Shawn has some great points on historical & sociological perspective, and the value of expression of personal perspective, regardless of “qualifications.”
Art has the ability to expose situations to us with a particular inflection, a particular message. The delivery of that expression is vital in presenting a clear perspective, and allowing an audience to takeaway a viewpoint that he or she may not have been able to see from previously.
His example of modern-day people watching films of Hitler is poignant– Society has a largely universal hatred of Hitler and Naziism, so when we see people in the 40s siding enthusiastically with Hitler, it is easy, in hindsight to view them as inferior to us. We, however, are essentially fish in water here, without the ability to understand the water we inhabit because it is so ubiquitously surrounding us (like Naziism surrounded the German people in the 40s). Future cultures (and even many foreign cultures today) will likely look back at we Americans’ dealings with the Middle East, our mistreatment of the mentally ill, our culture’s obsession with guns, our racism, our classism, our xenophobia, and our broken political system, and wonder how a society could be so stupid as to let these things go on so malignantly for so long. We might see these issues today and take note of them, and comment about them to our friends, but for every absurdity you happen to be on the “correct” side of, there are a bunch of other absurdities that you actively engage in without even noticing.
This is why exploring different perspectives is so enlightening. David Foster Wallace comes to mind here– he wrote about such common, everyday subjects & characters, yet made you look at those subjects & characters in a completely different way. He exposed the absurdities of the human condition in a way that truly made his readers question their previously-held values. Several times while reading DFW’s works, I have encountered that “everything I knew was wrong” feeling that makes me want to reform myself immediately (to varying degrees of success— I am, of course, just a fish in water like the rest of us). I have recently been reading Dosteoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” with similar sentiment. I see something of myself in every brother, but Dosteoevsky’s description of their trials & tribulations make me seriously question the benefit or value of many of those mirror-like qualities in myself.
The literary mirror is a powerful thing– The better the mirror, the more likely we are to be able to enlighten ourselves while we still have a chance to change, rather than leaving it to future generations to learn the lessons we never could.