Chapter Two: Is ‘high’ art superior?

Review of Chapter 2 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.

Building on his definition of art in Chapter 1, John Carey quickly answers the question his second chapter poses with a resounding no and proceeds to dismantle the cultural assumption of the superiority of fine/high art over and above low art.  While Carey makes many salient points, we’ll consider two here:

1. The superiority of high art is less about the art and more about serving as a means to assert superiority over another. According to Carey, the category of high art fulfils the art critic’s need to feel superior or elitist over and above those who support the low arts. Because of this, Carey doubts that prejudices towards the mass/low arts will change because identification with the high arts is attached to people’s self-esteem and identity. (54) To elevate high art requires a dehumanization of the one who appreciates ‘low’ art. Carey states: ‘…it is just this fatal element that makes the viewpoint so attractive. For it brings with it a wonderful sense of security. It assures you of your specialness.’ (58)

2. High art advocates make unsubstantiated assumptions about the viewer’s response. For Carey, this is ‘the most striking deficiency in the case against mass art…’ because high art advocates have taken a ‘complete lack of interest…in finding out how such art actually affects its recipients.’ (64) As evidence, Carey points to the conclusions art critics draw about how engagement with high art impacts the viewer.  For example, high art is more ‘satisfying’ for the viewer because it is ‘difficult’ or has the potential to evoke more authentic human emotions compared to low art which only makes us passive recipients.  Carey asserts multiple times throughout this chapter that this is a fundamentally flawed perspective because we cannot know what another person thinks or feels with precision. ‘It is standard practice for critics to assert how ‘we’ feel in response to this or that artwork, when all they mean is how they feel.’ (49)

The assumptions that Carey challenges form his conclusions for how to overcome the dichotomy between high and low art.  First, the aim is not a determination of objectivity within art, high or low.  Carey roots the experience of art in the experience of humanity. This is where it starts and stops and because we cannot know what is in the mind of another, art is fundamentally subjective. Because art is a culturally derived quality and how one experiences art is culturally determined, seeking an objective high art status is futile. (62) Rather than an objective quality to art, ‘[w]e are driven back on our own values and prejudices.’ (63) Secondly, rather than drawing conclusions on behalf of the viewer and disparaging mass art, our understanding of art requires that ‘we…know more about the audience of mass art. What pleasures and satisfactions they derive from it and how it affects their lives are questions that can be answered only by going out and asking.’ (54)

In this chapter, Carey has the guts to challenge the definitions and underlying motivations within the art world.  While the challenge is welcome, there are two areas where I think Carey has gone too far.  The first is that in his dismantling of the high arts, he is operating within the assumption that everyone comes to a work of art with the same capacity to engage with it.  While it is true that nearly everyone will respond to a work of art, this does not therefore negate the reality that whether by training, exposure, or natural propensity, there will be some who will have a deeper understanding of what is presented and can serve other viewers by offering guidance in how to understand the work.  While Carey’s point must be taken that the purpose of this is not superiority over others, it is equally not helpful to assume that this expertise is unnecessary to arts engagement.  There are other areas where we welcome the connoisseurship of trained critics, such as in wine tasting, politics, or film reviews.  In his critique of superiority, Carey has ended up also throwing out the expert guide who leads the viewer into deeper understanding. Additionally, Carey’s conclusions make it difficult to engage critically with mass art.  While it is important not to patronise the masses as if they are incapable of discerning the works of art before them, it is equally important to be critical of the art they are consuming and not assume that because it has a wide appeal, it is valuable art.

If we consider the challenges Carey raises from a Christian perspective, what resources does Christian theology provide to resist superiority while maintaining gifting?  Does the command to ‘love thy neighbour’ provide an alternative framework?


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6 Comments

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Sara, thanks for this great response to the second chapter of John Carey’s book. I am curious about his skepticism regarding the motives behind distinguishing between high and low art. Does he offer any support for the idea that critics are satisfying a ‘need’ to feel superior? I see you have quoted him saying that a distinction between high and low art brings one a sense of security and specialness. I suppose that it can, but I am wondering if he has any real examples of critics saying just this: that distinguishing between high and low art brings them a sense of security and specialness. Carey could easily apply the same skepticism to any type connoisseurship, as you suggest later in your post.

