Does art cause an unstable society?
The Fordist society in Brave New World deprives citizens of art in an effort to maintain happiness, suggesting that art leads to social instability. Mustapha explains that “beauty’s attractive, and we don’t want people to be attracted by old things. We want them to like the new ones.” A societal structure that creates art and literature is now considered dangerous. According to Mustapha, “you can’t make tragedies without social instability. The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get.” They would be unlikely to appreciate art, anyway: Brainwashing has successfully alienated them from the human experiences art seeks to illuminate, such as death, love, and pain. At the same time, art has the potential to enlighten people about their own oppression, and cause them to feel dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction is bad for production, and leads to revolution. “Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t,” Mustafa explains. If the citizens of World State were exposed to experiences beyond their own, sensitized to their innate humanity, and inspired to question the meaning of their existence, the society would cease to function.
John’s experience on the Reservation suggests that rather than inciting social instability, art provides solace for the inevitable sorrows and difficulties of human experience. The social instability of the Reservation has nothing to do with art, but rather with the inequities innate to all civilizations whose citizens are not engineered and drugged into passivity. John feels pain, alienation, and ostracism before he learns how to read. Shakespeare, rather than making him more dissatisfied with his condition, alleviates his suffering by showing him the universality of his experience. The beauty and truth to be found in a play like Othello, he believes, is worth the suffering necessary to comprehend Othello’s experience. Words, as Helmholtz believes, can be transformative: “you read them and you’re pierced.” For John, this transformation of pain into meaning is the point of art and the point of life. When Mustapha argues that the experience of reading Othello can be simulated through a “Violent Passionate Surrogate” without any of the “inconveniences” of actually reading the play, John insists that he likes the inconveniences. A society whose citizens are alive to their own humanity may be unstable, but it also contains the possibility of beauty and meaning.
While John and Mustapha initially seem opposed in their attitudes toward art’s role in society, they ultimately agree that people need the emotional release known as catharsis in order to be happy. The two characters disagree about how to provide that release, with John arguing for the value of art, and Mustapha arguing for the safety and efficiency of drugs. Despite asserting that the absence of art is necessary for happiness, the state ensures that its citizens still experience pain, just through a different method. Pain, rather than being eradicated completely, has just been controlled, so as to be safe and useful. “We prefer to do things comfortably,” Mustapha says. His statement contains an inherent contradiction – something can’t be simultaneously painful and comfortable, or dangerous and safe. Art, because it is an experience that can’t be controlled, is dangerous. So while art can incite social instability, it also provides the necessary catharsis that enables people to exist and find meaning in an unstable world.