When I was 16 I had a brief dalliance with a slightly older French guy who was living in my hometown, working as a teacher’s aide. My friends and I saw him at this independent cinema club we went to religiously, every Sunday night – dreaming of bigger cities and lives, in which watching strange, troubling films would be commonplace. Our city was small enough that seeing an attractive man none of us recognised was highly unusual – and even more unusual was that we could tell he wasn’t Irish: he had a calm insouciance which no Irish person naturally possessed.
We made eyes at him during the film, and after it was over, he did another completely un-Irish thing: he approached us, and asked me out. I was in heaven. I was in one of my beloved films. I was embarking on an affair with an older French man! (Never mind that he was three years older, quivering Adam’s apple and not-quite-competent shave belying the authority I projected onto him.) We dated for a few weeks and he asked me to lend him some of my favourite books, as he was trying to read more English fiction. I delighted in this task of curation – it was like making a mix tape without the effort, offering him a glimpse into what I was quietly confident was an amazingly interesting inner life. I put together a selection of eight novels, including Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh and The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. After he read them, he returned the pile and asked with an air of pained confusion, “Why did you give me these books about Catholicism? You know I am an atheist.”
Even at the time, lustful and obedient, enjoying my role as ingénue, I found this to be deranged. There was Catholicism in the books, yes, but hardly uncomplicated venerations of it. Even if there were – we were talking about novels here. One could not receive the beliefs and actions of fictional characters as instruction. Or if you did, there would be very little left worth reading, nothing but banal domestic chatter. The Catholics in the novels I had lent were not even doing anything wrong besides believing in God. If this was how he reacted to them, how did he read American Psycho, or Lolita, or The 120 Days of Sodom? I was especially surprised as I perceived the French to be open-minded libertines, but in fact it was his leftist atheism – which I too subscribed to – which shut him off from the books I loved. This was a new thought for me, that the “right” way of thinking could lead to what I instinctively felt was wrong: the divvying up of art into morally good or bad.
[See also: The monsters of feminist art]
I thought of my French man lately, having seen a chart go viral on social media. The chart, written and posted to Twitter by a writer named Jash Dholani, attempts to distinguish “good” from “bad” art. Good art “Improves mood” and “Clarifies the mind”. Bad art, however, “Makes you feel weird” and “Confuses the mind”. At first glance these distinctions appeared so risible that I took the chart for a joke. But, like so much else these days, it turns out to be part of a belief system so arcane I can barely understand it as sincere. “All writing should advance life,” Dholani asserts. Across his blog and his social media platforms, he is expressing a version of a belief that feels so common now: that art should be good for us.
Different kinds of people believe this in almost totally divergent ways. There is the conservative proposition that culture is dangerous and must be highly controlled. Only the edifying must be allowed to disseminate, that which promotes and preserves traditional values – the nuclear family, religion, the innocence of childhood. For these people, depictions of anything non-normative is wrong. Then there are those at the opposite end of the political spectrum, who also believe that art should be good for us – they just disagree about what “good for us” means. And yet they still believe in the moral superiority of consuming art as opposed to philistinism.
Part of me instinctively sides with that perspective, being someone whose life has been more or less saved first by the consumption of art, and then its production. There was a long time when I thought that, as I didn’t organise my life around religion or romantic love, art was my central belief system instead – a pure good that I could venerate and pledge my allegiance to.
I still have loyalty to it in this way, but with a crucial, subtle difference. I no longer think that art is “good” for people exactly – not edifying in any straightforward sense. Instead I see it as something more like an infinite toolkit, without inherent value in a particular moral direction. In the final act, I find that teaching us to notice is the real transcendent capability of art. In so many ways, observation is a holy skill, which anyone who practises meditation or prayer can tell you. Art can sharpen our ability to pay attention, to witness our own lives and those of others. It’s no less than a way of seeing and feeling what it is to be alive – and our experience of life cannot be reduced to simply “good” or “bad”. Thankfully, it’s far more interesting than that.
[See also: The rise of pity marketing]