Chapter One: What is a work of art?

Review of Chapter 1 in What Good are the Arts? by John Carey.  Transpositions is hosting reviews of each chapter of this book from 28 March – 3 April 2011.

As would any philosopher who seeks to address matters of public debate and discussion, John Carey sets out to identify and critique instances of poor reasoning and lack of logic in argumentation. It is exactly these things that he finds throughout the history of serious discussions about the arts. For him, the whole matter has been a “farrago of superstition and unsubstantiated assertion” (11), convictions that are “largely unexamined” (xii) about a “difficult thing to measure” (xiii). Worse still, the history of the philosophical aesthetics as he sees it is infected with religious assumptions. God and spirituality has been for him too easily invoked as a foundation for views about the arts and the affect of the arts upon people and all of this, in Carey’s view, advanced by way of logical inconsistency and unproven assertion.

In the first chapter entitled “What is a work of art?” Carey announces his own “secular viewpoint” (3) and proceeds to take the reader through a tour of main themes and personalities dominating the Western philosophical debate about the arts beginning in the 18th century, justified on the basis that it was only then that the very question about the status of art would have been intelligible.

Two criticisms seem to inform Carey’s project throughout. One is a perceived elitism that characterizes definitions of art in the modern Western tradition. Only those with the right frame of mind can recognize, understand and properly appreciate art. Carey finds this unacceptable. The second is against essentialism in the definitions of art that Carey reviews. Anti-essentialism seems to be one of Carey’s own metaphysical commitments. In one of his own unsubstantiated assertions, Carey states as self-evident that “Meanings are not inherent in objects. They are supplied by those who interpret them” (20), citing the authority of recent literary theory as sufficient justification for his view.

Carey’s interrogation of philosophical aesthetics concludes with a consideration of Arthur Danto’s contribution and the current state of the professional “art world,” because the pronouncements of the “art world” play a large part in Danto’s scheme of securing a stable definition of a work of art. It also provides fuel for Carey’s ridicule.

Towards the end of the chapter Carey unveils his own definition:

My answer to the question, ‘What is a work of art?’ is ‘A work of art is anything that anyone has ever considered a work of art, though it may be a work of art for that one person.’ (29).

This definition for Carey avoids the elitism and essentialism that he finds and rejects in previous analyses. Its rather facile character underlines the basic skepticism that Carey’s text insinuates towards claims for anything that for him fail a test of complete public accessibility and accountability. Carey’s secularism is presented in a morally neutral and socially democratic light, a position which seems to lay at the heart of his project but which is, of course, a faith commitment nonetheless.

In spite of its sarcasm, skepticism and philosophical fallacies of its own, Carey’s text can serve to highlight weaknesses in former philosophical and theological aesthetics, and encourage theorists and theologians of the arts to seek maximal clarity, criterion, and means of assessment in their thinking and writing about the arts. The “aesthetic turn” taking place in theological and Biblical studies deserves rigorous analysis and articulation, and if nothing else, Carey’s text can help show us what to avoid.

Image Credit

James McCullough is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews. His research explores the relationship between works of visual art and spiritual formation. He lives on a farm near St Andrews with his wife and four children.


  • Bruce Herman says:

