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Art’s Morality (A Reading of William H. Gass’s “The Artist and Society”)

Mike Allred's such a prankster.

Formalists are often accused of ignoring art’s morality, as well as its other social aspects. (Of course, artists are often faced with the same accusation—hence the logic by which legislators divert money toward math and the sciences. Whatever strange thing it is that the artist contributes to the culture, it is at best of secondary importance.)

In my last post, I tried to make clear that social value in fact formed the very center of the work done by Viktor Shklovsky and the other Russian Formalists:

In Shklovsky, ostranenie [enstrangement or defamiliarization] is a moral concept directly related to art’s vitality, and to life’s vitality. It is the shock we experience upon seeing The 400 Blows for the first time—but also the shock we feel upon watching a genre noir [say, The Big Clock (1948)] after we’ve spent a decade watching 1960s European art films. (This was my own experience; I had another, similar one, upon hearing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” after a two-year abstinence from rock music.)

Ostranenie, then, is revolutionary in a Nietzschean sense: unsettling, but therefore also life-affirming.

A room with a big piece of yarn in it.

Not too long ago, I took a ride with some friends to the Dia Beacon, a museum mostly dedicated to Minimalist art. My companions found the museum underwhelming, and spent most of the time playfully criticizing the work. “Oh, look, a room with a big piece of yarn in it. And what will we find waiting all alone the next room? Why, piles of felt!”

To be fair, Minimalist art, and museums like the Dia Beacon, invite this kind of ribbing. Such works challenge some of our most deeply held values concerning art: that it should be big, complex, and difficult to make. Due to its very premise, Minimalism can often seem minor, simple, too easy. That is one of the risks it takes by nature of its very existence. (And, as with anything else, there is plenty of bad Minimalist art.)

Piles of felt.

As we were exiting the museum, however, and returning to our car, one of my friends paused as though stunned. He stared at the parking lot all around him, then said, “I suddenly can’t tell whether this is another artwork or not.”

That is ostranenie. And that is, for Shklovsky, art’s social value.

Ed Ruscha, Parking Lots (6), 1967/99.

William H. Gass

Gass addresses the issue of art’s social value from another direction in “The Artist and Society,” the final essay in his collection Fiction and the Figures of Life (Vintage Books, 1971). As is typical with Gass, his argument is extremely subtle and eloquent, but I’ll nonetheless attempt to summarize it.

1. Gass begins by mocking the commonly-held view that writers need to make direct social statements:

Israel makes war, and there are no symposia published by prizefighters, no pronouncements from hairdressers, not a ding from the bellhops, from the dentists not even a drill’s buzz, from the cabbies nary a horn beep, and from the bankers only the muffled chink of money. Composers, sculptors, painters, architects: they have no roled-up magazines to megaphone themselves, and are, in consequence, ignored. But critics, poets, novelists, professors, journalists—those used to shooting off their mouths—they shoot (no danger, it’s only their own mouth’s wash they’ve wallowed their words in); and those used to print, they print; but neither wisdom nor goodwill nor magnaminity are the qualities which will win you your way to the rostrum…just plentiful friends in pushy places and a little verbal skill. (277–8)

2. Gass then criticizes the argument that art’s purpose is moral instruction:

It’s only the failed artist and his foolish public who would like to believe otherwise, for if they can honestly imagine that the purpose of art is to teach and to delight, to double the face of the world as though with a mirror, to penetrate those truths which nature is said to hold folded beneath her skirts and keeps modestly hidden from the eyes and paws of science, then they will be able to avoid art’s actual impact altogether, and the artist’s way of life can continue to seem outrageous, bohemian, quaint, a little sinful, irresponsible, hip, and charming, something to visit like the Breton peasants on a holiday, and not a challenge to and denial of their own manner of existence, an accusation concerning their own lack of reality. (278–9)

While I was in grad school, I helped coordinate a weekly film screening series. We showed mainly art films, foreign films, and underground and experimental works. While my fellow organizers and I all considered ourselves progressives, we didn’t make any special effort to program works that we considered liberal or politically didactic. Rather, our goal was to add a bit more variety to what movies were shown in town. (We considered this in itself a political activity.)

After a couple of years, we were approached by another student, who asked if he could help program the films. We said sure. And it quickly became apparent that this student was interested in showing only a particular type of film: liberal documentaries like Life and Debt (2001), Roger and Me (1989), Manufacturing Consent (1992), and Uncovered: The Whole Truth about the Iraq War (2003).

