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On High Art

John Carey has been at various points in his life a soldier, a barman, a television 9780199735976critic, a beekeeper, a printmaker, and a professor of literature at Oxford.  He is the Chief Book Reviewer for The Sunday Times in London.  His book, What Good are the Arts? offers a delightfully skeptical look at the claims made on behalf of art.  Carey argues for the value of art as an activity and debunks the idea that art contemplation makes us better people or that judgments about art are anything more than a personal opinion.  In the excerpt below Carey looks at “high art”.

Cultural commentators distinguish ‘high’ art (classical music, ‘serious’ literature, old-master painting, etc.) from mass or popular art, and generally assume its superiority….The metaphor of height is itself curious.  It may originate in bodily shame – ‘high’ art being that which surmounts the ‘low’ physical appetites and addresses the ‘spirit’.  It may also carry connotations of social class – ‘high’ art is that which appeals to the minority whose social rank places them above the struggle for mere survival.  Paradoxically, ‘high’ art is also generally assumed to be ‘deep’.  However, those who use these terms do not invest them with any real meaning.  Advocates of high art take it for granted that the experiences it gives them are intrinsically of more value than low art gives others, although…such a claim is not just unverifiable but meaningless.

The novelist Jeanette Winterson is a good example of a high-art advocate, deriving her ideals from Clive Bell and the Bloomsbury Group.  Like them she scorns realism, and equates art with ‘rapture’ and ‘ecstasy’.  Like them she disdains ‘mass education’.  Her critical writings reveal that she lives in a world of absolutes.  There are ‘true’ artists, like T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and herself, and there are non-artists like Joseph Conrad, whom she contemns as ‘a Pole who prided himself on his impeccable and proper English usage’.  True artists are spiritually superior and also, she implies, socially superior.  They shun ‘the language of shop assistants and tabloids’.  Art is ‘enchantment’, and true artists have ‘the right of spells’.  This is not, it seems, mere whimsy on Winterson’s part.  Her belief that she is surrounded by a magical presence strikes the ordinary observer as barely sane.  ‘I more gingerly’, she confides, ‘around the paintings I own because I know that they are looking at me as closely as I am looking at them.’

The rightness of her own artistic taste is a datum she never questions.  By contrast, she regrets her mother’s low inclinations in cultural matters:

My mother, who was poor, never bought objects, she bought symbols.  She used to save up to buy something hideous to put in the best parlour. What she bought was factory-made and beyond her purse.  If she had ever been able to see it in its own right, she could never have spent money on it.  She couldn’t see it, nor could any of the neighbours dragged to admire it.

The prejudices displayed here are securely traditional, though, of course, still just prejudices.  Distaste for the ‘factory-made’ goes back via the arts and crafts movement to William Morris, and ultimately to Carlyle.  The belief that anything can be seen ‘in its own right’ echoes Matthew Arnold, and ignores the modern understanding that all observations depend on observers.

Why Winterton 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.  Among advocates of high art these are common assumptions.  They think of themselves as leading rich and happy lives, and are sure that if the benighted masses would only share their artistic tastes they would be rich and happy too.  In fact the situation Winterton describes seems to be one that provides satisfaction both to herself and to her mother.  It gives Winterton a reason for feeling superior, which she clearly needs, and it gives her mother a way of sharing pleasure with her friends.  If her mother and friends really became adept at Winterson’s kind of art, then it seems probably that they would enjoy it, since they enjoy sharing.  But Winterson would have to find some new reason for feeling superior.  At all events, the striking omission form her account is any acknowledgment that she is in fact ignorant of the pleasure and satisfaction her mother and friends derive from their kind of art, since their consciousness is inaccessible to her.

Social and cultural divisiveness of this kind is inherent in the notion of high art.  It can be ‘high’ only by comparison with other art, which is ‘low’.  As Ellen Dissanayake argues in her book What is Art For?, this concept of art is not only relatively recent, it is also aberrant when viewed through the perspective of human evolution.  Dissanayake’s approach is ethological (that is, she is interested in how animals, including human animals, survive in their environments), and the question she addresses is how art has contributed to natural selection.  She is not concerned with our post-Kantian cult of art as solitary spiritual contemplation, but with a whole miscellany of practices from skin-painting to weapon-decoration traceable in early human societies.  All these art forms, she observes, were communal, reinforcing the group’s cohesion and helping to assure its survival.  The divisive tendencies of high art are alien to them.

Finding a single principle uniting these various art-practices is difficult.  But the behavioural tendency that Dissanayake suggests lies behind them all is ‘making special’.  To make something special is to place it in a realm different from the everyday.  Making special is not confined to humans.  The bower bird, building his little palaces to allure a mate, is making special in Dissanayake’s sense.  Her argument is that human communities that made things special survived better than those that did not, because the fact of taking pains convinced others as well as themselves that the activity – tool manufacture, say – was worth doing.  So art’s function was to render socially-important activities gratifying, physically and emotionally, and that is how it played a part in natural selection.

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