buddhism sees a divide between monastic and lay practice; monastics are indeed completely enjoined from certain kinds of sensory enjoyment, while laypeople are simply advised to pursue such enjoyments ethically. My concern however was to look more at the basic reasoning behind such injunctions: what is the basic problem with pursuit of pleasure? Indeed, to what extent is there a problem?

    My sense though, particularly reading your above piece, is that there are crucial subtleties here: one can cling to the rejection of pleasures as much as one can cling to anything. That is, one can foment a kind of ascetic conceit by studiously avoiding things one classifies as “entertainment”, and this can itself be a kind of prison. Correct practice, of course, would help one avoid such a stance, but it is something we should be aware of.

    Personally I enjoy entertainment (both brainless and so-called “refined”) as much as the next person, particularly when I find myself tired or bored. I do think however that the pitfalls of entertainment are real, and that insofar as one is following a eudaimonic path, one should be aware of them.

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  5. Thanks Massimo. Just making sure I was reading the right essay.

    In the future, I’d love to hear your thoughts in this series on charitable giving, volunterring and activism. It can be a struggle to know how to focus our resources in these areas.

    Thanks again.

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  6. As a rough guide, Mill’s distinction is good for Stoics. There was in ancient Greece and Rome ‘high’ entertainment (Euripides). The examples given by Epictetus fall within the ‘low’ category. Not to mention that Seneca wrote plays! Personally, I think Stoics can easily distinguish those things with social and philosophic value while it may be more of a problem for Utilitarians to name the criteria for high and low pleasures.

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  7. Another way to justify “entertainment” is that it can help you to understand how other people understand the world, which I think is in line with the concept of “oikeiosis.”

    For example, reading Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in high school radically altered how I viewed the world: I was growing up under a hardcore Republican father during the run-up to the Iraq War and was being indoctrinated into the “personal responsibility”/”pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ethos, when reading about figures during the Dust Bowl made me realize the degree to which one’s life can come to ruins due to circumstances and forces outside of one’s control. (Now that I write this, reading the book again through a Stoic POV might be of interest.) Because of Steinbeck, I felt I had come to understand an experience totally outside of my own.

    I do not have the expertise to evaluate research on this, but this appears to be a common phenomenon that has been substantiated in some psychological research.

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/novel-finding-reading-literary-fiction-improves-empathy/

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  8. Good topic –

    Ultimately I think it comes down to understanding the relationship between discomfort and comfort in the pursuit of a progressive capacity for virtue. I think dealing with a degree of discomfort is necessary for progress in all human aspects be they physical, intellectual, or ethical capacities. On the other hand discomfort without relief is unsustainable. Physical progress occurs during the rest after the training. A lot of cognitive progress takes place during sleep. Perhaps to some degree we can train the cognitive when the body is resting and vice versa, but research also shows a decrease in agency with constant application (see Baumeister and ‘ego depletion’).

    So I think a balanced amount of engagement in activities that support positive affect, and allow restoration of depleted agency are a necessary part of the pursuit of progressive virtue. Unfortunately in our culture the time spent seeking constant entertainment is way out of wack. So it is very important not to deceive ourselves with regard to what represents a healthy comfort seeking behavoir.

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  9. Douglass,

    “There is a difference with Stoicism, at least in that Buddhism sees a divide between monastic and lay practice; monastics are indeed completely enjoined from certain kinds of sensory enjoyment, while laypeople are simply advised to pursue such enjoyments ethically”

    Right, no such thing in Stoicism. Do you think that’s because Buddhism has been enough of a religion, as opposed to distinctly a philosophy? (The two are, of course, not mutually exclusive, but Stoicism never had priests, temples, etc.. Indeed, Zeno apparently explicitly said in his Republic that there should be no temples in his idea state.)

    “one can cling to the rejection of pleasures as much as one can cling to anything. That is, one can foment a kind of ascetic conceit by studiously avoiding things one classifies as “entertainment”, and this can itself be a kind of prison”

    True, but I take Kevin Patrick’s rebuttal (linked above) to be based on the assumption that it is a bit easy to rationalize one’s indulgence in pleasures. More difficult to indulge in abstinence, though it is certainly possible.

    Jim,

    “I’d love to hear your thoughts in this series on charitable giving, volunterring and activism”

    Yeah, that’s a tough one. Working on it. Next month I’m co-hosting a meetup discussion on the topic of effective altruism, which is related. Stay tuned…

    jbonnicerenoreg,

    “As a rough guide, Mill’s distinction is good for Stoics … Not to mention that Seneca wrote plays!”

    Indeed! Yes, I do think Stoics (and virtue ethicists in general) have an easier time with this than utilitarians.

    Kele,

    “Another way to justify “entertainment” is that it can help you to understand how other people understand the world, which I think is in line with the concept of “oikeiosis.””

    Again, yes, right on target!

    “Because of Steinbeck, I felt I had come to understand an experience totally outside of my own”

    That’s why it’s a good idea to get young people to read good literature. And that just keeps giving, even as an adult.

    seth,

    “it comes down to understanding the relationship between discomfort and comfort in the pursuit of a progressive capacity for virtue”

    Yes, that’s a good way of looking at it. I think the Cynics went a bit too far on the discomfort side, but the Aristotelians could too easily rationalize the pursuit of external goods. That’s why the Stoic middle ground appeals to me.

    “a balanced amount of engagement in activities that support positive affect, and allow restoration of depleted agency are a necessary part of the pursuit of progressive virtue”

    The point about “depleted agency” is important, for instance in light of Lawrence Becker’s concept of virtue as maximization of agency.

    “Unfortunately in our culture the time spent seeking constant entertainment is way out of wack. So it is very important not to deceive ourselves with regard to what represents a healthy comfort seeking behavior.”

