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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Of Limited and Personal Interest

Posted by Daniel Green on 07/03/07 at 06:00 AM

John Carey’s What Good Are the Arts? is a very strange book. It’s first half seeks to demonstrate that art doesn’t really exist and that, if it does, it doesn’t do anyone any good. The second half essentially ignores the case that Carey has just made and asserts that art does indeed exist after all and does some people quite a lot of good.

The first half is actually the more interesting and lively part of the book. Here he surveys all the various efforts made to define art and finds them wanting, concluding that “Anything can be a work of art. What makes it a work of art is that someone thinks of it as a work of art.” The relativist in me wants to concede that ultimately this is true: no Platonic definition of art that thoroughly delineates those properties inherent to art and that marks it off from all those other phenomena that are “not art” exists. We wouldn’t want one even if we could get it. Rogue artists who confabulate our notions of what art is and isn’t are always going to come along, and we should be grateful for them, even encourage them. “Art” is, finally, whatever succeeding generations of human beings determine it to be.

On the other hand, when we all put on our logical thinking caps, we know that if “anything” is art, nothing is. There are just “things” that provide us with enjoyment, pleasure, instruction, or whatever we want to call whatever it is we get from these things. One could plausibly enough adopt this view (the pragmatist in me thinks it wouldn’t ultimaty matter because it wouldn’t really affect our sense of the value of what it is we do “get” from these things), but Carey himself finally doesn’t want to go this far. He wants to retain the word “art,” even if it does it does reduce art objects to those “things” someone, somewhere, thinks to call art. (Later in the book Carey tries to raise “art” back up to a more dignified status by stressing its utilitarian applications, but for it to have such applications it surely does have to exist in the first place, or those using it won’t exactly know what they’re applying.)

Thus Carey is able to argue further that “art” as it is celebrated by its snootier adherents doesn’t have the morally elevating qualities they want to claim for it. No plausible evidence exists that art makes us better people. Most of the rhetoric used to pronounce on its spiritual qualites Carey incisively, and rightly, points out is so much bluster and metaphysical cant. If we can’t provide specific scientific descriptions of the effect art actually does have on us (and Carey maintains that we can’t) then better to remain silent than to make grandiose assertions about its “spiritual authenticity” or its ability to evoke “a peculiar emotion” that is “independent of time and place,” as Clive Bell had it. And not only is the “religion of art” rhetorically bankrupt but it in fact “makes people worse, because it encourages contempt for those considered inartistic.”

Curiously, then, Carey winds up not so much rejecting the ethical function of high art but affirming its ethical dimension: Too much attention to the wonders of art and too much discussion of those wonders only work to make us bad people. That art turns out to be morally enervating rather than elevating doesn’t make it any less “moral” in its implications.

Carey’s inability to rid himself of the very assumptions he wants to decry runs throughout the chapter charging arts enthusiasts with turning it into religion. Such enthusiasts apparently are wrong not so much in thinking that art might have beneficial effects but in failing to spread those effects around widely enough: “Turning art into religion often carries with it the assumption that there is a higher morality of art, distinct from conventional morality.” The religion of art “devalues, by comparison with itself, ordinary life and ordinary people.” Furthermore, it is the focus on the appreciation of, rather than participation in, the arts, that keeps it floating above the outstretched arms of those “ordinary people” who might after all be made into better people if they were to experience the joy of art for themselves. As evidenced by various studies Carey cites, feelings of powerlessness might be alleviated (resulting in a decrease of violence), self-esteem might be raised, and an epidemic of depression might be halted. Thus, “Another thing we should do is to switch the aim of research in the arts to finding out not what critics think about this or that artwork--which is necessarily of limited and personal interest--but how art has affected and changed other people’s lives.”

