The Palliative Value of Art – Raja Halwani

Since being confined to our homes because of Covid-19, every night, after a long day of working from home, I watch TV shows to relax and forget about work: The Americans, Entourage, and Succession (which is fantastic) are some examples. They are engaging, clever, and very well done. They take me out of the daily grind of dealing with the news, managing work from a distance, and worrying about the future. I have also been catching up on fiction reading. I finished reading (in Arabic) One Thousand and One Nights (yes, the uncensored version) and I am now reading Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, a witty, engaging, and unpretentious novel. When I reflect on some of the movies, novels, TV shows (The Simpsons!), ballets, operas, and the music that I have attended to over the years, I realize how important art is to human life.

The reader’s reaction is probably, “Are you stupid? Everyone knows this about art!” The reader, of course, is right. But I want to remove the seeming stupidity of my realization by putting it in two contexts: that of the philosophical discussion of the value of art, and that of looking at the world through a pessimist lens. I offer a view about the value of art that I call “palliative,” and that can be described as Schopenhauer-ian in spirit (but without being committed to Schopenhauer’s metaphysical and aesthetic theories).

I start by showing my pessimist hand: existence is terrible. This is not a reflection of my own personal life; if anything, I am one of the lucky ones—one of those people on whom life has not been hard. Instead, it is a reflection of what I find when I look at the world with a clear eye and mind. What I find fully agrees with what a few other philosophers—especially Schopenhauer and David Benatar—have argued, that much of life is spent in physical and mental discomfort and pain, which become worse as one gets older, with one’s body failing and getting diseased, until death puts a stop to it. Mentally speaking, people suffer from negative emotions most of the time (including those of love, which has its own necessary pain and heartache): anxiety, depression, envy, anger, frustration, and so on. These remarks are true of the normal course of life; in abnormal circumstances, people are struck by tragic accidents that degrade the quality of their lives. I will not repeat these points here as they have been well presented by others.[1] Life (if I remember a quotation from Schopenhauer correctly) is a business that does not cover its expenses.[2]

Let me now turn to the value of art.

Philosophers understand value in different ways, but I want to focus on the distinction between inherent and instrumental value. Inherent value is the value of a thing or activity in itself. Instrumental value is the value of what it leads to. For example, going to the dentist has only instrumental value in keeping our teeth in good shape, whereas being healthy is both inherently valuable and instrumentally valuable. Most things and activities that are inherently valuable tend to be instrumentally valuable also: gaining knowledge, laughing, going out for a nice walk, and so on.

Moreover, philosophers seem to think more highly of things with inherent value than those with only instrumental value for various reasons. One reason is the dispensability of the thing with only instrumental value: it is useful as long as a good substitute comes along, in which case it becomes dispensable. For example, medicine is valuable because it helps relieve back and neck pain, but it is dispensable if yoga can attain the same result.

However, there are some things that are only instrumentally valuable but such that, in this world (and not in other logical possibilities), they are indispensable, which puts them in a strange position: they are instrumentally valuable but not yet—and maybe never—dispensable. Consider two examples. Umbrellas are instrumentally valuable and they have been with us for a long time and are likely to be with us for as long. But it is easy to imagine a new technology that will dispense with them (for example, a space-like suit with helmets that come out to cover our heads as soon it starts to rain). Is this technology likely to happen any time soon? Probably not soon, but it can happen in the future. Medicine is of instrumental value. Yet it will never be actually dispensable for us, because, as long as we remain human, we remain biological creatures, which means we will always be in need of repair and of alleviating (as much as we can) the degradation of our bodies (until we die). So although medicine is only instrumentally valuable, it is indispensable.

What about art? Art is clearly instrumentally valuable. For example, by reading Abu Nuwas’s poetry, we get a good idea of how, say, Baghdad was during his time. By looking at Rembrandt’s paintings, we can gain information about the style of dress at the time. So art is instrumentally valuable in that it can yield important knowledge about society and history. Put differently, we can use art as a historical, anthropological, and sociological tool to gain information in those fields.

Art can also be instrumentally valuable by providing us with wisdom and moral lessons, especially when the work of art in question is meant to do that. For example, George Eliot’s novel Silas Marner teaches us that love is more valuable than money. The film Titanic teaches us about the endurance of love. This instrumental value of art—of delivering truths and moral verdicts—is called “cognitivism,” which is the idea that works of art can be the vehicles of such truths.

Another instrumental value of art is that it can make us better people. Knowing that money is not the most valuable thing in the world (Silas Marner) might make some people less greedy. Understanding the ugliness of racism (the movie Jaffa) can make one more sympathetic to the situation of Israeli Palestinians.