    Exactly.

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  10. Hi Massimo,

    “Do you think that’s because Buddhism has been enough of a religion, as opposed to distinctly a philosophy?”

    Big question, but I’d say perhaps not. It does though depend upon how one would define ‘religion’. If one defines it in terms of (e.g.) unreasoned faith in supernatural creatures, or in terms of large, structured hierarchies, then no.

    The Buddha constructed his path at the outset as a monastic enterprise, not because it was absolutely necessary to the eudaimonic goal to live a monastic life, but because achievement of the eudaimonic goal was easier when outside the “dust” of lay life. Further, while Buddhist monasticism does involve a hierarchy, it is that of strict seniority. Decisions are typically taken by consensus, or at least were at the earliest period. There are of course strict rules, but these are in the main what one would expect: rules against pursuit of various forms of behavior that would tend to promote greed, etc.

    I believe it would be possible to construct a secular monastic path within secular Buddhism, though it would certainly be novel, and likely only of interest to the most dedicated secular practitioner. Basically one would be devoting one’s life to practice, and to non-remunerative teaching. One would have to be supported by free donation.

    “… it is a bit easy to rationalize one’s indulgence in pleasures. More difficult to indulge in abstinence, though it is certainly possible.”

    Agreed! Thus my feeling that the Stoic and Buddhist counsel against most forms of entertainment is actually more apt than most of us contemporary urban sophisticates would like to admit.

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  11. Great topic, and something which I was also wondering about. The two things that were going through my mind while reading the article were already nicely spelled out by Kele and seth – entertainment as opportunity to understand other people, and the story around ‘ego depletion’.

    To expand more on the point from Kele, I think one more important thing about entertainment is that it also provides an opportunity to understand ourselves (and thus realize what else we need to do to improve as Stoics). I heard this point in an interview with the artist (and Stoic) Marije van Wieringen on the Painted Porch podcast (http://paintedporch.org/episode-10-marije-van-wieringen/), where when answering the question ‘how should a Stoic approach art?’ she said that art is ‘… a way of contemplating the world, a way of exercising your ability to think about what is important to you, exercise your ability to distance yourself from your first impression…’. (She talks specifically about art, but I assume that in this article art is thought of as part of entertainment. Plus, I think this can be applied to types of entertainment which are ‘not really art’.) I recommend the whole interview. She also mentions a nice exercise to do in museums.

    Of course this kind of exercise would require us to be Stoically mindful during the time we enjoy art, which sounds kind of contrary to (an everyday definition of) entertainment. I guess that brings us back to the issue of limited willpower and the decrease of agency, and that (mindless) entertainment really is something we need just to ‘charge our batteries’.

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  12. Hi Massimo,

    I write about this exact same topic in one of my blog-posts and seem to reach a very similar conclusion in the end. I hope it is not uncouth to quote an extract here… (If it is, please let me know and I’ll cease that behaviour)

    “An understanding of the need to rest is often missed in this debate. What one engages with sincerely is quite individual. We all have different frozen seas within, which can be broken by different axes (to paraphrase Franz Kafka), while we tend to be appealed by similar entertainment and escapism, which is more dependent on the dominant culture or sub-cultures in our society in which we identify and were formed. A block buster movie is designed to have a mass appeal, while an art-movie is designed to deeply move its viewers, and all people are not deeply moved by the same thing. (This is why capitalism will never be able to create true art, since art is inherently not profitable (in general)). We should not read the end of our civilization into popularity of cat-videos and click baits on the internet. We all occupy ourselves with different stuff at different levels of engagements, and on successful entertainment we converge.

    Transformations are at times hard work, sincere engagements take energy. And energy comes in limited supply to a biological creature. Therefore, one also needs rest, and the possibility for rest depends strongly on one’s social position within a culture, for we are social creatures immersed in hierarchical cultural contexts. One needs escapism, entertainment, silliness and fun, none of which is separate from meaningness. One needs pleasure for the senses, beautiful surroundings, and a good sleep. One needs a reasonably healthy body. Because without at least some of this, to each according to ability and taste, one cannot be sincere in one’s engagements.

    Escapism is like sleep, and sleep is after all the most common human activity. And like sleep, we should not spend most of our time doing it.”

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  13. Let’s try and place entertainment in a larger framework.

    I am a member of society and I derive great benefit from that membership. I have therefore a reciprocal duty to contribute to society, if possible more than I receive so that I am a net benefit to society, ensuring that it grows, thus providing increasing benefits, and to compensate for those who are net deficits to society. My contributions should foster its harmony, productivity and aesthetics since all three are necessary for society.

    To achieve this I must possess useful skills, use these skills with purpose, be a harmonious member of society and be ‘fit for purpose’. Fit for purpose requires in turn that I be emotionally fit, mentally fit, socially fit and physically fit. I think we can agree that we need leisure time, that is time outside productive work, to promote our fitness for purpose. This leisure time can be used socially, for recreation and for entertainment. Playing a sport is a recreational activity while watching sport is entertainment. Watching a marathon is entertainment, running in the marathon is recreation. Recreational activities recruit the mind and body in an active but enjoyable way that promotes fitness for purpose while entertainment is a passive form of enjoyment. Recreational activities therefore tend to have a greater benefit than pure entertainment.

    I suggest that Stoic reasoning would see entertainment in this framework as a means of achieving fitness for purpose. It would ask, am I sufficiently fit for purpose, emotionally, mentally, socially and physically? And then choose leisure time activities(entertainment or recreation) that maintain fitness or promote fitness where deficits exist. Fitness for purpose requires that we attend to all four factors. We should then intelligently choose our leisure time activities to nourish all four factors in a balanced way.