Notwithstanding that Carey’s contentions in this chapter essentially contradict everything he’s said before--art can’t be “anything” or there would be nothing specific to apply in the kinds of arts programs whose beneficent effects he lauds, and there would be no reason to enlist the arts at all in such programs if they can’t change lives--they don’t even count for much in Carey’’s own ultimate valuation of “art” in the second section of the book, “The Case for Literature.” It turns out that Carey’s brief on behalf of participatory art was only a kind of gesture toward a quasi-Deweyan program of “making art,” good for bashing the swells and the necessarily limited efforts of critics, perhaps, but not really a serious defense of an alternative to Art. Literature, it would seem, actually is art, and its primary effects are to be located in the secondary act of reading. (I agree that they are, but in the context of Carey’s overall argument about the subjectivity of standards, it nevertheless brings the critic back into prominence, as the reader who proves to be especially attentive.)

Carey titles his first chapter on the subject “Literature and Critical Intelligence,” but his initial argument seems to place “critical intelligence” in literature rather than the reader: “The first claim I would make is that, unlike the other arts, [literature] can criticize itself.” It “shows itself more powerful and self-aware than any other art.” Perhaps this is true, but if so, it very nearly belies Carey’s larger point that art--even the premier art of literature--doesn’t have any particular, objective value. (Yes, Carey assures us that his valuation is indeed his unavoidably subjective own, but still. Carey’s very attempt to offer concrete reasons for literature’s superiority seems to assume at least an objective method of assessing its superiority.) “More powerful” suggests that works of literature do have some experiential qualities that can be measured. Furthermore, Carey believes that literature “is the only art capable of reasoning” and that “only literature can moralize.” (He seems to be using “moralize” in a sense that makes it a good thing, something like a “critique” of human behavior.) Swift and Johnson are presented as authors whose works illustrate these capacities.

Carey appears to have adopted some variation on the otherwise presumably “elitist” French-theoretical idea that language, not writers, create texts, since it is “literature” that reasons and moralizes. If he means instead to say that individual authors such as Swift are moralists, this is just another way of describing their particular interests. It says nothing about literature as “art” per se. According to the terms of Carey’s discussion, it is literature that moralizes, literature that reasons.

I confess I find this idea absurd in the extreme, essentially insane. Carey is hearing voices speak through literary texts that no critic or reader with a decent respect for fiction or poetry as distinctive modes of discourse would hear in such an unmediated way. Moreover, Carey himself apparently doesn’t really accept these formulations. The final chapter of What Good Are the Arts? tries to make a case for literature based on the its characteristic “indistinctness.”

All written texts require interpretation and are, to that extent, indistinct. But with Shakespeare something new happened. An enormous influx of figurative writing transformed his language--an epidemic of metaphor and simile that spread through all its tissues. . . So when writing is dense with metaphor and simile. . .the imagination has to keep fitting things together that rational thought would keep apart. It has, that is, to keep ingeniously fabricating distinctness--or whatever approximation to distinctness it decides to settle for--out of indistinctness. . . .

As it happens, I thoroughly agree with all of this. “Indistinctness” is a perfectly good name for that evasive quality in works of literature that sets them apart from straightforwardly discursive forms of writing, that in the most intensive way requires we really read the text before us. But I don’t see how at the same time we are grappling with the “indistinctness” of literature we can also comfortably accede to its “reasoning"--after all, “the imagination has to keep fitting things together that rational thought would keep apart"--or its “moralizing.” Either literature “says something” about morality or politics or ideas in the kind of readily accessible way Carey’s discussion of it implies, or it is “indistinct” and thus all of its putative messages are unavoidably ambiguous when they’re not just hopelessly garbled.

Carey wants to have it both ways: it is because literature can “communicate” more effectively and it can also remain “indistinct” in the manner common to all the arts that it is ultimately the most valuable of the arts. Perhaps this is just the consequence of the fact that literature emerges from language as its medium and that language is inevitably burdened with “meaning” (although it is also the consequence of a failure to consistently distinguish between the use of language for meaning and the use of language for aesthetic effect), but it nevertheless results in the most crippling contradiction in a book full of contradictions. Literature can’t both produce an indistinctness that every reader makes distinct in his/her own way (or leaves it indistinct) and make moral and rational claims that are presumably universal in their appeal.

