Alienation and the Arts

For a number of years now I’ve been part of a travel course to Italy co-taught by professors of Music, Art History, Literature and Political Science (myself). We’ve offered that course in 2005, 2007 and 2008, and plan to offer it again next year. I have enjoyed these courses because by working with faculty from the arts I have begun to learn about a whole new cultural world with which I had only peripheral contact in the past. The arts do matter for politics; they are interconnected.

Philosophers like Rousseau, Marx and Freud all posited an humanity wherein individuals are essentially alienated from their true selves. For Rousseau it was the existence of civilization, creating artificial wants and desires, making it virtually impossible for people to find true satisfaction. Caught up in wanting something more or seeking status, we lose ourselves in a game which by its very nature alienates us from our true selves and sabotages happiness. For Marx it was the economic system — exploitation leads to the construction of different cultural worlds, all created to service the existing mode of production, with humans of all classes separated from their true humanity by the nature of economic production. For Freud it is our subconscious, a dominant superego telling us that we are not truly worthy, and a powerful id containing passions and appetites, driving us to undertake actions which build barriers to understanding our true selves. And, while for Marx and Rousseau the causes were observable, for Freud the drives are hidden even to ourselves, in our subconscious. We know we’re not truly satisfied, we get angry when we repeat patterns of behavior that create problems or despair, yet somehow we can’t seem to avoid continuing these patterns. It seems to be who we are, while in reality it is our unconscious preventing us from discovering who we are.

I think all three of these philosophers reflect their cultures and times more than any universal aspect of what it is to be human. I disagree with Rousseau that civilization is such an evil; it’s merely a challenge for our psyches to overcome — how not to let the modern world make us dizzy and steer us away from honest introspection and self-awareness. I disagree with Marx on fundamental grounds because I am not a materialist — though his theory of alienation is perhaps the most persuasive aspect of his writing. And Freud’s contention that the superego is overly perfectionist while the id is untamable seems too pessimistic. Limit feelings of guilt and the superego can be held in check, think through the consequences of actions and the ego can stand up to the id. Yet Freud is right, I believe, that there is an unconscious, and that means you have to work at being self-aware enough to handle those challenges. You can’t limit feelings of guilt or think through your actions if you don’t delve deep into yourself and know what it is that drives and motivates you.

This brings me to art. It seems to me that alienation is better understood as humans giving up their sense of responsibility for their own lives; it feels like life is happening to them, and even individual identity seems a given — in a day where psychology and genetics dominate, people simply accept that they are as they were born to be, with no personal choice in the matter. This dual loss of personal power over ones’ life forces people to look for satisfaction from external sources, meaning one becomes more distant, even afraid of, a deep, reflective inner life. Living an alienated life thus entails at its core a sacrifice of creativity and originality. Conformity and fear of rejection bury the true, creative, playful inner self.

Art — including music, literature, film, poetry and any other form of creative expression is perhaps the most powerful source of opening up that inner self and countering the cold social forces of alienation. You don’t need to completely eliminate the capitalist mode of production a la Marx, and there is no reason for a Rousseau-esque condemnation of civilization and society. It may even be a more powerful way to release and in fact get to know ones’ unconscious than Freud’s difficult and sophisticated attempts at psycho-analysis (and I can’t really buy his ideas of sublimation — directing energy thoughtfully seems more positive).

This doesn’t include only producing art, but also in experiencing art in its various forms. When confronted with something truly creative, the mind is forced to interact and jolt itself into thinking about something from a different perspective. Of course, one can still resist; people who ridicule art they do not understand clearly are putting a barrier between themselves and their ability to experience something original or strange to their current patterns of thought. Also, there are different levels of creativity — a Rembrandt portrait may evoke less thought than a Picasso, a Wagner symphony may be more powerful than the latest hit from Carrie Underwood. Yet all of these have some power. Even in “pop” forms, we seem to need art. We need to keep our creative inner self alive to avoid experiencing life as drudgery. And, the more bold our attempts to engage and experience art in various forms, the easier it is to open our minds and experience the world as something spiritual as well as physical. Spiritual doesn’t necessarily mean religious; rather, I consider it that inward journey needed to avoid the traps of alienation.

I’ve been to Italy many times, visited museums, and explored and learned about the country and its people. Yet now that I’m learning real insight into Italian art, music and literature as part of these travel courses, I find the experience not only more rewarding from an intellectual level, but one that connects me with Italy and its history in a manner I had not imagined possible. And to me that kind of experience is the opposite of alienation, it is living.

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  1. #1 by Rafe Champion on July 1, 2008 - 04:07

    A nice post!
    The views of Marx and Freud are radically defective, in the case of Marx because the market system that he thought was exploitive was in fact rapidly improving the circumstances of rich and poor alike. Freud struggled to work out how humans could be social and civilised when a basic understanding of ethology (animal behaviour) would have told him that we evolved from social animals so there is no deep mystery to explore.
    As to the communicative power of art, that derives from the fact that we live in a world of symbols, of morals, mythology and metaphysics. Positivists have systematically driven the study of these things out of the “hard” sciences but they will not be denied and they will be pursued in low, medium or high art, wherever people find them. At some deep level these things have a universal character, modified by local cultures and traditions, hence the intimacy that can be gained with other cultures (and other people) through the arts and sports as well which embody many of the same mythological elements.

    there is no mystery to explore.

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