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April 03, 2006

Eye of The Beholder

Earring So, you have a favorite movie or love a great book.  Certain music rocks your entire being.  You are enthralled by a painting, awestruck by a piece of sculpture. But is any of them any good - by an objective yardstick? Who or what defines the value of art?  What constitutes an aesthetic experience?  Is fleeting enjoyment less meaningful than an enduring one?  And most important, do the arts make you a better person?  Whether you are partial to masterpieces or kitsch, what is more relevant - the aesthetic experience itself or the object of your admiration? So asks author John Carey in his book titled "What Good Are Arts?" Urinal_art

• No one has come up with a persuasive definition of art, one that makes sense for all the arts across history. To put it another way, no one has come up with a good way to distinguish art from nonart. Marcel Duchamp had it right: Tear a urinal off the bathroom wall, stick it in a museum, and it's art. The best you can say is this: Something is a work of art if someone -- even one person -- says it is.

• Statements that this work of art is superior to that are purely personal and subjective. No rational basis exists for saying that high art is better than low, that Bach and Beethoven should be preferred to Britney and Busta Rhymes.

• There's scant empirical evidence that exposure to the arts makes you a better person, however you want to define better.

• Don't look to science for help in sorting out this mess.

• Don't fool yourself into thinking art can be a surrogate religion.

Carey argues further that even if one accepts that there indeed exist good and not so good art, enjoying one or the other does not automatically make YOU a better or a worse person.

"Carey doesn't argue flatly that exposure to the arts won't make you a better person. Rather, he argues there's no real proof, by which he means proof that would pass scientific muster.

Try a thought experiment. Think of those you know who embrace the arts. Are they more benevolent than those who live without art? Are carjackers and rapists underrepresented in their number? Probably. Tax cheats? Possibly. Are they kinder to their families, more charitable, less selfish? Uhmm."

While Carey summarily punctures the hot air balloon of highbrow art, he  concedes that literature may be a higher form of art than music or painting because although it does not make you a more moral person, it ""enlarges your mind." 

"But doesn't a painting, for example, supply materials for thought and enlarge your mind? Certainly gazing at Picasso's Guernica or listening to Mozart's Requiem prompts thoughts. Carey doesn't develop the contrast between literature and the other arts at any length but seems to suggest that such thoughts are more fugitive, disconnected, daydreamy.

There may be no absolutes in either ethics or aesthetics, but we can't escape ethical choices, nor can we can escape deciding what to look at and read and listen to. Those choices have consequences.  As Carey notes, "They shape our lives."

Having a catholic taste (middlebrow, at best) in arts, I am quite intrigued by Carey's provocative assertions - enough for me to want to read the book.  I do agree with him that "artness", especially in music and visual arts is often very subjective and the absolute aesthetic value of any art may be debatable. What I do know however, is that art does not have to be pretty to be good.

Update: This article was originally published on April 3, 2006.  I am bringing it to the front for readers who came to this site on a later date. The original article cited here in the Houston Chronicle is now a dead link. I have provided a fresh link to a story which tells the same story but not in exactly the same words. Among the reasons for re-publishing the article are the following:

  • I have no new blogging ideas today.
  • I like the topic addressed here by John Carey.
  • The exchange between me and Dean C. Rowan in the comments section below is in my opinion, quite interesting.
  • This post also marks the event that resulted in Dean coming aboard as a guest blogger on A.B.

Also, this is a notice to readers that during dry blogging spells, I will from time to time resort to bringing older and more interesting posts to the front of the page.


A refined critical sensibility of one's own middlebrow taste is perhaps itself a highbrow faculty. Thus art assures our encounter with confusions and entanglements of subjectivity and objectivity, high and low, permanence and transitoriness, and so forth. It's funny that all Carey seems to want to do is "look to science"--deference to empirical evidence, a tidy algorithm (one person says it's art = it's art)--despite his clear proscription. Of course that would be a mistake, but it's equally troubling that science looks to art from its posture of mastery.

