Richardson argues, “if Gentlemen were Lovers of Painting, and Conoisseurs, it would be of great advantage to the Publick” in three key ways: the reformation of manners, the improvement of people and an increase in wealth, honor and power (Richardson 41). In justifying how art could improve manners, he explains that “Painting … Pleases our Eyes, and moreover Informs our Understandings, Excites our Passions, and Instructs us how to manage them” (42). In other words, Richardson believes that because art excites emotions in a controlled setting, through viewing it people learn how to control their emotions in other settings, thus making them more well-mannered. He also argues that the decorative function of art separates mankind from beasts and encourages their sophistication (43-44). In explaining how art could improve people, he reasons that if people spent time acting as connoisseurs and evaluating art, they would spend less time committing crimes, and also that if people learned to draw, they would “become better Mechanicks of all kinds” (44-47). Finally, he reasons that more connoisseurs would create more of a demand for art, creating a new market which would attract money usually spent on unnecessary luxuries as well as tourism money (47-49).
I disagree with Richardson in some key ways. In my opinion, art in any form’s most basic purpose is to capture an emotion in such a way that whoever else experiences it can achieve some sort of catharsis in experiencing it. Although I think that art is definitely capable of achieving what Richardson would like it to achieve (betterment of manners, people and wealth), I don’t think that achieving those things should be art’s sole intent. It seems to me that art that sets out to accomplish any of those things (especially creating wealth) is usually much less effective than art that simply aims to capture an emotion. Art created with the intent of replicating an emotion, meanwhile, seems more likely to accomplish these things, even though it’s not its main intent, because people connect with the honesty of it. So, again, although I don’t think Richardson was completely wrong in asserting that art may achieve some of these things, I don’t think it necessarily should, because in attempting to do those things it may be cheapened. The most important thing about art is honesty.
In order to demonstrate this point, I’d like to critique two different pieces of art:
Bob Dylan’s “John Birch Paranoid Blues”
Florida-Georgia Line’s “Round Here”
Dylan’s “John Birch Paranoid Blues” really speaks to me, while Florida-Georgia Line’s song really irks me. I think there are a few reasons for this, but they all go back to what I consider the goal of art to be. In a nutshell, Dylan’s song is artistically honest, while I find Florida-Georgia Line’s to be less than that. Where Dylan’s work sardonically mocks McCarthyism and anti-communism, a brave move even at the time Dylan was performing the song, Florida-Georgia Line is simply rehashing the same tired tropes we’ve all heard on country radio for the past five to ten years. It’s like they’ve pulled out the old checklist for what a modern country hit should lyrically include and shoved it all together. Reference to hard work? Check. Name brand of an American truck company? Check. Jeans with holes in them (is this even popular anymore?)? Check. Mud, whiskey, “Saturday night,” “the edge of town,” “how we do it ‘round here”? Check check check check check. It’s the same old stuff we’ve heard ten million times. To me, it comes off as more of an attempt to make a popular song and earn money than to make an actual artistic statement or express an actual emotion the songwriter had, which is why it irks me. Dylan’s song, meanwhile, is a unique and funny yet emotionally appropriate statement against blind allegiance to a cause, in this case anti-communism, which is why I like it. It’s too easy to recognize the immense difference in sincerity in the two pieces, and I think that’s the big difference in why I prefer one over the other. I’m not trying to pick on Florida-Georgia Line, by the way; I actually appreciate country music, I’m just annoyed with the stagnant, formulaic approach most “country artists” are taking nowadays. It lacks sincerity and wreaks of commercialism, which makes it very much a turn off for me. Bob Dylan was wildly popular, and I’m not mad at him for it because he did it in a way that seems sincere. I’m not against popularity, only artistic dishonesty.
Richardson might agree with me, but probably on different grounds. He would probably appreciate the commercial/economic aspect of each song, but I think he would choose the Dylan song over the Florida-Georgia Line song because it has a better chance of improving men’s behavior, whereas the FGL song seems to encourage behavior that he would probably not deem well-mannered (drinking? mud? use of the phrase “’round here?” yeah right!). I don’t think he’d have as much of a problem for the obviously commercial nature of the FGL song (he’d probably encourage that), but because it lacks the capacity to improve manners, I’d be willing to bet he’d abhor it and the other formulaic country songs it mimics as much as me.
Richardson, Two Discourses