Society, Social Justice And The Function Of Art And Literature

In Britain, as recently as the first half of this century, whole areas of our biggest cities were covered in slum dwellings. Fortunately, most of them have been cleared away, but in Victorian times, arguably the most prosperous period Britain has ever known, large numbers of people lived in conditions that would not have been out of place in some of the poorest countries on Earth. This anomaly, of a fabulously prosperous country in which many of its population lived in conditions of abject poverty, was seen by some as the failure of the system of government, of mercantilism, and of laissez faire politics in general. Out of such a society grew the British Labour party, which pledged itself to implement social reform, which it did on a grand scale; and the birth of the National Health Service, the ‘envy of the world’ grew out of such social mayhem.

As well as opinions voiced by philanthropic industrialists, some courageous and determined politicians, and the will of the people at elections, a vociferous opinion has always emanated from the field of the arts and literature. Many famous writers have voiced their discontent publicly at meetings and in their writing. Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Robert Tressell, D H Lawrence, H G Wells and George Bernard Shaw were just such writers. Although they lived at different times, came from very different backgrounds, and wrote in widely varying styles and genres, they nevertheless all shared a discontent with the status quo and the apparent inability of those charged with such things to change for the better the lives of those responsible for the country’s wealth.

Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’ showed the failings of a society organised along utilitarian and industrial lines, and its almost willful neglect and inability to feed, clothe and house its people properly, despite the vast wealth made by its entrepreneurial classes.

Orwell depicted the squalor of many people’s lives in England in his ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, while H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw wrote pamphlets and treatises on social, economical and political injustice in what was supposed to be the home of democracy; Britain.

Writers such as D H Lawrence were as much concerned with the spiritual wellbeing of industrial society as they were with the physical living conditions prevalent in industrial areas, while Robert Tressell’s ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ did as much to raise awareness of society’s ills as it did to encourage the birth of socialism. Many still regard that ‘novel’ as the major text extolling the virtues of socialism, and that despite it being ostensibly a work of fiction.

The point I want to make is that the literary figures of the day, arguably among the more sensitive portion of the nation’s population, saw social injustice as a stain on that nation’s accomplishments. They saw it as a devaluing of all that was great or good about Britain.

Works of creative fiction can touch people in ways that other forms of mass communication cannot. The messages they attempt to convey are more believable simply because they possess the quality of altruism and grace.

Perhaps more importantly, literature is able to undermine the intellectual base of dominant ideologies, by illustration and example, and thus remove the moral base upon which such ideologies are founded. Examples abound in popular literature; surely there has never been a finer denunciation of the maxim: The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, than Dickens’ portrayal of Jo the crossing sweeper in ‘Bleak House’ nor a clearer condemnation of the love of money for its own sake than is shown by the fate of George Eliot’s Silas Marner.

All such works are usually referred to as ‘the classics’, which is to say that the truths they extol have stood the test of time. They are no less valid in the latter half of the 20th Century than they were when they were written, and while there is still injustice, social or otherwise, literature is able to confront it, and bring to our notice the fact that nothing is new in the world. Injustice has a history, as do kings and queens.

If a nation is to improve the life chances of its population, then those who are able to visualize alternatives are invaluable. The raising to public awareness of values that are essential to the healthy growth of a nation is vital if conditions are to improve, and one of the main functions of literature is the raising of that awareness in the public consciousness; the messages that literature in general is still capable of conveying.

The world of the visual arts has traditionally been no less critical of the status quo. Within the pre-Raphaelite movement, Holman Hunt’s ‘The Hireling Shepherd’ presents a powerful visual criticism of the Church. The young shepherd disregards his flock for more earthly pleasures, and this image representing a clergy adrift from the values of the people it served had its parallel in poetry; Milton’s elegy for ‘Lycidas’ used the same imagery of the shepherd and his neglected flock to portray a flawed clergy. And so it is that art, visual and poetic has been traditionally used as a means of voicing discontent and criticism of vested interest. Furthermore, this use of art has not been confined to the shores of the British Isles. The years of Stalinism in the Soviet Union had detractors from the world of art, notably in Dimitri Shostakovitch, whose music was denounced as being subversive by the political elite. More recently, Alexander Solzhenitzen and Andre Sakarov condemned the excesses of the regime in Soviet Russia in their writing. In America, Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ provided an allegorical illustration of the folly of the McCarthy ‘Witch Hunts’.

There is no doubt that literature and the arts have the ability to bring about change, by means of alternative values entering the consciousness of a people, and by influencing the powerful. The tolerance a nation has for its critics is surely a sign of its health, and that of its people. Doesn’t the ability to withstand criticism show self-confidence in one’s judgment, and isn’t that judgment all the more carefully formulated once it is known that it will be under close scrutiny and subject to criticism. Political decisions that are subject to checks and balances are all the better for it; literature can provide that scrutiny and criticism, and those checks and balances.