According to John Carey, the arts do not make us better. But that has not been the prevalent position throughout history, so Carey spends time tracing the story of art and moral improvement.
For Aristotle, art formed character, and this idea was revived in the Enlightenment, when many thinkers such as Hegel argued that art improves recipients morally, emotionally, and spiritually. Indeed, much of the rationale behind public art galleries is that it would close the gap between rich and poor, instilling common values and providing social cohesion.
Tolstoy represents another facet of this viewpoint, arguing that art refines human emotion and is the source of spiritual enjoyment. But Carey gathers rebuttals from psychologists to dismiss this hypothesis, and also wields social and historical arguments to observe how Western art has been a force for inequality and social injustice more than social harmony and cohesion. The West may have produced some great art, but are we really doing that well at addressing inequalities and suffering as a result? In fact, argues Carey, art creates divides more than it unifies.
But even if art does not achieve these goals, does it at least strengthen our moral imagination or help us experience the divine? This may be possible, but Carey doubts whether these experiences really make us better people. Drawing from Marghanita Laski, Carey questions the benefit of ecstatic experiences, and asks if this is the only benefit of the arts, then why are they better than hallucinogenic drugs? In fact, this perspective has the dangerous effect of valuing art more than people, placing art in the position of a “surrogate soul.”
If we really thought that the arts improve people, states Carey, “the obvious step would be to distribute these treasure in local art galleries through the land.” But of course that is absurd, and highlights the fact that we do not really value art because it makes us better, an idea Carey concludes is founded on “lax and baseless assumptions and pious hopes.”
I agree with Carey on one level: that art does not exist to improve people, because as Hans Rookmaaker articulated, “art needs no justification.” We don’t need to justify art by its ability to improve us, because art and our ability to make art is a gift from God and does not need to serve other ends. That does not mean, however, that our only recourse is “art for arts sake.” Art does have an impact on us as humans, and I do maintain that it contributes to human flourishing.
At one point, Carey acknowledged that an adequate answer to the question “does art make us better?” depends on what we mean by better. He surmised the most common meaning is unselfishness and its accompanying social egalitarianism; he lumps Communism and Christianity together in this camp. But Christianity hopes for more than this, including the comprehensive transformation of the divine image in humanity and divine goodness in creation.
How can art contribute to this transformation? First, I think it is important to expand our understanding of “art” beyond visual art, which tends to dominate these discussions, including Carey’s. Armed with a more expansive view of art, it is easier to grasp how art wields transformative power by imparting a vision of reality and inviting participation in that vision (cf. John W. De Gruchy, Christianity, Art and Transformation). The arts have this unique power because they embody, incarnate, and make present the vision. In doing so, art unveils both the beauty and ugliness of the world, empowering the imagination and engendering new possibilities for transformation. Of course, because of its power, art also has the potential to engender hate, injustice, and oppression.
Art will not always make us better, but it does have the power and potential to transform.