Chapter Two: Is ‘high’ art superior?
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?