Friday, February 03, 2006

What Good Are The Arts?

From Michael Dirda's review of John Carey's book What Good Are the Arts?

All too often, reverence for the divine Mozart or a heavenly Vermeer tends to reduce the rest of us to interchangeable extras on life's stage, unimportant and quite expendable. This is a monstrous way to regard people. Instead of approaching artworks as showpieces, concludes Carey, we would be better off emphasizing personal participation in the arts. The activity itself matters more than the quality of the end product. Art should be "something done, not consumed, and done by ordinary people, not master spirits." It should result in community, not a fatuous sense of superiority. After all, we descended from hunter-gatherers who worked with their hands, and something in our genes still hungers for such manual activity. "It is not what you paint on a piece of canvas that counts," Carey argues, "but what painting a piece of canvas can do for you." Such focused acts of attention may, for instance, develop qualities of character like "self-discipline, patience, and delay of immediate gratification." Carey ringingly concludes the first half of his book with these words:"

The religion of art makes people worse, because it encourages contempt for those considered inartistic. We now know that it can foster hideous and earth-shattering evil. It is time we gave active art a chance to make us better."

I don't really understand this argument. Certainly everyone can and should be encouraged to create art. We can value the attempt, even if the results are not particularly noteworthy. And contempt, in any form, is not good.

But I don't agree with Carey's contention that the activity itself matters more than the quality of the end product. Nope. Not true. We don't apply this philosophy to any serious discipline; why should we apply it to art?

You want to be a doctor? What a nice goal. So maybe read a few books on medicine, make a couple attempts at curing people, and that's all that matters. We'll applaud your efforts. You want to be a commercial airline pilot? Good for you. Just think about how much fun you'll have, maybe practice a few times on a virtual flight simulator, and have at it. It's the attempt that counts.

Would you visit that doctor if you were sick? Would you strap yourself in to that pilot's airplane?

Carey is also conflating two very different purposes of art. There is value in creating art for its own sake. If people write poetry, paint pictures, compose music, then these activities have intrinsic value for the reasons Carey describes. But once those works of art enter the public marketplace -- once somebody tries to sell them -- then the quality of the art matters very much. It is not only appropriate, but it is absolutely necessary to evaluate the quality of the art, and that evaluation goes on whether it comes through a formal juried art show or an album review or simply through informal discussions and bull sessions in dormitory rooms. If you don't want your art to be evaluated, then your only alternative is to keep it to yourself.

The dichotomy that Carey presents is also ridiculous -- Mozart and Vermeer on one side, all the other insignificant unwashed artistic mediocrities (and worse) on the other. Who believes this? Who teaches this? No one I know. The closer one gets to a particular art form, the more deeply one becomes immersed in that form, the more evident it becomes that there are an almost infinite number of gradations in quality, and that there are so many criteria that go in to making up "quality" that it is very, very difficult to make categorical statements. But the solution, then, is to not make categorical statements; to qualify our judgments so that they are tempered by as many facets of the artistic work as we can communicate. The solution is to think more clearly and critically, to weigh those varying and occasionally conflicting criteria more carefully, not to throw up our hands and state that we can't comment about artistic quality. This is the counsel of despair.

Some art really is better than other art. That view need not be communicated contemptuously. But it should be communicated. I fervently hope that people -- all people -- continue to create art. And I fervently hope that people -- all people -- will continue to discuss what makes some of it more worthwhile than others.


Anonymous said...

wow. to think, i almost bought that book. thanks for posting that.

"Not everyone has the opportunity to be sufficiently sensitized to what is genuine. If you were raised with a lack of exposure to quality, I think it would be more difficult to recognize it. If you just eat Big Macs all your life and someone serves you the finest French food, I don't think you will necessarily appreciate it." - Paul Simon on good art vs enterainment/bad art (specifically aimed at people that would call barry manilow an artist)

thanks for encouraging people to take art seriously, andy.

Anonymous said...

Andy, I agree with you. The thought that it's the participation that counts, not the quality, leads only to a society of mediocrity and no sense of what is good nor how to critically evaluate something. It reminds me of a teacher that used to work with me. He used to praise any and all of his students' work as "Awesome!" Well, obviously that wasn't true. Some, or most of it, was downright average or even bad. If even the crap is "Awesome!" then how does one evaluate the genuinely excellent, inspired job?

Anonymous said...

Andy- perhaps the gap between you and mr carey is no more than the gap between the "J" and the "P" personality.

As a "P" to the extreme I can relate to Carey's argument. For the "P", the process always matters more than the result.

This is the reason I have to cringe every time I watch the early episodes of American Idol, where the notorious Simon Cowell tells singers they should just give up because their voices are atrocious. The fact may be that their voices are atrocious at the time, but, yes, it is unconscionable to tell these people they should never ever sing again.

