What Good are the Arts?

While driving to the mountains one bright, November morning, I caught myself ranting about the book I'm reading: John Carey's What Good Are the Arts? I picked it up last year, during a visit to The National Gallery in London with my parents; though I am only partway through, I would recommend it to anyone interested in the arts and their role in society.

Perhaps the upshot of completing two degrees in English literature, is that your education leaves you fraught with uncertainty – stemming, partly, from the humbling experience of completing a master's at Cambridge; mostly from being trained to think critically and over-analyze everything. Indeed, throughout and since my humanities education, the question, what good are the arts? has dogged me, from part-time jobs to Thanksgiving dinners, along with the question, what are you going to do with that, teach? To the first, I give the answer that follows; to the latter, an emphatic yes, coupled with a brief synopsis of how teachers are the most undervalued members of society, ever. Of course, that's another story . . . 

Though you, reader, may not have read it, let me begin (as bad academics do) with a sweeping statement that Carey's book is typically postmodernist in its assertions: his rhetorical strategy consists of dismantling every theory ever posited by anyone, leaving the reader swirling in the void, along with the remnants of ethics and theology – and anything with any meaning whatsoever.

The simplest way to illustrate this is using Carey's own, blue-tie anecdote: that is, if a child painted his father's tie blue, it would not be considered an artwork, but if Picasso painted the same tie blue, using an identical technique, it would be hailed a masterpiece. It doesn't matter if the father considers the tie to be beautiful because, unless he is an art critic, he is not endowed with the power or privilege of aesthetic judgement.

Carey attacks this, arguing that all art exists in the eye of the beholder, and good art is that which pleases those who experience it. Since we do not have access to another person's consciousness *yet*, we cannot separate 'high' from 'low' art. Ergo, we cannot place a value judgement on art's ability to give pleasure, since pleasure, of course, is entirely subjective.

I must voice my admiration for Carey's attempt to dismantle the high/low binary. No one likes a pretentious art critic (except the critic himself), and the idea that studying Shakespeare makes one more culturally 'attuned' is perfectly ludicrous – given that Shakespeare, in his time, was popular or 'low' art. And so we see how these high/low labels are arbitrary and artificial, serving only to reinforce the existing, social hierarchy and inflate our heads at faculty cocktail parties.

Yet in his introduction, Carey explicitly states his unwillingness to consider the theological dimensions of art – deeming these too controversial, given that, according to doctrine, Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims will all have very different ideas about what constitutes 'good' art, in the eyes of God.

This is largely a cop-out, where Carey, like his post-structuralist predecessors, refuses to acknowledge the inaccessibility of Truth. In dismantling the high/low art binary, Carey simultaneously precludes any possibilities of there being 'good' art. We cannot access another person's consciousness, therefore art is subjective; therefore art can mean anything; therefore art is meaningless.

At the risk of sounding redundant, this multiplicity of meanings renders everything meaningless. It is a logical fallacy. And so, we have the democratizing and seemingly liberating (though stifling) equation of Duchamp's Fountain (urinal) with Michelangelo's Pietà.

I am not entirely opposed to poststructuralist thinking. Indeed, I believe poststructuralism is an incredibly useful means of dismantling the exclusionary systems of binary logic: white/black, straight/gay, high/low. Still, I cannot endorse a theory whose philosophical underpinnings are so unequivocally atheist: theories that dismiss essentialist thinking as 'naive' and 'colonialist,' pandering to scientism and preferring, instead, to play 'God' and make a Truth of untruths. Indeed, its elevation of the subjective provides a rationale for judgement and behaviour that borders, dangerously, on nihilism.

Poststructuralism is, at its best, a tool we can use to pick apart our fundamentally human, dualistic reasoning; it creates a space for empathy and allows us to see other people's perspectives. It is not, however, a substitute for faith or for God, and it is unlikely that philosophical debate, from Aristotle to Kant, was set to culminate in the mind of Jacques Derrida. It's time to move past poststructuralism (or post-post-structuralism – whatever the heck we're in), and acknowledge this simple fact: our inability to circumscribe one, essential Truth does not mean that it cannot exist.