Monday, February 20, 2012

Art, moral development, and asana-practicing assholes

These past couple of days, I have been reading, thinking and preparing for my philosophy of art class that meets on Wednesday evening. The questions that my class will be discussing this Wednesday are: What is artistic value? Is the artistic value of a work separate (or separable) from other values that it may possess; values such as cognitive value, moral value, social value, educational value, historical value, therapeutic value, or economic value, among others?

To illustrate these questions better, let's use an example. Suppose a person who is having some issues in a romantic relationship feels better after watching Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, not because the movie offers any direct solutions to his relationship troubles (knowing Woody Allen, it probably doesn't :-)), but because the plot of the movie and its characters somehow function to help this person better put his relationship troubles in perspective. So the movie has psycho-therapeutic value for this person. But an art critic may say that the therapeutic value of this movie has nothing to do with its value as a work of art: Just because the movie is effective as a psycho-therapeutic tool says nothing about the production value of the movie, or about the aesthetically relevant aspects of the movie (cinematography, story, character development, etc.).

There is a lively debate in contemporary philosophy of art over whether the artistic value of a work is related to the other values (such as therapeutic value) that the same work may possess. Our art critic above believes that there is no relation between artistic value and other kinds of value the work may possess. But others may disagree.

On a related note, there is also a lively conversation over the question of whether the moral value of a work of art is separable or distinct from its artistic or aesthetic value. Should proper appreciation and understanding of a work of art function to make us better people? If we do not become better people as a result of engaging in artistic endeavors, have we in a sense failed to engage in art properly? Again, different people have different views about this. The American poet and literary critic Yvor Winters argues that poetry is and should be a means of strengthening intellectual and moral character:

"Poetry... should offer a means of enriching one's awareness of human experience and so of rendering greater the possibility of intelligence in the course of future action; and it should offer likewise a means of inducing certain more or less constant habits of feeling, which should render greater the possibility of one's acting, in a future situation, in accordance with the findings of one's improved intelligence. It should, in other words, increase the intelligence and strengthen the moral temper; these effects should naturally be carried over into action, if, through constant discipline, they are made permanent acquisitions."  

But I suspect that many will disagree with Winters here. After all, history seems to provide abundant examples of seemingly highly cultured individuals who nevertheless are highly morally deficient; Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda, was a published novelist who also had a doctorate in romantic drama. Or maybe these individuals have failed to understand and appreciate the significance of art in some important sense; perhaps, despite their extensive engagement with art, they have failed to bring about the strengthening of the moral temper that proper engagement and involvement with art should bring about.

I don't have an answer to any of these issues. But I think there is much to think about here. But there is definitely a certain parallel set of issues with yoga practice here. One recurring theme in my posts over the last few months has been the relationship between asana practice and moral development or character. Should "correct", "proper" practice of asana result in some kind of strengthening of the moral temper and make us better people? We know that, as with the case of art, real life seems to provide us with abundant examples of advanced asana practitioners who nevertheless do not appear to be very morally evolved: See, for instance, Claudia's recent story about the coconut-men-yellers in this post. Actually, we don't even have to go all the way to Mysore to look for examples: I myself have engaged in some assholic behavior that I am definitely not proud of (which is not to say I am an advanced asana practitioner, of course; hmm... does this get me off the moral hook? :-)).

I guess the question is: What is the diagnosis for these asana-practicing assholes (myself included)? The way I see it, there are at least three possible answers:

(1) One straightforward answer could be that these folks (again, myself included) may be proficient at asana, but have not done enough to incorporate the other limbs (especially yama and niyama) into their yoga, so that they are really not practicing yoga, but only appearing to. 

(2) Another possible answer could be that the yoga is working even on these assholes: If you think I'm an asshole now, wait till you see me when I don't practice...

(3) Yet another possible answer could be that despite everything we've been brainwashed--uh, I mean, taught--to believe, yoga really isn't all it's cracked up to be. You do whatever yoga you can do, but whether or not you become self-realized in the end has nothing to do with the yoga (maybe it's genetically determined?). Which means the system really doesn't work. Quick! Jump ship while you still can! Maybe go do Pilates or Taichi or something...

Again, I don't know what the answer is: I'm hoping it's (2), but what do I know?   

Anyway, time to go eat some dinner. This is what happens when I don't blog for a couple of days: You get subjected to one long-ass post! Well, I hope you find at least some of this useful (or at least entertaining...).

1 comment:

  1. I think it was from your blog that I saw a video of Kino talking about the work all being on the edge. That was enlightening for me. Where one's edge is doesn't determine their development as much as how much time they spend at that edge, wherever it happens to be that day. That's where the change and self realization happens. I think it can be deceiving to try to see if someone else is at the edge or not. Even very advanced teachers seem to fall into the trap of thinking that the physical gymnastics of an asana= level of enlightenment of the student.