I liked some of the movies that he chose, and I disliked others. (Often this had little to do with the film’s explicit message.) And screening these movies brought in a different audience. But what bothered me was how narrow the overall range of the films was—as well as the fact that most of the students who showed up to watch those movies already agreed with their overt messages (and didn’t come to see the other films). What had begun as a project to expand our understanding and knowledge of film was now heading in the opposite direction.

We original directors responded by trying to program yet more esoteric works. And we were startled to find how hostile the club’s new, “more progressive” faction became. Why did we want to waste time screening frivolities like Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), or Seijun Suzuki’s Pistol Opera (2001), or even worse Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), when we could instead be showing important films like The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002) or This Is What Democracy Looks Like (2000)?

My friends and I found ourselves looking very strange to the club’s documentary-only wing: outrageous, bohemian, quaint, a little sinful, irresponsible, …  A principal looking to axe her grade school’s music lessons couldn’t have eyed us any less supiciously.

3. Gass’s next point is that much of what we as a culture commonly agree upon as reality is in fact not; he gives the example of a banquet at which everyone ignores a woman whose poodle is pissing under the tables (280–1):

We live in ruins, in bombed-out shells, in the basements of our buildings. In important ways, we are all mad. You don’t believe it? This company, community, this state, our land, is normal? Healthy, is it? Laing has observed that normal healthy men have killed perhaps one hundred million of their fellow normal healthy men in the last fifty years.

Nudists get used to nakedness. We get used to murder. (282)

I consider this point crucial. Realists, before they can insist upon the superiority of their style (and before they also explain how their style represents that reality), must define what reality is. And as most people know, reality is never that simple. A Mormon sees a different reality than a secular humanist; both would disagree in turn with a Tibetan Buddhist—who in turn would find exceptions with the teachings of Zen. One person sees everywhere room for sincere hope, where another sees nothing but hypocrisy and insincerity.

(And of course the very real world lies beyond our always-limited perceptions of it—but good luck addressing the thing directly through cultural media like language, let alone novels. Writing is always rooted in shared but contingent values.)

Does it diminish our view of Chekhov’s work if we don’t go along with his politics? With Chaucer’s? With Cheever’s? The Epic of Gilgamesh no longer describes any world that you or I know or claim to live in. Does that make it any less artful? (John Gardner didn’t seem to think so.)

4. Gass then goes on to describe how artworks are nonetheless socially important:

Not for the messages they may contain, not because they expose slavery or cry hurrah for the worker, although such messages in their place and time might be important, but because they insist more than most on their own reality; because of the absolute way in which they exist. […] Reality is not a matter of fact, it is an achievement; and it is rare—rarer, let me say—than an undefeated football season. We live, most of us, amidst lies, deceits, and confusions. A work of art may not utter the truth, but it must be honest. It may champion a cause we deplore, but like Milton’s Satan, it must be in itself noble; it must be all there. Works of art confront us the way few people dare to: completely, openly, at once. (282–3)


So I don’t think that it’s the message of a work of art that gives it any lasting social value. On the contrary, insisting upon this replaces the work with its interpretation, another way of robbing it of its reality. (283)

In any freshman English class you’ll find one student who insists on interpreting everything symbolically (as well as their nemesis, the one who refuses all symbolic interpretation). But surely the elements of an artwork don’t just stand in for other things, do they? Isn’t art—and life—richer than that? If the point of Animal Farm is that the Communists eventually betrayed their own revolution—well, then why bother having students read Animal Farm? Why not just paint that simple lesson on the side of the college’s barn? (Is it because we think our students are stupid, and won’t accept Orwell’s message unless it’s played out by talking animals?) And if we hesitate to reduce a work like Animal Farm to a single sentence, then what happens when we consider less allegorical writing?

A person recently remarked to me that Nineteen Eighty-Four has “a good message,” but is a poorly written novel. I vehemently disagreed. Orwell’s sad story of Winston Smith may have a certain workmanlike quality to it (Winston’s face turns scarlet and his heart leaps), but still the book abounds with indelible, deeply moving passages:

It was the lonely hour of fifteen. Winston could not now remember how he had come to be in the cafe at such a time. The place was almost empty. A tinny music was trickling from the telescreens. The three men sat in their corner almost motionless, never speaking. Uncommanded, the waiter brought fresh glasses of gin. There was a chessboard on the table beside them, with the pieces set out but no game started. And then, for perhaps half a minute in all, something happened to the telescreens. The tune that they were playing changed, and the tone of the music changed too. There came into it—but it was something hard to describe. It was a peculiar, cracked, braying, jeering note: in his mind Winston called it a yellow note. And then a voice from the telescreen was singing:

Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me:
There lie they, and here lie we
Under the spreading chestnut tree.


