“The assumption that the arts make people better is seldom accompanied by any serious consideration of what better people might be like.” (Carey 2005 p.103)
Really, if we are honest with ourselves it seems, the arts are simply a method of communication. A medium through which artists express ideas, emotions and experiences in the hope that others may see what they see, feel what they feel or think about what they were thinking about.
The Arts are not Holy or Devine, they do not represent a universal essence or any eternal truths; The arts are not more (or less) important than any other form of expression or communication, including those forms which elitists might consider abominable, ugly or obscene (think reality TV, footy anthems, trash magazines or porn). Decisions about what is and isn’t to be understood as art, decisions on what is valuable and aesthetic, are bound up in social, cultural, political, economic and historical contexts. There is no clearcut definable difference between ‘high’ or ‘low’ art – it is all a matter of framing and personal taste. (Carey 2005 p.29-30) and further to this having ‘good’ taste does not automatically mean you are a good person.
Art is not religion. Art is not science. Art by its very nature evades and rejects being defined and understood. Yet Art is valuable and Art is important -Why?
The arts play a multitude of roles in our lives, in our societies and in our institutions. To answer these question of: what good are the arts? Why they are valuable? and Why they are important? We need to better understand the many roles the arts play and in turn (somewhat ironically) find better ways to communicate this in order to attain better support and acknowldegment for the arts. John Carey sees a more hopeful answer to these questions in “evidence that active participation in artwork can engender redemptive self-respect in those who feel excluded from society” (Carey 2005 p.255). However he then goes on to claim that literature is the only art form capable of reasoning and criticising, writing that although literature does not make you a better person it “may help you to criticise what you are… it enlarges your mind, and gives you thoughts, words and rhythms that will last you for life” (Carey 2005p.260). Carey writes that “Only language can explore concepts…” and that to even “…formulate concepts requires language” (Carey 2005 p.257) and it is here where I disagree with Carey, who in trying to justify this position explained that the visual arts rely on written support material such as the artist rational, exhibition catalogues and explanatory essays to communicate concepts as art in and of itself is “incapable of replicating the function of language”. Disregarding for a moment the fact that in this argument Carey has totally ignored all other art forms outside of literature and conceptual art (including music, theatre, dance, design, craft etc.) in making this argument he also denies all other modes of knowing and communicating.
I would be the first to acknowledge that too often artists rely on written support material as a crutch to hold up their conceptual or theoretical frameworks – but this is not reflective of arts inability to communicate complex concepts and ideas. In fact, using art to explore and communicate concepts in now being taken more seriously by academic institutions than any time in the pas with the emergence of art as research/ research as art. Currently, humanity is grappling with an inexhaustible number of complex issues, ideas, systems and phenomenon’s. We are trying to discover, unpack and understand things we do not yet have the language for – that we can not explain to each other in words – and it is here in this space of communication breakdown and the unknown, where the arts show the potential to play a more conscious and critical role going forward.
Carey illustrated this clearly early on in his book, writing that:
“For example, we often feel that we cannot properly express our thoughts in words. Indeed, it is clear that we cannot. It is impossible, for example, to describe a face in words so that the person we are addressing will be sure to recognise it, however clear an image of it we may have in our minds. Showing the other person a photograph, on the other hand, will effect this instantly” (Carey 2005 p.80)
So it seems that he agrees that the arts are actually a good medium for communication, but I argue that they are more than that… the arts are not only an outcome , a product: an art object or an artwork/performance/happening etc. they are also a process. A process good for: interruption, play, deep thinking, expanding, exploring, following intuition, inverting, discovering, disarming, inventing, creating, producing, reflecting, contrasting, collaging, breaking boundaries/rules/limitations, sharing, designing, changing perspective, opening up new ground/new possibilities, actioning values,subversion, questioning, filling you with emotions: surprise, wonder, shame, joy, sadness, lust, nostalgia, disbelief, remorse, excitement etc. In other words they are not just a medium for communication but also a medium of emergence – a process that is productive and brings into the world new insights, new perspectives, new ideas, new knowledge: A methodology for research!
“There are no false answers in art, because there are no true answers, and the past matters because the present does not displace it. Since art must accommodate all personal tastes and choices… it is as illimitable as humanity, and as extensive as the imagination. The aim of science, by contrast is to find solutions that are unaffected by taste of choice, and which consequently eliminate the human element altogether. In this respect, art is infinite, whereas science [and I would argue language] is bounded. But art is infinite only because, and so long as, it does not allow truth-claims. Once truth-claims are admitted… the terrain of what can be counted as ‘real’ art shrinks, and is subjected to policing, instead of being as lawless and inventive as human intelligence.” (Carey 2005 p.254)
In saying this, the answer to the question “What good are the Arts” is not simply: The arts are a good tool for communication – useful for expressing complex ideas like a hammer is useful when one comes across a nail. No. The idea of art as research is not to illustrate pre-existing ideas, or to transform art into a utilitarian science. Nor is it to force the arts into a shape that reflects the practices of academia as we know it. For such attempts would limit, diminish and dictate what the arts are ‘good’ for rather than come to a better understanding of how art and research could extend and enhance each other reciprocally.
Carey, John (2005) What Good Are the Arts? London: Faber and Faber.