“The Emperor’s New Clothes” – Andersen’s fable remains a useful metaphor and illustrative lesson for today

By Michael Grossberg

One of the best choices that LFS members have made in voting annually in the Best Classic Fiction category, in my opinion, was the decision to induct “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in 2000 into the Prometheus Hall of Fame.

Hans Christian Andersen’s timeless anti-authoritarian parable isn’t merely a fable for children but a cautionary tale for everyone about the presumptions and illusions of power — not to mention the dangers of sheep-like conformity…. lessons that still apply today. (Perhaps especially today.)

Possibly because the Danish author’s 1837 story is often grouped somewhat diminutively with Anderson’s other stories as mere “children’s” literature or perhaps for other reasons, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” often seems to be overlooked or dismissed by contemporary columnists and bloggers as a still-resonant metaphor for the blind spots and knee-jerk tribalism of our increasingly conformist, censorious, culture-cancelling and fearful era.

So it’s a pleasure to come across a relatively rare reference to Andersen’s classic among today’s vast social commentary – moreover, not just a brief reference, but a full column from a regular Substack writer who makes the story central to his insightful and timely themes.

The column is even titled in honor of the fable: “The Emperor’s New Art.”

Columnist Michael Huemer begins the recent edition of his Substack-platformed regular “Fake Nous” column this way:

“In Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale, the vain Emperor buys a magnificent set of clothes from a pair of weavers, who inform him that these clothes are only visible to smart and competent people. He goes out in a great procession, showing off his new clothes to the public. The townspeople, who have also been informed of how these clothes work, hold forth about their beauty … until one child blurts out that the emperor is naked.

Author Hans Christian Andersen (Creative Commons license)

The story resonates because it illustrates real human tendencies:

1. The emperor and townsfolk are unsure of their own competence, so they are not sure if there really are clothes there. In case there are, they don’t want to reveal their own failings to others by admitting that they can’t see the clothes.

2. Even those who realize that the emperor is naked still don’t want to say anything because they don’t want to stand out from the crowd or contradict all of their fellows. (As in the Asch conformity experiment.)

3. The child naively blurts out the truth because he has not yet learned to fake reality like the adults.”

THE PRETENSIONS OF MODERN ART

Much of the rest of his essay uses the social psychology and themes of Andersen’s classic fable as a parallel and metaphor in analyzing similar patterns in today’s art world:

“Many people suspect that the art world suffers from a similar problem. Perhaps a great deal of art is not as good as people say it is, or maybe isn’t good at all, and art people are just trying to trick us in the way that the swindlers tricked the Emperor,” Huemer writes.

They tell us that these art works have great merit, but that only a person of refined taste can see it. When we fail to see it, we’re not sure if it’s not there or if we just lack refined taste. So we pretend to see it, and maybe we talk ourselves into thinking that we actually see it. In doing so, we create further social pressure for others to pretend to see the greatness of these artworks,” he writes.

“This story is far more likely than Andersen’s story, because art perception is highly subjective and can more plausibly be claimed to depend upon some special, difficult-to-detect capacity of “refined taste”.”

Cy Twombly “blackboard” painting (Creative Commons license)

$70 MILLION FOR “SCRIBBLES”?

Amusingly, Huemer cites as one example of this art-world phenomenon the $70 million that someone paid for a painting by the elite-idolized abstract artist Cy Twombly.

The “painting” was basically a blackboard with “scribbles” on it, Huemer observes.

Cy Twombly “blackboard” painting (Creative Commons license)

His frank comment:

“I’m no art expert, but I call bullshit on that. If somebody tries to tell me that is a great artwork, I am going to find it vastly more probable that that person is bullshitting me than that that is actually great art. Indeed, I would go so far as to say the above image has about zero artistic value.”

“That is an existence proof for the “Emperor’s New Art” phenomenon. Now that we know this can happen, we can wonder how many other artworks have benefitted from it.”

