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Here in San Francisco, every now and then a splendid mansion cracks in half, and beneath it appears an unexpected fault line. The mansion’s architects call in the geologists, get down in the basement with flashlights, and try to remember enough of their old geology courses to understand whether or not the whole building has to come down. The architects are forced to start talking geology, wishing all the while they were back up in the light, doing what they trained to do.
Noël Carroll’s many books of aesthetics will interest art historians because aesthetics underlies art history the way geology underlies architecture: you only have to know about it when things are going bad. During the last two decades, the mansion of art history turned out to be sitting on a fault line, and cracked. Whether that fault line was a true Foucauldian discontinuity, a generational change, or the demographic shift throughout the Humanities departments is open to debate. The cracks are not. Like architects forced to talk geology, for a decade the art historians have been forced to talk aesthetics, “theory.” One could no longer write about a masterpiece without debating whether there indeed were “masterpieces”; and if so, was The Rape of Europa still one? Should such myths be allowed in the ideal Republic? Wasn’t all art “political?” Was it not more urgent, right now, to teach the altaristas than the rape fantasies of a Dead White Male?
During the last decade, more and more art historians wound up standing in their edifice’s basement, looking glumly at such philosophic bedrock, listening to the aestheticians argue (“Instrumentalist!” “Essentialist!”); the art historians wishing they were back upstairs doing what they had trained to do. This happened throughout the Humanities—in English, in Classics, everywhere.
It is no coincidence that during this last decade Noël Carroll became the most discussed aesthetician of his generation, and currently, the President of the American Society for Aesthetics. Carroll, in a cascade of books and articles, created what many aestheticians embraced as a convincing via media between pure political moralism and pure aesthetic formalism—sometimes just an intelligent compromise, but not infrequently a Higher Synthesis that both sides of the debate could live with. The reviewer records with a shudder that just since 1996 Carroll has published Theorizing the Movie Image (Cambridge UP, 1996), Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies (Wisconsin UP, 1996), Interpreting the Moving Image (Cambridge UP, 1998), Mystifying Movies: Fads and Fallacies in Contemporary Film Theory (Columbia UP, 1998), Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction (Routledge, 1999), and the 440 closely argued pages of A Philosophy of Mass Art (Oxford UP, 1998). This, plus a blizzard of anthologized articles, including the important “Morality and Aesthetics,” in Oxford’s vast Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, (1998) edited by Michael Kelly.
In The Philosophy of Mass Art, Carroll takes on precisely the stuff that would seem to have little excuse for existing apart from its “instrumental” use to shape opinion. By “Mass Art” Carroll means the stuff that’s even lower than “popular art”— no quilts and handcrafted duck decoys here, but assembly-line Hollywood pictures and formula TV shows.
Like Arthur Danto (whom he claims as his role model in the book’s preface), Carroll is a powerful enough philosopher to turn Mass Art into test-cases on the largest aesthetic questions. Surely, the most important aesthetic questions can’t appear only in High Art, just the way any Tao you can only find on mountaintops can’t be the real Tao, which by definition pervades everywhere. Carroll illustrates his arguments about the “Ontology of Mass Art” with examples from Waterworld and Danielle Steel; his Aristotle section references Young Dr. Kildare and Scrooge McDuck. To analyze “Mass Art and Morality,” Carroll contrasts, at one point, Robbe-Grillet’s novels with “A Boy Named Sue,” and a page later compares the role of narrative in Eugenie Grandet with the TV series Family Ties. Turn the page and he has followed the theme, effortlessly, through Rousseau’s “Letter to M. D’Alembert on the Theater.”
