I have been following an interesting discussion over on Facebook about art and society. The origin of the debate is that the Danish government has decided to make a deep cut in the grants that authors can receive from the Danish society.
This brought back some old, dusty thoughts and musings from my past… It is technically not stream-of-consciousness, but it has been written down very much in that fashion. So bear with me, will you?
I have often encountered the opinion that “real art” (or, similarly, “good art”) is supposed to influence society. That this is somehow a prerequisite for it being art at all.
I stand in absolute opposition to this. Yet I am very curious, and really want to know what, exactly, the underlying arguments for this position is. Most of the time all I’ve heard is some belief or opinion that it “simply is so” (and if I can’t see this “common sense” point of view, I am apparently a lost case to the Believer, and they see no point in delving more detailed into it… But I wonder if it’s because they won’t or because they can’t?). So if anyone reading this can help enlighten me, please feel free–I urge you–to contact me. On this blog or via e-mail, it’s all fine. I honestly want to know. (I may not change my mind, but that’s not the point anyway.)
For now, I’ll narrow “art” to literature–and with horror literature in mind, although some of my thoughts here will be presented in more broad terms. Can–and should–horror literature have as a goal to influence society? Obviously, yes, it can have such a goal. When such a tale becomes too didactic (I think this happens about 99.9% of the time when the author sets out to write a story with this firmly set in his mind) I think the horror element really disappears–perhaps to end more in the vicinity of science fiction or some other genre. Nothing wrong with that… Except if the story also happens to be boring. (I think that happens 99.9% of the time too.)
So, yeah okay, it can have such a goal. But ought it to? No, I don’t think so. And it is not less literature for not having this goal. (I won’t even call it a noble goal, which some people think it is; I do not think it is particularly noble at all. It is just another goal among other goals.) In fact, many a time a horror story is probably better off without it.
A story written with the current socio-political situation in mind almost inevitably ends up being old-fashioned–since it is too focused on particular cases, situations, local politics etc.–be that the early 2000s, the 1950s or the 1930s.
I don’t mind old-fashioned. My favorite author is Howard Phillips Lovecraft, so if I did I’d better think of someone else to admire, and fast. And one of my all-time HPL stories is The Shadow Out of Time, a story he completed in 1935.
In The Shadow Out of Time HPL shows the reader what kind of society he envisions would be the best kind of society. An elitist society with a socialist-like foundation. And HPL was well aware of this when he wrote the story. Because in his later years his outlooked had changed quite some, spurred both by his encounters (whether physical encounters or via correspondence) with intelligent people of other temperaments and viewpoints and the Great Depression in the US. He took an active interest in politics, and solutions to real-life problems.
So here is a tale that I shouldn’t like very much, if at all, right?
I don’t read The Shadow Out of Time as a story about the current Socio-political order. I read it as a horror-&-partly-science-fiction tale where the main focus is on atmosphere of dread, the single important keyword in any of HPL’s stories.
Of course, it is also a story where ideas about what “ought to be” (in the best of all worlds, to refer to a standard philosophical notion) plays a part, but only insofar as it underscores the protagonist’s horror when he realizes that the dreadful aliens living on Earth so many, many years ago were intelligent, civilized creatures with a hunger for knowledge, not unlike us human beings (“They were men!“). And it is used as a background for the even more underlying theme of HPL: The insignificance of man (and all creatures), and the doom of even the best of all societies. In other words: The cosmicism brings a healthy dose of balance to a tale that could have ended on the wrong side of the fence.
But it doesn’t. And that’s the point. The political ideas do not interfere with the the more grand, all-embracing theme of cosmicism, with all the horror & awe that brings along with it.
HPL was well aware of the politics of his times, and aware of what kind of society he considered the best. And he inserted some of this in his story, yes. But he does not try to lecture the reader. And even more, it is interesting how few references he makes to actual the political situation at the time. It is really no more than a footnote. Deliberately so, of course, since that is a point he kept stressing again and again–with or without including politics.
We are talking about an honest-to-god (or whoever/nothing) piece of literature that can rightly be called art. Real and good art. Not because of the political elements, but because petty politics shrink in the shadow of Nyarlathotep & Azathoth;-) *
No, horror literature ought not have as a goal to influence society.
*) Yeah, yeah, I know they do not play an active part in The Shadow Out of Time, but permit me some poetic liberty here, okay?