The unfulfilled promise of art

Created 16 Jan 2013 • Last modified 7 Jan 2015

I argue that the common assumption that art is good and necessary is unjustified. The case for why we should promote art is dubious, and I worry that art can be profoundly distracting.

In high school, I once told my music teacher "I hate art." It's not that I have no aesthetic sense, that I don't enjoy a good novel. Nor is it that I've sworn off art despite its attractions, like I've sworn off sex and booze. It's that there are a number of things that trouble me about art, and I'm still trying to figure out what the appropriate reaction is. For, being as goal-directed as I am, I want to make good decisions about what and how much art to consume and produce.

My biggest complaint concerns the value of art. As entertaining as art is, there seems to be a consensus that entertainment isn't its true function.

Isn't it a tad distressing that even without clear supernatural justification (e.g., playing music to appease the gods), we feel confident that art is valuable? Governments fund it, schools teach it (both the production of it, in art class, and the consumption of it, in English class), museums painstakingly preserve it (even when its historical value is questionable), and if a friend is trying to make it as an opera singer or a screenplay-writer, we may question their financial wisdom, but we're much less likely to encourage them to do something more meaningful with their life than we are when talking to a janitor or an accountant. "Philistine" is an insult.

To be clear, my complaint is not that individuals value art, in the sense of being motivated to produce and consume it and feeling gratified by doing so. Such behavior isn't unethical, after all. Nor do I contest that art can be put to practical ends, as in the case of a mnemonic song. Nor do I doubt that whatever innate motives are ultimately responsible for art had some evolutionary value, at least for the sort of environment in which Homo sapiens emerged. My beef is with the implicit idea that art is beneficial and necessary for society. Such an idea is implied whenever entities acting in the name of the public good, such as governments, invest resources in the promotion of art. If art isn't actually a public good, then promoting it shouldn't be, either.

On the other hand, I'm not ready to say that art is useless. It has one significant hope for true value, which is its emotional power. A positive-psychological way to construe it is that art is a tool for emotion regulation. Comedy can cheer us up when we're sad, an inspiring story can give us courage when we're afraid, soothing music can calm us down when we're high-strung, and any sort of art can save us from boredom. In fact, contrary to evidence that people aren't good at introspection in general (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977), there's a variety of findings in media psychology showing that people can intelligently select media in order to improve their mood. For example, Knobloch and Zillmann (2002) manipulated people's moods by giving them bogus feedback on a face-recognition test, then let them pick songs to listen to. Unhappy subjects spent more time listening to "energetic-joyful" songs, and the experience of listening to the songs seemed to succeed in reversing the effect of the manipulation on their mood. If we take it for granted that emotions are consequential, a means of regulating our emotions is of obvious value. What makes art an attractive choice of emotion-regulation tool is that it can be quite emotionally powerful despite its accessibility and lack of direct consequences (think of the last time you cried during a movie; it's nice that nothing terrible happened in real life, isn't it?).

The catch is that a lot of things about art and the way we treat art remain distressing, or at least puzzling, when we accept the idea of art-as-emotion-regulator. To begin with, art, I think in consequence of being emotionally powerful, is profoundly distracting. Think about how readily one can get wrapped up in a fictional world. Only recently, upon becoming a brony, have I seen a full-fledged fandom from the inside, and the emotional and practical commitments to a fictional universe that make a fandom a fandom are, if anything, yet more impressive to an insider than an outsider. Even if you're not a hardcore fan of anything, watching a movie, reading a book, or playing a video game means immersing yourself in a fictional world, and intuitively, it seems clear that this immersion doesn't entirely end as soon as you go back to everyday life. Your thoughts and feelings about the work linger. And they can be surprisingly strong. Isn't this sort of thing directly contrary to the goal of emotion regulation? Rather than bringing inappropriate emotions to baseline, art can create inappropriate emotions of its own. In such cases, isn't the solution worse than the problem?1

Probably related to the issue of profound emotional distraction is profound intellectual distraction. The obsession compelled by art is at odds with the meaninglessness of it. Over a decade of playing video games has left my head full of dungeon layouts, boss attack patterns, and NetHack scroll prices, although all of this data is illusory. The seeming diversity and depth of art is false. I'm not worried about the psychological equivalent of hard-disk capacity so much as the drain on one's attention and appetite for minutiae. Isn't it sort of insane and offensive how one might write a Wikipedia article on a Simpsons character instead of the digestive system of spiders? If we want tiny details to obsess over, shouldn't we take them from the nearly inexhaustible supply provided by science, mathematics, history, or computer programming, rather than making them up? I don't see the sense in letting a tool for emotion regulation encroach on the intellectual realm.