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  14. Douglass,

    “It does though depend upon how one would define ‘religion'”

    I know people seem to think this is very complicated, but I don’t buy it. To me a religion has two components: (unsubstantiated) belief in the supernatural (because how could it be substantiated anyhow?), and more or less organized rites, priests (or monks, or whatever) who base their activities on their interpretations of sacred texts (i.e., texts assumed to be written or inspired by supernatural intervention, as opposed to written by people).

    Now, it seems to me that Stoicism fails to be a religion on all the above accounts (thank Zeus!). As for Buddhism, at the least some versions of it have both the supernatural and the rites/monks aspect, though I don’t think there are sacred texts. Is that correct? And of course none of the above applies to form of Secular Buddhism, which seems to me to be just as much a philosophy as Stoicism.

    “my feeling that the Stoic and Buddhist counsel against most forms of entertainment is actually more apt than most of us contemporary urban sophisticates would like to admit”

    Indeed.

    Brxi,

    “when answering the question ‘how should a Stoic approach art?’ she said that art is ‘… a way of contemplating the world, a way of exercising your ability to think about what is important to you, exercise your ability to distance yourself from your first impression…’.”

    I like it. I should check out that episode of the podcast, thanks!

    “would require us to be Stoically mindful during the time we enjoy art, which sounds kind of contrary to (an everyday definition of) entertainment”

    Maybe, except that I kind of like the idea of “mindfulness entertainment,” as oxymoronic as it may soon at first take.

    ToT,

    thanks for your thoughts. But:

    “We should not read the end of our civilization into popularity of cat-videos and click baits on the internet”

    Well, no, not the end of civilization, but certainly not an example of mindful entertainment, to use the phrase just coined above!

    “One needs pleasure for the senses, beautiful surroundings, and a good sleep. One needs a reasonably healthy body”

    Exactly.

    “without at least some of this, to each according to ability and taste, one cannot be sincere in one’s engagements”

    That’s why it makes sense to think of (limited, thoughtful) entertainment as a preferred indifferent, because it is important for our mental health, just like physical health is — and both facilitate our pursuit of virtue.

    labnut,

    “Fit for purpose requires in turn that I be emotionally fit, mentally fit, socially fit and physically fit. I think we can agree that we need leisure time, that is time outside productive work, to promote our fitness for purpose”

    Again, right, very much along the lines explored by ToT.

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  15. HI Massimo,

    “As for Buddhism, at the least some versions of it have both the supernatural and the rites/monks aspect, though I don’t think there are sacred texts. Is that correct? And of course none of the above applies to form of Secular Buddhism …”

    Right. Secular Buddhism is explicitly non-supernatural and non-religious.

    As with so many issues involving religion, however, traditional Buddhism finds itself sort of all over the place. Traditional Buddhists of course believe in the supernatural, but OTOH there is nothing like the Catholic credo to which one must express assent. So there is at least the theoretical possibility of being a traditional Buddhist who is a naturalist. I think this is one of the reasons why Buddhism has been somewhat more open to naturalist interpretations than other religions.

    Traditional Buddhism involves rites, but OTOH one of the stumbling blocks to Nibbāna that one must explicitly overcome is a clinging to rites and rituals as means of attaining Nibbāna. That is, rites and rituals are strictly speaking unnecessary from within the system. They are only for social purposes. (Even the ‘magical’ ones are only for social purposes). I think some branches of the Mahāyāna go farther, but IMO they are the most explicitly religious of the Buddhist sects.

    Traditional Buddhism involves monastics, but as I say I don’t think there is necessarily anything non secular in pursuing a monastic lifestyle. Or to the extent that there is, one would need to think a good deal about precisely what aspects of monasticism were incompatible with secularism. (Of course, by definition monasticism is incompatible with an ordinary or ‘lay’ lifestyle).

    Finally, traditional Buddhism goes both ways as regards “sacred texts”. Many traditional Buddhists believe the texts were uttered by a real person who happened to be an ethical exemplar. (And that they then went through a period of redaction, alteration, etc.) This is, in your sense, non religious, though many quite devout monastics such as Walpola Rahula asserted it as well. Other traditional Buddhists take a more — shall we say — “religious” view of the Buddha as a kind of superhuman or supernatural being, and his texts in a sense unquestionable. Though there are so many nuances here it is hard to summarize.

    The main issue I think is that words like “philosophy” and “religion” sort of cut across Buddhism in ways that they do not so readily cut across structures of thought in the west. This doesn’t have to be a problem, it’s just an issue one should be aware of.

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  16. Entertainment confirms while art challenges. The former gives an opportunity to contemplate what is confirmed and the latter on what is challenged. But entertainment doesn’t beg the contemplation in the way art does, it is easy to enjoy it mindlessly. Which brings us to a version of the original question: can a stoic mindlessly participate in escapism, or must she grab the opportunity for reflection?

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  17. ToT,
    Which brings us to a version of the original question: can a stoic mindlessly participate in escapism, or must she grab the opportunity for reflection?

    I suspect the Stoic trained mind will naturally, as a matter of inclination, contemplate the escapist entertainment in a thoughtful, considering way, analysing it it, looking for understanding of the phenomenon. Every situation contains elements that require understanding and we enrich ourselves by actively engaging our minds with the situation and uncovering understanding.

    I had a boss who demanded that I recognise that every new situation presented an opportunity for new insights, that I should be determined to uncover the new insights in that situation.

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  18. With that last comment I unwittingly demonstrated the importance of role models, in the Stoic sense of the term.

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  19. Labnut,

    I’m inclined to agree, but it seems a bit harsh at the same time… Is there no room for resting the intellect in the stoic world view? What about sleep, should it be minimised to the bare minimum also? Like sleep, shouldn’t mindless escapism be allowed to some degree if it enables you to go about subsequent contemplation with more energy?