    Carey’s subjectivism reflects the dominant mentality of our times, and as you say, it’s good to know what Christian thinkers are up against. The idea that meaning and value are purely human constructions — and further, that the art-status of an object or idea is arrived at idiosyncratically is to my mind a nearly meaningless principal. If anything that I personally declare to be art is indeed art, then you have no definition at all. What you have is an idiosyncratic definition — essentially a one-person meaning (which is no meaning).
    If I say, “everything — the totality of my experience shall henceforth be declared art” I have said nothing about art.
    Of course, as a Christian believer I have no problem at all saying that the entire Creation can be seen as art (made by the supreme artist) — but art as we have been discussing it over the past several postings is a thing made by human interventions and understood as such by a certain consensus.
    The underlying issue on the table, it seems to me, is how a “world” of art comes into being — that is, a community of art makers and consumers who agree amongst themselves that certain things will be understood as art and appreciated accordingly. It goes without saying that for one community a great work of art might be virtually meaningless for a different community.
    The film “The Gods Must Be Crazy” is a humorous exploration of a similar dilemma. A Coke bottle is tossed from a passing plane and falls into the midst of a current stone-age tribe below. To the tribal people it appears as a highly desirable, divinely wrought object (because shiny cast-glass objects do not exist among them). Chaos is loosed on the tribe as they vie for who will own the new and rare object.
    The key here is that we, the audience of the film, are amused at their credulity and the chaos of envy and competition that threatens to dissolve the peace of the tribe. Yet that is exactly what we do in our “world” of art: we seek and define a rare object as a work of genius and then value it highly, competing for it at Christy’s or Sotheby’s. But the value and meaning of the object are arrived at corporately, not idiosyncratically.
    What remains, it seems to me, is to decide if indeed this communal definition of value, beauty, or desirability is binding in any way. If I removal a public urinal from its normal context and place it for visual appreciation on a pedestal in the White Cube Gallery, does it (as DuChamps declared) become art?
    DuChamps was one of the first to reach this Rubicon — and all the others since (Warhol, Damien Hirst, Keff Koons, et al) are simply footnoting his finding that the line between life and art — the “low” of commercially produced objects and the “high” of finely crafted objet d’art is henceforth blurred.
    But this needn’t be the last word for our community. The god’s may be crazy, and we may need to toss the Coke bottle off the edge of the world (as the chieftain did in that wonderfully zany movie). The Coke bottle in this case may be a Brillo Box, a shark in formaldehyde, a colossal stainless steel bunny, or any number of even less savory objects.
    I don’t think Christians are obligated to accept as art anything baptized as such by other communities. We need to live in harmony with our neighbors, but we may also offer genuine alternatives to the craziness that is tossed from the passing plane. Cheers…

  • Preston says:

    I’m not much of a fan of Carey’s definition, though I see it’s appeal.
    I have come to consider a work of art to be anything that bridges the experienced reality with the Reality. That is, anything that narrows the spiritual space of this world with the realm of heavenly things, ultimately God. As Bruce pointed out, I have no trouble with this having to do with Creation as made by the Creator. I also don’t think a creator has to be within the context of Christianity to make art. The transcendent nature of Real things is such that any creator, in so far as they bare similarity by the very act of creation with the Creator, can create art, can create something that causes a narrowing of the space between this world and the world as it should be. (Participating in the paradox of seeing in Hebrews 2:8-9, if you will.) There has to be a way therein to avoid the elitism that Carey seems to do well rejecting, but it also has to come without the post-modern affinity for relativism and subjectivity.

  • Helen Campbell says:

    I agree with Preston’s points. On the topic of operating within the context of Christianity, it might help to see that the whole world is created by God, ordered by God, and belongs to our Sovereign God, including the work of non christian artists. Whether or not our perspective is wholesome, complete, or true, art operates differently than a thesis paper. What is introduced takes on a life of it’s own, in a way, separate to some extent from the perspective of the artist, and dependent on meanings that are part of life as we experience it and as it was initially created to be good. We, and all of creation, have suffered a fall from that perfect state, and whether we realize it or not, we fight God’s perfection and hand, and yet cry for redemption. The creation groans for that day as well. Can’t we set aside elitism by looking at the basics?

  • John Wilson says:

    Prose such as this–“encourage theorists and theologians of the arts to seek maximal clarity, criterion, and means of assessment in their thinking and writing about the arts”–does not take us anywhere useful. Even a a very short review should be well-crafted, especially a short review on the subject “What Good Are the Arts?”

    • Wes Vander Lugt says:

      I appreciate and agree with your concern for clear prose, John, and we do desire here on Transpositions to communicate as cogently as possible. I would like to point out, however, that we are seeking to maintain this site and to pursue what we hope are valuable conversations between theology and the arts entirely in our “spare time.” In reality, this means that many posts are simply proofread rather than run through a more extensive editing process, leaving it up to our writers to craft clear and cogent prose. All things considered, I think we have succeeded generally in generating valuable conversations, although there is always room for improvement in how these are crafted. So, thanks for the reminder, and we will continue to strive for excellence.

    • Anna Blanch says:

      John, what don’t you find clear about the sentence you excerpt? It seems to me to be a general statement.

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