On the Value of Intellectuals, by Brad Kent

“George Bernard Shaw near St Neots from the Millership collection” from the Birmingham Museums Trust, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In times of populism, soundbites, and policy-by-Twitter such as we live in today, the first victims to suffer the slings and arrows of the demagogues are intellectuals. These people have been demonised for prioritising the very thing that defines them: the intellect, or finely reasoned and sound argument. As we celebrate the 161st birthday of Bernard Shaw, one of the most gifted, influential, and well-known intellectuals to have lived, we might use the occasion to reassess the value of intellectuals to a healthy society and why those in power see them as such threats.

Born in Dublin on 26 July 1856 to a father who held heterodox religious opinions and a mother who moved in artistic circles, Shaw was perhaps bound to be unconventional. By age 19 he was convinced that his native Ireland was little more than an uncouth backwater–the national revival had yet to see the light of day–so he established himself in London in order to conquer English letters. He then took his sweet time to do it. In the roughly quarter of a century between his arrival in the metropole and when he finally had a modicum of success, Shaw wrote five novels–most of which remained unpublished until his later years–and eked out a living as a journalist, reviewing music, art, books, and theatre. That eminently readable journalism has been collected in many fine editions, and we see in it an earnest individual not only engaged in assessing the qualities of the material before him–much of which was dreadfully insipid–but eager to raise standards and to cultivate the public. He prodded people to want more and gave them the tools to understand what a better art would look and sound like. And he did so in an inimitable voice that fashioned his renowned alter ego: the great showman and controversialist, GBS.

“George Bernard Shaw, circa 1900” from the Library of Congress, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Shaw became more widely known as a playwright in late 1904, when King Edward broke his chair laughing at the Royal Command performance of Shaw’s play John Bull’s Other Island. He was no longer a journalist by trade, now being able to live by his plays, but Shaw continued to write essays, articles, and letters-to-the-editor in leading papers to set the record straight, to denounce abuses of power, and to suggest more humane courses of action. When he published his plays, he wrote polemical prefaces to accompany them that are sometimes longer than the plays themselves. These prefaces, written on an exhausting range of subjects, are equally learned and entertaining. Indeed, it has been said by some wags that the plays are the price that we pay for his prefaces.

In many ways continuing his fine work as the Fabian Society’s main pamphleteer in the 1890s, his prefaces suggest remedies for the great injustices of his time. And, what’s more, the vast majority of his prescriptions are as topical and provocative today. For example, if you’re American, should you opt for Trumpcare or Obamacare? Read The Doctor’s Dilemma and its preface and you’ll have a compelling case for neither, but rather a comprehensive and fully accessible public healthcare system, the sort now common in Canada and most European countries. That’s right, people were feeling the Bern–we might say the original Bern–well before Mr. Sanders was born.

Some of Shaw’s opinions came at a great cost. When he published Common Sense About the War, which was critical of both German and British jingoism at the outset of the Great War, he ran too much against the grain of the hyper-patriotic press and government propaganda, thereby becoming a pariah to many. But his star gradually returned into the ascendant as the body count mounted and a war-weary population came to share his point of view. The run-away international success of Saint Joan brought him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925 and, as Shaw said, gave him the air of sanctity in his later years.

“George Bernard Shaw with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, May 1949”, from Nehru Memorial Museum & Library. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

However, Shaw always maintained that he was immoral to the bone. He was immoral in the sense that, as a committed socialist in a liberal capitalist society, he didn’t support contemporary mores. Instead, he sought to change the way that society was structured and to do so he proposed absolutely immoral policies. A good number of these beyond universal healthcare have seen the light of day, such as education that prioritises the child’s development and sense of self-worth, the dismantling of the injustices of colonial rule, and voting rights for women. But those in power continue the old tug-of-war, and the intellectuals of today must be as vigilant, courageous, and energetic as Shaw in the defence of liberal humanist and social democratic values. Witness the return of unaffordable tertiary education in the UK, made possible by both Labour and Conservative policies.  We might recall that Shaw co-founded one of these institutions–the renowned London School of Economics–because he believed in their public good.

Whenever Shaw toured the globe in his later decades–he died in 1950 at age 94–he was met by leading politicians, celebrities, and intellectuals who wanted to bask in his wit, wisdom, and benevolence (Jawaharlal Nehru, Charlie Chaplin, and Albert Einstein are a few such people). Time magazine named him amongst the ten most famous people in the world–alongside Hitler and the Pope. Everywhere he went, the press hounded him for a quote. Yet despite the massive fees he could have charged, he never accepted money for his opinions, just as he had declined speaking fees in his poorer days when he travelled Britain to give up to six three-hour lectures a week to praise the benefits of social democracy. He would not be bought–or suffer the appearance of being bought.