Carroll turns out to be the person you once hoped Susan Sontag was, before you realized she hadn’t the muscle: the critic with that unified “sensibility” she prayed for, in Against Interpretation, the critic to whom “Jasper Johns, Jean-Luc Godard, and the personalities and music of the Beatles [are] equally accessible.” Add in Plato, Althusser, Aristotle, Jane Austen—I’m reading the index—and you get the feel of Carroll. In the B’s I see, side by side: Baudelaire, Baudrilliard, Baywatch, André Bazin, Monroe Beardsley, The Beast, The Beatles, Clive Bell, Daniel Bell, Ben Casey, Ben Hur, Walter Benjamin. As Arthur Danto puts it, Carroll has done “a magnificent job in ‘degrading,’ as we now say, the snobby argumentation of the earlier intellectuals and opening up the possibility of a unified aesthetics.” Before Carroll, “so many definitions of art,”—like those of Theodor Adorno and of the Frankfurt School—"were based on an exceedingly narrow construction of what art is." (Danto’s letter to the reviewer, 1999)
Carroll’s example has been contagious. The prolific art historian David Carrier’s new book, The Aesthetics of Comics, which moves from Gary Larson and Donald Duck to the narrative panels of Piero della Francesca, was inspired, Carrier says, by Carroll’s work. I would almost say Carroll, in his mid-50s now, became famous for achieving his generation’s goal (first voiced by Sontag) of having it all: Woodstock and Kant, Plato and Lauren Bacall.
There’s a second point to philosophizing Mass Art. If Western aesthetics itself has a bedrock question, it is whether or not the stuff we call art has any value in itself. Plato, more interested in statecraft, answered “no,” and attacked art as a “triton ti apo tes alethias” (third remove from the truth) of his Platonic ideals. That being done, Plato was freed to say, “So at least let’s use this third-rate stuff to teach moral lessons which strengthen the state.” That attitude is called, broadly, “instrumentalism”: if Art’s no good for anything on its own, all it can have are good uses. Every political or religious upheaval since Plato has called art before the bar and asked what it’s still good for, now that Truth’s been found, other than propaganda for it.
Hence the unusual importance of Carroll’s test cases. Just as the American Civil Liberties Union, by establishing even a Nazi’s freedom of speech, guarantees James Joyce’s, if Carroll can uncover an ontological dignity even in mass shlock, then Titian’s is no longer in question. A lot of high art rides, philosophically, on the mass art test case.
Carroll’s politics—as I heard him make clear in a debate about his work at the 1998 national meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics—are conventionally left-liberal. Yet, not unlike the ACLU defending a cause they dislike for the sake of the larger principle, Carroll continues to argue the ontological dignity of his humble, often rather repellent Mass Art subjects. He has steered clear of the pure political instrumentalism associated with his own politics, and reestablished a respect for art’s worth on its own, a position he calls “moderate moralism.”
He battles two kinds of extremists: the “autonomist” (293) who argues that the moral and aesthetic realms are separate, and that one can, with Charles Sheeler, contemplate the smokestacks of Henry Ford’s Rouge River plant as untroubled as if they were Greek columns; and the “Platonist” (291-359). Carroll means the Platonic attitude to art I discussed above—worthless on its own, apart from its use as propaganda. At the ASA convention one impatient panelist, upset by Carroll’s defense of unenlightened stuff like Danielle Steel, gave him as much heat as the ACLU gets at times. She spoke of “the culture wars,” of the battle with the Religious Right. Didn’t Carroll know that there’s a war on? Carroll, however, was concerned that (this is not his, but my own illustration) if we fall into pure Platonic instrumentalism, they’ll come for Danielle Steel on Monday, but be back for The Rape of Europa on Tuesday. Plato, after all, was eager, in the Republic, to expell precisely that sort of myth.
We conclude by returning to the art historical mansion’s basement, to look at the foundation. Is art “political” as Carroll’s critic phrased it? Of course it is. Everything is. The only interesting question is whether art is only “political,” or whether it ever has any value on its own, the way Vivaldi has, or a Kandinsky composition. If Noël Carroll can show, to the reader’s satisfaction, traces of ontological dignity even in Mass Art, the art historians’ confidence in the dignity of their own subjects will be restored. They can climb up from the Aesthetics basement, and go back to practicing their own discipline, in the light. Though it sounds paradoxical, when an aesthetic theory succeeds we gain the privilege, for a while, of forgetting aesthetics and getting back to work.
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