It’s going to require Art to win a Culture War
Art is the most powerful medium for affecting the mind
Beauty is the most persuasive force on earth over all others
— Alexander J.A Cortes (@AJA_Cortes) March 12, 2019
This tweet convicted me of something that’d been on my mind for a long time.
I am by nature a man of knowledge, data, rationalism. I prefer the quantitative over the qualitative. I would rather hear facts over emotional expression. Over the years I’ve learned how to talk in terms of emotions but I still do so in an analytical way. I’m a scientist, a philosopher, an engineer, a problem solver. When I try to be persuasive I try doing so using information and logic.
But during the 2016 presidential elections, and the years of the Trump presidency, it’s become obvious that when dealing with fellow humans, this is usually the wrong way to operate. Humans are not computers, they are not scientific models. They’re people. And although nerds like myself put more value on logic and data than the typical person, the fact is even we are susceptible to the influence of art and beauty.
As I continue to improve in the fields of socialization – friendship, romance, leadership, persuasion, etc. – I think it’s good for me to really think about how art and beauty not only affect me, but can be used to affect others. I think about the many stories I’ve heard and read in my life. We humans naturally think in terms of stories and tales. That’s why mythologies and legends have survived for untold thousands of years. At present we can’t say if any of our oldest stories date from the Ice Age or have characters inspired by Neanderthals, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we discovered any. Stories are art. A compelling narrative draws you in, makes you want to know what happens next, leaves you yearning for a satisfying conclusion. Throughout his time in politics, Trump has painted a story of drug cartels and criminals passing through our southern border, and has promised to build a stronger wall to keep them out. Millions like myself are now curious to see how it ends – does he make that wall? Does it do any good? We’re all on the seat of our pants looking for the outcome.
Because I prefer talking in terms of data and bullet points, I often lack that ability to capture people’s hearts and minds. As time goes on, maybe it’d be better if I were to cast more of my life events as a story: a problem presents itself, I fight through obstacles to overcome it, I have a moment of personal change which solves the problem, and finally I walk away a successful and changed man.
Stories are persuasive. If you can describe the visceral and emotional details well enough, the listener or reader feels like they’re in the situation. They experience empathy, they get into your shoes. And when they see things from your perspective it can be hard for them to object.
Now let’s talk about visual beauty. Honestly, doesn’t it just feel good to be around attractive people? I’m a programmer in a male-dominated industry and us coders, well, we don’t always take the best care of our bodies or give much attention to fashion. So when I step away from the computers and into a more social setting, I’m often around good-looking women and handsome men. And it feels really nice! There’s a biological aspect to it of course, because good looks signify things like fertility, strength, and status. Any group with enough resources is going to put its best-groomed men and most attractive women in front of the cameras, unless the more homely members somehow have greater persuasive power. The Church is no exception to this, although you’d really think it would be. The fashionable, attractive ones end up in the worship band and the preaching team.
A crowd with little other information will choose who to follow on the basis of looks alone. “That group enabled that person to be beautiful,” they say to themselves. “I want to be in such a wealthy organization too.”
Or think about architecture. Catholic cathedrals are beautiful. It makes sense, too – it’s the house of God, from whom we get our concept of beauty. Cathedrals reflect the divine beauty, but also seek to make an atmosphere of beauty itself. Wouldn’t you prefer a beautiful building over an ugly one?
Beauty and art have the ability to affect our emotions. My mood is improved when I’m around good looking people; it’s unaffected or worsened by being around ugly people. I see the Cologne cathedral and am put in awe. I look at some of the buildings on the nearby college campus and consider them a blasphemy against nature with their brutish, uninspired walls.
Truth be told, I don’t think I’m as moved by beauty and art as most others. It would explain why I’m so apathetic toward it. With a few exceptions I don’t react strongly to aesthetics. Written and musical art touches me more. But I am surrounded by people who get so much more about stories and songs and paintings than I do, that it’s worth to takes these mediums seriously. Because if I am going to live my life outside of ivory towers, it’s basically a necessity for me to engage the world at the artistic level, because it is emphasizes and expected so much more than scientists and philosophers who emphasize truth over aesthetic. If I want to change the world I need to not just make it logical. I need to make it beautiful.