Chapter 1 – What is a work of art?
Carey starts off this 28-page chapter with a disclaimer: he will not be operating from a religious perspective. Although he does not cite a philosopher directly, he could easily be pointing his finger at Leo Tolstoy, who, aside from writing epic-length Russian novels, also had quite a few things to say about art and its relation to the divine. His position is that without a relation, there is no art: art is by definition, not only its nature, holy. (The whole book is online here, or a simple search will get you a ton of commentary if you want something shorter).
The reason Carey mentions this at all is because so much language about art and aesthetics borrow from religious terms – paintings are “sublime” and music is “transformative.” We can extrapolate if you want to nitpick about the word religious and call it mystical or spiritual. That’s fine. I just wanted to let you know how I understand his approach.
The problem with defining art is, in a nutshell, the twentieth century, when an aggressive modernist agenda began to deconstruct nineteenth century understandings of the definition, which had been pretty clear.
That deconstructing agenda, however, really opened up the possibilities. Is graffiti art, since it is taking place on someone else’s property and is often a criminalized behavior? Carey doesn’t bring up graffiti but he does address crime and art more generally with the horrific example of a murderer who pursues some theoretical artistic goal by homicidal means. He didn’t cite any action films villains who want to aestheticize death or dying, but he could have.
So the problem that any contemporary writer is faced with is that nearly anything can be a work of art, categorically speaking. It can be actions (performance art), silence (John Cage), and from any material (feces). Yes, art made from poop.
Thank you, twentieth century, and thank you, Italian artist Piero Manzoni.
Carey notes a great deal of “artistic expression” is explicitly designed not for any primary aesthetic purpose at all, but instead to provoke a specific response, which raises all kinds of questions – namely about the purpose of art and the nature of its communication.
The central 20-some pages of the chapter serve as a historical précis of aesthetic theory, noting first the word “aesthetic” and its re-formulation in 1750 in the sense we currently understand it. He follows this with Kant, who, given the amount of time Carey spends on him, seems to be the primary voice that has shaped our understanding of artistic expression that Carey identifies. His intellectual descendents Hegel and Schopenhauer make their own contributions farther on, and Carey wraps up with the American art critic and philosopher, Arthur Danto. These are the folks against whom he is doing his main arguing.
I haven’t read the Germans, but I have read Danto, for what that’s worth. Danto argues that the artist’s intent is critical to understanding the success of a work of art, and concludes that art is essentially a teleological category. A typewriter can be art, depending on its context and placement by an artist, and a hamburger can as well. However, a typewriter can never be a hamburger.
Kant sets the tone for this religiously-toned discussion of aesthetics – only the truly good is beautiful and so on. If for Kant art is not a reflection of the divine, it certainly has a moral component. Evil or badness cannot be artistic – literally cannot be. Carey, for his part, will have none of this. Logically it doesn’t hold up. Experientially it doesn’t hold up. The twentieth century took that all away from us.
In fact, it’s only in his last three pages of the chapter that Carey elects to answer his question: What is a work of art? His position, the logical consequence that he believes Danto shied away from, is that art is precisely and exactly anything we say it is as long as at least one person considers that thing to be a work of art.
Which is very egalitarian, rather broad, and dangerously close to saying that “art” has become a useless word.
Which is an interesting thought, really.
Comments? Responses? I’m going to post my own responses to Carey on Tuesday, I expect.
This is going to be a new thing here – not quite a review of a book and really, more of a conversation with the book. About 4 years ago I started reading John Carey’s provocatively titled What Good Are the Arts? Let me state up front that Mr. Carey is a literary critic and book reviewer for London’s The Sunday Times so yes, he does believe that the arts are good. He, or his editors or publishers, have simply gone in the direction of what we now call “link baiting” in online interactions.
I’m coming back to this book now because a) I’ve always meant to come back to it; b) it’s interesting; c) it’s deeply flawed; and d) through the end of our residency, my time is my own and reading, writing, and thinking about art and suchlike is a good use of my time. With that said – Carey’s introduction.