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  20. ToT,
    I’m inclined to agree, but it seems a bit harsh at the same time…

    I think this is where we really need Massimo’s input. But, my amateur feeling is this – a trained Stoic possesses a good sense of reflective self-awareness that allows him to balance his needs for rest and relaxation with the demands of his intellect, so that he always functions optimally. Speaking for myself, I know that I intuitively balance my reading diet in this way, varying it from light novels to deep thoughtful stuff.

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  21. ToT, labnut,

    I think you guys pretty much nailed it. On the one hand, it is true that the Stoic attitude is always one of mindfulness, being aware that we don’t live forever, and that the pursuit of virtue and agency is the thing that matters. On the other hand, the analogy with sleep is a good one: no, we wouldn’t want to minimize sleep, because a proper amount is necessary for the good functioning of our minds, which in turn is necessary for the pursuit of virtue to begin with. The same probably goes for some degree of entertainment.

    That said, I personally prefer mindful to mindless entertainment. There are lots of good books, plays, movies and tv shows to be enjoyed, and I increasingly find less justification for reading or seeing something that is so low quality that I can’t help ask myself: why did I just waste two hours of my time?

    One more caveat: Stoicism is not a religion, so anyone “violating” this sort of precept wouldn’t go to hell…

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  22. “I personally prefer mindful to mindless entertainment.”

    Part of my concern in my piece linked to above on ‘refined taste’ is that I am not sure there is any substance to the distinction between high and low art, or what you term mindful and mindless entertainment.

    I suppose the distinction might be made on an individual level, in that one person’s mindless entertainment might for another person inspire lots of deep thoughts. But then, to the extent that we are claiming entertainment is a form of relaxation, are we really relaxed by contemplating deep thoughts all the time? Is there something to be said for entertainment that is simply relaxing? I think it’s too strong to claim that all relaxing entertainment (viz., light comedy) promotes ignorance, sloth, or delusion, although anything can of course be overdone.

    I believe in an earlier piece you (Massimo) said that you found mindful entertainment to be relaxing. It’s hard to know what to do with such a claim; I imagine artists who compose what they take to be important works probably do not intend them to be relaxing per se, and although many of us may find them relaxing in a sense (they take us out of ourselves and our world), nevertheless few people could persist entirely on a diet of (eg) Shakespeare and Leonardo, much as we might enjoy them once in awhile.

    My own sense, and I know this is not a popular view, is that all or nearly all that we can ‘learn’ from entertainment can be learned better and quicker elsewhere, and that therefore artistic entertainment is probably best seen as relaxation alone. At least that is more positive than seeing it in the light of social stratification, around which ‘refined taste’ plays a central role.

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  23. Hi,

    Maybe a better allegory is food. Like sleep we eat in order to function well. But food is not only a means to an end, we also east for the sake of eating (I think this is also true for sleeping). So, mindless escapism can work as soilent green for the mind, but good entertainment, like a good meal, is something we do for the sake of itself.

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  24. There are four perspectives, that of the participant, observer, that of the third party and then the aftermath.

    We participate in entertainment by selecting entertainment that matches our needs of the moment. It becomes an immersive experience that leaves us changed in some ways. Its power to change us is a dangerous power indeed. In this case we need to choose entertainment in full knowledge of how it may change us.

    Alternatively we can adopt the perspective of an observer, like that of a Martian sociologist on a field trip to planet Earth. Here the goal is discovery and understanding. Even the worst kinds of entertainment are still valid objects of study, even if only to look once, while holding our nose. A good Stoic is an informed Stoic and therefore has a full range of experience.

    Everything we do is reflected in some way through the social web, touching the lives of others. Our choices are never private and so they touch other people. Our choices are signals and a Stoic must consider what signals she sends out through the social web.

    Finally, entertainment can be an enjoyable, relaxing experience where you are fully immersed in the moment, your mind and emotions swept along in a river of events and emotions. And then comes the aftermath. This I think is probably the most important phase of all. This is where the mind becomes fully engaged, reflecting on the experience, creating a coherent narrative from the events, placing them in context and deriving useful conclusions. This aftermath, a kind of postmortem or debriefing, is the way we make sense of all that happens to us and I think that this, more than anything else, typifies a Stoic attitude to life. That is because the debriefing is more than a postmortem, it is a vital form of preparation for what is still to come.

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  25. Douglass,

    “I am not sure there is any substance to the distinction between high and low art, or what you term mindful and mindless entertainment.”

    I encounter this objection often, and it puzzles me. If one means that there is no *sharp* boundary to be drawn, I agree. But you really think, say, that watching the Kardashians is the same — or not that different — from a Shakespearian play? Or compare Justin Bieber to Beethoven…

    “one person’s mindless entertainment might for another person inspire lots of deep thoughts”

    Again, no. I don’t see how anyone could be inspired to deep thinking by the Kardashians or Bieber.

    “Is there something to be said for entertainment that is simply relaxing?”

    Sure. But I do think some types of entertainment are actually damaging, like the above mentioned examples. Sort of like eating junk food for the soul, to continue one of the analogies we have explored in this thread.

    “(Massimo) said that you found mindful entertainment to be relaxing. It’s hard to know what to do with such a claim”

    Plenty of people find a symphony or a play relaxing, I’m not sure why the claim is perplexing. That said, I also listen to lighter music and watch tv sitcoms — but even there I try to stay away from trash.

    “all or nearly all that we can ‘learn’ from entertainment can be learned better and quicker elsewhere, and that therefore artistic entertainment is probably best seen as relaxation alone”

    I’m not convinced. A couple of examples: I find documentaries to be a powerful way to convey important / interesting information, which would otherwise take me a long time to gather. And I just had a colleague giving a guest lecture in my class on “knowledge across the curriculum,” who argued that political science and comparative sociology cannot do without literature, for instance the reading of anti-colonial novels written by indigenous people who have first-person experience of certain cultures and situations.

