Afterward: Reflecting on Our Review of What Good Are The Arts?

We devoted all of last week to reviewing John Carey’s book What Good Are The Arts?. His polemical and very entertaining prose opened up a fruitful space for dialogue about important philosophical questions concerning the arts. In particular, Carey raises two very important questions: “What is a work of art?” and “Is ‘high’ art superior?”. Carey’s answer to the first question 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).  And his answer to the second question is, simply, no.

Carey is self-conscious about the fact that underlying his two answers to the above questions is a very stubborn relativism. Out of consideration for his methodology, Carey assumes a “secular viewpoint” and chooses to “exclude considerations of religious faith — not out of disrespect for religion, but because the assumption of a religious faith would alter the terms of the discussion fundamentally and unpredictably” (3). It has been our task to “alter the terms of discussion,” and to suggest what a Christian viewpoint might bring to a philosophical discussion on the arts.  In many respects, we found some common ground with Carey. But, as Preston said in his comment on James McCullough’s post:

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.

Like Preston’s comment, many of those who participated in the discussion last week extended the conversation in very fruitful directions. I would like to take the time to bring a couple of these comments to light.  In response to the question of elitism and the superiority of ‘high’ art posed in Sara Schumacher’s post, Bruce Herman offered some helpful insight:

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 … But developing criteria for excellent or what I’d call “aspirational” art seems to be the need here.

Bruce points towards a Christ-like ethic that might guide our art criticism and appreciation. If Christ’s example subverts many of our preconceived values regarding, say, politics or economics, might it not also do the same for the art world?

Jenn Craft’s post took on Carey’s fifth chapter where he turns explicitly to the topic of religion and art, and it was not surprising to find that the question of whether art can be religion generated some interesting discussion.  John Franklin observes that:

Its ironic that while rejecting the religion option for art he lands on the communal idea where “active participation in art alters people” – religion of course has great interest in seeing people change/be transformed. I would concur that art does not make a good or adequate religion.

But John, who brings out some helpful quotes from George Steiner’s Real Presences, observes that although art should not be equated with religion, there is still a “close link between art and religion.” Cole Matson, in his response to the same post, also says that equating art and religion is a mistake, but he does offer one way that they might be similar. He writes:

I also agree that, like religion, art necessarily involves community, in that art is communication, which involves two parties, not just self-expression, which only needs one. Even art that is created and then stuck in a drawer still involve a process of communing with an experience or vision outside oneself, in the process of creating. I wonder if there’s a parallel to be drawn between this experiencing of communing through artistic creation, and private prayer, as well as between the sharing of artistic creation with an audience and the public enacting of religious ritual.

We are grateful for everyone who took the time to participate in our discussion last week. I wish that I had the space to post all of the comments we received, but all I have space left to do is recommend that you take some time to have a look.


  • Jim Watkins is the assistant editor and a regular contributor at Transpositions. Originally, Jim is from southern California and southeastern Texas, but sometimes he feels most at home in the landscape and coffee shops of the Pacific Northwest. He met his wife Emily at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he studied Studio Art (concentration in painting). For his PhD research, he is examining the relationship between divine and human creativity from the perspective of divine kenosis.

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