Saturday, January 10, 2009

Why Art Springs From Discontent

Aldous Huxley's Orwellian dystopia, Brave New World, ends with a confrontation between a group of misfits who are at odds with the controlled, perfect utopia, and the Controller who keeps the world running perfectly. Each of them, for their own reason, can't fit into the mass of chemically-happy people they see in the world around them.

[Spoiler alert, I suppose]

The Controller is a friendly, understanding gentleman, as opposed to the rulers of George Orwell's world in 1984. Rather than disciplining them, he offers them a choice: they can return to their drug-ridden happy (and boring) world, or they can accept exile to an archipelago of islands where they will be surrounded by the other discontents in a suitably "normal" world--far away from the utopia.

The difference between Orwell's world and Huxley's world is that in Huxley's world, "counter-culture" is part of the plan. There are simply two choices: the utopia, or the islands. Orwell, on the other hand, creates a world in which the counter-culture is broken, reprogrammed, tortured until it fits in.

What is interesting is how agreeable this solution is to almost everyone involved. The book says of Helmholtz Watson:

"Helmholtz rose from his pneumatic chair. 'I should like a thoroughly bad climate,' he answered. 'I believe one would write better if the climate were bad. If there were a lot of wind and storms, for example.'"

This is a parody of the artisan, who thrives of pain and discomfort. But of course, there is no way to act without first feeling discomfort, or discontent. Discontent is the sensation that the world is not right; that there is some different state that would be better.

And that's what the urge to create is. An artisan--a painter, say--looks at something beautiful, but is not content. They feel that there is some response that is necessary, and is not content until that response is issued (like a capacitor, building up charge and waiting for a single moment of release). In the painter's case, the responsive urge is to create; thus the painter is an artisan-creator.

Another artisan--a conservationist, say--would look at that same mountain, and would not be content either. The conservationist would imagine hikers ruining the mountain, or an industrial plant dumping waste onto it. And the conservationist would create a society to get the mountain protected, saving the beauty for ages. Thus a conservationist is an artisan-maintainer.

Artisan-creators: here I'm unifying not just the conventional artists, but everyone who creates something new rather than just maintaining what exists. A computer programmer who comes up with new algorithms and computing strategies rather than just programming the way you were taught; a research doctor rather than a GP.

I don't mean to put artisan-creators in a higher category than, say, the artisan-maintainer (a groundskeeper, a GP). But the artisan-maintainer comes from a different impulse. The artisan-maintainer must be looking at the good, and must feel that it is in danger--it is, at the heart, a conservative urge (in the non-partisan sense of 'conservative'). An artisan-maintainer in the arts, for instance, might be one of those Shakespeare scholars who are always attempting to return to the ur-Shakespeare, the original Hamlet or Macbeth. The artisan-creator, on the other hand, can be seen in one of those twisted reinterpretations. And there is no reason why these two cannot be united (I think that Patrick Stewart's Macbeth was a unification these two approaches in a productive way; bringing new things to the text without throwing out the parts of the play which work).

So the artisan-creator is motivated by discontent with absence, the desire to excise the chaff and bring in more wheat. And the artisan-maintainer is motivated by a defensive fear on behalf of what already exists--the role of the Controller in Brave New World or O'Brien in 1984; the curator of a restoration society or a documenter.

Could an artisan be motivated by contentment? I don't think so. Because if someone felt true happiness, true contentment, there would be nothing to do. We are motivated to action by our discontent.

The lawmaker (as opposed to a politician) is motivated by the desire to see a better set of laws. You cannot think that America is perfect and does not require alteration and still write new laws. Something is not operating correctly, and you move to correct it in that law.

The happier we are, the more passive we are. Because we have to change less, we are less discontented. There is no reason to take a walk because we can be happy enough in our own home; there is no reason to create because we can buy the things we'd like to create. We work because without money we'd be discontent again--unable to provide to ourselves the things which make us happy.

And yet an artisan can be created from happy circumstances. But the artisan remains discontented, even in situations that others would be happy in. An artisan-creator can be born in the "idyllic suburbs" and can spend his life creating mockingly anti-capitalist work. Something makes him discontent. And others, who are content, will become irritated with that work, because his work increases their discontent.

The artisan-creator, or the artisan-maintainer, should not have the aim to spread discontent, however. This would be rather like a satirist trying to make worse government so he'll have more to poke fun at (something Jon Stewart has been accused of, and which he disavows). But they cannot lose touch with their own discontent, or they will lose grip over what makes their art.

I forget where I saw it, but there was some playwright who wrote that underneath everything--even the comedy--there is a current of vicious anger at the way the world is, an insistent demand that the world be different. That's the discontent that fuels even the most beautiful poetry.