The arts give society a space to think. Without them we are a golem: a figure of clay, subject to its master’s command, and deprived of the imaginative space necessary to relate meaningful to others and function in society.
OK. That’s an analogy with which you may or may not agree. It’s fairly useful as away to explain an idea that I personally find interesting. On the one hand, it’s way too reductive to be truthful in any philosophically helpful sense. It’s only of very limited use in explaining our need for the arts.
The thing is that, broadly speaking, there are two ways to approach an analogy. One is to assume that the image and the reality map onto each other neatly. This normally exposes the analogy’s fundamental absurdity. The other is to accept it as a means for one person to express an idea to other people, leaving room for further thought.
A great example of both these uses of analogy co-existing is Menenius’s speech in Coriolanus, in which he compares society to a body. The plebeians – whose leader is compared to a big toe – shouldn’t rebel against the belly. Even though it gets all the food, the belly is essential for the onward distribution of that food around the body. The belly is, of course, the Roman senate. And the whole thing sounds like a dodgy excuse for trickle-down economics. Or intestine-wall-absorption economics. Menenius – a politician – thinks he’s telling an absolute truth (that society functions exactly like a body and therefore all would be well if people knew their place). Shakespeare, on the other hand, is using this rather memorable and vivid piece of imagery as a device to explore a complex and ambiguous idea. As soon becomes clear, the idea of having a proper place in society is pretty problematic, not least for Coriolanus himself.
I think it’s fair to say that in Coriolanus, as in life, the way an establishment politician sees the world is, on the whole, very much simpler than the possibilities for seeing that the arts can open up.
A more recent example of literal analogising is the last and current governments’ economically illiterate insistence that national debt is analogous to household debt. You can imagine a dramatist writing a richly rewarding and thought provoking play that uses a household as an ay of talking about wider society. In fact you don’t have to imagine it; literature is full of such works. But the political use of this analogy allows no room for the complex ideas and moral ambiguity that thrive in much of the best dramatic writing. The political version simply tells us that what is the case according the logic of the analogy must be the case in reality: there is no alternative.
And that is a phrase of which recently we have heard far too much. It’s rubbish. And a little bit fascist.
Moreover, although this metonymic construction is not really an analogy, it’s damn close. In reality there are a pretty much infinite amount of routes to go down. But when we talk about alternatives in this way, we are using the idea of a two-way choice to suggest that the decision is simple: that there’s one right choice, and because everything else is wrong it is all bundled together as one wrong choice. Another example of over-literalism as a means of deception.
One analogy that is quite useful is that of right and left in politics. Although it fails to map the full range of political ideas, it makes a helpful divide between those who actually want to make things better and those who want to make a virtue of how awful everything is. There are, however, at least two ways in which this analogy is abused by over-literalism. One is the idea that all political ideas exist on this spectrum. They obviously don’t. The other is that right and left are balanced; that they are equal and opposite. Both these lazy pieces of thinking lead to the completely daft idea that the centre ground is neutral territory, and all the nonsense that follows, from the BBC’s sorry attempts at balance to the Blair-Cameron idea that you have to capture the centre to win an election. This might make sense if the centre existed outside of metaphor. OK, perhaps people are drawn to wanting a best of both worlds kind of approach, but centrality has nothing to do with it because there’s not really right and left to triangulate off of. Instead it’s just pick ’n’ mix populism.
The Liberal Democrats’ desperate and slightly gristly assertion last election that they could be the head of a Labour government or the heart of Tory one was also based on this sorry assumption. As well as echoing that well-worn “body politic” idea. When people are suspicious of both larger parties (and let’s not pretend the last election was about anything other than who lost least badly) then suggesting that you’re some kind of Lab-Con hybrid parasite looking for a host isn’t a great strategy.
Metaphorical thought is an amazing thing. It opens up the world in incredible ways. It’s been fundamental to the arts from the first moment a cave painter made marks that resonated with the knowledge of the real animal they represented. On a more practical level, it can be a hugely useful communication tool. It’s deeply embedded in English and, though I’m not much of a linguist, as far as I know it’s embodied in the human communication. Some uses are very clichéd, but at the end of the day, idiomatic English is a treasure trove of metaphor and analogous thinking. And we know how to use it. We don’t go around saying, well, if it’s a treasure trove that means it probably lay undiscovered for a while, so that means there was a period of English free from idiomatic metaphors. Similarly, the Western medieval idea of a cosmos of correspondences (of which the notion of a “body politic” is an example) made for some incredible literature and art, and some bloody awful metaphysics.
It’s obvious that any attempt to use this kind of language simplistically is bound to be ridiculous. But this is where a great deal of political debate is at. And perhaps it shows us why the arts are being sidelined. I dare say that if Shakespeare’s Menenius gained independent self-consciousness he wouldn’t want his words written by some poet. Subtlety of thought is a danger to Roman proto-fascism just as it is to the neoliberal project, or to Stalinism, or to whatever other crazed monomania our governments have adopted. Meanwhile, the “body politic”, is in denial about its own dysfunction because the self-appointed “heads” of state can’t see beyond their own daft constructs.
And that applies to us, here and now, as well as fictionalised ancient Rome. It’s another analogy though. Don’t take it literally.
Cover photo – detail of a sketch model in my studio