    ToT,

    “But food is not only a means to an end, we also east for the sake of eating”

    Well, Musonius Rufus would disagree: “Thus the oftener we are tempted by pleasure in eating, the more dangers there are involved. And indeed at each meal there is not one hazard for going wrong, but many.” (Musonius, Lectures XVIIIB)

    He strongly advised against any kind of pleasure, going so far as saying that one should have sex only within a marriage, and then only for procreation.

    But Musonius was an exponent of the more Cynic wing of the Stoic school (like his student, Epictetus). I think Seneca, who was much more moderate, would agree with your sentiment. And so do I, by the way.

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  26. “But you really think, say, that watching the Kardashians is the same — or not that different — from a Shakespearian play? Or compare Justin Bieber to Beethoven…”

    I admit that there seems to be a difference. That is clear, of course. But what that difference might amount to is much less clear. Much of Shakespeare is, frankly, soap opera. And so too are the Kardashians. (Or so I am told). What makes one soap opera (e.g., Masterpiece Theatre) better than another soap opera (e.g., One Life to Live)? I find all of it utterly dull, but I am led to believe that some find the former to be deeper and more complex than the latter. To what extent is this borne out by any real evidence, and to what extent is it a matter of class affinity? I don’t know but I am not immediately persuaded in this case by seemings.

    “I don’t see how anyone could be inspired to deep thinking by the Kardashians or Bieber.”

    Perhaps not, I don’t know since I have no experience of either. But what about Jeff Koons? I don’t see his art on any higher a level than that of the tabloids, and yet many apparently professional art critics claim to be inspired to deep thinking by his work. I imagine the same was said of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, or indeed all of abstract art: how can these inspire deep thinking? They inspire it in me, but I can understand how someone of a different era or culture might be simply mystified by them. If so, then again there is no real substance to the distinction between high and low art; that is, the distinction is not objective.

    Perhaps you are willing to agree at least on that ground, yet say that a subjective distinction may be one of substance. If so, that will need separate discussion.

    “I do think some types of entertainment are actually damaging, like the above mentioned examples. Sort of like eating junk food for the soul, to continue one of the analogies we have explored in this thread.”

    Agreed: some entertainment foments greed, hatred, and delusion. For example, I find the famous gangster films such as Goodfellas or the Godfather to be actually damaging.

    “A couple of examples: I find documentaries to be a powerful way to convey important / interesting information, which would otherwise take me a long time to gather. And I just had a colleague giving a guest lecture in my class on “knowledge across the curriculum,” who argued that political science and comparative sociology cannot do without literature, for instance the reading of anti-colonial novels written by indigenous people who have first-person experience of certain cultures and situations.”

    Ah, yes. I am not including documentaries in my criticism of entertainment. By “entertainment” I mean strictly fictional material. Documentaries exist to transfer factual information, and I think we all agree that factual information is generally useful. (Assuming of course that the documentary is really a documentary, and not simply a pack of lies). One may argue that some factual information may be “actually damaging”, but that would I think also need separate argument.

    While coming to know first-person experience of cultures and situations is no doubt important, and indeed essential, I think this can be done better through factual narratives (e.g., histories, memoirs, biographies) than novels. All too often novels fake material, and the number of false histories produced in novels (movies, etc.) is simply legion. Start with the Bible!

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  27. Douglass,

    “I admit that there seems to be a difference. That is clear, of course”

    A cultural or literary critic could tell you more, but does it really matter? Even if one couldn’t come up with specifics, the fact that there is a difference ought to be plainly clear, and no, I don’t buy that it is an issue of class affinity.

    ” I don’t know since I have no experience of either. But what about Jeff Koons?”

    Again, I think you are being both too coy and too demanding. I have “experienced” Bieber, and I’m completely convinced that there is no deep thinking there. As for Koons, since we are talking about Wittgensteinian, inherently fuzzy concepts, there will always be borderline cases, or cases about which one can reasonably disagree. That’s why I pointed to what I thought were obvious and undeniable extremes.

    “I can understand how someone of a different era or culture might be simply mystified by them”

    That doesn’t seem relevant to the discussion at hand. Since we are talking about culture, we are of course assuming a certain background, without which nothing that any particular human culture produces is understandable.

    “Perhaps you are willing to agree at least on that ground, yet say that a subjective distinction may be one of substance”

    I’d rather distinguish between subjective and arbitrary. All discussions of cultural values are, by definition, subjective. But subjectivity doesn’t mean that one can make arbitrary statements, or that all statements are equally supported, or that all statements are equally not supported.

    “I am not including documentaries in my criticism of entertainment. By “entertainment” I mean strictly fictional material”

    I don’t see why. I watch documentaries in part because I find them entertaining. Like some non-fiction books. I don’t watch/read them for research or work.

    “I think this can be done better through factual narratives (e.g., histories, memoirs, biographies) than novels”

    I disagree, I think one needs both. A first person point of view is important to truly understand human affairs, and factual narratives simply do not provide it.

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  28. Massimo & Doug:

    I’m enjoying your exchange…and with good reason! As a father, husband, son, neighbor, citizen, etc., I’m situated in a way that renders very austere, hard-line stances against popular media virtually impossible for me to maintain. (Isn’t there a saying about physical exercise that “the best routine is the one that you’re likely to actually follow?”) Sure, there’s more to life than just “fitting in with the crowd”, but even a critical stance against a particular tradition, genre, or piece requires that we actually engage with it to some extent. Time is short, of course, so we can’t do it all, but if we learn nothing else from the works of Shakespeare, we learn something about human nature – i.e. more than we’re likely to learn from only listening to currently trending pop music – although both media genres provide something along those lines and allow us to more easily relate to others with various interests and tastes.