Isn't it true that that far fewer people feel comfortable making their own music than they did 100 years ago, or even 40 years ago? It sure seems to me like more moms sang to and with their kids, and even played the family piano without a hint of embarassment at not being "professional". Maybe I'm wrong about this- but if this is a reality than it surely isn't a good thing? What is to blame for this if not over emphasis of the product over the process?

Andy Whitman said...

Re: the "J' vs, "P" perspective, I think it goes deeper than that. Sure, the process of creating music (or any other form of art) is important, and I don't doubt that the people who create art of any kind benefit from the creative process. But there is a more objective component as well.

I receive, on average, probably ten CDs per week. And I try to listen to them. And it's basically true that there is nothing new under the sun. Given Paste's demographic and the artist it tends to cover, I can't tell you how many CDs I receive from earnest roots/folk/alt-country artists who bare their souls while strumming acoustic guitars. A lot of it is pleasant. But it's been done a million times before, and I don't think I'm exaggerating on that number, either.

And part of my job is to tell the inquiring minds who want to know that it's been done a million times before. I'll probably state it in different terms, but most popular (or would-be popular) music is simply okay -- it's not terrible, and it's not earthshattering in its creativity. And so I write a lot of reviews in the 2.5 - 3.5 star range, which is shorthand for "this is okay, but nothing special." That's not to say that that earnest folkie didn't find tremendous cathartic value in writing a song about how lousy he felt after his girl dumped him. But that's not my job to determine that, and I can't know that in the first place. What I can know, and what I can say, is that this has been done a million times before, and by the musicians/artists who sound most similar to our broken-hearted folkie.

There is an objective component to this. I can't evaluate the creative process because I'm not there when the artist creates a song. But I can evaluate the finished work. And I do.

Re: the "people don't create as much as they used to" argument: I'm not sure that's true. I have no idea whether mothers sing to their children as much as they used to. I know that I still sing as much to my children as I used to, much to their chagrin. And it seems to me that this is a particularly good and fertile time for "amateurs." Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, independent artists can sell their works over the web, without the need for label representation. That's a good thing. Often those amateurs are quite good. I think it's a healthy trend overall.

Anonymous said...

The problem in your comparison of music to surgery or piloting is that surgery and piloting are not arts. The danger is that the creative process is seen as merely a means to an end.

one difference between surgery and music is that everybody is expected to have some ability to make music or to be artistic in some other way. at least they used to. It used to be more comparable to the ability to speak well or do math. The fact that there are a few professionals that did this for a living did not alter this fact.

now in all fairness, the problem with the author's argument is that the end product is inseparable with the process. If the end product has no meaning, then the process had no meaning.

i think that the glut of CD's is symptom of the perceived problem that the author presents, not a refutation of it. I personally feel the pressure to produce something so that people will know that i am an artist. I remember an incident when I told a fellow mail carrier that I had just got a job playing the piano for a church. IOW, they were paying me. His response: "Oh I guess you are pretty good.

I think that you do have an important job to do, Andy. But I see you as a part of the process, not the end of it. As a musician, if you tell me my stuff is not up to snuff I continue the process and try to do better next time. Either that or I find another critic who does like my stuff.


Anonymous said...

ok andy- here's another idea. (try this one on for size):

perhaps carey's comments are only applicable to "pure" art (which admittedly doesn't exist). Surgery and piloting airplanes does have an artistic element after all, albeit much smaller than the artistic element in dancing or writing a song. Thus his comments are more applicable to something approaching art and less applicable to something moving away from art.

What I'm getting at is that in the 19th century instrumental music was considered pure music: the implication being that songs were less than pure music. Songs rely on language- language being an agreed on convention to convey meaning.

so called pure music also relies on agreed on conventions to convey meaning- but they are much less agreed upon than in language.

In painting, the agreed upon meaning is even more vague.

Since the songwriter is using more conventional means of communication, he/she has more of a responsibility to consider the reaction of the communicatee. But this necessarily takes songwriting further away from "pure art" than painting.


Andy Whitman said...

Fred, to me the "pure" art argument is a red herring. It suggests an aesthetic hierarchy propounded by effete snobs who, at least in the musical world, tend to view classical music as the pinnacle of artistic expression, jazz as somewhere in the middle, and popular music as the bastard stepchild left out in the snow. And since I tend to focus on popular music, I tend to react in a plebeian way and want to hoist my middle finger in a derogatory salute to such thinking.

I think a more useful distinction is between "personal" art and "commercial" art. "Personal" art is the mother singing to her child, the family standing around the piano and singing together. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, and to some extent songwriters write music simply for themselves, and they find value in the simple creation of the music. I think that may be what Carey has in mind when he writes about the benefits of creating art for its own sake. And I would agree.