On his birthday, then, we would do well to think of Shaw and maybe even read some of his plays, prefaces, or journalism. We might also cherish the service and immorality of intellectuals. And we should always question the motives of those who denigrate their value.

This piece was originally published in OUPBlog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World

History, Philosophy, and Political Hope, by Richard Eldridge

US Capitol Building under repair, Washington DC, photo 2016 by Amy CoolsPolitics in general is all about how to develop, sustain, and revise institutions, practices, and policies that bind individuals together productively and that point toward more fulfilling individual and joint futures for them. Debates about how best to do this are natural. Should the US become yet more aggressively libertarian-individualist, or should a substantial social compact that enforces terms of fair cooperation via significant redistribution be instituted? Should the UK embrace European social democratic values and relations, or should it stand on its Anglo-Saxon distinctiveness?

These important questions are increasingly addressed, however, in the absence of significant, articulate knowledge of political ideals that historically have informed political life. As a result, debates about these questions are typically shriller and less productive than they could and should be. Various forms of nativism and populism supplant more considered deliberations, for good enough reasons, as individuals and subpopulations come to be and to feel disenfranchised from political and economic business-as-usual. In a 15 May 2016 New York Times opinion piece, the economic historian Michael Lind reports that “A 2016 Presidential Election Survey by the RAND Corporation revealed that the single factor that best predicted voter support for Donald Trump among likely Republican voters was not income, education, race, gender or attitudes toward Muslim or illegal immigration, but agreement with the statement ‘people like me don’t have any say.’” Globalization and the degradations of the powerful are increasing political and economic disenfranchisement throughout the industrialized world. Disenchantment then produces anger, for good reasons. Presciently, and echoing Plato’s criticisms of democracy (though not his proposals to abolish it), the philosopher Richard Rorty suggested in 1997 in Achieving Our Country that

members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers–themselves desperately afraid of being downsized–are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for–someone willing to assure them that once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots…

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion…All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

The demand for an outlet for resentment and anger is being exploited by so-called anti-system politicians and parties, including Trump and Sanders in the US, Marie LePen in France, Nigel Farage in the UK, Beppo Grillo in Italy, and the Syriza Party in Greece. Whether from the left or the right, the watchword is “tear it down,” not “build it up.”

One way to begin to reverse these developments and to enrich political debates is to consider detailed accounts of political-ideals-as-lived that have been articulated and argued for by major philosophers who are sensitive to the values all at once of individualism, responsibility, political equality, economic security, rich joint meaningful life, and ongoing critical thought, as commitments to these values have been lived out against the backgrounds of religious and philosophical traditions. Immanuel Kant and Walter Benjamin are two thinkers of exactly this kind. Each of them eloquently asked and answered the question, “What may we hope for?,” and each of them answered it by taking seriously both political ideals and available historical possibilities that might be seized. Working through their partly complementary, partly opposed ideas about the historical achievement of value within joint political life might help us to develop richer images of political maturity and help us toward more productive public political debate. As Michael Lind concluded his essay, “If we want to avert the sense of powerlessness among voters that fuels demagogy, the answer is not less democracy…, but more.” Reading Kant and Benjamin together and subjecting their accounts to reflective comparison and criticism can help us to cultivate a more genuine, informed, reflective democracy and, thus, to give life and depth to political hope.

~ Originally published at OUP Blog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World, on June 26th, 2016

~ Richard Eldridge is Charles and Harriett Cox McDowell Professor of Philosophy at Swarthmore College. He has held visiting appointments at Essex, Stanford, Bremen, Erfurt, Freiburg, Brooklyn, and Sydney. He is the author of 5 books and over 100 articles in aesthetics, philosophy of language, philosophy of literature, and Romanticism and Idealism. He has edited 4 volumes, including The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Literature, and he is the Series Editor of Oxford Studies in Philosophy and Literature. (Bio credit: OUP Blog)

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From Venus of Willendorf to Leonardo da Vinci: In Praise of Art That’sLess About Concept and More About Story and Craft

I love to make things, as anyone will tell you who’s known me very long. My two favorite kinds of things to create are written pieces, be they argumentative, explanatory, illustrative, narrative, and so on, and are usually essays; and artworks, now usually picture quilts, but for many years drawings, paintings, and occasionally sculptures. Though I’ve long loved the written word, my oldest creative love is art.

I’m also a populist by instinct, in the sense that I care a lot about sharing my life with many kinds of people, and relatively little about fitting in with or impressing a small, select group. When I’m in a scene that feels too cliquish, too elite, too cool, too exclusionary, too, well… ‘scene-y’, then I’m out. Not to say I don’t care about community: I do, deeply. But when it comes to anything I think is wonderful and lovable, the more widely I want to share it. That’s what I’m all about as a writer and as an artist.

