February 18, 2016

Don 't Forget to Make Your Art Good

Don't Forget to Make Your Art Good
The Cost of Beauty
When I visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris a few years ago, I had an surprising experience of ambivalence. It was impossible to not be in awe of its beauty, but I couldn't shake a feeling of disgust.

Everywhere I looked I recognized that the beauty before me came at an immense cost. For every stone lifted, a field row was left untilled. For every window pane stained, a coat was left unwoven. The cost was paid by the poor, twice over. The first was the price paid directly in labor and taxes; the second was the opportunity cost incurred from using materials and exploiting labor that might have been used toward more essential ends. If everyone in Medieval Europe was wealthy and at ease there would be nothing to object to, but that wasn't the case. The beauty of Notre Dame came at a cost, and it's one that I find difficult to overlook.

The best justification that I can imagine is that the beauty displayed by a cathedral uplifts the spirit of everyone in a community. A noble thought. Alexander Pope wrote that the calling of tragedy is,
To wake the soul by tender strokes of art,
To raise the genius, and to mend the heart.
This, it seems, could be said of architecture as well, so also with literature, painting, or any of the arts. Art does a great service to us all, but the virtue of beautiful art doesn't exempt artists and patrons from their more basic human call to be good. M.K. Gandhi said (although it may be an apocryphal attribution), "There's no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness." Likewise, it's hard for someone to appreciate the uplifting intention of a cathedral when his body is crushed with hunger and exhaustion.

Beauty and Goodness
I've concluded that I needn't forget my ambivalence toward sublime cathedrals, powerful fortresses, castles, and châteaux. In fact, I ought to allow that internal conflict to flourish. It's a conflict that rages between our aesthetic and our ethical sensitivities—between beauty and goodness, and it's a conflict that we too often pass over unmarked.

I want to continue visiting the places that spark this conflict within me. It's worth remembering again and again that something can be both beautiful and ethically depraved. Beauty can be wrought at a great human cost. It's a lesson with significance more contemporary than the construction of Notre Dame.

In actual fact, I'm not interested in involving myself in a critique of Medieval architecture. I'm really concerned about today, but again, not merely with architectural practice. Rather, I'm concerned about the ethics of our beauty standards in general.

The Question of Ethics in Art
I'm not saying that I have a doctrine to follow to ensure that the art we make remains ethical, I'm only saying that in our creating and producing—whether artistic or otherwise—we should never forget our responsibilities to other people. I could never come up with an adequate definition of art, but I'm confident in saying that any definition should include the pursuit of goodness.

That's not to say that art needs to represent good things to be good (I'm not so old-fashioned). Art is good by doing good; making us aware of suffering and confronting us with what's terrible in the world is one of the many virtuous services that art can perform. Even ethically considered, tragedy is among the best art. Even the most horrific pieces can be both beautiful and good.

Neither am I arguing that art needs to be primarily concerned with actions and effects. But art can't help but produce effects, and it can't avoid acting on those who experience it. I'm arguing that we should remain mindful of what it does.

The Responsibility of Art
And certainly I'm not suggesting that I or anyone can assume the role of ethical arbiter in art. On the contrary, the moment we politicize or govern art is the moment we transform it into an instrument of power and ideology rather a conduit of ethical practice. Obviously what I've proscribed only truly succeeds in resolving the problem if we all agree on what's good, which we don't. But this actually concerns me less, at least for now.

The weighing and measuring can only be done by the artist himself. As long as we remember that what is beautiful—whether in nature, art, economy, or in other people—cannot help but involve itself, for better or for worse, in ethical questions. Crafting a standard of beauty that is also good and virtuous is a personal and individual responsibility. Both the beautiful and the good are ultimately mine and yours to discover or to determine. We each have to decide; that's the weight of moral responsibility—it lies on my shoulders alone, and on yours.

Of course the problem remains: undoubtedly the architects of Notre Dame believed that what they were doing was good, righteous, even glorifying, while I consider it oppressive and abhorrent, though beautiful nonetheless. My values, thoroughly 21st century as they are, question their values. All we can do, then, is to keep asking the ethical question: is this good?—continuing until it's a grand series of questions, and finally an omnipresent moral attitude from which we approach everything in life including our art.

This isn't a guarantee that we'll be good, but in lieu of being good with certainty let's at least work to be better. I'm confident at least that the result will lead us in the right trajectory. It's a modest proposal but weighty enough to keep us constantly occupied.