    (I imagine a psychologist would say something here about emotional or social intelligence, but I’m no psychologist.)

    I suppose this is why philosophers write books for the general public these days on film and television (think: Star Trek, Doctor Who, The Simpsons, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer), not only to demonstrate how philosophy is relevant to everyone, but also so as to relate to others more on their terms…say, as one big family. And, while I believe there is inherent value in creativity and imagination (i.e. even when they tell stories whose moral value is dubious), I also appreciate the role they play in philosophy…for example, in thought experiments that deal in counterfactuals, which nonetheless stimulate the intellect and lead to new insights.

    Anyways, thanks again for the stimulating essay and the discussion.

    Liked by 3 people

  29. I suggest the Stoic approach to entertainment lies in the process and not the content.
    It can be summed up as 1) prepare, 2) enjoy, 3) debrief, 4) learn. If you engage in this process then you have enjoyed mindful entertainment.

    1. Prepare.
    Learn as much as possible about the work beforehand. What is the background?, genre? author?, artist? What do we know about them, their style and their standing? What do the reviews say? Are there thoughtful analyses or essays about the work? What influenced the work? What influences are portrayed in the work? What place has the work in the milieu? How has the work contributed to the milieu?

    2. Enjoy.
    Now that you are prepared, briefed and primed it is time to relax and be carried on the flood of events and emotions. Your preparation will enable a mindful enjoyment of the entertainment.

    3. Debrief.
    Reflect on your experiences and create a narrative. If possible do this with a friend/partner so that you can benefit from their understanding. Explaining to others clarifies your own understanding.. Analyse the plot, characters, themes, style and presentation.

    4. Learn.
    Have you learned something worthwhile? What was that? Are you enriched by the experience? Why? Was the time spent worth the opportunity cost? Would you repeat this kind of experience? And finally the acid test – would you recommend this to your college age daughter?

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  30. Thanks, Jason.

    I would agree that given a certain cultural milieu there will be certain works of art that tend to inspire deep and profound thoughts, and others that do not. Though “cultural milieu” may in fact be quite a bit narrower than we believe or expect: my cultural milieu may be quite different from that of my next door neighbor.

    Part of the issue here may be that I am simply not very familiar with the cultural nadirs that you (Massimo) point to. I have, of course, listened to what I would consider trashy pop music; I have no problem with it as relaxation. Having read some of the treatments of (e.g.) artists like Koons, I would also not be shocked to find some enterprising professor or PhD student writing a book about why is actually making a profound commentary on our contemporary culture. Eventually and always it comes down to a matter of taste. Chacun a son goût.

    You say that Koons is a “borderline case about which one can reasonably disagree.” I do not think he is a borderline case; I think his work is as trashy as can be found in contemporary culture. If the argument is that he surmounts trash with irony, I think this misunderstands Koons’s intent. The only difference I see between Koons and is that Koons is in the permanent collection of MoMA and they are not.

    This goes back to Duchamp’s urinal: anyone can make great art, all it takes is a signature and the imprimatur of a famous gallery. We may bemoan that step, I certainly have done so in the past but it’s like Canute bemoaning the tides.

    Yes, Duchamp had the right cultural milieu to get the urinal in the gallery, while presumably the urinal’s actual designer did not. So in your sense Duchamp’s gesture was not an example of something completely “arbitrary”: it is not the case that anyone could get anything in a gallery at any time. But what is the case is that the thing’s getting in the gallery had nothing whatever to do with its intrinsic features. Duchamp’s point (which has been borne out again and again in contemporary art) is that anything whatever can be put into a gallery.

    Of course to do so involves getting it past tastemakers, who presumably will decide to let one thing in and another thing not. It’s not completely arbitrary. But I think it is significantly more so than we would like to believe.

    Aesthetic appeal is also not completely arbitrary. There are facts about what people find aesthetically appealing. The artists Komar and Melamid used survey data to produce paintings that mirrored such facts about taste in their Most and Least Wanted Paintings. One intended irony here is that none of the “most wanted paintings” appear as anything other than dull and derivative to the kinds of people interested in seeing Komar and Melamid artworks in a museum or gallery setting.

    Anyhow. I’ve probably gone on too long about all this. As I say, I don’t disagree that certain works seem to us deeper and more profound than others. I would simply say that there is no substantive response to someone who does not see depth where we do in artwork. Where I see depth in Wagner, someone else may see boredom or even moral turpitude, and not as a borderline issue. If there are facts here I am not sure where to find them.

    Couple of last comments:

    “I watch documentaries in part because I find them entertaining. Like some non-fiction books. I don’t watch/read them for research or work.”

    Yes. The topic becomes impossible if we include everything we find entertaining as “entertainment”. Some people find work entertaining. I think if something has a clear other purpose (viz., making shoes, teaching about the history of the dinosaurs) then it may be entertaining but it is not per se entertainment.

    “I think one needs both. A first person point of view is important to truly understand human affairs, and factual narratives simply do not provide it.”

    Agreed that the first person point of view is important. This is why I included memoirs and biographies (well, in this case I should have said “autobiographies”) under factual narratives.

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  31. Oops, the system took out stuff that I put between angle brackets.

    Two edits:

    “Having read some of the treatments of (e.g.) artists like Koons, I would also not be shocked to find some enterprising professor or PhD student writing a book about why is actually making a profound commentary on our contemporary culture. Eventually and always it comes down to a matter of taste. Chacun a son goût.”

    Should read:

    “Having read some of the treatments of (e.g.) artists like Koons, I would also not be shocked to find some enterprising professor or PhD student writing a book about why {insert trashy pop culture figure here} is actually making a profound commentary on our contemporary culture. Eventually and always it comes down to a matter of taste. Chacun a son goût.”

    and:

    “The only difference I see between Koons and is that Koons is in the permanent collection of MoMA and they are not.”

