Given my love of the anti-entropic call to arms of Diane Duane’s So You Want to be a Wizard, I guess I’m an easy mark for John Gardner’s description of good art in On Moral Fiction:
But trivial art has no meaning or value except in the shadow of more serious art, the kind of art that beats back the monsters and, if you will, makes the world safe for triviality. That art which tends toward destruction, the art of nihilists, cynics, and merdistes, is not properly art at all. Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy.
But this was the line I enjoyed the most in the book:
[W]e have fallen into a commitment to sincerity rather than honesty (the one based on the moment’s emotion, the other based on careful thought)
It’s common to assume that things spoken in anger or without thought are the truest — they seem like little biopsies of the soul, letting you see what’s really underneath. But I hold strongly to the position that artifice counts as authentic, when it’s deliberately chosen. The person who’s boiling with anger and chooses not to give it free rein is being truthful when they don’t lash out at me — I’m getting a glimpse at what they’ve chosen to do with the raw stuff of their reaction.
In Garner’s view, art and honesty are both the act of refining an initial impulse, and making it truer by subjecting it to editing:
True art imitates nature’s total process: endless blind experiment (fish that climb trees, hands with nine fingers, shifts in and out of tonality) and then ruthless selectivity–the artist’s sober judgements, like a lion’s, of what can be killed, what is better left alone, such as (for the lion) rhinos and certain nasty snakes.
Choosing to see people through the lens of sincerity means living the life of an opposition researcher, turning over old tweets, momentary outbursts, and so on, to find the picture of who this person has really been the whole time, foreclosing the possibility of change or growth.
There’s no need to deliberately seek out someone’s moral juvenilia.
P.S. I’m still in the middle of reading Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, which I started just after On Moral Fiction, but I’m far enough in to say it’s pretty great to read these two in tandem.