Theoretically writing about tolerance and art should be easy for me as I wrote my most recent Masters thesis on Kandinsky who was messianic in his belief that art can shape the world for the better. Kandinsky regarded the artist as operating from the top of a pyramid, a pyramid that rotates through time, with the non-artists and general population forming the base, being dragged towards enlightenment by these artistic pioneers. Abstract art, in particular, he believed, if created by a ‘true artist’, has the potential to train the soul of the observer- to spark the imagination and raise consciousness to an understanding of spirit- to make us more tolerant and better people.
I also wrote about Yeats recently who held a similar view of art.
‘Reason’, Yeats said, ‘divides us from each other by showing us our clashing interests; but imagination divides us from mortality by showing us the immortality of beauty, and binds us to each other by opening the secret doors of all hearts.’
Again it’s this activating of the imagination for Yeats that gives art tremendous curative power. He said that, “the imaginative arts were the greatest of Divine revelations, and the sympathy with all living things, sinful and righteous alike, which the imaginative arts awaken, is that forgiveness of sins commanded by Christ’.
The problem is that I have been reading a lot of Rousseau recently. Rousseau (1712-1778) initiated the autobiography with his graphic ‘Confessions’ and has had an enormous influence on modern society. His idea that man becomes corrupted as he moves away from nature is the basis for much of current environmental philosophy.
Intolerance, according to Rousseau, is the product of inequality, and inequality is a condition of ‘civilization’.
“The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said ‘This is mine’, and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”
He was an early critic of the slave trade but extended the idea of slavery to all of us- for Rousseau we are slaves to a system of inequality. ‘Born free, man is everywhere in chains’, he says. Society is based on pride and vanity and crushes individual liberty through lies, pomposity and pretense. In 1749, Rousseau wrote a paper, on much the same subject as this one that I currently write. His was written for an essay writing competition and the title, set by the Academy of
Dijon, was “Has the restoration of the sciences and arts contributed to the purification of morals?”
Rousseau won the competition but his paper was, and still is, controversial. He says, ‘The following pages contain a discussion of one of the most sublime and interesting of all moral questions. I foresee that I shall not readily be forgiven for having taken up the position I have adopted. I can expect no less than a universal outcry against me but I have taken my stand, and I shall be at no pains to please either intellectuals or men of the world.’
He says, ‘Necessity raised up thrones; the arts and sciences have made them strong…..government and law provide for the security and well-being of men in their common life, the arts, literature and the sciences, less despotic though perhaps more powerful, fling garlands of flowers over the chains which weigh them down. They stifle in men’s breasts that sense of original liberty, for which they seem to have been born; cause them to love their own slavery, and so make of them what is called a civilized people.”
Decorum and politeness, says Rousseau, bind us in chains of injustice and intolerance and the arts and sciences are the ‘garlands that make us love our slavery’. The pretenses of superiority that lead to intolerance are magnified for Rousseau by this preposterous idea that wealth and good taste make a person somehow better- that owning art is a symbol of superiority.
So there you have it.
Thankfully, I mean Rousseau clearly has a point, and we can see that in the current time as clearly as in the 1800’s- the pretention of civilization that leads to intolerance and inequality- but since then we have had Freud and the psychoanalysts who completely changed the dynamic.
For Freud, it is pointless telling someone to be good or more tolerant because, similarly to Rousseau, Freud held that civilization forces us to repress our natural desires to ‘fuck and fight’ but that these repressed desires are acted out in society through socially acceptable injustices- intolerance, inequality and injustice- wars ultimately being the inevitable outcome of repression.
No, said Freud, we can’t tell people to be good because history shows us that they will only find a common enemy or scapegoat for their own darker nature- if people have to be ‘good’ all the time then they will find a scapegoat to punish this externalized aspect of themselves. Trying to be good leads people to intolerance and violence, says Freud. Everyone secretly hates everybody else in a society where we expect everybody to be ‘nice’.
So if we want to be more tolerant people, and I think this is where we’re still at as a world, grappling with this very important idea, then we have to be more tolerant with ourselves. It’s not about pointing the finger and telling everyone else they have to be more tolerant. We have to acknowledge and own our own darkness- our own intolerance- we have to have integrity with ourselves in order
to integrate with each other. That’s not so easy- it means spending time alone with self, stepping away from the ego of consciousness- that which thinks it knows. To unknow what we think we know. That’s probably the most pertinent secret to establishing a more tolerant world.
I’m supposed to relate this to my work. Well painting is alchemy or it can be but we have to let that happen- we have to give the work space. Unknowing is my thing- I write a philosophy column called ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ and I think to create a more harmonious and wise society, then that’s very important. I never know what I’m doing when I’m painting. It’s a stepping into the unknown. I like that. I have no idea when I begin what my painting is going to look like.
Does it make me a better person?
Well, I couldn’t possibly be the one to say!
But to enjoy your work- I think that’s the biggest start. If everyone enjoyed what they were doing, and did what they enjoyed, and stopped worrying so much about what everyone else is thinking, then the world would immediately be a much better place.
To more tolerant times!