In A Healthy Society - Michael Bettencourt - Scene4 Magazine Special Issue - July 2014

Michael Bettencourt


July 2014

Justice, as Supreme Court Justice Stewart Potter defined it, is fairness: "Fairness is what justice really is."

Justice can only come through institutions built to deliver it — it does not "droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven" or roll down from Olympus on its own.

Justice can also only arrive if powered by an ethics rooted in a vision of the good life (not "a" good life but "the" good life).

Our American society is not built for justice for two reasons: 1) we have chosen not to design our institutions to deliver it (see Matt Taibbi's new book, The Divide), and 2) we have no vision of the good life to guide us.

What has caused #1?  Taibbi's book offers possibly the clearest rendition of why we have created a sliding scale of rights where those on the lower end have legal punishments pounded into them every day while those on the upper end are able to slip-slide away. Unfairness is now policy, driven by money, demonizing, and cowardice.

Why don't we have #2?  The good life is built around "enough," which rejects accumulation for its own sake and is willing to say no.  But a society like ours, based on market theology, can never allow people to believe they have "enough," since the system is driven by the doctrine that wants are endless in number and can never be satisfied. To "satisfy" these "wants," market theology builds unfairness into its operations -- its notion of a "good life" is based on the exploitation and appropriation of labor and the unequal allocation of rewards.

To the extent that we can talk about a "society" making "decisions" about how it wants its members to live, the terror caused by 1 and 2 has a common root in the societal decision to honor the successes of the market with protections and allowances and punish the rest of the people with a sliding scale of (de)privations, mostly mild among the middle reaches but which get worse and worse among the lower depths.

Does "art" (that perennially squishy term) have any constructive part to play in this era of ruination?

I began my first answer to this question at too high an altitude in an attempt to speak with Olympian wisdom about the topic.  I ran out of air pretty quickly.

So I moved towards the valley and decided to begin with G.K. Chesterton's observation about reading: "There is a great deal of difference between an eager man who wants to read a book and a tired man who wants a book to read."

The bulk of the "art content" our culture produces today is books for the tired man while occasionally crafting things for the eager man.

Given the means of production available to those who call themselves artists, the situation couldn't be different than it is.

Thus, "art" can really do nothing to create a more fair society, though it may, through its workings, create more fair-minded people, operating at the intestinal rather than the institutional level (so to speak).

"Art content" is also good for the water cooler, that is, for giving people something common to share -- latest TV series, YouTube videos, and so on.  It doesn't matter if the content is nonsense -- at least it gives people a chance to synch up, unlike our politics.

For "art" to do more than this, though, it would have to change how it understands what it does.  It may have to become more prescriptive and propagandistic, promoting a vision of the good life and not necessarily being tolerant of ideas and visions that oppose the good life.  It may have to adopt an anti-Oscar Wilde notion of "usefulness" for itself. It may have to become more communal and collective in its operations.

Or it may simply choose to do art as art and go off to work on movement-building elsewhere.

But at this moment, the way art is made in our society has little or nothing to support the effort to create a just society.

An ending thought.  In a selection from Tennessee Williams' Notebooks in Harper's, Williams quotes a friend as saying that in a healthy society, perhaps we wouldn't need artists. That is an interesting equation: we only need art when our lives are unhealthy.  So, rather than expending energy trying to find a justification for art in a time of great injustice, much better to found a just society and let art go wander where it wants to without a worry about usefulness or purpose.

Cover Graphic - "Long Mayi Walk 2″, by Chris Stain at 516 Arts

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Scene4 Magazine: Michael Bettencourt | www.scene4.comMichael Bettencourt is a playwright and essayist.
He also writes a monthly column for Scene4.
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©2014 Michael Bettencourt
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