Is that what you think Carey is saying? To look to science to define art? I got the opposite impression - that science will never be able to pinpoint what constitutes art.

As I see it, a brainscan can probably determine "whether" we are experiencing an aesthetic reaction but science can never predict "what" will trigger that response. As such, an aesthetic experience will remain as personal as our allergies or DNA.

I think what Carey means is that since science will never be able to give us the empirical or the verifiable formula for "artness", the high priests of high art should stop pontificating about what indeed defines aesthetics and we should stop worrying about whether it is Vermeer's exquisite girl or Duchamp's urinal that gladdens our hearts.


I think you are correct that Carey is saying we shouldn't look to science, but that doesn't appear to be what he's doing. If that were the case, his admonition against doing so would follow as a conclusion to the bulleted items among which it's nested. (I'm assuming the digest of his argument in the original posting fairly captures it.) Instead, he preaches (too strong a word, perhaps) against science as a clear lens with which to view art, but at once uses scientific or rational rhetoric to make his point about art.

It so happens that I have been rereading W.J. Bate's biography of Keats, who, according to the Village Voice article linked in the posting, "was wrong" about beauty entailing truth. I think the author of that piece confuses beauty with prettiness, and that Keats did not. Likewise, the notion that our thoughts about painting or music tend to be more "fugitive" or "daydreamy" than those about literature--a notion that may very well be the case, at least for now--confuses a sort of conventional behavior (for instance, a tendency to "gaze" at paintings rather than to read them) with a potential one that would invite a richer aesthetic experience.

I guess my concern is over what I perceive as a colonization of art by science. It strikes me as entirely missing the point, like hoping to spread humor by explaining jokes.

You are right of course. Science, I do not think (I hesitate to say "ever") will or should colonize aesthetics. John Carey knows that too. Hence he insists that it should not be the bailiwick of the sophisticated afficionado to define for the more pedestrian consumers of art what "art" is - because there is no numerical equation or graph to verify the claim. His argument seems to be that absent the scientific certainty, let us leave it to the individual to enjoy art at whatever level that appeals to the one encountering it.

As I said, my own experience with art is that of a dabbler but I do enjoy it, especially literature and the visual arts. In a museum, I would often "gaze at" or "read into" a painting that catches my fancy. And if I have some prior knowledge of the cirumstances surrounding its creation, perhaps even "understand" it. My husband (a scientist, BTW) on the other hand, could take in an entire museum full of masterpieces on roller skates. But he too loves what he sees and I would argue (as would Carey, I suspect) that his enjoyment is just as aesthetically satisfying as mine.

I have not read the biography of Keats that you mention. But I am sure Keats meant something much more fundamental by "beauty" than prettiness. The author of the article found Keats' line to be a convenient tool to make his own point.

By the way, I like what you said about the undesirability of spreading humor by explaining a joke. I think Carey may be making exactly the same point about the mavens of art "explaining" too much. He wants them to leave it well enough alone.

Slightly off topic, I would like you to read the following article on Professor Amardeep Singh's blog about scientists and how even they often understand a scientific phenomenon by humanizing it.
What To Do With A Mexican Jumping Bean


The "slightly off topic" skew of the Singh posting affords a degree of parallax here, bringing needed focus. His posting and your contribution wander through the territory I have been approaching in a bit of a fog in my responses. Thank you for your comments, for the reference to the Singh thread, and for this opportunity to continue the discussion. Now, where to begin?

