Monday, December 19, 2005

A Man of the People

The tone of John Carey's polemic, What Good are the Arts?, can be gauged from the author bio:
John Carey has been at various points in his life a soldier, a barman, a television critic, a beekeeper, a printmaker and a professor of literature at Oxford.
Presumably he was pulling a pint when he happened to notice an ad in the classifieds: "Wanted: Professor of Literature"; he sent a CV and the rest is history.

He would certainly object to the claim that his appointment turned on any kind of aesthetic expertise. In the first part of his book, he argues that there is no such thing:
[The] absence of any God-given absolutes, together with the impossibility of accessing other people's consciousness, prevents us – or should prevent us – from pronouncing other people's aesthetic judgements right or wrong.
For Carey, if God is dead, everything is permitted – in ethics and aesthetics alike. He sinks into relativism as into a warm bath.
My answer to the question 'What is a work of art?' is 'A work of art is anything that anyone has ever considered a work of art, though it may be a work of art only for that person.'
Maybe everything is relative? It would be a mildly entertaining task to criticize this self-devouring view, or to investigate how it is meant to be consistent with the second part of the book, in which Carey makes a case "by rational explanation [...] for the superiority of literature to other arts." He is aware of the latter problem and confronts it head-on:
Just in case anyone should seize on these aims as inconsistent with the relativist cast of the first part of my book, let me emphasize that all the judgements made in this part, including the judgement of what 'literature' is, are inevitably subjective.
Well, that's a relief.

The real pity is that Carey conflates these routinely refutable views with ones that are more challenging. He is passionately critical of the moral pretensions of the arts. (Hitler figures predictably as a villain here, along with Kant and Iris Murdoch; the idea that art makes us better is a "farrago of superstition and unsubstantiated assertion.") And he is incensed by the exclusiveness and arrogance of "high art". He directs his venom most fiercely at opera, and the visual art of the 20th century.

What sort of difficulty, it might be asked, do those attending operas encounter? What is difficult about sitting on plush seats and listening to music and singing? Getting served at the bar in the interval often requires some effort, it is true, but even that could hardly qualify as difficult compared with most people's day's work.

[Taste] has nothing to do with intrinsic aesthetic values in the objects it chooses. It is a marker of class, reflecting educational level, social origin and economic power. [...] Its purpose is to register one's distinction from those lower in the social order.

Is "high art" obnoxiously elitist? What justifies the public expense that supports our art museums, and institutions like the National Opera?

These questions were pressed more likeably, though just as polemically, by Tolstoy, in What is Art?, a book to which Carey only partly marks his debt. Like Carey, Tolstoy finds opera ridiculous – witness the dead-pan description in War and Peace – and he objects to the exclusiveness and expense of modern art.
Nothing is more common than to hear said of alleged works of art that they are very good but difficult to understand. We are used to the assertion, and yet to say that a work of art is good but incomprehensible is the same as saying of some kind of food that it is very good but people cannot eat it. [...] The business of art consists precisely in making understandable and accessible that which might be incomprehensible and inaccessible in the form of reasoning.
For Tolstoy, what art should communicate is "the religious consciousness of a given time".

Carey deprives himself of Tolstoy's argument by denying that art can communicate feelings: he is convinced of "the impossibility of accessing other people's consciousness". Thus, instead of claiming that good art must communicate well and therefore be accessible, so that difficult art is simply bad, Carey can only say that it is not good – at least not objectively good – since nothing is.

Admittedly, there is something naive in Tolstoy's conception of art, on which it causes the very same experience that was had by the artist. Nor it is easy to follow him in regarding Beethoven's Ninth as "artistic gibberish". His examples of good art belong to the "Hallmark" school, and include such things as porcelain dolls. But Tolstoy is deep where Carey is shallow, and his challenge to exclusive art deserves a response.


Blogger Michael Dodaro said...

A few thoughts on art, civility, human rights, and metaphysics:
Opera and Civilization

7:59 PM  

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