There are, of course, some problems with the above views. For instance, a work of art does not have to be good in order to deliver such truths. There can be trashy, bad, clichéd, etc., novels, movies, music, and so on that have good insights or lessons to teach us despite their badness. And there can be good artworks that deliver the wrong message. Moreover, works of art seem to be incidental to these lessons—you do not need to be immersed in the artwork, absorbed by it, or find it riveting in order to get the lesson. Indeed, a lot of conceptual art is like this: in most cases, its material composition is utterly irrelevant to the idea behind it. You don’t need a urinal to tell you that anything can be art; a trash bag full of garbage or heap of scrap metal can do that. Additionally, whether art makes us better people depends on the person: he needs to have a certain character and disposition to allow the lesson to positively affect his character. Someone can fully enjoy Oedipus Tyrannus yet not take to heart that even good people can have tragedy befall them.

But perhaps the most interesting objection is by the philosopher Jerome Stolnitz,[3] who argues that the truths given by art are either trivial, clichéd, or false when taken out of the context of the artwork. We don’t need Silas Marner to tell us that love is more important than money (trivial), and we don’t need Titanic to tell us that true love endures (clichéd). And some of them, like Titanic’s truth, when subjected to (minimal) scrutiny, turn out to be false when taken to apply to outside the world of the movie: there are many cases of true love that do not endure, for instance.

So if we do not need the film Blue Valentine to tell us that love can go bad, then its value as art seems to not lie in delivering such truths. So where does the value lie? If we remember that we deeply enjoy the film and its recounting of how romantic love can turn ugly, perhaps then the value of art lies in the experience of it. And the better the art is, the better the experience it gives.[4] The value of a movie like Blue Valentine does not lie in its telling us some truth that we know already, but in immersing us in an experience of it. Indeed, it is probably because we already know whatever truth underlies the movie that we are able to deeply enjoy the artwork.

The genius of claiming that the value of art lies in the experience of art is that this value is inherent, not instrumental. This is because in order to have an experience of Swan Lake you need to experience the ballet, so you cannot “cash in” the ballet’s value without experiencing it. Art becomes indispensable: no art, then no experience of it, and no experience of it, then no value. So the value of art lies in the very experience of it, and the better the work of art is—the more interesting, the better executed, the more absorbing, the deeper themes it addresses, the more aesthetic or beautiful it is—the higher its valuable experience is.

And it is this incredible ability of art to involve us in valuable experiences that is art’s most important instrumental value: its ability to get us out of life’s daily drudgery and misery, to make us temporarily forget the woes and suffering of this world, whether our own or of others, and to thereby allow us to endure our existence in a less crushing way. This is the palliative value of art: it enables us to go through life with as much ease and pleasure as possible, until we finally die. It performs the role of comforting us in a life that contains, for most people, much mental and physical pain, until our death. And this value, instrumental as it is, is of supreme importance. Imagine two people dying in agony. One is able to die without any comfort, distraction, or pain alleviation, while the other is able to breathe every now and then, to take a break. The second person’s end is clearly more tolerable than the first’s. It is here where the crucial value of art is.

To clarify a few points: I am not suggesting that when people interact with art they do so with the intention of forgetting about life’s misery (though surely some do). I am suggesting instead that with whatever intention people interact with art, art has this palliative value. So people don’t seek art saying to themselves, “I want to get out of life’s misery for a couple of hours (though maybe this is an unconscious motive). They just seek it, and in doing so, they get relief.

I am also not suggesting that for art to have palliative value its themes should be unrelated to life. One might think this because if art is to distract us from life, then it must tackle themes having nothing to do with life. But this is impossible—the only themes that art can draw on are those that directly or indirectly relate to our concerns. Moreover, in order for art to be truly engaging and absorbing, it has to address themes that we consider important: love, death, birth, friendship, sex, the human virtues and vices, and so on. The further away it moves from them, the less interesting it is; the less interesting it is, the less engaging it will be; and the less engaging it is, the less palliative it will be.

But then how can art distract us from the drudgery of existence if it is to keep us mired in the very themes of our existence? The answer to this question, in my opinion, goes against what some people have said about art, which is that art engages us because we often see ourselves mirrored in it—because it is about the reader or the viewer. This answer, popular as it is, has to be handled carefully: art is about the audience only in the trivial sense of being about themes of concern to human beings, and art’s audiences are (usually) human. But art is not about the audience in the sense that the audience sees itself in art’s characters. This is simply not true. First, audiences vary, coming from different backgrounds and groups. Second, art’s subject matter can be about something vastly different from its audience: How can I, an Arab male living in the 21st Century, see myself mirrored in the Ramayana’s Sita, for whom I nonetheless feel deep sympathy and pity?