    Should read:

    The only difference I see between Koons and {insert trashy pop culture figure here} is that Koons is in the permanent collection of MoMA and they are not.”

    Apologies.

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  32. Douglass,

    “Eventually and always it comes down to a matter of taste”

    The question is what comes down to taste, exactly? Yes, without a doubt it is a matter of taste whether one does or does not enjoy Britney Spear or Beethoven. But what I’m rejecting here is that there aren’t good reasons to consider the first “low” and the second “high” culture. Despite the existence of instances (Brillo Boxes-as-art, for instance) where there can be genuine debate.

    “The only difference I see between Koons and is that Koons is in the permanent collection of MoMA and they are not.”

    And you think the MoMA curators purposely put trash on exhibit? Or do they have what they think are good reasons to separate Koons from other trash? I’m not saying that their reasons are unarguable. I’m saying that there are reasons, and that — other things being equal — I’m happy to go with whatever the relevant epistemic / scholarly community thinks.

    “This goes back to Duchamp’s urinal: anyone can make great art, all it takes is a signature and the imprimatur of a famous gallery”

    I disagree. Duchamp got away with it because he was making a (obviously ironic) statement. Nobody has ever argued that the urinal is good art in the sense that a Michelangelo is good art.

    “what is the case is that the thing’s getting in the gallery had nothing whatever to do with its intrinsic features”

    But that’s because art doesn’t have to do *just* with intrinsic features.

    “It’s not completely arbitrary. But I think it is significantly more so than we would like to believe.”

    I actually think this is by and large restricted to some narrow types of contemporary art, precisely those that go “conceptual” rather “substantive.” Outside of that it isn’t really that difficult to separate high culture from trash.

    “I would simply say that there is no substantive response to someone who does not see depth where we do in artwork”

    But by that token there is no substantive response to someone who doesn’t want to pursue virtue, or be moral, or whatever. You are in danger of a bit too much cultural relativism, seems to me.

    “Where I see depth in Wagner, someone else may see boredom or even moral turpitude”

    Depth isn’t the same as entertaining, so boredom isn’t the opposite of depth. As for moral turpitude, it can certainly be found in Wagner’s political ideas, but his music?

    Liked by 1 person

  33. Thanks for humoring me, Massimo.

    “… art doesn’t have to do *just* with intrinsic features.”

    Right. IIRC certain of Beethoven’s and Wagner’s contemporary critics thought that what they wrote was not music, but cacophony. In their cultural milieu, perhaps they were correct. I think this too could be part of art’s extrinsic nature: whether something counts as music or cacophony.

    “I actually think this is by and large restricted to some narrow types of contemporary art, precisely those that go “conceptual” rather “substantive.” Outside of that it isn’t really that difficult to separate high culture from trash.”

    Perhaps so, but then the question is whether conceptual art is just as “high” a kind of culture or art as anything else. If so, then the distinction doesn’t matter to the point. Then anything (or a thing with any intrinsic features) can be “high art” if it appears in the right conceptual space.

    Perhaps this isn’t controversial. I am led to believe it isn’t controversial in contemporary art circles.

    “But by that token there is no substantive response to someone who doesn’t want to pursue virtue, or be moral, or whatever. You are in danger of a bit too much cultural relativism, seems to me.”

    Yes, this is the crux of the matter, isn’t it. I think there are facts we can point to about what sorts of things are pleasurable and painful, and that creatures generally want to gain pleasure and to avoid pain. One key reason (perhaps not the only reason) for pursuing virtue is that being virtuous is the surest way to gain lasting pleasure and avoid lasting pain. This is also one key reason for pursuit of wisdom generally. Such arguments can be made quite generally and non-arbitrarily, I think, to anyone who claims not to want to be virtuous or moral. They can be accused of a kind of self-contradiction, or at least of a kind of self-sabotage. By their own lights they should want virtue or wisdom.

    On the other hand, while there are key facts we can point to about what kinds of visual stimulae people find pleasurable, those facts seem to play little if any role in contemporary notions of “high art”. E.g., Komar and Melamid say that people like landscapes with trees, open space, and a pond in the distance. But paintings of trees, open spaces, and ponds in the distance now come under the rubric of “low art”. A contemporary artist would have to channel a painter of the 19th century or earlier to be taken seriously as a painter of pretty landscapes, like Borges’s Pierre Menard with Quijote.

    It would seem that art — or at least its contemporary manifestation — has nothing to do with pleasurable stimulae. Contemporary taste-makers have said as much, in disdaining works as “decorative” if beautiful.

    I think what’s left is largely cultural relativism plus some good marketing by taste-makers. Indeed, there is quite an insidious relationship between wealthy collectors and the galleries and museums that display their collections, some of it done pretty clearly to increase prices for sale.

    But then no doubt I am being overly cynical.

    One can, of course, simply say that these contemporary taste-makers are all wrong, and that in fact (e.g.) Rackstraw Downes and Richard Estes are artists who should be commanding the prices and attention that Jeff Koons gets in their stead. Estes’s recent retrospective was held at the MAD, a craft museum for gosh sakes, rather than at MoMA down the block.

    It’s an argument I would be happy to make, but one that I fear would be factually thin on the ground. Chacun a son goût, after all.

    One thing that bears reflection is how much effort culturally astute educated folks like ourselves put into arguing which artworks should be considered “high” and “low” art. Is there a more clichéd example of a dorm-room discussion, or a wheel-spinning essay in a literary journal?

    “… so boredom isn’t the opposite of depth.”

    Can something be both deep and boring?