What Good Are the Arts comes in two halves – the first will ask and answer questions, and the second will make an argument. He spends a brief amount of time covering some basic historical ground so that we’ll all be on the same page (or at least, understand his point of departure).
In the “Western” world, ART comes with a rarefied, spiritual air in its Platonic form. It should be divorced from sex and money and it should have some ennobling affect or influence. Carey argues that these positions are casually assumed rather than thought through and he wants to get at the bottom of them. One problem he asserts is that exactly what sort of influence we’re talking about is unexamined (what do you mean by ennobling, exactly?) and that many markers of aesthetics only serve to reinforce class differences, not get at art itself.
Thus, Part I, in which he will address the following:
- What a work of art is
- The differences and superiorities between high and low art
- Whether art and its spiritual effects can be a substitute for religion
- Why science cannot help us with the question of art
- Given that aesthetics are deeply and only personal responses, justification of them must be done by reasoned thinking.
And Part II, in which he argues that the literary arts are the best of the arts, and not just because he reviews books for a living.
That’s it. I mean, this is just a summary and I’m already working on picking apart some stuff, even while I’m wholly appreciative that he acknowledges that aesthetics are often about class distinctions. From what I remember, there’s a lot of interesting stuff here.
I’m not sure how often I’ll be posting to this category, but I’m going to aim for once a week at least and I’ll link between posts.
Things are getting complicated in Writing World. Truth be told, they’ve been complicated by the storytelling alone, but now I’m succumbing to the complications of Things That Interlock.
Stupid idea anyway. (more…)
Got a lot of work done this week, but very little of it was of the paying sort. Enough to keep me in Chicago, certainly, but not enough for a round of huzzahs. Really, though, this is more about what I did get done.
One beta reader finished A Watchful Eye‘s current draft. No criticisms, lots of enthusiasm and praise. Thanks, Mom!
The gutting of Manuscript #2 continues. First 48 pages sent off to beta reader for a test-drive. Does it make sense? Can you tell who the main character is? Etcetera and so on. Since then, I’ve made another 21 pages – this is less impressive than it sounds, because I’m hardly doing any original composition – I’m re-ordering and re-structuring lots of already-written stuff. I have to write one solid scene right now, then I can step back into Concatenation Mode and leap ahead a magical 6 pages. It will be magical. Then I’ll do what I did with those first 48 pages, which is go over them two to three times, reading for continuity, sense, typos. And I’ll probably have to make a lot of changes. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
I think I discovered a character that needs to appear in this book that I hadn’t considered before. Damn it? Hooray? I’m not sure.
I’m going to try and wrap my head around another Query Letter for AWE over the weekend, looking to post it next week.
Other writing: I’m trying to get into the habit of writing some reviews (not that this will be a review site – too much unpaid work already) and posting them over at GoodReads. So with the end of Harry Potter comes the beginning of The Hunger Games (click for the fancy motion poster).
Here are my reviews:
Bernard and Ellen teach poetry – specifically, William Blake. In fact, Bernard pretty much just teaches the poem “Infant Joy.” Today is their last class because last night, at twilight, they had sex on the lawn in full view of all of the dorms, which means all of the students, which means all of the students’ cell phone cameras. Today, they can apologize and maybe they’ll save their jobs. But President Dean is pretty pissed, so their apologies had better be good.
That’s the set-up for Mickle Maher’s There is a Happiness That Morning Is, showing through next week, May 22 at the D.C.A. in a Theater Oobleck production. I will begin my review with the following sentiment: You should go and see this show.
There aren’t many writers who can pull off laughter and grief at the same time – previously, my only real encounter was with Kevin Kling’s The Ice Fishing Play at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis. What starts off hilariously in Happiness, a pair of slightly overlapping lectures from Bernard and Ellen to their respective classes on two very different poems from Blake, grows progressively funnier until a tragic turn, at which point Bernard and Ellen, finally face to face in the same time, arrive at an impasse. And that arrival that looks like a deus ex machina? It doesn’t really work out the way most of those writing strategies do.
