Art and Teaching

One of the dilemmas of art that I find fascinating is the conflict between entertainment and education. Should art distract us from our lives or should it try to teach us something about how our lives should be led? In between these two poles there is another way, realism. Realism just wants to imitate nature, to be the mirror we hold up to the world.

Suppose we take as a given that all fiction has a moral purpose, and that purpose may be explicit or implicit. What does that mean for science fiction and fantasy? Does this change if we look at SF/F from a feminist perspective?

There is an underlying assumption about teaching that drives most science fiction, making it one of the most didactic genres. Most SF stories posit a world different than our own requiring the author to teach the reader about the form of the world, its scientific accomplishments, and social structures. Another teaching moment occurs during the comparison of the contemporary world to the alternate world presented by the story. The reader may see the contemporary world differently through contrast and comparison with the world presented inside the story.

Is this a good or bad thing? I remember Harold Bloom was fond of quoting Oscar Wilde to the effect that ‘all bad art is sincere.’ Hidden inside this statement was a judgment that most didactic and genre art was less valuable than ‘real’ art. This attitude is certainly present in much of the literary academy, or at least it felt that way a decade ago. Some of that may have changed. I’m not sure. Why is it so unlikely that art might teach us something? What makes critics so reluctant to accept didactic art?

I started thinking again about this question after Wiscon. A panel on the morality of fiction raised a lot of questions that I’m still trying to answer. One of the statements made during the panel was that readers do not like to be preached at. It’s an interesting turn of phrase. We assume that a fiction with a direct moral message is automatically going to be preachy. For me being preachy is connected to religion and proselytizing. My online dictionary glosses it as ‘giving moral advice in a tedious or self-righteous way.’

In the last century or so it seems that mainstream literature has rejected proselytizing in favor of realism. Teaching the reader something has become passe. Wiscon, by focusing on feminist science fiction, is opposing that turn away from education. Art can be about much more than imitation.