Above the entrance to an exhibition in Paris in 2011 at the Centre Pompidou called The Promises of the Past was written the claim that the function of art was to make the world better. Better than it might appear at present.
Yet you could argue at the same time that what art creates may be a worse world -- worse than it appears, or not at all what you would like it to be. Art as both amelioration, betterment, and creative construction: as world-making -- and also as destruction and distraction from what reality is imagined to be. The construction and de-construction of what one takes as reality or as natural.
How could this be? How can we unravel such a dense fabric?
Art has long been regarded as dangerous to the stability of a society and to its professed or desired ideal order. Indeed, 2,500 years ago, in a text we know as The Republic, the Greek philosopher Plato sought to banish the mimetic arts from an ideal community, because of their distracting and destabilizing effects on its citizens. However powerful, beautiful, spiritually uplifting, or life-enhancing they might be, works of art had the potential to cause individuals to imagine realities differently than what was promoted as real or natural by those holding or desiring power. Plato was far from alone or unique in such a view either in his own or in other societies, both ancient and modern, but his writings give us an insight into the logic behind such a view.
The simplest and most compelling rationale is this: that the awareness of the artistry or facture of a work of art -- the fact that it is a product of human creativity -- makes it possible to imagine that the reality it portrays or projects might be imagined otherwise. Both by others or even by oneself at different times or in different places. In other words, once you are aware that the forms and meanings taken by your society as real or natural (perhaps even as created or inspired by superhuman forces) are among any number of possible realities or belief systems, then space is opened for imagining other ways of world-making. You don't need the visible presence of different social systems, either next door or across the river, to imagine differences: the different exists within art itself.
But what could this mean? The reason for this has to do with what we might call the inherent instability and slipperiness of how things mean -- the demonstrable fact that an object or artifact can have different meanings and connotations in different times and places. Just as the same or similar form can have multiple meanings, so the same or equivalent meaning might be embodied or portrayed by distinct forms or expressions. This has been absolutely central to many theological, philosophical, or political debates, now and in the past. It's the problem of the 'relations between' art and religion, or 'between' art and politics.
To put this another way, if the only tool you have were a hammer, you'd tend to treat everything as a nail and thus, as a species, we would have been less likely to have survived very long outside a very specific and isolated environment. In technical terms, the potential indeterminacy of meaning -- the fact that it cannot be fully controlled -- allows for and affords the possibility of adapting to the vagaries of human encounters with worlds. We are in short, adapted to change and our very existence depends on that flexibility; that openness.
What all or any of this has to do with the dangers of art should be fairly evident and not exactly, as they say, 'rocket science.' But remember that science after all is itself one of the finest and powerful of the fine arts. And consequently one of the more dangerous. But that's a topic for another article.
Art's dangers are at the same time the source of its powers for positive change and social advocacy. Art advocates and invokes as much as it revokes what you imagine yourself and your worlds to be. Those selves are porous: permeated by and defined relative to others, real or imagined. And, in fact, a close attention to the real powers of art makes the distinction itself between the real and the imaginary; between fact and fiction; circumstantial and conditional rather than fixed and permanent.
Art is dangerous, in the end, because it brings to consciousness the reality of the fiction of reality -- that what we take to be reality is a work of art: the finest of the fine arts; the supreme fiction.