Monday, July 24, 2006

What good are the arts?

"It would be impossible to prove that a Picasso was any more 'true' than, say, a washing machine or a packet of crisps."

There's a Dawkins-like certainty about Professor Carey's argument in this provocative (and very entertaining) set of related essays. He seems so absolutely sure that his logic is safe against all reasonable challengers that only the religiously-inclined and other incurable irrationalists need bother wasting their time. For this reason alone, it's probably worth having a bit of a poke at it. Here then are the key messages:
  • Art is not an inherently valuable category
  • Art is not improving or virtuous, or at least not any more so than high street fashion, gardening or football
  • In spite of the persistent notion that exposure to high Art will humanise the masses, the 'cult' of Art has actually tended to work against social cohesion
  • We cannot call other people's aesthetic choices incorrect, at least not rationally. Art is a matter of subjective opinion not knowledge (and science has not been able to help us cross this divide)
  • The moment the last human being on Earth dies, the Mona Lisa, the Taj Mahal and all other 'great' art would become inherently valueless. While for some this conclusion is self-evident, Carey notes that many still find it strangely hard to accept
  • "The abyss of relativism is where we have always been - if it is an abyss."

Here in the modern West, Carey argues, the esteem that high culture is held in"casts the majority of people in drab and secondary role of monument visitors" and that for the self-selected minority, personal gratification via the supposedly transcendent value of Art encourages "contempt for the merely human, the passive, the contingent, finite world".

Recall, he asks us, how the Nazis forced Jews to play string quartets before executing them, and how Hitler at first welcomed the allied bombings as a way of prepping Berlin for the roll-out of his grand designs. "There is little point in acquiring two Rembrandts and a Rubens if your social views remain indistinguishable from those of any saloon-bar fascist," he notes somewhat sourly.

I'm not entirely unsympathetic to this anti-elitist campaign against the snooty aristocrats of High Art. In recent months whilst I may have read many of what I consider to be high quality books, none of them, nor any of the top notch movies I've seen over the same period, felt as subjectively improving as the experience of watching LOST, surely an example of popular rather than high art in most people's estimation. Indeed, this convoluted serial has had for me the opposite effect of reading Michel Houellebecq − I can feel myself sweating out the misanthropic gunk in my pores every time I watch it!

It's clear too that when you describe something as "funny" (another category featuring a rather loose consensus) you are not at the same time implicitly asserting your own social status in quite the way you do when you comment on the higher artistic significance of something. There's no question that Western aesthetics are infused with self-esteem − yet surely they are not entirely invalidated by this?

Does Carey mean to say that the comparatively nebulous category of Art is the problem here, or that all assessments of comparative value are inherently relative? The statement "the act of valuing confers value" in the epilogue suggests the latter. Earlier on he also asserts that "moral questions are those to which no answers are available".

I'm pretty sure he doesn't mean to say that no attempt should be made to find answers to moral questions or that any answer is as good as another, but these conclusions are nevertheless inferred by his relativist drift. Rejecting all gradations between good and bad, stupidity and genius seems rather a high price to pay for taking a few cheap shots at the intellectual snobs!

Along the way he does also seem to be making his own comparative judgments − such as the archetypally uncontroversial one that positions the Third Reich at the bottom of the pile of admirable social models. This is an example of a value judgment around which there is a basic consensus in 2006 (if not in Berlin in 1936). Yet talk instead in similar terms about Saudi Arabia and the consensus will be less obvious. It's relative, but it's still part of a clearly graded index. That we don't publicly torture and execute petty criminals in the West today is not a subjective difference of opinion between the present and the past, it's progress!

Carey's line of reasoning would seem to invalidate the scores given to Olympic figure skaters. Artistic impression...utterly subjective ? If Karlheinz Stockhausen believes 9-11 was a work of art, then anything goes surely? Yet in spite of some notorious moments of controversy across the Olympic cycles, quality generally rises to the top as a result of scoring by a panel of experts. Whilst I do accept that it might be easier to define the expertise of someone specialising in skating (or plumbing) rather than than Art, it does not follow that there is no such thing as artistic expertise.

My own way of facing up to the logical challenge posed by relativism is a form of dualism-lite, which requires less of a leap of faith than either Plato's ideas (a multiplicity of possible forms in suspension) or Kant's supra-sensible realm where things in themeselves hang out; essentially reality's VIP lounge. It seems to me that Einstein's general relativity might just offer an alternative 'solution' to relativism: inside spacetime matter is clearly ruled by time and chance, but whilst there may be no fixed Truth outside of this structure in its own separate cosmos, it could instead be an immanent part of our contingent reality − its other complete, organic nature, unreal in the sense that it cannot ever by fully comprehended from a relative perspective. (This is where I earlier promised to repeat that quotation from David Mitchell's Ghostwritten: "If you're in your life, chance. Viewed from the outside , like a book you're reading, it's fate all the way." )

With no absolute values sittingly haughtily up on higher planes of reference, this non-committal way of looking at things would seem to require a smaller leap of faith, and is not incompatible with Richard Rorty's more pragmatic brand of relativism in which Truth is a work in progress − which means that from the limited perspective of a contingent observer, it is still possible for something to be better (and perhaps a Picasso truer than a packet of crisps?)

Indeed, the last half of this book is devoted to making a case for why literature is itself better than the other arts:

  • It values unpretentious people
  • It (uniquely) can criticise itself
  • The other arts are "locked in inarticulacy, incapable of reasoning." (Conceptual art for example, is incapable of the clarity that argument requires.)
  • Literature is often indistinct, such that it inherently cultivates and enfranchises readers' own private imaginations.

And for Carey, that there can be no false answers in Art becomes in the end grounds for a positive take on its relative value in our lives, as it bears inherently unstable meanings that will take shape differently in the mind of each recipient:

"Poetic ideas do not tell you what the truth is, they make you feel what
it would be like to know it."

No comments: