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'What Good Are the Arts?'

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Michael Dirda devotes his most recent Sunday column to John Corey's What Good Are the Arts?

We've hashed over many of these arguments, but it's nice to see them raised again:

All too often, reverence for the divine Mozart or a heavenly Vermeer tends to reduce the rest of us to interchangeable extras on life's stage, unimportant and quite expendable. This is a monstrous way to regard people. Instead of approaching artworks as showpieces, concludes Carey, we would be better off emphasizing personal participation in the arts. The activity itself matters more than the quality of the end product. Art should be "something done, not consumed, and done by ordinary people, not master spirits." It should result in community, not a fatuous sense of superiority. After all, we descended from hunter-gatherers who worked with their hands, and something in our genes still hungers for such manual activity. "It is not what you paint on a piece of canvas that counts," Carey argues, "but what painting a piece of canvas can do for you." Such focused acts of attention may, for instance, develop qualities of character like "self-discipline, patience, and delay of immediate gratification." Carey ringingly concludes the first half of his book with these words:

"The religion of art makes people worse, because it encourages contempt for those considered inartistic. We now know that it can foster hideous and earth-shattering evil. It is time we gave active art a chance to make us better."

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Michael Dirda devotes his most recent Sunday column to John Corey's What Good Are the Arts?

We've hashed over many of these arguments, but it's nice to see them raised again:

All too often, reverence for the divine Mozart or a heavenly Vermeer tends to reduce the rest of us to interchangeable extras on life's stage, unimportant and quite expendable. This is a monstrous way to regard people. Instead of approaching artworks as showpieces, concludes Carey, we would be better off emphasizing personal participation in the arts. The activity itself matters more than the quality of the end product. Art should be "something done, not consumed, and done by ordinary people, not master spirits." It should result in community, not a fatuous sense of superiority. After all, we descended from hunter-gatherers who worked with their hands, and something in our genes still hungers for such manual activity. "It is not what you paint on a piece of canvas that counts," Carey argues, "but what painting a piece of canvas can do for you." Such focused acts of attention may, for instance, develop qualities of character like "self-discipline, patience, and delay of immediate gratification." Carey ringingly concludes the first half of his book with these words:

"The religion of art makes people worse, because it encourages contempt for those considered inartistic. We now know that it can foster hideous and earth-shattering evil. It is time we gave active art a chance to make us better."

I don't really understand this argument. Certainly everyone can and should be encouraged to create art. We can value the attempt, even if the results are not particularly noteworthy. And contempt, in any form, is not good.

But I don't agree with Carey's contention that the activity itself matters more than the quality of the end product. Nope. Not true. We don't apply this philosophy to any serious discipline; why should we apply it to art?

You want to be a doctor? What a nice goal. So maybe read a few books on medicine, make a couple attempts at curing people, and that's all that matters. We'll applaud your efforts. You want to be a commercial airline pilot? Good for you. Just think about how much fun you'll have, maybe practice a few times on a virtual flight simulator, and have at it. It's the attempt that counts.

Would you visit that doctor if you were sick? Would you strap yourself in to that pilot's airplane?

Carey is also conflating two very different purposes of art. There is value in creating art for its own sake. If people write poetry, paint pictures, compose music, then these activities have intrinsic value for the reasons Carey describes. But once those works of art enter the public marketplace -- once somebody tries to sell them -- then the quality of the art matters very much. It is not only appropriate, but it is absolutely necessary to evaluate the quality of the art, and that evaluation goes on whether it comes through a formal juried art show or an album review or simply through informal discussions and bull sessions in dormitory rooms. If you don't want your art to be evaluated, then your only alternative is to keep it to yourself.

The dichotomy that Carey presents is also ridiculous -- Mozart and Vermeer on one side, all the other insignificant unwashed artistic mediocrities (and worse) on the other. Who believes this? Who teaches this? No one I know. The closer one gets to a particular art form, the more deeply one becomes immersed in that form, the more evident it becomes that there are an almost infinite number of gradations in quality, and that there are so many criteria that go in to making up "quality" that it is very, very difficult to make categorical statements. But the solution, then, is to not make categorical statements; to qualify our judgments so that they are tempered by as many facets of the artistic work as we can communicate. The solution is to think more clearly, to weigh those varying and occasionally conflicting criteria more carefully, not to throw up our hands and state that we can't comment about artistic quality. This is the counsel of despair.

Some art really is better than other art. That view need not be communicated contemptuously. But it should be communicated. I fervently hope that people -- all people -- continue to create art. And I fervently hope that people -- all people -- will continue to discuss what makes some of it more worthwhile than others.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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