As far as I can tell, Carey seems to have written this book in order to upbraid the likes of Geoffrey Hartman, who, according to Carey, believes “the experience he gets from high art is better than that others get from the mass media.” Since there is no way of establishing that high-art lovers do obtain a “better” experience therefrom, or even of establishing what “better” might mean, all defenses of high art are simply expressions of elitism dressed up in patronizing rhetoric.

But what if the experience of art does contribute to human improvement? Not because art’s moralizing or “spiritual” qualities directly lead to social change or self-actualization, but because close consideration of art enhances our ability to have fulfilling experiences? Because complex works of art encourage us to pay attention in a way that does not direct it into pre-existing channels or entirely cut off the very possibility of sustained, fully-engrossed attention by settling for the superficial or the sanctimonious.  Even if there is no way of measuring the quality of experiences of this sort vs. the quality of the “anything” someone might want art to be, who really thinks that anything will do? Near the end of the book, Carey offers a sop to art-lovers: “That the arts are enjoyable to those who enjoy them is a fact that it may seem I have not emphasized enough in this book. If I have not done so, it is partly because it is obvious, and partly because being enjoyable does not distinguish the arts from a vast range of other human activities.” But what if it’s why the arts are enjoyable “to those who enjoy them” that’s important? Not because it confers some special honor on their declared tastes but because the enjoyment comes from having one’s powers of apprehension challenged?

And why can’t the objects of this particular kind of enjoyment be called “art” by those who care about it? Why does John Carey want them to stop calling it that, unless they also stipulate that “anything” can be art if claiming otherwise makes the “inartistic” feel bad? It’s finally only Carey who seems to believe that “art” must have a metaphysically-fastened, all-encompassing definition, or else there’s nothing.


From what you describe, Carey’s argument about the existence of “Art” was made long ago by Gombrich in his fabulous *The Story of Art*.

Your final point—that art might enhance our ability to experience other, non-artistic, things—doesn’t hold up to current research on cognitive functions.  This is a huge issue in education: does training in one domain transfer to other domains?  The answer seems to be a resounding “No.” For example, learning to question one’s assumptions in designing a chemistry experiment does not transfer to learning to question one’s assumptions about politics.  (See the current issue of *American Educator* for a brief summary of this research.) So I wonder if learning to pay attention to art will teach us to pay attention to the world

By on 07/03/07 at 10:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t say that “learning to pay attention to art will teach us to pay attention to the world.” I say that “close consideration of art enhances our ability to have fulfilling experiences.” These are not, to me, the same things.

By Dan Green on 07/03/07 at 11:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK.  But then, Dan, I’d say that research suggests it’s more true to say: “Close consideration of art enhances our ability to have fulfilling experiences with art.” That is to say, I still don’t think that transfer occurs from art to life.  Do people who love art feel more at the birth of their children?  Love better or stronger?  React less pettily or less jealously to the success of those they despise?  Feel more when they look up at the stars?

By on 07/03/07 at 06:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

An experience of art is an experience *in* life. There’s no transfer involved because there’s no separation.

By Daniel Green on 07/03/07 at 07:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s not how the brain seems to work.  As I wrote before, there’s an assumption in education that teaching “critical thinking” in general will transfer to different disciplines.  The assumption is that every discipline has the same set of skills we call “critical thinking.” But that’s not the case.  The concepts are the same: question your assumptions, predict counterarguments, weigh alternative theories, test ideas with specific examples, and so on.  But while there’s a set of cognitive functions throughout “life,” the brain seems unable to extend them from one domain to another.  The scientist who weighs alternative theories at work might not do so politically or when it comes to buying a car or a computer.  Science, too, is part of Life; but what we learn as scientists does not transfer to what we do outside of science. 

So while an experience of art is an experience in life, we also need domain specific knowledge to fully experience art.  This was Hume’s point in “On Standards of Taste.” Hume argues that taste comes with experience, and I’d extend that to say that a real experience of art comes after a lot of experiences with a large variety of art.  You cannot really experience a Donne love poem if you don’t know much about love poetry.  All the experience with love in the world won’t give you access, today, to the ways people thought about love in 17th century poetry. 

