Art should not be scholarly; it should not be anti-scholarly; it should, in almost every case, be a-scholarly. I say this in response to, in my view, the most curious criticism levied in last Thursday’s common hour conversation against Professor of Drama and James Michael Playwright-in-Residence Wendy MacLeod’s ’81 recently withdrawn play, The Good Samaritan: that her writing wasn’t scholarly. The play has suffered epithets such as racist and insensitive, but whether or not those invectives hold true is beside the point of this article. My goal is not to critique the play, but to critique the way in which it has been discussed. I argue that judging art by its factual accuracy results necessarily in the reduction of people to tools and objects — exactly what both MacLeod and her critics seek to avoid — an aesthetic theory indistinguishable from the naturalism of French novelist Émile Zola.
Zola claimed that novelists ought to be more like scientists, who, having collected different psychological specimen, expose them to a set of controlled variables, and record the results. He likened writers to journalists, who studied actual subjects and recorded data for the sake of telling scientific truth.
Both MacLeod’s play and the debate surrounding it are examples of of Zola’s idea gone horribly awry, namely the idea that artists ought to solely portray subjects with as much scientific accuracy as possible, in order that a novelist’s accounts might further Enlightenment ideals of progress. MacLeod says this herself in her email to the student body: The common hour discussion’s original subject was “how comedy can be a force for change.”
However, there exists an assumption lurking even deeper beneath this one: that art should be used for something, that it is a means. Take, for example, the a toy burro belonging to Hector, the teenage Guatemalan boy in MacLeod’s play.
This episode served as evidence for both sides of a dispute, in which, on the one hand, some argued that the use was appropriative; and on the other hand, others, namely Professor of Political Science Fred Baumann, that the use was ingratiating, that it made the boy likeable. But whether the use of a person is appropriative or ingratiating, the enterprise is nonetheless degrading, reducing a human being to an object, a means, regardless. While every speaker on Thursday made claims with some degree of truth, all implicitly supported the treatment of people as means — either reducing them to emotional marionette strings, or, like Zola, to laboratory test-subjects.
How, then, should artists avoid this problem? What, if not scientific accuracy, makes art good? Oscar Wilde, a preeminent figure of the Aesthetic movement — a movement that reacted violently against pervading trends of realism with the famous maxim “art for the sake of art” — offers the alternative. He writes in his preface to Dorian Gray that “All art is quite useless.” Wilde is being somewhat coy here, though. He believed, I think, that art is not a means to an end but an end in itself. Wilde knew that, while Zola claimed to portray the human being as she is, he only ever wrote her as she appeared — a flat, lifeless object.
Wilde, however, saw that the human was beautiful in herself, had no purpose or use, that there existed nothing higher. While he believed in the march of progress, just like Zola, the goal of progress, the aim of civilization, was, for him, the beautiful, not captured or replicated but made manifest in poems, paintings — even plays. Art is useless because it is that to which all else is directed — not the thing that causes but that which is caused. The question, then, what is beautiful, what could ever possibly stand so firm and resolute, alone, as it own purpose, confounds, it perplexes, but I believe that there will be no progress until we ask it.
Matthew Manno ’20 is a classics major from Las Vegas, Nv. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.