Ray Carney Moment of the Day #6

June 23, 2011

Killer of Sheep

“The cultural studies folks just don’t understand art – how it is made or how it is appreciated. All valuable art is the expression of an individual vision. It is personal. Unique. Eccentric. Distinctive. Not generic. Not sociological. Not the reflection of a trend or demographic. It comes out of one person and goes into another person. It’s not a group phenomenon. It isn’t something in the air that magically appears when a certain number of people gather together with a shared set of beliefs or understandings. That’s advertising or religion or politics, not art.

The appreciation of a work of art similarly is the result of an individual effort of understanding. You don’t just breathe it in. It takes work, knowledge, experience, effort. The understanding of art is not natural or inevitable or effortless or mindless.

A concept like mass culture does not apply to art. In fact, in the deepest sense of the word, there is no mass culture. All culture is individual culture. It is your culture and mine – somebody’s not everybody’s. You can’t inherit it. You can’t be born into it. Everyone – you, me, and Henry James – starts from zero. That’s the fun and challenge of working with students. Everyone has to start at the start and go over the whole ground. There are no shortcuts. And no one can do it for you. You can’t get it out of Cliff’s Notes. You have to live into it slowly and unsurely, in space and time. You have to earn your right to it.

Our age is the age of the social sciences. Social science understandings have triumphed in almost every realm of human endeavor. They are the dominant forms of understanding in our culture – on television, in the newspapers, in classrooms. Virtually everything is understood sociologically, ideologically, or psychologically. In a sociological understanding the undergoings and efforts of individuals are forgotten. The precious uniqueness of individual consciousness is forgotten. You become your group: your gender, your race, your social and economic status. Characters in movies are rich-poor, Black-White, men-women, bosses-secretaries, etc.

Now, any dominant language passes for nature and not culture, so that may sound perfectly neutral and unobjectionable, but the problem is that art’s ways of knowing effectively begin where sociology’s ways of knowing end. Sociological knowledge is a form of group-thinking, the understanding of the experience of a group, by a group. Art is the opposite. It represents the understanding of the experience of an individual by an individual. It is about unique and personal ways of experiencing.

Sociological understandings may be of use in interpreting census figures or compiling actuarial tables, but they are almost completely irrelevant to understanding the ebbs and flows of consciousness embodied in the greatest works of art. The language of the greatest art is not translatable into the language of sociology. Almost everything is lost in the translation from art-speech to sociology-speech. That’s why almost all sociological criticism is doomed to be bad, and why the works sociologists can account for are the weakest works of art.”

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