Reflections on freedom and art

Wystan Hugh Auden

Freedom means freedom of choice.
A man exercises his freedom when, confronted by two or more possible alternatives, he realizes one and excludes the rest. Free choices are definite choices. Vagueness of behaviour may be good enough for electrons, it is not good enough for free men.
Choices are of three kinds:
Choices of action.
A thirsty man in a desert is unfree, not because he cannot satisfy his craving for water, but because he cannot choose between drinking and not drinking. Choices of value judgment; good or evil, true or false, beautiful or ugly, absolute or relative, required or forbidden. A man who has seen only one picture is unfree to decide whether it is beautiful or ugly. A man in a passion of anger or fear is unfree because he is no longer conscious of any alternative state and so cannot
judge his anger or his fear.
Choices of authority:
Here again, if there is no consciousness or possible alternatives, there is no freedom. The cravings of man’s spirit are totally unlike the appetites of his nature, such as hunger and sex. There are two of them: to be free from conditions and to be important. These can and often do conflct, for the former senses anything that is “given” whether by his own nature or by the world about him as a limitation on his freedom and longs to act gratuitously, yet it is precisely and only from the “given” that he can derive a sense of importance. Absolute arbitrariness would at the same time be absolute triviality.
Art as play
One of man’s attempts to satisfy both is the criminal act, the breaking of a given law for the sake of breaking it, where the law supplies the importance, and the act of breaking it asserts the freedom. Another is play where the laws governing the game are kept by the player because they are chosen by him. At bottom, all art, all pure science, all creativity is play in this sense. The question, What is Art? and the
question Why does the artist create? Are different questions.
It seems to me that the basic impulse behind creativity of any kind is the desire to do something that is quite necessary: the desire that the result should turn out to be important comes second.
The rules of a game give it importance to the player by making it difficult it to play, a test and proof of an inborn gift or an acquired skill. Given that a game is morally permissible, then whether or not one should play it depends simply on whether or not it gives one pleasure, i.e., whether or not one is good at playing it. If one asks a great surgeon why he operates, if he is honest, he will not answer: “Because it is my duty to save lives” but “Because I love operating”. He may perfectly well hate his neighbor and nevertheless save his life
because of the pleasure it gives him to exercise his skill.
One must say therefore that, in the profoundest sense, art and science are frivolous activities for they depend on the chance possession of special talents.
The only serious matter is concerned with what every human being has alike, a will, namely that one shall love one’s neighbour as oneself. Here one cannot speak of a talent for love, nor in terms of pleasure and pain.
If one asks the good Samaritan why he rescues the man fallen among thieves, he cannot answer, except as an ironical joke, “Because I like doing good” since pleasure or pain are irrelevant and the point is obeying the command: “Thou shalt love”. A common love
There are three kinds of human groups.
• Crowds, i.e., two or more individuals whose sole common characteristic is togetherness, two or more individuals united for the purpose of carrying out an action which requires them all.

• Communities, i.e., two or more individuals united by a common love for something other than themselves, e.g., a room full of music lovers.
Societies have a definite size and a definite structure and the character of the whole is different from the simple sum of the characters of the parts. Consequently the will of the individual member is subordinate to the general will of the society, however that is establishes.
A society may at the same time be a community but not necessarily. It is quite possible that the
cellist of our quartet hates music and only plays to earn his living. A society is a free society as long as the member who exercises authority does so with the free consent of the other members Societies function best when they are free, but in certain cases coercion can, and indeed must, be applied to compel a recalcitrant member to contribute his partial function, the moral justification
depending on two factors:
• the importance of the function the society discharges
• the degree to which the recalcitrant member can or cannot be replaced by another more willing individual.
Communities, like crowds, have no definite size. It is impossible therefore to speak of the “general will” of a community since the individuals who belong to it cannot disagree; they are a community
precisely because as individuals they all love the same thing (unlike members of crowds who have no love in common).

An individual can be in opposition to a society, e.g., if the cellist plays out of tune, but if the rest of the quartet love the music of Mozart and he detests it, this simply means that there are two communities, a community of Mozart lovers and a potential community of Mozart haters, for a community can begin with a single individual, while a society cannot exist until all its members are present and correctly related.
There are two kinds of communities: closed or unfree, and open or free. The members of a closed community have a common love but they have not chosen it for they are unaware of any other love
which they could prefer to, or reject for, the love they have. The members of an open community have consciously chosen their love out of two or more possible loves.
Art as looking glass
The Greeks held what is, to me, a false theory of art which has plagued the world ever since, namely, that art is a magic device for arousing desirable emotions and expelling undesirable emotions, and so leading to right action.
If this were so, then I think Plato’s censures of art in The Republic and Tolstoy’s in What is Art? are unanswerable. For me the correct definition is Shakespeare’s holding the mirror up to nature, i.e., art does not change my feelings but makes me conscious of what I have in fact felt or what I might feel, and of actual or possible relations
between my feelings. The world of art is a looking-glass world, i.e., a possible image of the actual world where emotions are observed, divorced from their origin in immediate passion. It is the business of
the artist to make a mirror which distorts the world as little as possible and reflects as much of the world as possible. Bad art
distorts; minor art reflects only a small or trivial corner of the world .
Art does not judge
Art has two values: firstly it gives pleasure, the pleasure of idle curiosity; secondly, it enlarges the field of freedom. If man had no imagination, he could not make a choice between two possible courses of action without taking both, or make a value judgment about a feeling of his until he had felt the opposite. Art does not and cannot influence the choice or judgment man actually makes, it only makes it more of a conscious choice.
Reading Macbeth, for instance, cannot prevent a man from becoming a
murderer, but the man who has read Macbeth knows more about what
becoming a murderer would be like than the man who hasn’t, so that, if he chooses to become one, he is more responsible. Art, in other words, is never a means for converting a bad community into a good
one, it is one of the great means by which closed communities are turned into open communities.
Art can do harm in two ways. Firstly by failing to be good art and giving the wrong kind of pleasure thereby. If the reflection of the world which it offers is distorted, if it flatters the spectator by omitting the possibilities of evil or draws him to despair by denying the possibilities of good (which, surprisingly enough, can also give pleasure), then it
injures him.
Secondly and more seriously, because the better the art the greater the danger, it may ensnare the spectator in the luxurious paralysis of self-contemplation so that, like Hamlet, he fails to choose at
all. The danger of great art is narcissism. Narcissus does not fall in love with his reflection because it was beautiful but because it is his own in all its endless possibilities.

Art can encourage the formation of two kinds of bad communities, the
community of those with false pictures of themselves, and the parody of a free community in which the knowledge of good and evil is turned against the will, till it becomes too weak to choose either.
Every work of art is the focus of the potential community of those individuals who love it or could love it. Such a community is free if the artist could have created something else but chose to create this work, and vice versa, the spectators or readers could have chosen
to look at or read another work but chose to look at or read this. If the artist creates a work which no one but he appreciates or a spectator cannot find any work which he likes, there is no lack of freedom, but simply no community. Freedom can be curtailed in two ways; the artist may be forced to alter his work, so that the character of the community is other than it would have been if he were left alone; or people may be prevented from becoming acquainted with his work so that the community is smaller than it might have been.

You May Also Like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *