What is the relationship between art and society?
Does art imitate life – or is it the other way around?
Traditionally, we have believed that art imitates life. The painter represents what he or she sees by producing a scene on a canvas. The sculptor does the same with bronze or stone. A photographer or film maker does it even more directly. A writer describes life in his or her books. This simple concept is known as mimesis.
But some have questioned the one-way nature of mimesis by arguing that art also changes the way we view the world, and in fact, life sometimes imitates art rather than the other way around. The person who first articulated this belief effectively was Oscar Wilde. Speaking about the foggy conditions in London in the late 19th century, he wrote that the way we perceive them changed because of art. Referring to the “wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas lamps and turning houses into shadows” he argued that “poets and painters have taught [people] the loveliness of such effects”. According to Wilde, “They did not exist till Art had invented them.”
And you don’t have to look too far to see anti-mimesis in our lives. To what extent is our outlook on life altered by ideas we read in books? The portrayal of people in films? The styles we see in fashion photography? One great example of this is the TV series The Sopranos, and how it portrayed both the Mafia in the USA and the FBI.
Art’s influence on society: propaganda and censorship
Throughout history, it has always been the case that art has the power to change society, especially when new media are used to express an idea. During the First World War, for example, movie cameras were used for the first time to record trench warfare – when the film was shown in cinemas in Britain, audiences ran out screaming. This led to the government censoring further such use of such a powerful medium. And in government censorship, and use of art as propaganda, we see how seriously governments take the effect of art.
All of the major dictators of the C20th understood the power of art to influence the population. In Nazi Germany, Hitler set up the Ministry of Propaganda and National Enlightenment. It was headed by Goebbels, who made sure that nothing was published, performed, or exhibited without his approval.
And what Goebbels approved, of course, only fit in with Nazi ideology and ideas. In terms of art, this meant no modern and abstract art, certainly nothing hostile to the regime, and nothing that featured images other than the stereotypical blonde-haired, blue eyed set in idyllic pastoral scenes of blissful happiness.
In Stalinist Russia, there was also a keen understanding of the power of art. Art portrayed contented peasants, industrious workers, and Stalin himself. In fact, Stalin was shown god-like in many paintings, a phenomenon known as the Cult of Stalin. Just as in Germany, gigantic architectural projects expressed the power of the state.
However, there is no doubt that in Russia there were greater artistic achievements than in Nazi Germany. Composers worked with fewer hindrances – as seen in the works by Prokoviev and Shostakovich, and film-makers such as Eisenstein emerged.
Art’s influence on society: the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover
But even under less oppressive governments, the artistic expression of certain ideas can be subject to control. One great example is the book ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ by DH Lawrence, which was deemed offensive on many levels. In this book, Constance Reid, a woman from a progressive liberal middle class family marries a minor member of the aristocracy, Lord Clifford Chatterley, and takes the title ‘Lady Chatterley’. But her husband is injured in the First World War, confined to a wheelchair, and left impotent. Despite this, he becomes a successful writer and businessman. It is more his obsession with financial success and fame rather than any physical difficulties which come between him and his wife, and she begins an affair with their gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors.
The largely aristocratic ‘establishment’ of Britain at the time – the book was published in Italy in 1928 – were shocked by many aspects of the book. First, there was the fact that the book was ‘obscene’, in the way it went into explicit detail the affair that took place (see below). Second, there was the fact that a women was breaking her marriage vows, something considered far worse than a man behaving in the same way. Finally, it represented an intimate relationship between a member of the ‘lower’ classes (although it emerges during the story that Mellors is actually well-educated, and became an officer in the army during the First World War) and the ‘upper’ classes, a concept that was totally taboo in Britain at that time. The book was duly banned.
But the book was republished by Penguin books in 1960. The attorney general, Reginald Manningham-Buller (dubbed ‘Bullying-Manners’ by the journalist and author Bernard Levin) had to read only four chapters to decide to prosecute Penguin books for publishing it. What annoyed him was not just the content, but the fact that the price of the book meant it was affordable to women and members of the lower classes (remember that only few women worked at this time, and husbands were generally in charge of family finances).
The trial was a disaster for Manningham-Buller and the prosecution. They had failed to find any experts to support their case, in stark contrast to Penguin’s defence team, which had brought in authors, journalists, academics, and even members of the clergy to defend the book. Manningham-Buller and his team had very little idea of what Lawrence had been trying to express in his book, regularly being caught out by the superior insight of the witnesses they were trying to catch out. And although they tried to shock the jury – in his opening speech, Manningham-Buller announced: “The word ‘fuck’ or ‘fucking’ appears no less than 30 times . . . ‘Cunt’ 14 times; ‘balls’ 13 times; ‘shit’ and ‘arse’ six times apiece; ‘cock’ four times; ‘piss’ three times, and so on.” – they were unable to prove that the book would have a negative influence on the readers it was aimed at.
According to the Guardian:
No other jury verdict in British history has had such a deep social impact. Over the next three months Penguin sold 3m copies of the book – an example of what many years later was described as “the Spycatcher effect”, by which the attempt to suppress a book through unsuccessful litigation serves only to promote huge sales. The jury – that iconic representative of democratic society – had given its imprimatur to ending the taboo on sexual discussion in art and entertainment. Within a few years the stifling censorship of the theatre by the lord chamberlain had been abolished, and a gritty realism emerged in British cinema and drama. (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning came out at the same time as the unexpurgated Lady Chatterley, and very soon Peter Finch was commenting on Glenda Jackson’s “tired old tits” in Sunday Bloody Sunday and Ken Tynan said the first “fuck” on the BBC.) Homosexuality was decriminalised, abortions were available on reasonable demand, and in order to obtain a divorce it was unnecessary to prove that a spouse had committed the “matrimonial crime” of adultery. Judges no longer put on black caps to sentence prisoners to hang by the neck until dead.
Can we say, though, that it was art in this case that changed society, or was it an interaction between human sciences (ie, the law) and the arts (the book) that led to change? This is from the same Guardian article:
…the message of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, half a century after the trial, is that literature in itself does no harm at all. The damage that gets attributed to books – and to plays and movies and cartoons – is caused by the actions of people who try to suppress them.
The effect of art: presentation
What other piece of art has profoundly changed the way we view the world? And was it the art that did it, or the way it was used that made the impact? Use this site to help you introduce to us an influential piece of art. Think about the type of change it wrought, for example, ethical, social, metaphysical, etc.