Saturday, October 6, 2012

Reading List: Meaning in Life & Why It Matters

"Rather, what is valuable is that one's life be actively engaged in projects that give rise to this feeling [a high quality pleasure], when the projects in question can be seen to have a certain kind of objective worth."

I stumbled upon this book by complete accident. I don't normally go browsing through the moral philosophy* section in my major university research library, but this author happens to be a patron of ours, and I happened across it in the course of doing some other research, so I thought I'd pick it up. I was pleasantly surprised to hear so many of the arguments we arts folk make about why the arts are "meaningful" to a person.

Wolf begins by positing that "meaning" exists somewhere between "morality" and "happiness", the normal two reasons for explaining why we humans do the things we do. Those two options still represent the reasons we do many things (pay taxes, have sex), but Wolf argues that the reason we do most things--those things that we enjoy doing and that are seen as things upon which it is valuable to spend time--is how we find meaning in our life.

I immediately seized upon the correlation between her theory and how we so often advocate for the arts, in education, in public, in everyday life. For artists, creating art is both subjective--we enjoy doing it--and objective--others may find it enjoyable, satisfying, illuminating, or any of a host of other personal-affecting adjectives. Without the former, the subjectivity, the art becomes simply a job, a way of trading our time/energy for (one hopes) the resources necessary to live. But without the latter, the objectivity, our art becomes nothing more than self-referential, a waste of a resource that could serve to better someone's condition on this earth. Artists have long held the responsibility of commenting on society through a lens which provides both questions and clarity. Abdicating this responsibility would void the artist's "meaning" to life.

As arts advocates, it is easy to fall back on the subjective portion of creating art. After all, everyone has the "right to pursue happiness"! What we need to articulate, though, is the objective portion, that art creates meaning not only for the artist, but for everyone in the community.

*If you happen to be a fan of moral philosophy, this treatise has references in it to other authors and philosophical arguments. Me, I know most of my philosophers from growing up with Monty Python.