I haven’t read Carey’s book yet, but as far as I’m concerned, Tarloff is wrong. Not having read the book, I won’t assert that Carey is right, but he is certainly raising the right questions.
The difference between ‘Art’ (I’ll defend the scare quotes later) and mass-produced cultural products is, in most respects, just like the difference between ChÃ¢teau Lafite and Ribena. One takes a lot of skill and indefinable talent to produce, and an experienced palate to appreciate , and the other is cheaply produced in bulk and reliably appeals to basic tastes we all possess
In fact, this comparison is too favorable to ‘Art’ since a lot of stuff produced under that banner, and accepted by its official representatives, has none of the merits of ChÃ¢teau Lafite, while lots of things that don’t make into the canon are subtle and complex.
Right at the end of his piece, Tarloff implicitly concedes all this. He says
I believe the difference is real. Having been lucky enough to have tasted and enjoyed both Ribena and ChÃ¢teau Lafite, I do believe that for those willing or equipped to appreciate it, the latter provides a more satisfying and more complex nexus of pleasures. Yes, damn it, absolutely
So, let’s agree that in most areas of human endeavour, things can be done with skill and effort, in a way that will only be fully appreciated by someone who has themselves put in a fair amount of effort, or they can be done in a cheap and superficially appealing way, and that the latter will often succeed in the market. Until about the beginning of the 19th century, the term ‘art’ was used in relation to the first way of doing things, with no particular restriction. We still speak of the “Vintner’s Art for example.
It was only in the 19th century that an idea of capital-A Art came to be accepted. In its most extreme Romantic form, Art was the immortal and transcendent product of individual genius, free from and superior to, all social restraints. This transcendent spirit had only a tiny range of modes of expression: painting, sculpture, a restricted range of music, drama and, at a pinch, literature. In a watered-down form, this is still pretty much the official ideology of Art, and the one that Tarloff, with some obvious embarrassment, is trying to defend.
It’s not really possible to refute this theory, only to observe that, if you take it all seriously, the number of cultural productions that qualify as Art must be very small indeed. Maybe Ulysses and Beethoven’s 5th are immortal and transcendental products of genius, but this is an all-or-nothing category. Once you expand it beyond a handful of works, the problem of drawing the line becomes insurmountable. Is anyone seriously going to claim, say, that Monet is an immortal genius, and Manet a mere craftsman, or that Manet is in, but Renoir is out (feel free to substitute your own implied ranking).
And once you abandon the full-blown Romantic genius theory, there is no defensible position to fall back on short of the conclusion that ChÃ¢teau Lafite is the product of art, and Ribena is not.
Having got to this point, what can we say in relation to the social significance of art? The values embodied in art are more important, and fragile, in some domains (broadly speaking, those associated with the capitalised term ‘Culture’) than in others. As far as private consumption goods like alcoholic beverages, or houses and their furnishings, are concerned, we can generally rely on individual preferences, expressed through the marke,t to strike a reasonable balance between cost and quality.
Culture is, in large measure, a public good (in the economic sense, that it is at least partly non-rival and non-excludable) and is much more complicated. As with other public goods, it may be under-supplied and may merit a public subsidy. More importantly, it doesn’t just emerge as a product of spontaneous order, in the way that market goods typically do. Individual cultural productions both constitute and are generated by, the culture as a whole. So, if we care about it, we have to take an individual and collective interest in what is happening. It’s for this reason, and not because chamber music is categorically different from champagne, that art matters.
fn1. Disclaimer: I don’t possess the required sophistication, and have never tasted ChÃ¢teau Lafite, so I’m taking Tarloff’s example on faith, mentally substituting Wirra Wirra Church Block