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Art. A mirror to reflect society, or a hammer to shape it?

Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?              
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet–and here's no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

– from The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot

On one side, we have the ubiquitous cultural and ethical prompts of news media, institutional education, religious dogma. To counter that we have art. It's a battle, one which seems loaded against the little guy.

Research published this week by Ohio State University throws some interesting data into a friction between the demands of society and the responsibilities of art that has, as far as we can tell, been grating along for as long as there have been human beings around to be chafed by it. Structural anthropologists of the Levi-Strauss tradition observe the differing functions of priest and shaman, holding that the former's role is an in-community mediator between temporal and divine power; the latter as an outside force, distinct from the community it serves and by necessity excluded from it.

Post-structuralist art critics, writers, and other folk with too much time and nagging minds have long since shoehorned those characteristics of shaman and priest to fit the prevailing characteristics of their society and time. That art and artists should in some way mirror the role of excluded shaman is, in some form or other, in some vocabulary or other, a recurrent proposition. But then we have the more muscular ideology of, amongs others, Bertolt Brecht: 'Art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.'

The Ohio State research though, develops the point that, while reading a fictional story, readers found themselves: 'feeling the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of one of the characters as if they were their own'. So far, so normal. What they found that was of genuine interest, and of direct relevance to the whole conundrum of whether art should merely reflect society or influence it, was that the phenomenon of identifying with a fictional character – termed 'experience-taking', could influence the subsequent behaviour of the readers.

Readers who identified with a character who overcame difficulties in order to vote, were more likely to vote in a real election which occurred days after the study. Readers showed more favourable attitudes towards those of different racial groups or sexual orientation after identifying with characters of those groups. 

it happened more frequently when the subjects read in a cubicle with a mirror

"Experience-taking changes us by allowing us to merge our own lives with those of the characters we read about, which can lead to good outcomes," said Geoff Kaufman, who led the study as a graduate student at Ohio State. “Experience-taking doesn't happen all the time. It only occurs when people are able, in a sense, to forget about themselves and their own self-concept and self-identity while reading”. Interestingly, it happened more frequently when the subjects read in a cubicle with a mirror (so do please avoid reading slash-fiction in your bathroom).

In one experiment, 70 male, heterosexual college students read a story about a day in the life of another student. There were three versions – one in which the character was revealed to be gay early in the story, one in which the student was identified as gay late in the story, and one in which the character was heterosexual. The precis of the study is revealing:

'Those who read the gay-late narrative reported significantly more favorable attitudes toward homosexuals after reading the story than did readers of both the gay-early narrative and the heterosexual narrative.

Those who read the gay-late narrative also relied less on stereotypes of homosexuals – they rated the gay character as less feminine and less emotional than did the readers of the gay-early story.

If people identified with the character before they knew he was gay, if they went through experience-taking, they had more positive views – the readers accepted that this character was like them.”

How long the effects of the identification lasted wasn't addressed in the study. Similar results were recorded when the protagonist of the narrative was portrayed as black.

One significant feature of the study results, and the main reason why this news story appears in an arts-focused publication like Trebuchet, is that the artistic aspect of the narrative given to the participants was significant to the outcome. Kaufman's research points out that experience-taking is different from perspective-taking, where people try to understand what another person is going though in a particular situation – but without losing sight of their own identity. It works for art, not news.

And that is significant. Because although the quantity of news media we experience far outweighs our experience of artistic expression, the latter seems more capable of influencing our attitudes. Or to put it in the idiom of the artist – of touching our souls.

Ohio State University
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology


One Reply to “Art. A mirror to reflect society, or a hammer to shape it?”

  1. RHODA NSAMA says:

    The topic may be used to use Artists in a broken community like South Africa . The Acting Industry is currently more violence oriented and seem to justfy that Crime does pay . Please help in the lin of thought can it be possible for the film industry which has been accorded a big platfom to change society

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