For Goodness Sake: II

John Haber
in New York City

John Carey: What Good Are the Arts?

In the first part of this essay, I began with an upbeat account of contemporary art. John Carey wants to stop denunciations of anything as beyond the pale. Anything a viewer considers art deserves the name. However, I found that he has a less than cheery view of the arts after all, one that makes it little better than an excuse for murder.

In this concluding part, I shall see how his skepticism relates to a skepticism about defining art. I shall argue that one cannot define art once and for all, whether speaking as an artist or an audience. However, when one sees something as art, one makes serious demands on others to see things differently, too—including some powerful images in the news. Richard Serra's Abu Ghraib (collection of the artist, 2004)

Smelling the roses

Ironically, Carey mirrors conservative criticism of popular entertainment for its alleged erosion of moral values, but in order to prefer the movies to the museum. Like Hollywood itself, he turns the Nazis into cultural stereotypes, all but awaiting another film round of kinky sex. Conversely, like assaults on Hollywood, he conflates practices that censor "degenerate art"—or at least rate it as NC-17—with those that market it. Like them, too, he avoids the specifics of actual works and truly informed responses.

Let me turn next, then, to how he hopes to characterize high art and low. He wants to debunk the distinction while, oddly enough, preferring one over the other. He certainly, as I have said, can draw support from Postmodern causes. However, he chooses to rest his case on a single, dubious charge: when one enjoys the fine arts, one sneers at ordinary tastes. When one traces the fine arts to such ethereal pleasures as the call of a bird at dawn, one escapes the reality of a working stiff's experience.

Note that Carey has resurrected distinctions, just when his own statements have denied them. He might instead have supported—or at least engaged—critics of separate departments for film and painting at MoMA, but here he seems happy to herd everyone into the multiplex, not unlike some video art. He also has what amounts to a bare assertion, that whatever earns more votes counts as better art. His preference for real life sounds awfully naive, too, paired with a defense of movies. Indeed, the art he dislikes has quite a history of undermining the distinction between artifice and pure experience.

The appeal to a phony populism may remind Americans of a conservative political strategy—one that ends up serving an economic elite that knows the price of everything. Sure enough, here, too, the defense of the downtrodden rings hollow. It ratifies the business interests of mass media. It ratifies exactly the exclusions that feminist and other assaults on the canon are protesting. Stella does not reach the same audience as Spielberg, but neither do independent movies.

Pursued further, Carey's logic actually turns against moviegoers. When they take time off work, are they, too, denigrating real life? I, too, have stopped to listen to birds on the way to the office. It may not offer a universal model for the arts, but whining about it sounds like telling me to eat my peas when children are starving in the Third World. Once again, Carey gets caught in the contradiction of wanting things to be good for one.

One can see why the book begins one step further back, with questions about the very uniqueness of art. It needs to say that anything goes, so that it can presume a kind of free-market model for value. It needs to let a thousand flowers bloom, so long as no one stops to smell the roses. Let me get at last, then, to definitions.

Art, relatively speaking

When it comes to defining art, Carey finds the whole exercise pointless or impossible. Here, too, I want to agree. This site has admired attempts at defining art—but also given up on them for much the same reasons as his. When I, too, hear that the concept behind a work of art sets it apart from an indiscernible object, I have to ask, indiscernible to whom? When I read that intrinsic beauty, the creative act, or something called the art world certifies a work, I have to demand who gets to certify beauty, the artist, or its audience.

Similar arguments show off this book at its best, so Carey does well to place them in the first chapter. However, even her he has a problem with particulars. He races through the history of philosophy with casual dismissals. A quick quote from Kant looks patently wrong, so how can people have taken him seriously for two hundred years? A quote from John Dewey has the American's usual leaden prose, so why examine it for sense? As rhetorical questions, they do their job, but they are exactly the questions that readers of philosophy are supposed to ask.

They are also the kinds of questions that one can bring to the experience of art. When a philosophy course wades through conflicting texts, it does not often choose sides. Instead, it asks why Kant or Dewey had an impact and why their questions have not gone away. It asks about each philosophical theory of art as an approach to actual art works and their interpretation. What starts as conflict and contradiction can end as historically specific or even new ways of seeing.

The idea that no one has to learn new habits of looking underlies Carey's conclusion: anything that anyone ever calls art is art. That person does not have to justify it to me, and I in turn do not have to change my understandings. I have to accept the status of art as an outcome of that person's choice.

Relativism like this gets caught up in contradictions, and philosophers, should one care to read them, have long debated them. One cannot move from a denial of moral foundations to a positive conclusion—tolerance for other ethical standards than one's own. In the same way, one cannot move from the impossibility of definitions to tolerance of other people's conception of art. Besides, tolerance cuts both ways: one might include instead that anything anyone denies as art cannot count as art.

When the art wars begin, after each year's Biennial and each year's Turner prize, Carey's spirit of tolerance helps. However, his own arguments do little to ensure it. Every time one calls for a public burning, I seem obliged to consign art to the flames.

