[SEQ RERUN] Politics and Awful Art

by MinibearRex1 min read29th Nov 201118 comments

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Today's post, Politics and Awful Art was originally published on 20 December 2007. A summary (taken from the LW wiki):

 

When producing art that has some sort of political purpose behind it (like persuading people, or conveying a message), don't forget to actually make it art. It can't just be politics.


Discuss the post here (rather than in the comments to the original post).

This post is part of the Rerunning the Sequences series, where we'll be going through Eliezer Yudkowsky's old posts in order so that people who are interested can (re-)read and discuss them. The previous post was The Litany Against Gurus, and you can use the sequence_reruns tag or rss feed to follow the rest of the series.

Sequence reruns are a community-driven effort. You can participate by re-reading the sequence post, discussing it here, posting the next day's sequence reruns post, or summarizing forthcoming articles on the wiki. Go here for more details, or to have meta discussions about the Rerunning the Sequences series.

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I'm reminded that both the Nazis and the Soviets under Stalin were able to produce some amazingly effective and aesthetically striking propaganda: the films of Leni Riefenstahl, the pagentry of the Nuremburg rallies, described by the British ambassador as "both solemn and beautiful... like being in a cathedral of ice"; the Internationale and later the Hymn of the Soviet Union. And of course, the posters.

Huh. The Cathedral of Light actually looks friggin' awesome, which is really frustrating.

I agree! It's frustrating because the bad guys thought of it (or at least executed it) first, and so a brilliant new effect had its debut in the service of a monstrous evil philosophy.

But sometimes evil people are great artists. George Orwell argued this point in his essay Benefit of Clergy. The title refers to an old English legal rule that clergymen, by virtue of their status, could be excused of punishment for crimes that would have an ordinary layman hanged.* Orwell suggested that some people in the modern day (circa 1944) were inclined to forgive the manifest moral failings of any obviously exceptional artist, and another group was inclined to say that no artist who had deep moral failings could possibly be skilled, let alone exceptional.

Orwell rejected both these views. He compared the aesthetic skill of an artist to the effectiveness of a wall in standing up:

The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp. In the same way it should be possible to say, ‘This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’ Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human being.

Lots more could be said about this essay, but suffice it now to say that skillful wall building matters, and skillful art matters in the marketplace of ideas.

This particular sequence in the top level post hits home with me personally. When I was a young boy, the first thing that made me question the church in which I had been raised was the relentlessly crappy church music. It sucked, and sucked so hard, at least in my opinion which has not changed in several decades. My child self asked: if church was as important as all these adults claimed, in their slightly bored way, why were the songs worse than the theme songs from cartoons on television, and even worse than the jingles played on commercials on kids' TV?

I'm reminded of Eliezer's comment about an artist at a singularity summit, in which she was effectively told: we don't really want your participation. To a point. Someone whose life has been entirely devoted to creating images or music or any other kind of art is not necessarily equipped to engineer a game of computer tic-tac-toe, let alone a friendly artificial intelligence.

But if you want to win the hearts and minds of the unconverted, irrational masses, you're going to have to use resources other than logical argument. Logical and correct arguments only change the minds of people who already value logic. This is not the way to win new converts to rationality. Art and poetry, not merely argument, are necessary to communicate the glory and beauty of ideals like the conquest of death and the apotheosis of humanity in a properly anticipated singularity.

As somebody has said in an ironically different context, the devil should not have all the best tunes.

  • Gradually, this legal principle turned into a legal fiction for the purpose of showing leniency to almost all first-time offenders. There was an interim period in which criminals could establish "clergy" status by 'reading' Psalm 51. When this rule was in effect, illiterate criminals responded to incentives and memorized the words of this particular verse.

Upvoted for lots of useful links, among other things.

[-][anonymous]9y 1

which is really frustrating

Why? Most of the art and even much of the science you probably find awesome was produced by cultures, individuals and organizations with whom you probably have profound moral and ethical disagreements.

If you can't enjoy The Cathedral of Lights, how can you enjoy a real cathedral built in say the 16th century? How can you find something like the Colosseum grand for example without being similarly conflicted? Or are you?

Because I like to talk about my design process when I make things, and if I ever did something inspired by the Cathedral of Light, I'd have to be really careful about how described the idea. Most people compartmentalize well enough to see the Coliseum as a relic of its time. Most people do not compartmentalize well enough to see the Nazis and everything about them as anything other than the greatest symbol of evil that humanity has produced.

When producing art that has some sort of political purpose behind it (like persuading people, or conveying a message), don't forget to actually make it art. It can't just be politics.

This seems to contradict the nameless virtue

“The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him. More than anything, you must be thinking of carrying your movement through to cutting him.”

The purpose of making politics into art is to harness the power of art for your politics. If you forget the art then you've lost that purpose.

The purpose of making politics into art is to harness the power of art for your politics. If you forget the art then you've lost that purpose.

I think you're misusing the sense of "lost purpose". A 'lost purpose' describes when you lose the actual purpose (in this case 'politics') and replace it with a mere tool that was supposed to work for that purpose (in this case, the art).

In this case the problem is the other way around -- not admiring the sword for its beauty and forgetting to cut, but rather forgetting that the sword needs to be sharp in order to cut..

My phrasing "lost that purpose" was bad. My point was simply that there is no contradiction to the nameless virtue, since the art needs to be good to sell the politics. You said it better than I: "The sword needs to be sharp in order to cut."

You're trying to harness the power of art for your politics. If you forget politics, you've lost your purpose. If you forget art, you've lost your purpose.

No!

In the sentence "You're trying to harness the power of art for your politics." the purpose is defined in the clause 'for your politics'. The subgoal, subservient to the actual goal, is 'harness the power of art'.

You lose your purpose if you think that your purpose is to "harness the power of art for your politics" instead of actually furthering said politics.

If you forget art, you've lost your purpose.

Only if your purpose was artistic instead of political, in which case the phrase "harness the power of art for your politics" was a misrepresentation of the motivations in question.

What Raemon's trying to say is that if your art sucks, it's not going to further your politics, presumably because nobody will want to go near it unless they're already sold.

Upon further reflection, I think I was approaching it from a different angle, which resulted in unspoken assumptions. As an artist, I care about each project I do for its own sake in addition to whatever purpose it serves, and the goals are simultaneously intertwined, and of parallel, equal importance to me.

This is me speaking as an artist. If I'm a producer/propagandist who wants to hire an artist, then yes, the politics is the true purpose and the art "merely" needs to be able to cut.

But from inside the visual-art-algorithm, the "art" is so central to the utility function that speaking in terms of "the art is merely there for the purpose of politics" means you're probably going to fail.

IMO, anyway.

This is me speaking as an artist. If I'm a producer/propagandist who wants to hire an artist, then yes, the politics is the true purpose and the art "merely" needs to be able to cut.

But from inside the visual-art-algorithm, the "art" is so central to the utility function that speaking in terms of "the art is merely there for the purpose of politics" means you're probably going to fail.

That's more-or-less the point I was getting at. Namely: focusing all your effort on maximizing your utility function, causes you to fail to maximize your utility function.

I think Aris actually essentially covered this in the first post with the "forgetting that the sword needs to be sharp" thing, but I didn't quite parse it the way e intended.

Would it be in bad taste to link to the worst political art I've seen?

This was timely. I hadn't read this sequence post before, although I'd previously learned this lesson on my own.

Currently putting together a collection of rational-humanist songs for a group of friends.