Performers Colm O’Reilly, Diana Slickman, and Kirk Anderson render their characters with depth, heart, and an utter lack of grace. They are raw, flawed, often but not always likeable people who are suffering at the hands of everything they thought they loved – poetry, each other, and love itself. It’s not a script that is, at turns, heart-warming and bitter, full of love and tragedy. It begins that way, sure, but as the story grows, those things come together and love and bitterness walk in lock-step.
AND MAHER WROTE IT IN FREAKING RHYMING COUPLETS!
Not only rhyming couplets, he still manages to lace in a good deal of profanity, along with the assertion that “You’re behaving like a dick, generally.” The stylistic choice of the writing does not influence the masterful performances. The performers speak their poetic cadences without attention to a rhyme scheme. Theater Oobleck creates the kind of performance that makes me love theater – which is not surprising, perhaps – and that makes me want to love poetry. Which is.
If you have the chance to see this show and you do not see this show, your soul will grow sad and embittered. Sorry, but it’s true. And you won’t even know why.
“Proceeding apace” is not how I would describe my writing at this particular time.
I managed to continue editing act I of the novel throughout Motionary Comics and finally wrapped up the work on this most recent pass on Monday. However, I don’t want to keep working on this one until I get a little feedback from my first readers, and they’re all busy. One of them is putting up a show and painting robots (!!!), one of them is making a feature-length documentary (!!!), and one of them is moving back to the United States (!!!). They’ve all got stuff on their plates.
During my break between the first novel (book 3 in the series) and the second (book 4), I drafted a screenplay, and I sort of thought I’d do that again this time. Instead I did a polish on an existing screenplay (one day’s work, yawn), and now find myself in the middle – knowing I should be outlining so that I’m ready for the next round of writing. That next round could be more on book 4, it could be another screenplay. But the fact is, without putting a little bit of thought into the whole process, I’m not going to get very far.
I’m not sure if it’s being tired that’s stalling me out – Motionary Comics, staying out too late on Wednesday seeing TJ and Dave at iO – or maybe I just need a palate cleanser, which would explain this week’s YA buying binge (The Hunger Games, Bones of Faerie, White Cat, Incarceron). After all, last time I felt this way, a month ago, I plowed through Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, Pretties, and Specials.
It’s not writer’s block per se. More like muscle fatigue. Could be reading is what I need more than anything else.
Meantime, here’s my review of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games at GoodReads.
When I was teaching Freshman Comp at Carroll University, I asked my class how they felt about picking up the anthology of essays I had required them to purchase for the class. I had a good enough rapport with them that I was rewarded with heartfelt groans of despair and disgust. You don’t like reading, I pursued. Hems and haws, lots of “sometimes.” Do you mind reading your text messages? (Chelsea, put your phone away.) They were surprised at the thought, that texting was reading. You look forward to one, but not the other. Part of this is just what you expect. Adjust your expectations and the experience won’t be so onerous.
I don’t know if that helped them with my assignments, but I hope that it helped them in their later years at school.
First Ladies is an opaque play by the Austrian writer Werner Schwab, which I saw this past weekend at Trap Door Theatre. The production was very, very good. In spite of this, my friend and I, theater pros that we are, having each studied in college and worked in the industry for 20ish years, we didn’t really get it. But we agreed that Trap Door had put on a hell of a show.
I saw A Serious Man with three other people, all of whom work in the film business and all of whom really like the Coen brothers. We all agreed that it was a beautifully realized movie, but none of could make heads or tails of it. Did we not have enough background? If we’d been raised Jewish or educated in Judaism, would we have made sense of the story? Didn’t get it = didn’t like it.
This past weekend was the six month anniversary of my friend Anthony’s death. Coincidentally, I came across the book review linked at the top – in which the reviewer wonders why we write about grief.
This afternoon I read Lore Segal’s “The Ice Worm” in the April, ’11 issue of Harper’s, which is a wonderfully executed story about a sudden horrible event. I understood it, I appreciated it, and I wondered why someone tells a story of despair, for that is how I read it.
The last link up there, that’s Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, singing a rockin’ song with punchy lyrics, but whose overall meaning I don’t think about.
A question that I used to pose to my students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, one that I didn’t have an answer to, was this: why do we fret about meaning in film and theater and not in songs? Why do I dwell on First Ladies and A Serious Man, but not “Woke up near Chelsea”? Why can I go a different direction entirely with prose, and simply admire the craft of Lore Segal’s writing?
More to the point, why can’t I simply admire the craft of the film? Why don’t I fret about what the song means?
There’s something about the form that makes me hung up on interpretation – not how I should interpret it, because I don’t think about how. I simply leave the theater and say, wow, what was that about? Obviously, I can appreciate the craft of the play, but that’s only a stopping point. My goal for it, for the film, is the meaning.
I’d be grateful if you had any insights or similar takes.
Hamletmachine is a weird, weird play. Heiner Müller wrote the script in 1977 – roughly 9 pages long. In Robert Wilson’s famous production in the 1980s, the performance lasted several hours, I understand. This one clocks in at 70 minutes. It has no story. It has monologues. The script also contains semi-hallucinatory descriptions of impossible stage pictures (cue Sarah Kane) – say, the ghosts of Lenin, Marx, and Mao involving televisions and axes under water.
I may be a little fuzzy on the details of that last bit.
To the inevitable dismay and frequent anger of my students when I used to teach, I included this script in the syllabus. Dismay because the script is incredibly difficult and opaque. Anger because when we don’t understand Art, we tend to take it personally, an attack on our intelligence by the artsy-fartsy-oh-so-smartsy Artist who think s/he’s SO much better than us. And we’re smart, dammit, so where do they get off?
My first encounter with Hamletmachine was as a sophomore in college sometime during my first month in my year abroad in Spain when my grasp on the language was not great and eight people in black leotards running around and throwing themselves in piles of each other was deeply confusing and not just a little distressing. I wanted to save my students that encounter. Read Hamletmachine here, in the safety and security of a classroom. Experience the fact that there’s some deeply weird stuff out there.
They hated it. They hated the video, when I finally tracked it down. Mission fail.
The script occasionally has lines for HAMLET and occasionally for THE ACTOR WHO PLAYS HAMLET. I ran mediocre discussions trying to get at this paradox in class and never came up with an answer that satisfied either me or my students. It was a play I never got into beyond an intellectual level and whose surface I never got past.
This was one of the reasons why I loved Trap Door’s Hamletmachine - they showed me something I couldn’t figure out, and it seems like a solid answer. A good answer. Not necessarily the right answer, but certainly a plausible one. And Müller’s dead, so like he’ll ever tell us.
Trap Door director Max Truax treats this script like an opera where everyone sings their text, and, like an opera, they often repeat lines over and over. This has the advantage of highlighting specific meanings, and that’s where I drew my understanding of their answer to who the “characters” are. What if HAMLET and THE ACTOR WHO PLAYS HAMLET are the same person? That is, Hamlet understands that he’s playing a part in a story that he can’t get out of? I’m not trying to posit a big metaphysical thing here, but a very down-to-earth conundrum. Let’s say I hate my life (for the record: I don’t). I’ve made all of these decisions and I’m stuck in a context (a neighborhood, a family, a rent) that makes it difficult or impossible to get out. I’m stuck in a paradox. My history drives me forward in a very specific direction, and suddenly I see myself as part of a bigger picture. But there’s momentum (my mom just killed my dad and is marrying my uncle! Eek!) and there aren’t many options left for me to pursue. I don’t want to be the person who’s job it is to keep going. I want to start over.
It was a rather beautiful revelation for me.
And speaking of beautiful, the singing and staging was lovely as well. Frequently, experimental and avant-garde theater uses its intellectual sophistication as a bludgeon against craft and staging. Not the good folks at Trap Door, who paid attention to music and movement. Nothing fancy, but their choices were solid and well developed.