The separation between art and life is convention or genre.  Art has a set of conventions, as does life.  Those are different in any given age, and they are quite different across ages and across the life/art divide.  The technical problems facing a Renaissance artist—how to “mirror nature” while preserving some sense of arrangement or pattern—was not a life problem for most Renaissance people. 

We can see the problem when we look at painters of the “picturesque.” These painters taught people not how to appreciate nature, but rather how to appreciate things in nature that looked like paintings.  Other aspects of nature were abhorred—to the extent that nature was manipulated to look like paintings. 

So we might say that an experience of art is one convention-bound experience within the total set of experiences called a life.  And transfer from art to life can be problematic, if not dangerous.  Wasn’t that the point of *Don Quixote*?

By on 07/04/07 at 01:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"So while an experience of art is an experience in life, we also need domain specific knowledge to fully experience art.”

Why do we need “domain specific knowledge”? Won’t just having lived do? You can call what we’ve learned from our “total set of experiences” a set of “conventions” if you like, but I don’t know why you need to. It’s a rhetorically empty word if all you mean is “what I’ve experienced so far.”

By Dan Green on 07/04/07 at 12:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dan, “domain specific” is a term from cognitive psychology and information processing that describes how the brain seems to compartmentalize various bodies of information. 

We’re playing a rhetorical game: sure, you can group all experience under the heading “life experience.” Or, you can look at how the brain organizes this experience into various domains.  It’s a difference of perspective: forest, trees.  Or rather: forest, types of tree.

The advantage in thinking in terms of domain-specific knowledge is that, when it comes to any domain, “just having lived” won’t do.  Everyone “just has lived.” It doesn’t mean that they’ve had the domain-specific experiences to gather the domain-specific knowledges to understand other phenomena within that domain. 

Also, as I’ve written several times now, the brain doesn’t seem too good at applying what it knows about domain A to domain B.  An excellent critic of fiction might be a terrible critic of poetry.  A fabulous eye for interior design might not see anything in landscape gardening. 

So no, just having lived won’t do.  You need to have had very specific sorts of experiences to help you understand specific other sorts of experiences.  You need a lot of familiarity with the Western tradition of love poetry to experience truly a John Donne love poem.  You need a lot of specific experience with the past traditions of Christian art to appreciate fully what Leonardo accomplished in his Last Supper.  Sure, all of these experiences are part of “having lived.” But a lot of experience with religious art will not give you much insight into the Donne poem, and a lot of experience with love lyrics will not help too much in fully experiencing Leonardo’s painting. 

And a lot of experience with love poetry and religious art will not necessarily translate into fuller experiences with non-art.  As I’ve written before, the art lover does not experience romance stronger or childbirth stronger or death stronger or sickness stronger.  So I still don’t buy the argument that experience of art enhances experience of non-art.

By on 07/04/07 at 02:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve read up on neuroscience and cognitive psychology. I don’t really need any lectures about what they tell us.

Frankly, “just having lived” is perfectly adequate for appreciating works of art, especially if that has included experiencing other works of art. “Domain-specific experiences to gather the domain-specific knowledges to understand other phenomena within that domain” is just gobbledygook for “I know quite a lot about that.”

To repeat: I’ve never said anything about “applying domain A to domain B.” This is your language game.

By Dan Green on 07/04/07 at 04:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

All right!  Start the snark!

OK.  Let’s play your language game.  You need to know a lot about art, and about specific matters of art, to fully experience a given work of art.  Skills used to understand and experience one aspect of life don’t really help us to understand and experience other aspects of life.  Experience of art gives us better experience of art.  Art lovers don’t experience any other aspect of life better because of their experiences with art. 