Seeing as

Someone who takes the contents of the Museum of Modern Art for art is making a claim. It is a claim on my attention, too—a claim to see those works as art, to look at them, and to think about them in terms of what I know about art. I can deny the claim. I can argue back, and often history has argued back, producing exclusions that may or may not stand up. Still, calling it art does not remove it from argument. Rather, it puts the object and my experience on contested ground, and that, I want to add, is what makes so much of art worth trying to understand.

I do not say that anything one sees as art counts as art. Rather, I am saying that whenever one counts something as art, one sees it as art. In doing so, one invites others to see it as art, too, and that can open a lively debate. When the Brooklyn Museum in 2006 exhibits first graffiti and then Annie Leibovitz, the fashion photographer, it makes a claim on me, and in turn it may oblige the claimant to back its beliefs in words. I can refuse that claim, or I can accept it and see the work as art. Even that does not let the claimant off the hook, for I may hate the work as art more than I did in other contexts for understanding.

Not that those contexts offer a definition either, because they change. In fact, each new object treated as art changes the set of works, the history, and the understandings. The set of artists and art worlds also changes, but not definitively. Because change leads to interpretations and not definitions, others can feel free to say no. Perhaps art is whatever artists do, and artists are defined in turn as whoever makes a work of art, but others necessarily find themselves draw into the vicious circle.

Arthur C. Danto makes a similar point. He argues that an artist makes something art by imbuing it with meaning that an identical object would not have had. This begs the question of how and whether the artist does so. However, it does invite one to look for discernible characteristics and to seek meanings. After that, things get tricky, and that trickery may do most to explain the value of art.

Recently, a sculpted head and its base became separated on the way to a jury. The jury found the head boring and excluded it, but they accepted the base. No doubt its spareness linked it to modern sculpture, and its bone-like shape linked it to thoughts about mortality or artifacts of other cultures that contest modernist criteria. The artist, however, will not accept this double whammy, and he wants his work displayed. Works, periods, understandings, and people have come into conflict.

In sum, art is about seeing as, but even that does not define art. For a more interesting example, let me conclude by considering the infamous photos from Abu Ghraib. Amy Wilson incorporated the hooded figure into a challenging drawing, Richard Serra turned it into an antiwar poster, and Fernando Botero riffed on it for lavish oil paintings. The first two efforts have appeared in museums, and the third has received equally lavish praise. What about the photos themselves? I cannot know for certain, but I can talk about how I myself look.

"The image"

Art involves specifics, including artists, audiences, and media. One cannot abstract to something called "the image" apart from the work at stake. Different works may share the same image, but that does not excuse characterizing them all the same way.

I have my doubts whether one needs to take Serra's poster as art, rather than as a political poster from an artist, just as I do not take Bono's statements on politics as music. However, I am willing to grant that I took a free copy at the 2006 Whitney Biennial and that I should cut Serra a heck of a lot of slack. I do not need to cut the photographer quite the same slack. She did not have art in mind, people have not spoken of the photographs as art, and the claims on me to see them as art have not yet begun, which leaves it to me to seek them out.

The photographs do share one traditional feature with art, their visceral power. However, defenders of photography, such as Susan Sontag, have also criticized the medium for numbing public responses to human suffering. Besides, visceral again suggests unmediated experience, and one has to decide who gets to mediate it, and how they did so. One has to decide whether the visceral experience arises from the image or from its place in the news.

The point could come up when, say, war photography gets exhibited in a museum or when famous war photographers have had books dedicated to them and sold in museums. That could happen with these war images at some point in the future, too. On the other hand, here the soldiers themselves took the photos, and somehow I cannot see their artistic career advancing, any more than I see MySpace as a museum until an artist appropriates it. Also, photographers once worked when photography, period, did not have the status of art. Today's more fluid boundaries, paradoxically, leave less room for massive future revaluation.

Either way, one is back up against the question of who gets to decide on meaning. Is it the artist or the audience—and then who gets to decide what constitutes the artist or audience? One cannot blame it all on the art market. I doubt philosophers will resolve matters any time soon, at least if they expect artists and audiences to agree. Meanwhile, however, one can learn to look, and one can share what one has learned with others. Critics can help, by sharing what they saw art as.

Carey's book really could pass for either a self-help guide or a taunt, but neither offers a model for understanding art or life. Did he call text What Good Are the Arts? Perhaps his self-contradictory conclusions prove the provocative nature of art and words after all.

BACK to John's arts home page

John Carey's What Good Are the Arts? was published in 2006 by Oxford University Press. This is the conclusion of a two-part essay in review. The first part considered what it takes to share a tolerance for cutting-edge art. Related articles on this site have considered the possibility of indiscernible works of art, the legacy of Arthur C. Danto, the possibility of purely conceptual art, claims for such traditional criteria of art as expression and beauty, the possibility of a single defining art world or art worlds, the necessity of judgment, and whether a fantastic installation in Central Park fit any definition of art at all.


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