The Intrigue by James Ensor, 1890
It makes a lot of sense to maintain that the emotions we experience in the presence of art are very different from the emotions we experience in non-aesthetic contexts. We may feel fear, sadness, or happiness in a movie theater as we watch the experiences of a character. But these emotions are directed towards an imaginary character that we know, on some level, is imaginary. Moreover, there doesn’t seem to be much at stake for us as we laugh, cry, or get anxious: there is nothing we can do to change the situation, and if we choose to enjoy our popcorn as someone falls to their death we are not considered unsympathetic or cruel.
On one hand, this is wonderful for a variety of reasons other than the joys of mere escapism. For example, we can experience emotions directed towards imaginary things and, in doing so, we can explore them from a safe vantage point. With good art we can gain some insight into how to feel towards the right objects at the right time and in the right way. We can even experience emotions that might not be readily available to us in our everyday lives. But, on the other hand, there is something troubling about this situation: many of us, especially given the widely accessible nature of movies, books, and music, spend more time feeling and experiencing emotions in an imaginary realm rather than the actual world with its real people. As a result, we may find that very little change occurs in ourselves and in our relations with others. When we have strong emotions in real life situations we typically act by responding to someone, trying to solve a problem, deliberating, choosing decisively, etc.; and this action can lead to significant, and very often positive, changes in our lives. Without such significant changes we may run the risk of becoming stagnant, sentimental, and perhaps even indifferent to other human beings and their predicaments.
In 1892 William James, the ground-breaking American philosopher and psychologist, put his finger on this issue with amazing precision in his book Psychology (Briefer Course) (see the section “Ethical and Pedagogical Importance of the Principle of Habit” in the chapter on habit):
“No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one have not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better. With mere good intentions, hell is proverbially paved. An this is an obvious consequence of the principles we have laid down. A ‘character,’ as J.S. Mill says, ‘is a completely fashioned will’; and a will, in the sense in which he means it, is an aggregate of tendencies to act in a firm and prompt and definite way upon all the principal emergencies of life. A tendency to act only becomes effectively ingrained in us in proportion to the uninterrupted frequency with which the actions actually occur, and the brain ‘grows’ to their use. Every time a resolve or a fine glow of feeling evaporates without bearing practical fruit is worse than a chance lost; it works so as positively to hinder future resolutions and emotions from taking the normal path of discharge. There is no more contemptible type of human character than that of the nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility and emotion, but who never does a manly concrete deed. Rousseau, inflaming all the mothers of France, by his eloquence, to follow Nature and nurse their babies themselves, while he sends his own children to the foundling hospital, is the classical example of what I mean. But every one of us in his measure, whenever, after glowing for an abstractly formulated Good, he practically ignores some actual case, among the squalid ‘other particulars’ of which that same Good lurks disguised, treads straight on Rousseau’s path. All Goods are disguised by the vulgarity of their concomitants, in this work-a-day world; but woe to him who can only recognize them when he thinks them in their pure and abstract form! The habit of excessive novel-reading and theatre-going will produce true monsters in this line. The weeping of a Russian lady over the fictitious personages in the play, while her coach-man is freezing to death on his seat outside, is the sort of thing that everywhere happens on a less glaring scale. Even the habit of excessive indulgence in music, for those who are neither performers themselves nor musically gifted enough to take it in a purely intellectual way, has probably a relaxing effect upon the character. One becomes filled with emotions which habitually pass without prompting to any deed, and so the inertly sentimental condition is kept up. The remedy would be, never to suffer one’s self to have an emotion at a concert, without expressing it afterward in some active way. Let the expression be the least thing in the world -speaking genially to one’s aunt, or giving up one’s seat in a horse-car, if nothing more heroic offers – but let it not fail to take place.”
James’ pragmatism shines through his wise suggestion for yoking together art and virtuous development: don’t forget to act in some way on those emotions art conjures up. Why not make an effort to really be transformed by the art that moves you so much? Growing up I always felt judged by the art I loved. Could I really accept living a life that was, say, condemned by some non-conformist rock star I admired? Could I really accept living a life that, in comparison with the immense subtlety and humanity of some composer’s masterpiece, seemed unbearably superficial? Questions like these often arose in my thoughts and inspired me to act differently. To be sure, we need not always see art as a means to a practical end in all respects: art can and should often be useless in its inherent worth. But instrumental value can be subsequently added to such inherent worth if we, after having an intrinsically valuable aesthetic experience, are able to carry that experience into action that will positively affect both our neurological pathways for virtuous action and our humane relations to our fellow humans. In doing so we can avoid becoming, to repeat James’ powerful image, theater-going monsters.
Portrait of James Ensor by Henry De Groux, 1907