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What Good Are the Arts?Review - What Good Are the Arts?
by John Carey
Oxford University Press, 2010
Review by Bob Lane, MA
Aug 17th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 33)

The first chapter of the book is worth the book's price: Carey wrestles with the question "What is a work of art?" in this chapter after telling us that he is offering a secular viewpoint without the benefit of absolutes residing somewhere in the heavens. Like Socrates in the Euthyphro, Carey is looking, not for examples, but for a definition that will separate art from non-art. He starts by suggesting the problem in finding necessary and sufficient conditions for correctly labeling a thing a work of art is that it is impossible to say what is not a work of art. His example certainly stuns: what is not a work of art? human excrement. No, he says, that won't work because Piero Manzoni "published an edition of tin cans each containing 30 grams of his own excrement. One of them was bought by the Tate gallery and is still in its collection." So, if excrement counts as art then what doesn't?

The question "What counts as art?" is one of the oldest puzzles in aesthetics. I remember struggling with that question in a philosophy class at the University of California. Students came to that class with different expectations depending in part on their background and departmental major. The question seemed rather simplistic and vague at first. The art students asked "where are the slides?" - suggesting that if the philosophy professor would just get a slide projector and show some pictures the answer would become clear. (They were used to examples not argument about concepts.) The English majors in the class thought we should read Tolstoy to find out. And, of course, the philosophy students were looking for counter-examples to every offered definition.

Think for a moment about the example above. Does a piece of shit become art just because the Tate bought one of Manzoni's tin cans? Well, only if you hold that everything the Tate buys for its collection is art. Defining art is difficult because the attempts turn out to be either too narrow to encompass everything we want to call art or too broad to leave out things we want to say are not art. Or worse yet, too vague to say much of anything. Carey's approach is to put forward various attempts and then offer counter-examples to reduce the attempt to absurdity. After a fairly thorough inventory from Kant to the post-moderns he concludes that the only possibility is complete relativism: What counts as a work of art? "If you think it is, it is." He proceeds in chapter one by advancing different claims of the sort, Art is X. But then what about Y? Y is offered as art. The counter examples presented (urinals, and the like) have status as art only because someone said they are art - and that is the conclusion then presented by Carey: "if you think it is, it is." Is there a way out of this circular argument?

The German art historian, Wilhelm von Bode, once wrote "Rembrandt painted 700 pictures. Of these, 3,000 are still in existence." If this humorous claim is true, what do we make of those other 2300 pictures? Once a painting is discovered to be a copy, a fake Rembrandt, it immediately loses its place in the main gallery and is sent to the basement. Like a counterfeit $100 bill, once discovered is mere paper and ink, the fake painting is suddenly just its canvas and paint. What do examples like this tell us? They bring out the distinction between brute facts and institutional facts: the paper, design, ink, embedded chip, etc. that make up the $100 bill are brute facts (certain chemicals and elements) while the genuine (real?) $100 bill is backed by the issuing authority (e.g., the Bank of Canada). Sometimes called "funny money" by our neighbors to the south because of the different colours used to distinguish denomination, those bills, when backed by the government of Canada are as valuable as the international financial system dictates. This important distinction might help to answer the first question that prompts Carey's book: "What is art?". Art, like money, is brute fact plus institutional fact.

Some other distinctions are useful in thinking about Carey's book:

·         matters of taste - I like chocolate ice cream.

·         matters of aesthetics - I think Shakespeare is a better writer than  Marlowe.

·         matters of morality - I think it is wrong to torture babies.

It makes no sense to argue about matters of taste or to respond to someone by saying "Oh, you should not like that!" Nor does it make sense to ask "why do you like that?" Statements made describing matters of taste are purely subjective and we do not ask the person making the statement to give reasons. "Why?" questions are natural in matters of aesthetics and morality. "Why do you like Shakespeare more than Marlowe?" is a perfectly legitimate question and one that Carey provides reasons for in his chapter on literature. Similarly we ask questions why about matters of morality. Yet, it is clear that we do not have to torture a baby in order to arrive at the conclusion that torturing them is wrong. Aesthetic judgments, however, are different from both of the others: they are more than taste (that is we can and do give reasons for our judgments) and they are different from moral judgments (that is we have to experience a work of art in order to judge it).

Carey wants to turn all aesthetic judgments into matters of taste and to offer as justification for a judgment of a work of art -- "I like it". Well, it seems that he does, until we get to Part 2 of the book where he deals with the art form he takes to be the Queen of the arts: literature. In that section he argues (gives reasons for) his claim that "literature is superior to the other arts." His readings in this section of selections of literary works are first rate and he is a careful reader. His claim that reading is a creative art is true and readers indeed participate in the imaginative task of constructing meaning from a text. But, that seems true of other arts as well. Listening to music is not always a passive event. Looking at paintings also asks a viewer to "see feelingly" by bringing to the experience everything possible.

Carey worries about "the inaccessibility of other people's minds" as evidence for his relativistic position, but never makes clear just what would be gained in matters of aesthetics if we could all be mind readers. Art criticism seems one way that we do have access to other minds in the sense that the critic points to certain aspects of a work and thus helps us to see what we may have missed in our own experiencing of the work. We learn what Carey likes in this book. He likes literature. He likes Shakespeare. He does not seem to like painting and music. Why? Well, he need not give us reasons, for his position is that all such matters are matters of taste.


© 2010 Bob Lane



Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.




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