Book Mulling – What Good Are the Arts?
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.