Wonham opposes science to poetry, implying that the former is coldly inquisitive where the latter is mystically imaginative. Singh responds that science is also dependent on imagination and metaphor. I would reply to Singh with two comments. First, it is also that case that poetry can be inquisitive, methodical, precise, and so forth. Second, I take issue with the notion that poetry is merely "dependent" on metaphor in the same way that science depends on it. It's difficult for me to put my finger on the difference, but the breezy comparison is reductive, as if the dependence of both occurred at some merely mechanical register: "Science uses metaphor and so does poetry." But where scientific discourse, on its own terms, imagines its apotheosis in the absence of figural expression (something like mathematical representation, for instance), poetry would evaporate under such a condition (although I think that condition is impossible). In terms of the jumping bean account, like one of the comments, I question the assumption (Caillos's or Wonham's) that cutting the bean in half is a distinctively scientific gesture. As an illustration from ordinary experience, I take the point: scientists matter-of-factly cut things open, artists brood and try to divine their essences. We are here in the realm explored by early Derrida, the realm of insides and outsides, structures and centers, poetry and philosophy. Dispelling an enigma--for which an apt synonym might be "the deconstruction of a binary opposition"--does not necessarily leave any of us less mystified. Derrida's own occasions of laying bare the troubling tensions in these oppositions rarely help us feel as if we're standing on firmer ground.

I anticipate your response. This is exactly the point Wonham, Singh, and you were making. My criticism is with the implicit hierarchy informing your point. So, Singh agrees that "thorough knowledge of natural phenomena need not be the death of poetry," as if it were intuitive to think it must be so. And in your comment you cite scientific progress as the standard by which we would measure literary success. My reactionary inclination is to invert the hierarchy: science (or nature, for that matter) sometimes almost achieves the marvels of literary art. (Really, what's so grand about the Grand Canyon?)

Closing comments here. Recently, I attended a luncheon where literary theorist and historian Stephen Greenblatt spoke. His comments pertained to the difficulties of literary biography and the mistaken facility with which some scholars establish correlations between an author's work and life experiences. His example was Marlowe, whose life pursued two salient trajectories, one as a successful dramatist, the other as a notorious spy. Understandably, recent biographers have tried to link the two, but Greenblatt wonders whether their efforts have been prudent or productive. Similarly, I would caution against seeking to identify scientists who were also creative writers or artists in an effort to characterize the "interplay" of two cultures. (But if you insist on the pursuit, let's add Iannis Xenakis to the pool.) All of this reminds me of a greeting card depicting a young boy standing near a woman at a stove. The woman's apron is splattered with spaghetti sauce. The card's inscription reads, "Jackson Pollock and his mother."

Finally, being a librarian, I would like to augment George Bataille's resume. He was also a librarian.

One quick remark I failed to make regarding your last response, Ruchira: I have no problem with elitist mavens or afficionados taking a stab at a definition of art. Their cultural authority can be inexplicable and irritating, but I don't see as serious a threat to art by snob critics as by devotees of science. Another artist, by the way, who was also a scientist: Leonardo, whose persona I fear carries way too much cultural authority. Think Bill Gates.

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I was away from the blog most of the day - Joe is blogging today.

You anticipated my response correctly although I do not claim that literature and art must be *subservient* to scientific progress. What I would claim however is that it is quite unnecessary to draw a strict demarcation between the two realms in terms of human responses to natural phenomena. Science contains enough drama, poetry and beauty to satisfy the most fastidious art afficionado and a scientific perspective in the arts is an enriching quality which I admire. Similarly, I agree with you that reason and curiosity should not be equated with anti-poetry. For me, de-mystification has never detracted from the utter joy of the artistic experience. In fact an analytic approach and de - mystification may be a prerequisite to my enjoyment. (Which is why I have never been attracted to religion). Remember, I am speaking only about myself and only about the hierarchy in my own mind. I enumerated what I mean by this on Amardeep's blog about the Mexican jumping beans. But I do not demand that others feel the same way. If I did that, I would be making the same mistake as those art mavens that Carey scoffs at. I remember having this very same argument with my mother, a student of literature, a long time ago. She like you, tended to put literature at the fountainhead of all worthwhile thought. We politely disagreed.

