Impact of Art and Literature on Human Rights

During the time of the eighteenth century, a time when not much thought was given about the “human rights” of others, people’s ideas about their fellow man began to change. Lynn Hunt, in her book Inventing Human Rights, discusses the fact that these dramatic changes occurred due the emergence of art and literature. She believes that because of the use of widespread novels, publications, and artistic representation of the era, men and women became more conscious of their fellow man regardless of class or social status.

Hunt begins her first chapter by explaining the emerging novels, the emotional impact of these novels, and the beginnings of social status breakdown (38). Her claim is that through the use of these novels authors were able to create a sense of empathy amongst readers and that empathy was the beginnings to aristocratic recognition of lower class citizens. Through reading published works, the higher class, soon began to empathize and become aware that those not of high society like themselves had the same feelings, emotions, and ideas. By empathizing with the characters, emotional ties were created that would stand to produce inner feelings and psychological awareness amongst its readers. It was through these simple innate emotions, that social boundaries began to diminish, and a sense of equality amongst men started to emerge (40-48).

The ability to read in the cities had also increased during this time period, leading to a broader spectrum of capable readers. Literacy had become a normal practice for the servants of the upper classes within large cities; this allowed the stories written within the pages of novels to become spoken tales of the emotional and psychological turmoil of its characters. With the portrayal of characters in the novels as ordinary people with common everyday problems and how they overcame them, many readers of the time could relate regardless of class or gender to the challenges faced by the hero or heroine. This awareness of ordinary folk not only gave rise to the beginnings of self-awareness, empathy, and equality, but in Hunt’s understanding, the emerging of human rights (40-41).

Despite the acceptance of the novels throughout many social classes, the novel was not always welcomed so openly. Many members of the clergy believed that the novels created a sense of awareness that was unbiblical and sinful in nature. According to the church, readers would become more aware of sexuality and not adhere to the moral and ethical standings of society. It was their belief that these novels created an internal desire to be rebellious and experiment with pleasures of an unholy nature (52-53). Many people felt that novels created these immoral desires mostly within the minds of servants and women, causing one to act upon them and become rebellious to both their husbands and masters. Ultimately the novel had its fans and critics, both within the church and society. Many readers associated with the characters in the novels and strived to be like them. It was these feelings and desires that began to diminish the sense of individuality and people started to think as a whole, about their actions to one another, and the ability to empathize with one another (59).

Authors making use of the technique to implore the feelings of love, hate, fear, and joy amongst their readers was a significant advancement in the breakdown of class and social barriers of the time period. What was found to be even more extraordinary is that Hunt uses three novels of female heroines to support her argument (41, 58-60). Claiming that because of the use of epistolary novels, readers got a firsthand experience as to the inner feelings of the characters themselves.  The author could evolve the character over a period of time in a novel, thus creating even more emotional ties and understanding of the characters. This gradual evolution and development of characters was something that could not be done in the more common plays of the time period (45). As society progressed during the eighteenth century, the main means of communication was the written word and it is agreed that the use of novels and widespread literature did play an important role in the advancement of human rights. Without the means to provoke feelings of empathy and equality through the use of novels and other literary means, the emergence of human rights and social equality would have been hard to acquire (58). Hunt also used the writings of Voltaire to demonstrate that through the publications of writing about the inhumane and cruel punishments of the time, people became aware of the torturous methods used in the court and justice system and that these extreme punishments began to lessen as a result. In the years following these publications, new bills and reforms were put into place to abolish such cruel and unusual punishments (72-76).

With the new awareness of self and the empathy of others, people shifted their perspectives to a more self-minded and individual value of themselves. Whereas it was once common to leave one’s bodily excrements in the streets, share food from the same plate, and give no reverence to another’s personal space; people now began to do these things in private and with more concern for their fellow man. An interest in what others opinion of one another began to shape the once rowdy people of the eighteenth century into more refined and self-conscious beings (82-84). This led to a greater interest in art and the self-awareness of emotional relationships with other. People began to listen and get involved in artistic plays, relating and becoming emotionally empathic towards the characters plight. As self-awareness continued to flourish, people even began to separate themselves out of a collective society and into a more individualistic society.  A society that would have a similar form of modern day families: pride in personal appearance, sleeping alone, having private rooms, etc (84).

Hunt argues that just like the novel, art helped to shape the evolution of human rights in the eighteenth century. As art began to take its place in this evolving society, new emphasis was placed on personal portraits rather than the more common biblical and aristocratic paintings that dominated the walls of homes. Families and even common people began requesting portraits of their loved ones or even of just themselves to display on walls. It was such a popular new trend to have such portraits that it began to overflow the streets and houses (85-87). Why was there more demand for such paintings? Simply, the ordinary person could request a portrait of themselves to be fashioned in such a way, to reflect them as noble or of higher social class than they truly were. Creating a sense of distinction thereby separating themselves from class, more emphasis was given to relatively newer sense of individuality (87-89).

Art was not only used to obtain self portraits though, painters would use art to portray the cruelty of the courts just as the novel.  It was not uncommon during this time period to witness spectacles of convicted criminals being hung, tortured, or placed on public display for all to see. Crowds would gather for the public executions, or torture of criminals. These public displays were viewed as a way of rejoicing for the punishment of crime. However, as art and novels began to create a more individualist and empathic culture, these spectacles became more of a disgusting display of cruelty towards humankind (94-98). Hunt uses the case of Jean Calas to display how the use of art would show the court’s rulings, public spectacle, and inhumane torture of prisoners would become more publicly known through art. The local people started to feel compassion towards Calas’ plight (99-101). Just like with the use of literature and other publications, painters would depict the convicted being strung to the rack. Sometimes the scenes were graphic in nature and caused repugnance amongst people who viewed them. In later years, authors and painters would depict the society of France as barbaric and having the same practices as tribes of cannibals (104-105). Society, with their new awareness of self, started to empathize with those being punished. The courts not wishing to be compared to barbarians would soon put an end to the public displays of torture and punishment and deem them against the law. Once again it can be seen that art also contributed to the development of human rights by giving people a visual representation of individuals who, just like them, were being unjustly tortured and mistreated (105-106).

As with the widespread use of the novel, which created a sense of empathy for its readers; art too helped solidify an image of self that would further increase an empathetic view toward individuals regardless of social status or class. By using novels and art it is clearly apparent the impact that these two different mediums had upon society. Authors and painters contributed greatly to the development of self-image and individualistic thought that helped to reconstruct the minds of the society in the eighteenth century. Hunt saw the relationship of these two forms of communication and how they related to the development of “human rights.” Both novels and art played an equally important role in the development of human rights and without them human rights might not be what they are today.

Hunt, Lynn. Inventing Human Rights. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007. Print

Published by TF

I'm a fun-loving man who does business analytics and supply chain things.

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