But as soon as art moves into the public dimension -- as soon as it has an audience, and, more importantly, a paying audience -- then the end product matters very much indeed. Every musical genre has a historical tradition, and an often unspoken and unexamined set of assumptions about what constitutes the best of that genre. Even rock 'n roll, that most reviled and low-brow of musical genres, has its own canon of greatness. Given that, and given that the listening audience will either consciously or unconsciously compare any new work to what has come before, it seems disengenuous to claim that the end result doesn't matter. It does matter. Art is not created in a vacuum. And whatever intrinsic value the artist may have derived from its creation, the listening (or viewing, or reading) public will create its own value based on the new work and how it compares to what has been created before.

I think this is inescapable. That doesn't negate the very real value that you, or any other artist, may find in the act of creation. That's a wonderful thing. I find it in writing; I'm sure you find it in playing the piano. In some ways it doesn't matter what others think, because the very act of creation is its own reward. But as soon as I try to sell my words, or you play the piano for the folks at the restaurant, then another variable enters in. We have an audience. And we open ourselves up, at that point,
to criticism of the end product.

Anonymous said...

i must say, andy, in reading your last post, you really have a hell of a way with words! i will be quoting your last paragraph for a while. thanks again for saying what you have.

Anonymous said...

I think I can agree 100% with your last comment, Andy (or, at least 99%).

As I have been pondering carey's quote and yours and my different reactions to it, I thought of something that might clarify carey's (and my) angst a bit more for you.

Photography is an art. And everybody takes pictures. And you and I would feel no anxiety pulling out our family photos to show somebody- even that somebody that we happened to know was a professional photographer. We wouldn't expect him to critique the lighting or the poses in our "art". That would be a "hideous" reaction (to use carey's word). And all of this happens on an unconscious level- we don't have to clarify to the photographer that this is not a commercial photograph- and the photographer can say "nice" without us thinking that he is endorsing us as artists.

Yet when it comes to music this unconscious understanding either never developed, or something has changed over the years. (I suspect that it has changed.) I've experienced people saying to me, "Oh I could never play the piano in front of you. And singing solo in front of people you don't know, or sometimes even know very well- just doesn't happen unless you are Jeff Cannell.

I myself am getting ready to release my own two and a half star CD. And I've gone through this whole process of asking myself "is this art on a personal or commercial level?" Should I just run off copies on a computer and hand them out to my friends, or pay the bucks to have it commercially produced so that it is sellable? If the latter, how far do I try to push it commercially?" This whole process has made me especially even more sensitive to this issue that carey is trying to address than I already was due to being an amateur musico.

One thing that has helped my decision to go ahead and release the CD as a commercial venture rather than a "home movie" was the experience of listening to Kim Pensyl's and Bradley Sowash's first CD's. Both of those would get no more than 3 stars from me. Yet these guys went on to make great music later.

Am I going to go on- either to more mediocrity or something better? Well that probably depends on whether I am making a CD because I enjoy making CD's, or because I'm making a CD because I want to be "known" as someone who has made a CD. As someone who suffers from a compulsion to get other's approval I am always having to ask myself this question. And whenever anyone tells me, "I wish I could play the piano like you" I always wonder if they mean they want to play the piano, or if they mean they want to be known as a piano player.

BTW thanks for clearing up something for me. I used to deliver Fritz the Night Owl's mail. I also used to think, "Wow what a freak! Who would listen to this many CD's, let alone pay for them?" Now I realize that he is in the same situation that you are in.

(better you than me)

Andy Whitman said...

Fred, I appreciate your comments. I do think the line between personal/commercial art is a blurry one, and that there is certainly overlap.

I struggle with this, too, although probably more from the reviewer side than the creator side. As a reviewer, I am supposed to make judgments about works of art, specifically music. And the danger for me is to lose sight of the fact that there are real human beings behind these plastic CDs, and to communicate displeasure and even disdain that I would never communicate if I was face-to-face with the artist.

It's the Simon Cowell Syndrome, and it's not good. The fact is, there is a kind of perverse pleasure in slamming someone. And when you can do it in a witty way, you can actually get positive affirmation from the reaction of your audience.

But there is no need to do that, and I am (slowly) coming round to the view that it's actually displeasing to God. There is a fine line between deploring a work of art and attacking the artist who created the art. But I want to stay on the right side of that line, and I know that I've crossed it in the past.

I would like to think that even if I thoroughly detest the art created, I can still value the artist for trying. It's an old conundrum: is it better to create bad art than no art at all?

I think the answer is Yes.

Anonymous said...


i prefer paula's approach to simon's- "not yet ready for this competition."

i have some more thoughts on this subject which will appear soon on my blog.

see ya friday nite