As to the other point you bring up - Stephen Greenblatt's objection to literary biographers connecting an author's literary output with his/her life experiences, I tend to agree. A writer, playwright or a poet does not necessarily draw upon a personal experience for inspiration. In fact all good artists must have the imagination, empathy and keen observation to venture far afield into territories which have nothing to do with their own lives. Similarly with the enjoyment of art and literature. Because we are able to free ourselves of preconceived personal notions of beauty , we recognize art across cultures and ages. But it is also interesting how individual memory and associations sometimes do enhance or detract from an aesthetic experience. Last year, I participated in a heated discussion at another blog about the artistic value of Christo & Jeanne Claude's "The Gates" in New York's Central Park. To me, the installation evoked pleasant images from my childhood in India - of saffron banners flying over Hindu and Buddhist monasteries and of miles and miles of colorful billowing laundry that used to dry on the banks of the river on sunny days (hung there by Delhi's washermen and women). Another blogger on the other hand, was made uncomfortable by the color orange. It reminded him of traffic cones, "do not enter" tapes and other such obstructive objects, although orange was his favorite color!

I do tend to look favorably upon scientist/ artists - and I love Leonardo. (I did not catch the reference to Bill Gates although I can see that Microsoft too has contributed to the world of art in its own way). See another one of my posts on art, "Richa Arora - a Delhi Artist of Interest", which I published a few days ago. You are a librarian? Mostly thoughtful and sensible people, the librarians, although some of them have made foolish choices. :-)


You've prompted more thinking. The themes of your latest response emphasize the boundaries between the subjective and the objective, "Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion" as a guiding maxim, and the limits of persuasion. It's hard to disagree with such an ethos, but of course I'll give it a whirl.

A "demand that others feel the same way" really only goes as far as one's ability to enforce it in the face of resistance. The art snobs who insist on the absolute, irrefutable validity of their own judgments are participating in a game in which the power they wield is always checked by countervailing rules of the game, rules like "Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion." Persuasion here, even when it's effective, is hardly tantamount to a successful achievement of a demand that such-and-such be the case. With the meddling of science in the arts, however, the game is rhetorically skewed. One is not so freely entitled to one's own opinion. Don't get me wrong: I don't mind the notion of scientists pursuing the arts. I have tried to argue that when scientists pursue the arts they are not being scientists and that it may be foolish to correlate (in an offhand way) their science personae and their art personae. Rather, I go nuts when scientists qua scientists occupy, appropriate, and try to explain the arts.

By way of example, and to clarify the reference to Gates, see this:


Now, Bill Gates is to my mind no scientist, but here he clearly speaks on behalf of science. Look at the criteria he deploys in the last two paragraphs: framing questions, testing concepts, striving for answers, etc. This is plainly a scientist's take on "astonishing," "awe inspiring" art. There's little here that gets to the stuff of the art, a virtual indifference to the art itself, except to the extent that his opinion of it grew out of youthful fascination. But science is hard and art is soft, so science wins. Leonardo is for Gates and the rest of us the paragon of the expansive, comprehending mind. The expansiveness is propelled by scientific curiosity, and art is merely one of the objects comprehended by the mind. When this happens, the purely "subjective" faculties we have for appreciating art turn out to have been fashioned by the rather objective instruments drawn from the scientific tool chest. (There's plenty more here to gripe about. For instance, I have trouble crediting the generosity with which Gates "allowed" the MS to be shown in Italy.)

So perhaps I'm just chicken, intellectually speaking, to take the initial steps that Carey pursued, namely, to consider hypothetically whether science—and not just hard-nosed art critics—has anything to offer to a richer notion of the value of art. For me, there is a great risk of never finding one's way back, and the scientific response to art is likely to come across as either reductive and shallow—"Doesn't it follow that..." always puts me on my guard for the duration of the sentence—or mawkish—"astonishing," "awe inspiring" Leonardo. I similarly resist aestheticizing science, because this maneuver also ends up collapsing art. A friend of mine, hoping to elevate my appreciation for the sport, once argued that football is (like) an art, and proceeded to indicate sensible points of the analogy. My response was that any X is (like) any Y. The maneuver itself is a creative gesture, albeit not always a pleasing one, but failing to recognize that seeing football as an art does not thereby reveal football's true identity risks an illusion. The illusion is that the subjective state of affairs informing one's entitlement to an opinion is also (like) an objective one.