His tiny sister, clinging to her mother with both hands, exactly like a baby monkey, sat looking over her shoulder at him with large, mournful eyes. In the end his mother broke off three-quarters of the chocolate and gave it to Winston, giving the other quarter to his sister. The little girl took hold of it and looked at it dully, perhaps not knowing what it was. Winston stood watching her for a moment. Then with a sudden swift spring he had snatched the piece of chocolate out of his sister’s hand and was fleeing for the door.


The birds sang, the proles sang. the Party did not sing. All round the world, in London and New York, in Africa and Brazil, and in the mysterious, forbidden lands beyond the frontiers, in the streets of Paris and Berlin, in the villages of the endless Russian plain, in the bazaars of China and Japan—everywhere stood the same solid unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and childbearing, toiling from birth to death and still singing. Out of those mighty loins a race of conscious beings must one day come. You were the dead, theirs was the future. But you could share in that future if you kept alive the mind as they kept alive the body, and passed on the secret doctrine that two plus two make four.

“We are the dead,” he said.

“We are the dead,” echoed Julia dutifully.

“You are the dead,” said an iron voice behind them.


“Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me!”

5. Gass next argues that the responsibility of the artist is to the artwork, and thereby to the society:

The aim of the artist ought to be to bring into the world objects which do not already exist there, and objects which are especially worthy of love. We meet people, grow to know them slowly, settle on some to companion our life. Do we value our friends for their social status, because they are burning in the public blaze? do we ask of our mistress her meaning? calculate the usefulness of our husband or wife? Only too often. Works of art are meant to be lived with and loved, and if we try to understand them, we should try to understand them as we try to understand anyone–in order to know them better, not in order to know something else. (284)

Have we figured out La Gioconda yet, why the woman depicted in it smiles? Yes? No? All right then: we have permission to look at the thing for another one hundred years—but we’ll get to the bottom of it sooner or later. At which point we’ll be able to discard it like a Zen koan, or a candy wrapper. How about Bruegel’s Return of the Hunters?

The narrative is easy enough to read: the hunters have returned empty-handed; the winter will be harsh. See how they stand slump-shouldered amidst three cross-like trees, their dogs whittled down to their ribs. The sign on the inn is broken. A cross-like bird circles overhead. Meanwhile, on the ice, skaters frolic, little suspecting their fate—or are they ice fishing? Is there still some slim hope yet?

I once kept this painting on my computer desktop for two years. You can look at it every day, analyze every centimeter of its image, interpret and reinterpret its hidden meanings. And the painting is stronger than that. It remains interesting. It cannot be reduced.

It adds to our lives in ways we can’t always articulate—look at the dead plant in the center at the bottom. I see a snowman’s face there. (Do you?) It inspires other irreducible artworks:

6. Gass then lists what he considers virtues of the artist: honesty, presence, unity, awareness, sensuality, totality (although he makes clear this is only one list). He concludes:

Naturally the artist is an enemy of the state. He cannot play politics, succumb to slogans and other simplifications, worship heroes, ally himself with any party, suck on some politician’s program like a sweet. He is also an enemy of every ordinary revolution. As a man he may long for action; he may feel injustice like a burn; and certainly he may speak out. But the torn-up street is too simple for him when he sculpts or paints. He undermines everything. Even when, convinced of the rightness of a cause, he dedicates his skills to a movement, he cannot simplify, he cannot overlook, he cannot forget, omit, or falsify. In the end the movement must accept him or even destroy him. The evidence of history is nearly unanimous on this point. (287–8)

Will reading Orwell improve your life? Will watching Near Dark? Or visiting the Dia Beacon? What art, then, will make you a better person? Here, I have something for you—watch this music video:

…Are you a better person now? Are you prepared to go out into society, to repent and sin no more?

Art offers no guarantee—of either revolution or of safety. That is why it endures, remaining worthy of our adoration.

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

22 thoughts on “Art’s Morality (A Reading of William H. Gass’s “The Artist and Society”)

  1. Great Adam.

    I’m reminded of Pater’s Conclusion to the Renaissance when looking at yours: “For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.”