CASABLANCA AND OLD “WILL” SHAKESPEARE

Hummer then applies his Andersen-inspired analysis to what happened when a “blind” manuscript of the screenplay of the venerated and beloved film classic Casablanca was submitted to more than 200 Hollywood agencies and film studios.

What happened next, back in the 1980s, when the manuscript was submitted by a journalist as an experiment with a fake name as the author?

“Of the 85 agencies who claimed to have read it, only 33 recognized it. (Another 8 thought it was similar to Casablanca.) Of those that did not recognize it, almost all rejected it on the merits. Only three wanted to represent it, plus another one who wanted to turn it into a novel. The rejecting studios gave many criticisms, especially of the supposedly excessive dialogue (which is actually the best aspect of the film),” Huemer writes.

“This shows, again, that people’s perception of artistic quality is heavily influenced by what they know about the reputation of the art work.”

Perhaps most controversially and even dubiously (imo), Huemer then extensively argues that Shakespeare himself has been massively overrated. (That’s a viewpoint I disagree with as a veteran theater critic, although I must admit he makes a case for his position.  Plus, his opinion seems sincerely held, since Hummer clearly has never – sadly – been able to truly appreciate those plays or understand the appeal of the prolific Bard of Stratford-on-Avon.)

Even if you disagree with that aspect, or others, of Huemer’s column, it’s as thought-provoking, well-argued, easy to read and full of intriguing and often maverick thinking as much of his other “Faux Nous” columns.

OFTEN-REFERENCED PROMETHEUS-WINNING AUTHORS
Amid Prometheus Blog efforts to keep track of, comment on and highlight for our members and others, the many and various mentions of past Prometheus winners, Andersen isn’t mentioned much.

These days, far more columns, essays, editorials and blogs prefer to concentrate on a handful of Prometheus Hall of Fame inductees in particular: most often, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty FourAyn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

Interestingly, Orwell’s Animal Farm   is less often cited in the popular press, perhaps partly because this animal fable – like Andersen’s fable – tends to be seen (falsely) as mere children’s literature.

By my rough and impressionistic count, other past Prometheus winners are mentioned in the popular and mainstream cultural and political discourse somewhat less often than the above, but one can find and appreciate essays and articles referencing and echoing the themes of Robert Heinlein,  J.R.R. Tolkien’s  The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Kurt Vonnegut satirical and cautionary story “Harrison Bergeron” and writer-actor Patrick McGoohan TV series “The Prisoner.”

But in my view, Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” deserves to be ranked much higher on the above lists.

I’m proud LFS members had the vision to look more than a century back in time to recognize this classic, while going beyond the Hall of Fame’s traditional focus on novels to extend its scope to embrace fables – especially such a seminal one.

As I wrote in my Prometheus Blog appreciation of Anderson’s 2000 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction: “Because political discourse routinely resorts to deception, euphemism, exaggeration and denial of reality, Andersen’s fable sadly is destined to remain relevant for generations to come.

 

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE:

* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to the full set of published appreciation-reviews of past winners.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant elements of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Watch  videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies (including the recent 2023 ceremony with inspiring and amusing speeches by Prometheus-winning authors Dave Freer and Sarah Hoyt and Heinlein-legacy representatives), Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital, and in some ways even more powerful than politics in the long run, by sparking innovation, better ideas, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights, individuality and human dignity.

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Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

One thought on ““The Emperor’s New Clothes” – Andersen’s fable remains a useful metaphor and illustrative lesson for today”

  1. If I wanted an existence proof, I would pick John Cage’s 4’33”, in which a musician sits on stage for the specified time, not making any sounds at all; you can’t get a more nonexistent work of art than that. Or if it has to be a work of visual art, perhaps something by Marcel Duchamp, one of Cage’s inspirations; his “Fountain” might be a suitable choice. Indeed I rather suspect “Fountain” of having been an intentional test of the Society for Independent Artists’ refusal to define what counted as a work of art, rather in the spirit of the ancient Greek sophist who, hearing a definition of “man” as a featherless biped, is said to have purchased a plucked chicken in a market stall and tossed it at the other philosopher, saying, “Here’s your man!”

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