The sheer stupidity of the idea that art lovers experience life better or more fully or whatever shines forth when we change “art lovers” to any other hobby or profession in life.  No one thinks that being a great carpenter makes you experience non-carpentry experiences better.  No one thinks that having the most sensitive wine palette in the world makes you experience non-wine experiences better.  No on thinks that being able to admire fine automobiles makes one admire non-automobile experiences better.  So why in God’s name would experience with painting or dance or poetry make one experience chili or carpentry or wine or automobiles better? 

Which is what the fuck I said all along:

“So I wonder if learning to pay attention to art will teach us to pay attention to the world.”

“That is to say, I still don’t think that transfer occurs from art to life.  Do people who love art feel more at the birth of their children?”

“And a lot of experience with love poetry and religious art will not necessarily translate into fuller experiences with non-art.”

So Dan, instead of getting bitchy, why not construct a coherent argument that would prove that “close consideration of art enhances our ability to have fulfilling experiences”?

You’ve only convinced me further that this should read: “Close consideration of art enhances our ability to have fulfilling experiences of art.” Which is a tautology, insofar as a fulfilling experience of art is nothing more than the close consideration of it.  We could insert any noun for “art” and have a true statement:

“Close consideration of chili enhances our ability to have fulfilling experiences of chili.”

“Close consideration of Jessica Biel’s ass enhances our ability to have fulfilling experiences of Jessica Biel’s ass.”

See, it even works without my substitution of “of art”:

“Close consideration of Jessica Biel’s ass enhances our ability to have fulfilling experiences.”

Because, well, the close consideration of anything *is* the fulfilling experience.  So it needn’t even be art:

“Close consideration of my cat enhances my ability to have fulfilling experiences.”

So it’s not art that is valuable, but rather “close consideration.” And art only teaches you to closely consider art.  You need a different set of skills to appreciate Jessica Biel’s ass or a fine bowl of chili.  Art doesn’t teach us to closely consider anything but the work of art at hand—that’s Gombrich’s definition of art: anything that is done so well that it demands attention to how it was done.  The artistry of a great ballet dancer doesn’t make us closely consider anything else after it.  Nor does it help us to closely consider anything else after it, because what we need to closely consider ballet is not what we need to closely consider chili or Jessica Biel’s ass or the new White Stripes album or *The Man Who Fell to Earth* or Rothko.  And fer chrissakes, anything that demands our attention then becomes something that adds to our experiences because it demands to be closely considered.  Doesn’t sound like a cogent defense of the value of art to me.

By on 07/04/07 at 06:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"You need to know a lot about art, and about specific matters of art, to fully experience a given work of art”

No. You can start off not knowing much. You can advance to knowing somewhat more. Eventually you can know a lot. This probably makes the latter experience (or re-experience) richer, but it doesn’t make the initial experience without value.

To repeat one last time: I have never said that art lovers “experience life better or more fully.” Not once. It’s a view you’ve imputed to me, and you are mistaken to do so.

It’s impossible to prove that “close consideration of art enhances our ability to have fulfilling experiences.” I’m not the sort of imbecile who thinks such a thing can be done. I can, however, refer you to Dewey’s Art as Experience, which does indeed make a “coherent argument” on behalf of this notion. He doesn’t think that art is the only thing that can “clarify” experience in this way, but he does think it’s one of the best things we have for it.

By Daniel Green on 07/04/07 at 08:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

With the “better or more fully,” I was trying to add to your argument.  It’s implicit in your basic assertation: if art enhances our ability to have fulfilling experiences, then we can assume that these “fulfilling experiences” mean that we are experiencing life better or more fully.  What else could a fulfilling experience be but one in which we’ve experienced some aspect of life better or more fully?

It’s still unclear, though, whether you’re arguing for transfer—that art helps us have fulfilling experiences outside of art—or for a tautology—that experiencing art means experiencing art. 

Dewey viewed the experience of art as a more intense experience, but one that shared some basic structure of all common experience.  Art is an intensified version of all other human activity.  But I’d question whether all experience shares some basic form and whether art illuminates this basic form.  (Such an argument also subsumes all art into one vague thing—experience—outside of its specific form and content.) This goes along with Dewey’s idea that art, science, history, etc. all use the same basic mental activities—thus, progressive education becomes more about learning “how to think” rather than learning “what to think.” The problem of transfer has proven Dewey wrong in education; and I believe it reveals flaws in his theory that all art mirrors some ur-form of Experience.

