Monday, December 26, 2005

Modern Culture

Roger Scruton is not a man of the people. In fact, he is John Carey's worst nightmare, someone who believes that "the high culture of our civilization contains knowledge which is far more significant than anything that can be absorbed from the channels of popular communication": "not facts or theories but states of mind and moral virtues"; "high culture [is] a 'rite of passage' into the kingdom of ends."

The positive doctrine of Scruton's Modern Culture is not as clear as these phrases suggest. When he says the arts preserve "the ethical vision of man", he cannot mean that moral virtue is impossible without them (which is false). Nor is it plausible to claim that they are a source of "moral and emotional knowledge" that operates apart from how the arts are used. (Carey is right to criticize that. See, also, the extraordinary study by George Steiner, In Bluebeard's Castle.)

At times, he suggests that art is valuable as an instance of "the unconsumable thing, wanted not as a means but for its own sake, as an end", or, more strongly, that it is final without qualification (in Aristotle's sense): "the mark of rational beings" is that they are "satisfied only by supremely useless things." I am partly sympathetic to this, but I cannot see why art (and in particular, Wagner) should be the only unconsumable good.

What Scruton really believes is not that art is uniquely final, or that it supports the everyday virtues, but that it is a secular religion.
We know that we are animals, parts of the natural order, bound by laws which tie us to the material forces which govern everything. We believe that the gods are our invention, and that death is exactly what it seems. Our world has been disenchanted and our illusions destroyed. At the same time we cannot live as though that were the whole truth of our condition. [...] The artistic goal is to make us recognize that we can live as if that higher life – the ethical life in extremis – were ours.
The problem is how to square this pretence with the idea that high culture contains significant knowledge. We cannot discard the cognitive aspiration of religion, and still retain its power to give meaning to life. If we hold that aspiration in place, what Scruton recommends can only appear as self-deception: an invitation to fake being profound: "to live as if it matters eternally what we do". This would explain the desperate rhetoric of Modern Culture; but it would not make it more persuasive.

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.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Art and Intention Revisited

The new Museum of Modern Art is spectacular: so vastly transformed that it is difficult to recognize it as the same site. Such renovations can be painful for those of us who resist change. But there is nothing here akin to the desecration of the Rothko room at the old Tate Gallery. In fact, my favourite work at the Museum enjoys a wonderful new location: Umberto Boccioni's Development of a Bottle in Space now inhabits a windowed corner, where sunlight interacts with its own plastic and moving depiction.

Other revisions are more puzzling, though some of them induce a smile. Here is the curator's note to Carl Andre's 144 Lead Square:
Rejecting the notion of sculpture as art to be mounted on a pedestal and viewed from a distance, Andre wished to make sculpture that someone might perhaps not even notice, and might purposely or accidentally walk on. However, recent research into the properties of lead compels the Museum to caution visitors against stepping on this work.
Is this intended as an exploration of questions about art and intention – textual accompaniment as conceptual art? If so, it belongs with a pair of items by Robert Morris which occupy the same floor: Litanies (a lead cast resembling keys on a chain), and its partner, Document, the relevant part of which reads as follows:
The undersigned, Robert Morris, being the maker of the metal construction entitled Litanies, described in the annexed Exhibit A, hereby withdraws from said construction all esthetic quality and content and declares that from the date hereof said construction has no such quality or content. (notarized 11/15/63)
I can confirm that "esthetic quality and content" are now entirely absent from Litanies. But this is uninformative: I do not know how "said construction" looked before the 15th of November, 1963.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Two Notes

First, that one of my favourite poets, Craig Raine – who wrote A Martian Sends a Postcard Home – has a long piece in the last TLS, "I remember my mother dying". It is less opaque than much of his other work, and very moving.

Second, that The Squid and the Whale finally came to Pittsburgh, and it is an extraordinary film. It has something of the feel of Wes Anderson's movies – he was a producer of this one – and a similar line in feckless, self-involved, male protagonists. Jeff Daniels is the equal of Bill Murray in Rushmore and The Life Aquatic, or Gene Hackman in The Royals Tenenbaums. The child actors are magnetic. I can't remember when I last saw a film I so much wanted not to end.