The politics of the play – should that be your bag – are only minimally present. My takeaway of this production was much more about the individuals and less about the 1977 world that Heiner Müller was deconstructing. As one of the people filing out behind us said, “I think Müller’s spinning in his grave, but I thought it was great.” The postmodern became personal.
A handful of local reviews:
At the risk of getting into some big words here, there are a lot of semiotics at play when you try to talk about the performance inherent in a production, live or recorded. I will turn for aid to a paraphrased, unnamed, and not shown French diplomat, who is referenced in How to Start Your Own Country. In regard to the potential number (and potential explosion of numbers) of micronations, he dismissively says that he doesn’t want to have to deal with a bunch of “silly little countries.”
I could get lost in the micromeanings of individual self-presentations, but I think in a larger scope a work of art of this sort is delivering a set of meanings to us. How we interpret all of those micromeanings, their interplay, and how we layer on our own experience and cultural knowledge is what determines whether or not a movie or a book “works for us.”
How to Start Your Own Country illustrates a couple of micronations (Sealand, North Dumpling Island, Hutt River Province, Seborga) and shows interviews with various diplomats and political scientists, all of whom discuss potential definitions of What a Country Is. What they (or Shapiro, the filmmaker) dance around but never articulate precisely is that existing countries (and through them, their clubs: the UN, the IMF, World Bank, EU, etc.) have a vested interest in stability. Stability is safe, after all, and helps to insure that existing countries (and perhaps existing power dynamics between countries) will also remain stable.
So it is, I think, with evaluation of art, even if accidentally. The criteria by which I judge, evaluate, and criticize a work of art should be flexible, allowing each piece to succeed or fail on its own terms – as opposed to succeeding or failing on mine. But isn’t easy to fall into patterns of my own, and come back to familiar answers? Classical storytelling (whether “documentary” or “narrative”) often relies on the Aristotelian 5 steps: first,
admit you’ve got a problem exposition; followed by conflict, rising action, climax, denouement. It’s simple, tried and true. Aristotle didn’t even invent the rule, so you know he didn’t have a dog in that fight, right? Right. So you know that’s the best way.
Or at least the simplest, most straightforward way.
The truth is, as far as I can tell, that every story wants to be told in a different way. Maybe a percentage far north of 50 want to be told that via Aristotle’s prescription. Sometimes, though, a little bit of non-linearity goes a long way. Sometimes you pull a last-minute reverse to surprise your audience: “OMG! Bobby’s still alive! It was all a dream!” (I apologize for crossing the timestreams).
If that’s the case, then when I say that How to Start Your Own Country got a little long and rambling, is that because it failed to tell its story well, or that it failed because it didn’t conform to how I expected it to tell its story? Because either are real possibilities. (You could quibble with me here and assert that Aristotle’s work doesn’t even apply in the first place so I enact my own argument by applying Aristotelian standards out of context and I would say that you have missed my point entirely Mr/s Lost in the Microsemiotics (that’s “Mr/s Can’t See the Forest for the Trees, BTW).) I learned facts about an odd little quirk of history and law, and they showed me some eccentric ideas thrust into the world (MAN, talk about performing yourself – sheesh). It was fun. It got long.
Tagfish used individual screens as literal, visual placeholders for the projections of the men speak from them. An interesting idea, and a potentially enthralling story about bureaucracy and how a redevelopment idea can be killed not by committee but by the very process that is meant to document and regularize business planning. Instead, it was technically superb (in design and execution), but with a quite dull story. Although by necessity it was highly edited, they pretended to a cinema verite style of recording by using prolonged silences, awkward pauses, and charisma free committee members.
The execution of their idea, however, is impractical on any kind of scale. Costly in motor control and projection (not to mention the rigged table and chairs), it is an effective blend of performance and recording. So what does it do, if that’s the case? I think shows like this succeed as experiments – they’ve shown us a new possible path. Because I think there’s a corollary – if every story wants to be told in its own way, finding a new way to tell a story might yield new kinds of stories to tell entirely.
And that’s an exciting thought.
Although as something that holds your interest, I gotta say WAY too long. And slow. Hoo boy.