The paintings by Richa Arora, viewed online, are indeed compelling. Her work reminds me a little of some of Frank Stella's, even George Tooker's, and the textures and accentuated geometrical figures resemble the famous wall paintings at Pompeii, here for instance: http://harpy.uccs.edu/roman/ptg.jpg.

I think I do understand where your objection arises from. You are more of a purist (like my mother) in what you are willing to accept as art. For me on the other hand, the subjective and the objective in the human experience is a continuum and the boundaries are somewhat blurry. The artist looks at light and shadow, angles and lines, shapes and space, in what one would term a scientific manner. The scientist (like Darwin and Einstein, for example) can make leaps of faith to turn existing paradigms on their heads even in the absence of substantial empirical evidence. (That they are proved right later is another matter). But that does not mean that I do not recognize that a particular endeavor falls more on the "artistic" side of that spectrum and another closer to the "sciences".

I don't think that I would go as far as to say that a scientific protocol or treatise is "as much" art as say, a poem or a painting. I recognize the distinct mental processes and creative objectives by which they were arrived at. What I am asserting however, is that "all" of them are capable of triggering identical "aesthetic" reactions in different people. That feeling can loosely be described as "my heart with pleasure fills" - as may be the case with either Wordsworth or a botanist stumbling upon the daffodils. This elation is not the same as in the case of my winning the lottery, or my team prevailing in a football game but because I observed and understood something beautiful. I am drawing a parallel between the "aesthetic" responses to science and art rather than in confusing one discipline with the other.

Let's take Christo's Gates once again. Suppose I was a stranger to the world of Christo and arrived in NYC on a cold fall day and chanced upon those orange gates. Not knowing if it was an artist or an artisan who had erected those structures, would they have evoked the same images in my mind of monasteries and billowing laundry? Certainly. And that's my point. Not that Christo and the construction worker have the same "motivation" (one artistic, another mechanical) in creating the gates but that their "creations" can have the same impact on my brain. Although I am no fan of football (the American variety), I love sports. I frequently find a dancer's grace in an athletic move and an athlete's calculated strength in a dancer's leap. But as categories of human pursuits, art and sports are definitely not the same.

Going back to Steven Greenblatt and the separate lives of artists which do not "always" overlap. I agree - but that does not mean that they "never" do. A scientist executing a poem or a painting is definitely wearing the artist's hat but the perspective that comes into that execution is often colored by his/her other craft. Leonardo Da Vinci was of course the most famous among the multiple hat wearers because he wore all of them with impressive flourish. I intentionally drew your attention to Richa Arora to illustrate my point. The work you see is clearly "art" but I definitely detect a scientific eye in how she approaches space and the juxtaposition of her subjects and even in the nomenclature of the pieces. (In this context, that spaghetti sauce splattered apron of Jackson Pollocks' mom is not entirely far fetched as the source of future inspiration.)

I guess I should not belabor this point too much. It really is an unending argument - believe me. I was not able to convince my mother and she failed to bring me around to her side. But I really appreciate your engaging me on this topic. I enjoyed the discussion very much. I blog very little about art - I do write book reviews more often. My single favorite topic however, remains the criticism of the Bush administration which I am pleased to note is unraveling by the minute. I hope you will drop by from time to time. And yes, give poor (!!) Bill Gates a break when he waxes eloquent about Leonardo's Codex. (I knew about Gates' acquisition. I did not understand you were referring to that). I too would probably consider the Codex high art and engrossing literature if I had the good fortune to examine it!

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