Show vs. Tell


During our continuing discussion of aesthetics on MDOP, several people have raised questions about showing vs. telling in art and about Peikoff's claim that "all art works involve some moral content, at least implicitly" (OPAR 421). I think these two are connected. Rand makes a distinction between three kinds of what for lack of a better word I will call judgment; there are judgments about whether something is essential, judgments about whether something is good, and judgments about whether something is important. [Rand calls these last "metaphysical value-judgments", though I think that this terminology is a little confusing.] For Rand, the essential is that which is fundamentally explanatory or causative; the good is that which furthers the life of the individual organism (in the case of human beings, I argue separately that the good for man consists fundamentally in thought, choice, action, and feeling -- but that is another topic); the important is that which is deserving of the precious commodity of attention. I don't see that a judgment in any one of these categories necessarily implies a judgment in any of the others; for example, ideas are important, but they are not necessarily good; devotion to one's values is important, but this is not necessarily good; Peikoff even notes that evil is important (worthy of attention), but obviously evil is not good. So in general one kind of judgment does not necessarily imply the other kinds of judgment.

As to the question of the supposed moral content of all art works, "at least implicitly": well, it all hinges on what you mean by "implicit". I myself have a problem with the concept of the implicit as used in Objectivism. For example, in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Rand talks a lot about implicit concepts. Children who are not yet operating at the level of fully conceptual beings are often said in Objectivism to have a concept implicitly. But what does this really mean? Does it mean they've "kind of" got the concept? That they grasp parts of the concept? That they grasp the concept in a partial or incomplete manner? That they behave as if they had a grasp of the concept? Or is the notion of implicit concepts just a cop-out?

When it comes to art, I think that there are similar questions. What is really meant by the notion of "implicit moral content". Does it mean that the content of the art work in question has the content in a hidden manner, somehow in the background? Does it mean that the moral content must be teased out or found by interpretation? Does it mean that the explicit content of the art work (which according to the Objectivist aesthetics is really metaphysical, in the sense of concretizing judgments of importance) has some kind of ethical implications? If so, what would that really mean? Or is the notion of implicit content a highly questionable one that has no clear meaning? (I wonder: Am I way off base to be so worried about Rand's concept of the implicit? Is there something very simple that I'm missing here?)

But back to art. I think that Rand's distinction between the three kinds of judgment can perhaps shed some light on the question of show vs. tell. It seems to me that showing is perceptual -- the creation of a perceptual concrete that shows you something about reality. By contrast, telling is conceptual -- the presentation of an idea via conceptual argument. This gets back to my speculations on aesthetic vs. logic. Art, perhaps, consists in the perceptual presentation of ideas about reality (this is why I argue that art is metaphysical in its own right, in a way that is not dependent on philosophy). Philosophy is the conceptual presentation of ideas about reality. Aesthetic is designed to deal especially with art (though it can deal with various other perceptual presentations of ideas). Logic is designed to deal especially with philosophy (though it can deal with various other conceptual presentations of ideas).

Now, it seems to me that morality or ethics is a conceptual presentation of ideas. This to me is at odds with the purpose of art, which is to present things perceptually (though of course to present things perceptually to conceptual beings). The introduction of telling or teaching into art debases art by making it propagandistic or didactic. Granted art can do this, but I don't think that it is a function of art as art, but rather art as conceptual and especially as linguistically conceptual (which is why literature is the main art-form here). Or so it seems to me now.

What's the cash value of all this? Well, I ask you introspect. Why do you go to a movie or a museum, or pick up a novel or a book of poetry, or put a CD in the player? Is it to be told what is good? Or is it to experience life the way you would like it to be? The way you would like life to be might include ethical aspects, but the point of art is not to tell you what those ethical aspects are all about, but rather to give you the perceptual experience of living in the kind of world you most would like to live in -- the kind of world most deserving of your attention, the kind of world that you find most important. And that's a matter of showing, not telling -- of judgments of importance, not of judgments of good.

Peter Saint-Andre > Journal