Solutions: Art (Notes from Status Anxiety)

Notes from Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety (2004). This is the eighth post on this topic; the first is here.

PART II: Solutions



The history of art is filled with challenges to the status quo.

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen (1814):  The rich and well-mannered are not ipso facto good, and the poor and unschooled are not necessarily bad.

“Almost every great novel of the 19th and 20th centuries stages an assault on, or at the very least harbours scepticism regarding, the accepted social hierarchy, and each offers some sort of redefinition of precedence according to moral worth rather than financial assets or bloodlines.”

Examples: Balzac – Le Père Goriot (1834), Hardy – Jude the Obscure (1895), G. Eliot – Middlemarch (1872), Fielding – Joseph Andrews (1742), Thackeray – Vanity Fair (1848), Dickens – Bleak House (1853), Wilkie Collins  – The Woman in White (1860), A. Trollope – The Way We Live Now (1875), Zadie Smith – White Teeth (2000).


(You have to see the book for this, as he reproduces “paintings of the commonplace” — which elevate the status of the ordinary — and discusses them)


“Fear of the material consequences of failure is thus compounded by fear of the unsympathetic attitude of the world towards those who have failed, exemplified by its haunting proclivity to refer to them as ‘losers’ – a word callously signifying both that they have lost and that they have, at the same time, forfeited any right to sympathy for losing.”

Tragedy helps to re-inject empathy into the equation by showing how like everyone else the tragic figure isG

Examples: Oedipus, Antigone, Lear, Othello, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Hedda Gabler, Tess, et al.

Tragedy doesn’t absolve its subjects of responsibility but does offer and elicit a level of sympathy.

At the center of tragedy is an ordinary human being with a tragic flaw who makes an error in judgment from which flows a terrible reversal of fortune. Tragic flaws are defects common to humans, such as excessive pride, anger, impulsiveness, etc.  Errors in judgment occur not from evil motives but from lapses in judgment, slips.

Tragedy reflects:

(1) how apparently small missteps can result in grave consequences

(2) the blindness we suffer with regard to the effects of our actions

(3) a fatuous tendency to presume that we are in conscious command of our destiny

(4) the speed and finality with which all that we cherish can be lost

(5) the mysterious forces against which our powers are pitted

Tragedy apportions blame without denying sympathy. We’re appalled yet compassionate as we see the universality of the situation. This form of art seeks to plumb the origins of failure.


More specifically, satire.

Jokes are an enormously effective means of anchoring a criticism. At base, they are another way of complaining: about arrogance, cruelty or pomposity, about departures from virtue or good sense.”

“History reveals no shortage of jokes intended to amend the vices of high-status groups and shake the mighty out of their pretensions or dishonesty.” [q.v. George Carlin]

Comedy also can be used to make sense of and mitigate status anxiety: “Comedy reassures us that there are others in the world no less envious or socially fragile than ourselves.


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