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.