    So, as we create, our goal is to make something that cannot be reduced? But then-judgement. Who is to say? You maybe saw the Oscar nominations. Now we have ten films. But just to name one – 2001 was not even nominated for Best Picture. So is the upshot that now, we are creating more ‘Bests?’

    If I had money I would donate to you going to Vienna – the Kunsthistorisches Museum (where Bernhard’s Old Masters takes place) so you could see the Breugel in person, along with all of the ‘seasons’ paintings. Seeing the Richter show in NY was another one of the moments. The Pieta of Michelangelo (in Florence). Carravaggios in Rome. Forgive the intrusion of your nemises Cormac but, I remember reading the last seventy pages of Blood Meridian for the first time, breathless, on my bed. The shootout (sort of) as the Kid creeps over the bones. Time stood still. The house could have burning and I might have had to read as I ran down the stairs.

      1. Yeah, he’s a hack.

        …No, no, I kid. But I’m not really a fan. Who can say why? He’s obviously a magnificent writer, but…I don’t know. His work annoys me. And I think he’s taken far too seriously by our culture. And in the wrong way. With hushed and bated breath. As he tells us the Grizzled Truths about the West, and about Our Culture, and about Ourselves.

        Maybe what really annoys me is how his writing’s perceived in the today and here. It’s so hard to tell the lancer from the lance. Artworks are both themselves and the way they’re received. For instance I will admit to liking Tori Amos, especially her first three albums, and yet I won’t go to one of her concerts—I don’t wish to find myself among her fans, you see.

        I’ll try to say something more serious about Mr. McCarthy soon enough (not that anyone should or would wait for it). For the time being, what I really wish was that there was more diversity of opinion surrounding his work.

        I also wish, every day, that people were talking about Jane Bowles’s TWO SERIOUS LADIES instead. It’s just so incredible! Although if everyone liked it I’d want to meet someone who hated it…

    1. Thanks for the link to that review. I thought it refreshing. I generally agree with Wood, too, although I don’t like the anti-pulp bias I sense, or his assumption (as always, it seems) that good writing has to be verisimilar. I like nonsense just fine.

      But it’s nice to see some objections to McCarthy raised.

      To show how much I like it, I joined the Facebook page “A tribute to literary critic James Wood.”

      I should add that my problem in this world is that I want to like everything. In the end I usually find a way to do so.

  2. It’s funny that Greg quotes Pater, I was reading Pater’s “School of Giorgione” today (I’m assigning it to a class for next week), and ran across his quote of Novalis’s (macaronic?) adage: “Philosophiren ist dephlegmatisiren, vivificiren,” which sounded to me exactly like ostranenie more than a century ahead of his time.

    1. That means something like “To philosophize is to cast off inertia, to bring oneself to life,” right?


      I haven’t read Pater (or Novalis, sad to confess!), but I will have to check out that essay.

      I think we can all agree that thinking is often innervating? I know that I often feel bursting with ideas about things I want to write about—like I have to scramble to get it all down.

      As for art: Sometimes I’ll go see a movie, and it will just sap all my strength and energy. The art form seems dead. And I leave the theater thinking, “Why make more movies? They really aren’t of any use.”

      But other times I’ll go see a movie, and it will rejuvenate me. The art form seems so alive, so rich with possibilities! And I leave the theater thinking, “My god, I really want to make a movie!”

      That is often my sole test for whether I like an artwork or not. The same applies to writing, philosophy, cooking, people, etc.

  3. AD–I was actually wrong, it was not from “The School of Giorgione” (which is one chapter of “The Renaissance”), but from the conclusion to “The Renaissance”–the same section Greg was quoting. I read the conclusion right after the Giorgione chapter, so I guess they melded together in my mind.

    Anyway, here it is. I don’t think Novalis really drew that much of a distinction between “philosophizing” and making art; most of his writing, actually, is both–and that’s true of Pater too.

  4. To answer your friend’s question, the parking lot and grounds of Dia:Beacon were designed by California artist Robert Irwin.

    1. Thanks, Marshal! This raises an excellent point: everything artificial is designed by someone. And even if that artist wasn’t an artist…well, maybe they were? (Maybe they weren’t just what Society would call an Artist.) But regardless, we can still approach anything that’s designed from a critical perspective.

      But we often forget to. We just hope that it works. For the time being. So we can focus on other things.

      (I’m not looking at my keyboard as I type this; it’s only an instrument.)

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