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  34. Douglass,

    as you pointed out on Twitter, this is a good exchange. It shows how two people can rationally disagree and yet engage in constructive conversation; and it allows me, at any rate, to make my own thoughts clearer because I have to present them to someone else.

    “certain of Beethoven’s and Wagner’s contemporary critics thought that what they wrote was not music, but cacophony”

    True, but I think that simply says that aesthetic judgment — like historical judgment, and sometimes even scientific judgment — ought to be left to posterity.

    Which is also why I think that talking about contemporary art is problematic: it ain’t settled yet! We have good examples from the history of art and literature of figures that were once prevalent but that posterity has relegated to footnotes, and vice versa of people who were not appreciated in their own times but are then considered giants.

    “then the question is whether conceptual art is just as “high” a kind of culture or art as anything else”

    My own judgment is that conceptual art is more politics than art. And that most of it will soon be in the dustbin of (art) history. But see comment above about making judgments on things ongoing…

    “One key reason (perhaps not the only reason) for pursuing virtue is that being virtuous is the surest way to gain lasting pleasure and avoid lasting pain … On the other hand, while there are key facts we can point to about what kinds of visual stimulae people find pleasurable, those facts seem to play little if any role in contemporary notions of “high art””

    But that wasn’t really my point. My point was that certain kinds of entertainment are either damaging or not constructive for the human spirit, and that judgment seems to me akin to the one you are making about virtue (and with which I agree, of course). So what I call “high” art is the sort of thing that contributes to the betterment of the human spirit, and what I call “low” art doesn’t (or is even detrimental).

    “A contemporary artist would have to channel a painter of the 19th century or earlier to be taken seriously as a painter of pretty landscapes”

    Agreed, but that’s because that sort of thing has been done before, as you point out. That’s no different from, say, science: in Galileo’s time discovering a new lunar crater was a big deal. Nowadays, not so much.

    “there is quite an insidious relationship between wealthy collectors and the galleries and museums that display their collections, some of it done pretty clearly to increase prices for sale.”

    Agreed, which is why I’d rather wait what the next few generations will say about it.

    “Can something be both deep and boring?”

    Consider a proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, for anyone who isn’t inclined toward deep mathematics, which is almost everyone on earth.

    Liked by 1 person

  35. “It shows how two people can rationally disagree and yet engage in constructive conversation; and it allows me, at any rate, to make my own thoughts clearer because I have to present them to someone else.”

    Agreed, Massimo. Though I don’t think we actually disagree as much as it might seem. I like using occasions like these to try out thoughts and hone them in discussion. As you say, it clarifies things for me, and at times makes me feel that my own ideas need rethinking.

    “My own judgment is that conceptual art is more politics than art. And that most of it will soon be in the dustbin of (art) history. But see comment above about making judgments on things ongoing…”

    You won’t get any argument from me on that account. Though as you note, one glance at the history of art in the last couple of centuries should make one very careful about reacting against the new material. Old fuddy duddies are all too often swept away by the tides.

    “So what I call “high” art is the sort of thing that contributes to the betterment of the human spirit, and what I call “low” art doesn’t (or is even detrimental).”

    Yes, well this is hard to put a finger on. The first thing that comes to mind re. arts that better the human spirit are morality plays or didactic art forms: things that use the narrative or pictorial form to instruct. Didacticism of course has been anathema in the arts (at least what goes under the rubric “high” arts) for probably over a century now, and most particularly after the great wars of the twentieth century. I think nobody really has the stomach for it, except in the guise of works for children.

    Ironically, perhaps the last bastion of didacticism is in conceptual art, which as you note is “more politics than art”: its message, such as it is, is generally for some sociopolitical end. Often these ends are in fact ends to which we would assent, but we bridle at being hit over the head with them, or we feel the same message could be better got across without the folderol of the poor artwork itself.

    Now, what might be said against the argument for didacticism is that it is dull or predictable, and that (e.g.) one can “better the human spirit” by viewing more apparently realistic or morally mixed works. I am, however, unconvinced. At the least such a philosophical approach to art would require quite an extensive revision to standard canons of “high” and “low” art. To take the example I mentioned before, many people believe that the Godfather and Goodfellas belong in any canon of “high” film; and as film I can’t disagree: they are beautifully made, gripping, compelling works. They also glorify criminality. Here I think Plato’s concerns with the power of rhetoric in the arts are spot on: what makes art great, at least as commonly considered, are not necessarily properties that involve bettering the human spirit. Instead they involve gripping, emotionally violent human dramas. Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Othello.

    Of course, given time any of us can manufacture moral messages from morally mixed or depraved artworks. We can always say that it’s showing us how bad things can get if we act wrongly, etc. But this I think is more a reflection on our powers of rationalization than a reflection of the meaning or intent of the works themselves.

    This does leave open the possibility that we could revise the canon to strike out those works that were morally mixed or depraved, leaving works that were not overtly or crassly didactic but that did nonetheless “better the human spirit”. In my prior piece I mentioned the Japanese aesthetic of ‘wabi-sabi‘ or ‘mono no aware’: this comes across in artworks that display to us the melancholy transience or impermanence of life. There may of course be other such aesthetic methods.

    “Consider a proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, for anyone who isn’t inclined toward deep mathematics,”

    Yes, definitely correct on that ground. But I think what I was after had more to do with emotional depth rather than intellectual. I’m not sure that something can be both emotionally deep and boring. Rather, I think each of us finds our emotional depth where we may, and there’s no accounting for taste. Andrew Wiles no doubt finds Fermat’s Theorem emotionally profound, but I don’t think it makes sense for someone to say, “Oh yes, Wagner is emotionally very deep but it bores me.” Unless of course they were being subtly ironic. We can OTOH say “Quantum Mechanics is intellectually deep but it bores me” without irony.

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