The answer, instead, is a combination of three things: (a) that art is precisely not about the audience in any direct way, but (b) that it is nonetheless about themes important to its audience, and (c) which are developed in an engaging, absorbing, and aesthetic way.[5] The HBO series, True Detective, is all about the darkness of humanity and the ugliness that it is capable of. Yet this never stops us from enjoying the show; if anything it deepens our enjoyment by providing us with another illustration—albeit one embedded in excellent acting, dialogue, and cinematography—of how morally ugly human beings can be. It is because art is not about its audience in any personal way that it puts a psychic distance between itself and the audience.[6]

Note how art can do this in various ways while catering to various types of audiences: to those who enjoy being intellectually tickled by a conceptual artwork in a gallery vs. those who enjoy the aesthetic absorption of a more traditional paintings, to those who enjoy the opera vs. those who enjoy more popular music, to those who enjoy soap operas vs. those who enjoy “deeper” TV shows, to those who enjoy “cheap” romance novels vs. those who enjoy high-brow novels. From high to low, from mass produced to gallery-installed, art takes us out of life’s drudgery.

Note also that although art’s palliative value is best when it engages our senses along with our intellect—when its experience is a deeply rewarding aesthetic experience—art also helps alleviate life’s burdens in a million small ways, especially through its decorative abilities, from the beautification and decoration of tools to the environment around us in general. The beautification of the human-made world is one of art’s most widespread function and hence palliative value.

Although art in general has other values, the palliative value of art is the most important of all its values, instrumental and inherent. And although many individual artworks can be valuable for non-palliative reasons, those that are valuable because they are palliative fulfill a crucial function for us. Art is to life what getting a gulp of air is to a drowning person. Art does not make life worth living, but it does make life bearable.

So thank you to all those artists who have helped us survive. And to those artists who want to erase the boundaries between art and life, I say, “Don’t. If you do that, you will take away from humanity one of its most precious tools of coping with life.” And to those artists whose only concern in their art is social justice, making a political statement, or making a statement about art itself, I say: “Your art will lose the people’s interest in it. It will cater to only a handful of other gallery-hopping artists. If you want your art to be political, to address moral issues, then by all means go ahead and make this art. But make it engaging, absorbing, in a way that addresses deeply our emotions and senses, not only our intellectual brains. Do not turn your art into a bad version of an opinion article in a newspaper.” Indeed, these artists, by not making art with palliative value, are abdicating their moral responsibility to help humanity.

If life is very bad, isn’t art doing us a dis-service by making it tolerable? Doesn’t it deceive or mislead us into continuing to live? Should we not end our lives instead?[7] I won’t directly answer this excellent question because it is beside the point. With exceptions, people do not commit suicide, and this is because suicide is incredibly hard to pull off. We are biologically wired to want to live, and going against our biology is near impossible. Thus, and despite life’s harshness, we all wish to live and most of us cling to life. This means that our existence is a fact with which we have to contend. Given this fact, we all have moral obligations towards ourselves and others to make life as good as possible. But this means that although we can make life better for ourselves by escaping into art as much as possible, escaping too much means not attending to other people—it means not acting morally.

Alas, this is the dilemma that we face: even when we can escape life, we shouldn’t do that too much, because we then forget what we owe to others.

[1] David Benatar, The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions (Oxford University Press, 2017).

[2] Animals’ lives are even worse, much of it because of our actions. Just think of the millions of animals that we breed, that lives miserable short lives, just to be slaughtered for nothing more than us enjoying the taste of their cooked corpses.

[3] “On the Cognitive Triviality of Art,” British Journal of Aesthetics vol. 32, no. 3, 1992, pp. 191-200.

[4] This is Malcolm Budd’s view. See his Values of Art (Penguin 1995).

[5] On the importance of the aesthetic experience to art, see Richard Shusterman, “The End of Aesthetic Experience,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 55, no. 1, 1997, pp. 29-41).

[6] The idea of psychic distance comes from Edward Bullough’s famous essay (“‘Psychical Distance’ as a Factor in Art and an Aesthetic Principle”). But Bullough thought that the audience has to insert this distance, whereas I think that art does it automatically, so to speak.

[7] Remember Camus’s opening question to The Myth of Sisyphus: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”

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