By on 07/04/07 at 09:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"we can assume that these ‘fulfilling experiences’ mean that we are experiencing life better or more fully”

We can assume we are experiencing art more fully, and to the extent that art is part of life (and not to the extent we can separate them) we are experiencing that part of life more fully. We may not experience other parts of life as fully, but this is because art offers us the opportunity to concentrate our powers of attention in a particularly intensive way. (Other things may offer the same opportunity, however. I don’t elevate “art” above “life” in some kind of absolutist way.)

“Art is an intensified version of all other human activity. “ This is indeed what Dewey says, and I agree with him.

“whether all experience shares some basic form and whether art illuminates this basic form.”

This is where my agreement with Dewey ends (or is tempered.) To the extent he says this (and I think it’s more implicit in his “theory” than anything he says explicitly), it’s too Platonic for me. Art expands experience; it doesn’t illuminate a pre-exisiting “form.”

By Dan Green on 07/04/07 at 10:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

OK.  So we’re actually in complete agreement.  Art offers a particularly intense form of experience, precisely for the reason Gombrich discusses in *The Story of Art*: art is anything done so well it calls our attention to the way it was done. 

And I agree that Dewey’s notion of some ur-experience beneath the diversity of possible experiences is Platonic—or Kantian, perhaps, if we assume that it’s something in our sensory and cognitive apparatuses that gives the same basic structure to all experience. 

So that’s why I’m not sure that art as experience in the end acts as a defense of art.  Except to say, “Well, art offers one sort of experience that’s pretty cool.”

By on 07/04/07 at 11:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“Well, art offers one sort of experience that’s pretty cool.”

This seems a pretty good defense to me.

By Daniel Green on 07/04/07 at 11:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I suppose it depends on what we’re defending art from.  When it comes to public funding for the arts, or arts education in public schools, or the value of the humanities in universities, “art is one pretty cool experience” probably won’t stand up under assault.  Especially once “art” signifies not only the High Art Canon but anything done artfully.  Why publically fund the craptastic local NPR station and not a chili cookoff?  Why teach kids to make paper-mache masks and not really tasty chili?  Why have children study Shakespeare and not Jessica Biel’s ass?

As a defense of a personal choice, sure, it’ll work.  But then again, I don’t find myself having to defend my personal choices.  I tend to punch people who ask me to defend my personal choices.

By on 07/05/07 at 02:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I guess if the most important things about art are that it be funded by the government or that it be part of an academic curriculum, then it’s not as good as “because it constitutes domain specific knowledge” or “because it might make money for museums.” I still prefer it.

By Daniel Green on 07/05/07 at 09:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, yeah, sarcasm aside, what’s the point of all this “defense of art” crap if “it’s a great experience” is enough to defend it?  I mean, who is on the offensive against art?  I haven’t read Carey’s work, so who in hell is he trying to convince of the value of art? 

Of course, the funding and other sociological elements of art are not its most important aspect.  (Though one shouldn’t thumb one’s nose at it—there’d be no poetry or classical music in America if it weren’t for such things.) But that’s the only area in which art is under attack and would need defense. 

Otherwise, defenses of art are preaching to the converted.  Or what psychologists call “rationalizations.” Adults don’t need excuses to do what they please.  Only adults who fear at some level that they are as little children require folks like Carey to justify why they do what they do.

By on 07/05/07 at 10:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

And “domain specific knowledge” was, if you’ll reread my comments, not a defense of art.  All along in this conversation, I’ve worked under the assumption that art needs no defense, except in the culture wars.

By on 07/05/07 at 10:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There are just things; however, we categorize them to better understand the world.  The relationship between things and art really collapsed around the time Dadaism appeared.  Now, there’s meat dresses and techno music that pass as art.

By meaning of don quixote on 10/07/10 at 05:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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