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August 23, 2007

Hinterland Diary

John Stoehr

The flaw logic of the relativist approach to art criticism? . . .

On John Carey's 2006 book, "What Good Are the Arts?"

Carey has a keen nose for elitism of any kind and delights in exposing what he regards as fraudulence in the art world. This includes, naturally enough, excesses and absurdities of the avant garde, such as the Italian artist Piero Manzoni, who produced as works of art labeled tins of his own excrement ...

By concentrating on such stunts, Carey shows little desire to produce a balanced historical account of modernism. He traces our current bad, elitist attitudes back to Kant, who, he argues, thought of beauty as a mysterious supersensible property of art works. Kant believed that standards of beauty were "absolute and universal." For Carey, Kant's aesthetics is a "farrago of superstition and unsubstantiated assertion," [emphasis added] and he cannot understand why anybody ever believed any of it.

What's worse, Kant infected western thought with the intellectual disease of imagining that works of art are somehow "sacred" objects set off from the rest of ordinary experience. Carey's account of Kant strikes me as embarrassingly partial and confused, but I doubt if Carey cares: for him, Kant is just another way to denounce the preciousness endemic in the art world.

Ruskin is dismissed for treating art as religion and a higher moral realm. "Taste," Ruskin declared, "is not only a part and an index of morality -- it is the ONLY morality." [italics mine]. Carey has little trouble demolishing this sentiment, though I wish he had found more original examples than Hitler's tastes in opera and the fact that Auschwitz guards could listen to classical music at night and go back to killing people by day.

All of the problems Carey discovers with art and its uses lead him to a surprisingly empty definition when he finally gets to it: "My answer to the question, 'What is a work of art?' 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 only that one person'." [mine] This aesthetic solipsism may be one way to respond to the snobbery of the likes Kenneth Clark, but it does not do much to advance Carey's argument. After all, if art is whatever you say it is, then the Tate can hardly be faulted for buying Manzoni's feces.

From Denis Dutton's review for the Press in New Zealand in 2006

Posted by John Stoehr at August 23, 2007 2:29 PM