February 6, 2016

You're Not Afraid of What You Think You Are

You're Not Afraid of What You Think You Are:
Procrastination is a Fear of Inaction

A while ago I made a rule that I'm not allowed to sit at my desk unless I'm working. It's my strategy to defend my work space from distraction. If I want to browse online I have to go sit somewhere else. A side-effect of my rule is that I no longer have to 'get to work', 'read a book', or 'write a post or essay'; I only have to sit at my desk. Once I'm there I'm working by definition. But I discovered that my rule has a reciprocal effect. I don't avoid work anymore, I just avoid sitting down. Avoiding my chair has become a symbol of my work avoidance in general. So I had to ask myself, "Why am I afraid to sit in my desk chair? Why am I afraid to work hard?"

Almost everyone can empathize with the burden of procrastination, but I'll wager that almost no one knows why they do it. I'll be so bold as to say that not even the psychologists and productivity experts know why. Consequently they only compound the problem.

I'm usually told that I procrastinate because I'm afraid of failure, or rejection, or my own high standards. Conventional wisdom tells me that my neurotic perfectionism overburdens me: I've spent too much time studying history and now in my heart-of-hearts I've become convinced that either I'll be remembered for greatness or I'll evaporate into the oblivion of historical irrelevance. Conventional wisdom tells me that my fear of failure and rejection paralyzes me. Both are devastating to the ego, and if I never try then I'll never fail.

Inaction is the only way to fail
The conventional answers aren't only wrong, they're destructive. They convince me that I'm afraid to try or to work hard but the opposite is actually true.

I've spent hours hovering over my desk, my books, and my notebooks thinking about working but not quite committing. I've told myself that because my ambitions are daunting the prospect of beginning is too intimidating. But I've told myself a lie. In fact, at its core procrastination is the false belief that I'm afraid to act. The truth is, procrastination is an extreme fear of inaction.

I'm not afraid of merely failing, I'm afraid of not achieving. The two are completely and radically different. Success or failure is not a binary state, we always fail and succeed by degrees. In simple quantitative terms it's indisputable: if a score of 50% is failure, it's only partial failure; it's still better than 0%. There's no world where 0% is anything but absolute failure, and 0% is only the consequence of not acting. If my standards are perfection — and it's well, they should be — then I fear non-achievement, inactivity, and nothingness. When I try and fail, when I work hard and I'm rejected, then I've achieve something, just not enough. Not-good-enough is better than not-at-all because it's a first and necessary step toward real success.

The great self-deception
I'll use a concrete example: one of my goals this year is to write 100 pages of a novel. If I write 50 pages I haven't completely succeeded but I'd be a fool to think that I've completely failed. I only genuinely fail if I don't write at all. The fear I have to face in the pursuit of my goal is the fear of not trying.

In fact, I fear the failure of inaction so much, my mind comes up with a defense mechanism to deal with it: denial. The idea that I'm overburdened by the weight of perfection and accomplishment is one of my mind's most destructive denial strategies. When I avoid sitting at my desk to write, it's not the thought of getting to work that weighs on my mind. Instead, I'm afraid to admit that I've been wasting my life by not working, so I don't do anything that will force me to admit it. I avoid starting because starting confronts me with my past and present inactivity. It's just too difficult to face the fact that I'm already living in the midst of my fear. It's easier to say, "I actually fear that other thing, action." What a lie.

Run from fear
Of course, this is entirely irrational. Instead of avoiding my desk, I need to recognize that if not sitting at my desk is what I'm afraid of, then the solution is to sit down as fast as I can.

Our fear is not always destructive (though I won't deny that it can be). As a basic instinct it keeps us alive. But why not manipulate that feeling when we can? In the case of procrastination, I don't need to learn to live with my fears, I need to run from them. I fear inaction, I'm afraid of kicking back on the couch and watching TV; so I need to escape the situation, I need to retreat to the only place I'm not afraid to be: at my desk, working. The more time I spend working, the less I have to live in a world of fearful inaction and destitute failure. And action has the added incentive of being enormously rewarding.

I fear a blank page. So what have I done? I've refused to open the notebook. As long as the cover remained closed I didn't have to face the blank space that I fear. I'm afraid to acknowledge the fact that as I stand and ponder writing, I'm not writing. But the page is still there. Leaving my notebook closed only avoids the fact that the page remains blank, but it doesn't do anything to solve the problem. In this case the only way to avoid my fear is to eliminate the blank page by filling it with words.

And now, as soon as I submit my final period I'll be faced with the renewed terror of inaction. There's only one escape: I need to find something else to write.
Post script: This is only a concrete application of a theory of phobia that I believe is very general. I plan on working out this notion of fear to help understand a myriad of human behaviors and phenomena from relationships to addiction to death.