If consuming art in the ordinary fashion is profoundly distracting, fussing over the quality of art is worse. What's the difference between decent art and great art? Whether it moves you, I suppose. So, if we don't want to be moved too much, what we need isn't Hamlet but Garfield. Once you're already a successful writer of police procedurals, you're unlikely to make the world a better place by aiming higher. Writing fiction is as empty a skill as playing video games: helpful to learn but pointless to master. And fussing about the quality of art from the perspective of the audience—that is, art criticism—would be a waste even without the antiscientific tradition of highfalutin art criticism.2

One way to characterize this whole mess is that art, particularly fiction, makes a promise it never fulfills. Fiction promises enlightenment: it thrusts you into a conflict and then holds you in suspense as to how that conflict will be resolved. It pulls you along only to show you the illusory resolution of a conflict that never existed to begin with. Human intelligence is a powerful tool with which to seek the truth, and yet we use it to chase after shadows. This is saddening and frightening, and I don't know what to do about it.

Well, one reasonable thing to do would be to more directly empirically examine the issues I've discussed here. To begin with, we might compare the effects of emotionally powerful art and emotionally mild art. Perhaps great art has some benefit that I haven't guessed. Another intuition of mine that's worth testing is that music is the best artistic medium, or among the best. I feel that music, more so than, say, fiction, is an emotion-regulatory tool you can take with you: you can call upon a song in times of trouble by singing it or playing it back mentally. Bal and Veltkamp (2013) is an example of a real study relevant to the value of art. They had subjects read fiction or newspapers, and found that fiction-readers, or at least those who found the story engaging, described themselves as more empathic a week later. Perhaps a steady diet of fiction could make one more empathic and therefore kinder.


Anderson, C. A., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E. L., Bushman, B. J., Sakamoto, A., … Saleem, M. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in Eastern and Western countries: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 151–173. doi:10.1037/a0018251

Bal, P. M., & Veltkamp, M. (2013). How does fiction reading influence empathy? An experimental investigation on the role of emotional transportation. PLOS ONE. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055341

Knobloch, S., & Zillmann, D. (2002). Mood management via the digital jukebox. Journal of Communication, 52(2), 351–366. doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.2002.tb02549.x

Mellina, C., & Svetlichnaya, S. (2011). Trope propagation in the cultural space. Retrieved from

Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84, 231–259. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.84.3.231

Sims, V. K., & Mayer, R. E. (2002). Domain specificity of spatial expertise: The case of video game players. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 16(1), 97–115. doi:10.1002/acp.759



I know what you're thinking: catharsis. A long-held and intuitively appealing idea is that experiencing strong emotions regularly, in artificial circumstances like the theater, makes you better equipped to handle emotion in real life, perhaps by providing an outlet for pent-up unexpressed emotion. I haven't looked at the research on this closely, but my impression is that the idea of catharsis has empirically fared badly. In fact, there's a trend in psychological research for the opposite effect: the more you express a feeling or behavior artificially, the more readily you do the same in everyday life. For example, playing violent video games can make you more aggressive (Anderson et al., 2010).


I could attack the humanities in yet stronger terms than I'm attacking art, but that's another essay. On the other hand, there are ways of examining media that can be scientifically enlightening. Psychology experiments are one way. A less formal kind of media analysis that gives me hope is TV Tropes. TV Tropes's emphasis on cataloging mostly objective features of media, with few standards as to what media is included (compared to literary analysis's focus on highly subjective features of a handful of works at a time), suggests TV Tropes could at least be useful as a dataset for sociological kinds of research. See, for example, Mellina and Svetlichnaya (2011).