Friday, April 1, 2011

John Carey

April, 2011: Andy lent me What Good Are The Arts? (2005), by John Carey, because it had left him thinking that art is good for the artists who make it, and pretty much useless for everyone else. I really try to lead a useful (to others as well as myself) life; perhaps something from my high school Latin classes actually sank in (alas, the language didn't) - a common chastisement of Miss Weir's was, "Now, girls, start translating such and such, and make your miserable lives useful." John Carey spends the first two thirds of his book sticking his pin into any high falutin beliefs anyone has ever put into print about the worthiness of art. John Carey is English, and to an extent, he is fighting a war against classism - against using art to make yourself feel superior to others - and when I was first reading this book, I thought, "But this war isn't really relevant to Australian society." I'm not saying that Australia is classless, but I have a suspicion that class in England is much more of a big deal. It could be my Australia that is relatively classless, because I run a mile from people who give off a whiff of snobbery; I find it terribly embarrassing (for them).

Being an artist has never made me feel superior to anyone (the fact that I'm a third generation artist might partly explain why art just seems like a trade to me, rather than something that makes me different or special). I often wish I could say I did something else with my time - "bee-keeper" is my current alternative career fantasy. But, at the same time, art - not the producing of it, but rather taking it in - has done wonderful things for me. Most of all, what art does for me is to prove that other people also have things going on inside, and this makes me feel less lonely. Sometimes a song or a novel has pulled me through a rough time, as though it were a companion, a friend, articulating all the things that make life worth living. Art that's not literature-based, but visual or aural, has also made a difference to my life: when I find something beautiful, I feel glad to be alive, to be there to see or hear it. And I like being surprised, or charmed, or even shocked by something - these are galvanising responses, that draw the various floating strands of my consciousness to one particular spot, a little knot of "Oh!" This has nothing to do with art making me a better person, it is simply a tool or resource, one of many, that lots of people (including me) use to make life easier. Life is hard!

A few days later...I'm not going to spend paragraphs appraising this book; as Carey himself says, "Another thing we should do, I would suggest, is to switch the aim of research in the arts to finding out not what critics think about this or that artwork - which is necessarily only of limited and personal interest - but how art has affected and changed other people's lives." I wonder if Carey rejoices in the proliferation of blogs like these, all of us claiming the right to an opinion, putting ourselves on the same level with the 'proper' critics. He says, a bit later, "literature gives you ideas to think with. It stocks your mind." This book is packed with ideas. I liked a lot of them (sorry, Andy, I dog-eared a lot of pages), and the following are some favourites.

Ellen Dissanayake, in her book What Is Art For?, looks at animals, including humans, and wonders how art - skin-painting, weapon-decoration, dance etc. - contributed to natural selection:

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 to the everyday...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."

Dissanayake (via Carey) talks about popular art:

It emphasises belonging, and so seeks to restore the cohesion of the hunter-gatherer group. It is preoccupied with romantic-sexual love to a degree unprecedented, Dissanayake believes, in any previous human society, and this is a response to the loneliness of the modern condition.

Carey has quite a long passage on the benefits that prisoners gain from making art - it increases their self-esteem, makes them feel that they count, reduces frustration and sense of impotence, "gives voice to the anguish, pain and confusion that each inmate felt was their own private hell." I think this was the bit that prompted Andy to say that "art was good for the artists who made it", and many artists, I think, would find a lot to identify with when Carey is discussing the prisoners. Somehow art makes our dysfunctionality functional. Carey goes on to say that prisoners' interest in art tends to diminish rapidly after release, and claims that this is partly due to the fact that they find the art-world elitist and intimidating. I'd venture to add that a lot of people, ex-prisoners included, are soon discouraged from art-making by the fact that it generally costs rather than earns money. Most people think they should get money for doing work.

Another bit I liked, and on finding it again now, I realise it is more Dissanayake (via Carey):

Human needs and expectations evolved over millennia, she observes, in hunter-gatherer societies. That is where most of human history has been spent, and in these societies making things by hand was necessary. This is why manual contact with the natural world is satisfying to us. Pleasure in handling is hard-wired into our brains because our history predisposes us to be tool users and makers. But, Dissanayake regrets, "our marvellous, long-evolved, specialised hands, which can weave baskets, fashion arrows, or mould vessels, are now chiefly used for pressing buttons on appliances and computer keyboards."

A lovely argument for craft activities!

One thing Carey champions about literature is its "indistinctness" - the ambiguity of language, and the great gaping holes that words inevitably leave when describing something, a scene or an idea. These holes must be filled by the reader's own imagination, and this is, to Carey, an aspect of "literature's superiority". To Carey, reading is "empowering" - "the reader creates, and feels a creator's possessiveness." But I think the other forms of art are even more "indistinct" than literature - that's partly why I like writing. I have so many specific things I want to say. Other artists have inklings and feelings and atmospheres that they want to express or recreate (or whatever). Conceptual art is probably the most indistinct. Once, at some big art gallery (was it the Pompidou?), I read the two or three paragraphs that the artist had written about his or her installation - it was all about Lady Di, the car crash, the two sons left motherless etc. Then I duly walked into the room that the work was installed in, wandered around...I remember lots of autumn leaves stuffed in perspex boxes...and after a while, thinking about the boys and looking at the dead leaves, I felt quite moved. Then I walked out, and noticed that the artist's statement actually referred to another artwork. I felt silly. But perhaps I should think of it as a healthy act of imagination on my part. Another of my pipe-dreams is to make up a whole lot of artist-statements and surreptitiously substitute mine for the real ones next Biennale on Cockatoo Island.

Postscript: I keep thinking about What Good Are The Arts. Perhaps because I don't often read non-fiction about art, it has made a big impact on my little autodidactic store of thoughts-on-art. Another bit I didn't mention, but keep mentioning in conversation, was his defence of anything that we pejoratively call "escapism". He says (me paraphrasing, because I've returned the book to Andy) that when we use that word, we are implying that the one who enjoys escapism can't deal with reality, and seeks to escape from it, a bit like 'sticking your head in the sand'. But he says, maybe escapism is more about escaping to than from; about escaping to a world that has ideals that are hard to find in daily life. Maybe absorbing some 'escapist' subject matter can help a person to crystallise the way that he or she would ideally like to live - maybe it raises morale, gives hope, and enables a person to keep trudging on, reaching out, instead of apathetically giving up and just being a human boor. The other thing that I keep thinking about is how depressing our inactive lives are - we are creatures built for making things and moving! No wonder that sitting at desks poking buttons doesn't make us feel great. Dissanayake's idea about our specialised hands can be expanded to include our whole bodies, and especially our legs, which have lost a huge amount of their usefulness with the proliferation of the car. I was in the city at lunchtime the other day, and saw lots of office-worker joggers; it struck me as a rather desperate way to make life more active, and to keep neurosis at bay; the joggers reminded me of kelpies in parks, running back and forth fetching sticks (once you've seen kelpies expertly round up sheep, a kelpie whose life doesn't include this activity seems like a deprived kelpie).