    I wonder if the example of Christ is exactly what can counter an art criticism founded on the need to be superior. It seems to me that Christ both taught us and showed us that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. His death on the cross overturns many of our preconceived notions of power, victory and superiority. I wonder what it would mean for art criticism to be Christ-like. Do you have any thoughts?

    • Bruce Herman says:

      It seems that Carey’s principal (as Sara portrays it) is predicated on the very thing he aims to dismantle. He assumes that the high art critics have certain superior feelings — and this is no different from the notion that the masses are unfit to appreciate high art. In both cases there is suspicion but evidence is hard to come by because motives and subjective experience cannot be charted. If the aim is to form a generous and charitable theory of art, he seems to miss the mark. On the other hand, Jim and Sara hint at the basis for just such a theory. If the higher serves the lower (as in Christ’s economy) then the high art critic who operates from Christian discipleship would do just what Sara says — enable the average viewer to become a full participant, enjoying and savoring the highest possible art. What remains in that space is to define or suggest criteria for what constitutes “high”. I’ll take a crack at this: art that ennobles, uplifts, inspires virtue, offers genuine insight, enhances wonder, celebrates beauty in its full complexity, points toward the source of Life. Art that degrades or debases or discourages our humanity would be “low” art — not necessarily associating low with commercial or “popular”. Some popular art is popular precise because it ennobles and uplifts. Associating “high” with difficult apriori is unnecessary (though sometimes the best in human thought is indeed difficult and needs the assistance of the expert). But developing criteria for excellent or what I’d call “aspirational” art seems to be the need here.

      • Sara says:

        Thanks, Bruce, for your comment. What I appreciate about what you’ve suggested (if I’ve understood correctly) is that whether a work of art is ‘high’ or ‘low’ is less about it being labeled thus and more about the art and its relationship to the viewer. It seems how it relates to the viewer (and its resulting high/low status) is understood in relation to God’s Kingdom principles. Would this be a fair assessment?

    • Sara says:

      Thanks, Jim, for your comment. Carey does offer specific examples of critics who say what they say out of a need to feel superior. The person he cites is novelist, Jeanette Winterson, who apparently disparages her mother’s taste in art. Carey writes: ‘why Winterson considers her way of seeing superior she does not divulge, but it is apparent she does, and feels that her mother and her mother’s friends would be better if they were more like her… if her mother and friends really became adept at Winterson’s kind of art, then it seems probable that they would enjoy it, since they enjoy sharing. But Winterson would have to find some new reason for feeling superior.’ (33-34) Incidentally, Winterson is also the critic who labeled Carey’s book as ‘idiotic’.

      While I think we both disagree with where Carey ends up, I wonder if what he has put his finger on is the pride of the human heart that can result in the desire to feel superior over and above someone else. Christian theology would call it sin. Because of Carey’s secular viewpoint, he can’t call it much beyond superiority and uses isolated examples to typify what he sees as the norm. Neither can Carey point to a redemption of sin which Christ’s action makes possible. While we’ll still be a human of mixed motives, there is possibility for art criticism that desires to illuminate rather than denigrate.

  • Dave says:

    Very sound points, all, and a valuable discussion. I’m concerned about the end of the post, and the statement that we “consume” art. I suppose I’m being a bit hypersensitive to word choice, but I feel that this is an enormous issue in its own right. The idea of “consuming” art is borne of a consumer culture is which art is seen as one more object available for purchase. This cheats both the art and the view, to say nothing of the artist. I think it is critical that we think of our interaction with art as engaging the medium, not consuming it.

  • steve scott says:

    For `constructed’ artistic taste as a social divider see the work of Pierre Bourdieu…esp
    `The Field of cultural production’ and `Distinction’

    For an aesthetics grounded in `difference’ and a `lifting up of the humble’
    see `Community of the Beautiful: a theological aesthetics’ by Garcia Rivera.

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