And that’s why I’m just not that into conceptual art, on the whole. By conceptual art, I mean that which is created more with the intention of referring to or hinting at abstract concepts, and less for purpose of telling a story or of being a thing of beauty. The more conceptual a piece is, the more it leaves me cold, because to me, conceptual art is exclusionary in nature. This type of art is really only meaningful to, and therefore meant for, an exclusive circle, people who spend a lot of time in that sort of art culture, or in a moneyed elite, or in certain academic circles. (I value and respect academia, but to me, it fulfills a very different function than art does.) It’s made for people in a position to ‘get it’. Conceptual art speaks in jargon, in secret handshakes, in code, in insider-ese, in the language of moneyed leisure. All well and good for those who enjoy this sort of club atmosphere. But of art, I want more.

I want art that’s more like music, or poetry, or architecture, or myth: even if it’s originally meant only to communicate within a culture, it can and does communicate across time, space, culture, socioeconomic status, and language. To me, the more soul-stirring the art is, the more comprehensively it tells a story (in both senses of the word ‘comprehensive’). It’s that sort of universal human communication, like tears, laughs, sighs, or smiles, that makes art transcendent, that bridges those gaps between each other and between ourselves and all that exists, which we all ache to cross. 

I love folk art, and I love craftsmanship. They are the two sides of art that I think communicate most universally. 

By folk art, I mean that which is meant to communicate a story: of a person or persons, of an event, of a myth, of belief, of history. It can be crude or it can be finely wrought, but what makes it good is its ability to communicate to anyone, from anywhere or at any time, what’s going on in the mind and heart of the artist. 

By craftsmanship, I mean the art of creation which requires a high level of dexterity and skill, and which demonstrates the countless hours of practice and of mastery that demonstrates the artist’s deep love of the creative process itself. We all make things, so we are all able to recognize and appreciate, on some level, whatever level of care and ability that went into making the thing we see. And as makers, we invariably encounter the limits of our abilities, and in doing so, we realize how difficult it is transcend our own limits and make something well. When an artist accomplishes this superbly, we’re impressed, and delighted.

On the whole, I think the world of conceptual art is suffering too many of the ill effects of its own excesses. Craftsmanship is not valued nearly enough; indeed, I’ve heard artworks rich in it dismissed time and time again as not really art, they’re ‘just crafts’. Representations of people, places, and ideas that are widely recognizable are dismissed as ‘too literal’. I really think that most people who walk through galleries these days are often jaded, or bored, or amused, or bemused, and, as a whole, tired of being talked down to by artists and gallery curators. The public is getting tired of the art world’s pretensions: it often looks as if just about anything can be fastened to the wall, demanding the public’s praise and appreciation so long as it’s accompanied by a description that sounds obscurely profound enough. Conceptual art, on the whole, has grown too elitist and too removed from the most fundamental emotional needs that art, at its best, can fulfill.

I grant that there are some things of value in conceptual art, too. For one thing, as my husband points out, when it was a new movement, it allowed artists to break down artistic boundaries, many of which should have been broken down since they placed too many restraints on innovation and creativity. (I can always count on Bryan to play an effective devil’s advocate, to find the weak and missing points in my arguments; thanks, as always, for keeping me honest, babe!) There are subtle points that conceptual artists can make that are of value and difficult to express fully or eloquently through other means of communication. Sometimes, the concepts explored are important or interesting ones, even if they are too obscurely or affectedly expressed. There are also accidents of beauty and visual interest that occur when an artist is playing freely with materials trying to express something else. And so on and so on.

But nonetheless, I feel that the conceptual art world needs more critics. It needs some competition, it needs some opposition, and I feel just fine in my overall feeling of antipathy to it as it is right now. Conceptual art (with its cousin, abstract art) has its defenders in plenty: namely, nearly every art gallery and museum and patron with deep pockets out there. The representational artists, the visual storytellers, the communicators in paint and clay and fabric and stone and wood trying to reach the widest audience, they’re not honored so much these days, except in the hearts of the grateful public who’s always happy to find artists who are direct and honest with them, who desire to satisfy their longing for beauty and love of a good story. In short, conceptuality in art has become the new paradigm, the new standard, the new orthodoxy. Conceptual art doesn’t suffer from one less champion; the rest of the art world could do with more.

So from the roughest cave painting of our earliest human ancestors to the most finely wrought work by Leonardo da Vinci, from the earthy Venus of Willendorf to the most exquisitely sculpted Michelangelo, from the doll’s dress of the youngest stitcher-in-training to the Parisian couture gown, and from the memory rag-quilt sewn in the half-light of a bayou shack to the most intricate, hand-stitched fine textile work fit for a queen you ever saw: I want to say, I love you the most. Thank you for the joy you bring me, the delight to my senses, and most of all, the communion with the wider world of things and people. Thank you for bridging the gaps.