Art has a role to play in modifying human behavior, to reduce or transcend human suffering, but it can also be used to control and influence human behavior in general. Before the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution most people were illiterate, and art provided a language accessible to everyone. Sculpture, frescoes and paintings in churches and public buildings were used to teach the beliefs, attitudes and values that the church and the upper classes wanted the masses to have. This was an indirect but effective way to control the behavior of those who could not inform themselves. “This was what public art had always been meant to do; and one of the first steps in understanding a great public artist like Gian Lorenzo Bernini—that marble megaphone of seventeenth-century papal dogma—is to be aware of his absolute acceptance of doctrine.”
The rise of the European bourgeoisie following the French Revolution ended the control that the patronage of the kings and pontiffs had over exploiting art for ideology, dogma and political goals. This meant a new level of freedom for artists beginning in the 19th century but not the end of the exploitation of art.
All of our institutions in the context of Paradigm B are exploited by the false self but nevertheless, the transformative effect of truth and beauty are always available to those who choose to respond to the insights of the True self. German artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) had one of those insights. “In essence, his answer to the incapacity of art to transform society on a direct level was to extend the word ‘artist’ to cover everyone—so that art would be any kind of being and doing, rather than a specifically making—and then designate the whole social fabric, politics and all, as a ‘Social Sculpture.’” Beuys, of course, did not realize that he was coming close to defining art in Paradigm A.
Specifically, it has become the security energy center of the false self that has usurped the church and the state in exploiting art. “The price of a work of art now became part of its function. It redefined the work—whose new task was simply to sit on a wall and get more expensive. By the end of the 1970s, we were getting to the point where everything that could be regarded, however distantly, as a work of art was primarily esteemed not for its ability to communicate meaning, or its use as historical evidence, or its power to generate aesthetic pleasure, but for its convertibility into cash.”
As the human society of the global village collapses in upon itself in a slow-motion chaotic implosion, art becomes yet another narcotic for self-medication. “Even the conventions of art appreciation become, in the face of a spiraling market, a dead language, analogous to advertising copy and producing the same kind of knee-jerk reverence in a brutalized culture of unfulfillable desire.” We are not unmindful of the shocking and painful effects of such dark observations, but all healing begins with the courage to look at the truth of our self-destructive behaviors.
The false self has also produced the illusion in America of social improvement through art. The wealthy are driving this movement pouring millions of dollars into constructing and endowing museums and creating personal collections that they would eventually donate to those museums. The rich exploit this whole system by lobbying Congress to write the laws that make gifts to museums tax-deductible.
In the context of Simple Reality, the true social use of art is to illuminate the path from suffering to transcendence, to inspire a commitment to seek an experience of the ineffable by surrendering to the beauty of the experience we are immersed in. That’s how art should be exploited!
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.