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A Philosophy of Mass Art by Noel Carroll

Bob Sharpe considers art for the masses, the topic of a new book by Noel Carroll.

It often used to be said that there is no difference between high art and popular art, there is merely good and bad art. The suggestion was that this should be the governing distinction within the arts. If cinema is low or popular art, then The Third Man shows that the quality of popular art can easily surpass that of many of the products of high art. Gershwin wrote better music than Schoenberg and Graham Greene’s entertainments are superior to most of the serious fiction of Lawrence or Woolf. Professor Carroll calls the thesis that the only relevant difference is between good and bad art ‘eliminativism’ and he rejects it. Eliminativists generally claim that the only basis for the distinction between high and popular art is political or social. High art is the art of the elite. To this, Carroll offers counter-examples which, incidentally, show how entirely transatlantic his account of the elite is. He implicitly defines the elite in terms of money and power, citing the fact that Bush likes country music, and Clinton rock, as evidence that the elite may like mass art and not the avant-garde as the theory predicts. But no European would think this a counter-example. For instance, if the British Royal Family likes Cliff Richard, and Tony Blair admires Oasis, this may only be taken to confirm their vulgarity. The cultural elite is not co-extensive with the rich and powerful.

Carroll proposes an alternative to the distinctions between high and low art, and indeed to the more overtly value laden distinction between good and bad. He thinks that the important distinction is that between mass art and avant-garde art, and this is a distinction which does not coincide with the difference between good and bad art. For Carroll, the line is to be drawn between art that is delivered by means of mass technology and is immediately accessible, and art that is not.

These are not the only classifications available to us at this very broad level, of course. We can distinguish between art that appeals in many different ways from art that does not, and this distinction, which relates more closely to questions of value, has the advantage of more closely matching our experience of the arts.

Much of the art which is delivered to us by mass means is art of the past, and we enjoy a wider historical perspective than any previous audience. A good production of Shakespeare can be immediately accessible even though the language is complex and the play may repay endless study and thought. It makes an initial impact and the initial impact leads the audience to stay with the drama. Likewise ‘The Rite of Spring’, which I suppose is the paradigm of a revolutionary avant-garde work, can make an overwhelmingly powerful impact in the concert hall. It leads the listener, who is hooked, to listen and find more in it and then to listen to more Stravinski and so on. As is often said, good art appeals at many levels. Shakespeare, Dickens, the operas of Verdi, Citizen Kane, La Regle de Jeu, Rembrandt et al. provide examples. This distinction can be found within both mass art and avant-garde art. Beethoven’s late music was one of the earliest examples of avant-garde music; but by the time he came to compose it, he had a public which was prepared to stay with him and work at the music; in any case its difficulty is compensated for by some initially memorable features. What does seem to be true is that many of the modern avant-garde feel no concern at its failure to reach the mass of committed listeners and gallery-goers. Harrison Birtwhistle is probably typical when he remarks “why should I care what the public thinks; I am not running a restaurant”. Contrast that with Mozart’s letter to his father noting that his new piano concerti will please the public who do not understand their intricacies whilst giving pleasure to the connoisseurs who do.

Apart from the distinction between mass and avant-garde art, Carroll offers two historical theses of interest. He argues that thinking about the arts has been distorted by a mistaken theory of the emotions which derives from Plato. He also argues that a sort of ersatz Kantianism has played a damaging role in shaping our ideas about art. Kant’s theory of the aesthetic has mistakenly been turned into a theory about art.

A good deal of contemporary thinking about the philosophy of the arts is touched upon, always illuminatingly, and the newcomer can learn a great deal about aesthetics from this lucid and vigorous (if unnecessarily prolix) book. Most students nowadays are more familiar with mass art than anything else, and perhaps for that reason it is the best route by which to approach the philosophy of art. At any rate this would make an excellent textbook, but its importance lies in the way it redraws the conceptual map of the arts in our culture.

© Prof. R. A. Sharpe 2000

Bob Sharpe is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wales, Lampeter.

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