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This page contains a brief excerpt from a lengthy interview with Ray Carney. In the selection below, he presents a view of art and artists. The complete interview is available in a new packet titled What's Wrong with Film Teaching, Criticism, and Reviewing—And How to Do It Right. For more information about Ray Carney's writing on independent film, including information about how to obtain this interview and two other packets of interviews in which he gives his views on film, criticism, teaching, the life of a writer, and the path of the artist, click here.

Art as experience
The fallacy of viewing art as a form of knowledge

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Carney: One other aspect of my work that gets me into trouble with professors: my interest in “extraordinary expression.” Most of academia is devoted to grinding art and artists down in the mill of the ordinary.

Interviewer: What do you mean by that?

Carney: Let me put it as starkly and extremely as possible: I believe there have been a few thousand people in the history of the planet who have been given the rare double gifts of having extraordinary insights into the human condition and the ability to express their understandings. But it's a very unfashionable idea, because it violates most of the assumptions of our multicult, post-sixties “I'm OK, you're OK” culture—where everybody's' perspectives and abilities are supposed to be equally valid and valuable. The snide way academics describe what I am espousing is the “genius theory.”

Interviewer: If they don't believe artists are geniuses, what do they think they are?

Carney: Well, sorry to be the one to break the news to you, but most academics don't really believe in artists—at least not in the sense I define them—As people who see further than the rest of us. As individuals who have important things to tell us about our lives. As original, independent creators of unique and uniquely valuable expressions. Most academics don't believe in art. I've been criticized even for using the word.

Interviewer: How can they not believe in art? The works are out there. They are visible. What is the alternative?

Carney: Films are treated not as art, but as generic, representative, cultural products—not fundamentally different from bars of soap or automobiles or magazine ads or television shows. The work reveals the culture's attitudes toward sex or power or whatever. [Laughing:] You study films to understand cultural history or sociology or whatever. You define art out of existence. And you define artists out of existence also. The work becomes a faceless, authorless emanation of the zeitgeist.

But it's hard to do! Even as the critics and professors try to downplay the importance of the personal, even as they try to deny the centrality of unique personal experience, and turn films into generalized cultural expressions, they can't do it. It violates something deep in us to de-author works this way. The result is our cult of celebrity, our worship of movie stars. It's the last gasp of an attempt to hold onto a powerful, important human presence in the film. Do you understand what I mean? The culture can't quite get rid of the viewer's desire to trace a work's power back a powerful personality. They may erase the genius artist and his personal expressions—but they can't get rid of the last remnants—the Garbos, the Falconettis, the Brandos. The star remains: Harrison Ford and Julia Roberts and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Interviewer: But a work of art does reflect its culture, doesn't it? Sixteenth-century Italian art embodies different values than eighteenth-century French art.

Carney: Of course. But that describes the trivial works or the trivial parts of great works. The very point at which a great work matters is where it offers new experiences. Weak artists are semiotic functions of their environment; great ones speak with unique, personal voices and communicate unique, personal insights. They rise above their culture, they do not merely represent it. That's why seventeenth-century Amsterdam could produce artists as different as Rembrandt and Frans Hals. The seventeenth-century Amsterdam part of their work, the part Rembrandt and Hals share, is the unimportant part. The part that is different is the important part.

Weakly authored works more or less directly express their culture; strongly authored ones don't. Hollywood movies are a more or less direct expression of American romanticism, capitalism, and dozens of ephemeral cultural issues, depending on the era. That's what makes them boring and predictable. They are as predictable as the evening news. The films I am interested in ju-jitsu the culture, critiquing it, swerving away from it, leaping outside, understanding it in unpredictable, eccentric, thrillingly original ways. That's my definition of what it is to be an artist. Individual artists—Emily Dickinson, Henry James, Paul Taylor, Barbara Loden, Mark Rappaport, Charles Burnett, Tom Noonan—create new forms of experience, new and unique ways of knowing and feeling, and share them with the rest of us.

Interviewer: Not to be picky, but you said “create” new forms of experience. I'm assuming you meant “represent.” Artists represent reality. At least if their art is representational, as films are.

Carney: I said create and I mean create. Sociology represents. History represents. Cultural study represents. Art creates. The social sciences are predicated on a belief in the existence of a pre-existing reality that is out there independent of consciousness. It stands over and above the individual. It is always already present, understood, and acknowledged. In this view of reality, the historian, the sociologist, the artist comes along and represents what is already there. That's the limitation of social sciences understandings of experience. It's why they can't deal with real artistic experiences.

Art creates new forms of experience that never existed before—experiences that cleanse our souls, destroy our clichés, show us new ways of thinking and feeling, give us new perceptual and emotional powers. Art does that by inventing new forms of expression—forms that break away from “conventions,” that de-familiarize “normal” reality, that challenge “ordinary” vision and thought, that make us see and feel differently. At least that's what real art does. It rewires your brain. It gives you new capacities of perception, new forms of understanding. It doesn't merely re-cycle or embody known cultural norms and values. It makes new life, makes new experience, makes new interest. It doesn't just reproduce something we already have, something already out there.

But to repeat the obvious, I am not talking about Hollywood. You don't have these kinds of mind-expansion, these new understandings, with Hollywood movies, because they are mass-produced products like automobiles.

And that's what's wrong with all conventional critical approaches, including but not limited to all of the kinds of understandings newspaper reviewers use. You know, approaches based on character psychology and story-telling values like: “The story is action-packed.” “This movie is very gripping.” “That scene is not fast paced enough.” “She is a heroine.” “He is a villain.” All of these ways of understanding depend on conventional notions of what an event or a character is. They reduce the stylistic complexity of what is actually presented to a cartoon.

To think of art at all in terms of representation is a very limited way of understanding it. It's much better to think of it as a form of living. In fact, it is as one of the most intense, exciting, challenging forms of living that we can undergo. Great art is a set of experiences we live through, not a set of meanings we understand. Of course, the experience can be meaningful in the end—but the meaning comes later and is much less important than the experience itself, and what it does to us while we are having it. When I am watching Cassavetes or reading Henry James, I am living in the most intense way imaginable. Read Emerson's “The Poet” and “Circles.” He describes it a lot better than I am doing right now.

Let me take a stab at one more way of explaining this. Our brains have something like a hundred billion neurons, each of which has fifty or a hundred different kinds of connections with other neurons. That's what experience is. All those billions upon billions of different chemical baths overlapping and interacting. And that's what a great work of art stimulates. Then what does the typical critic do? Reduce that experience to a well-developed character. Or a metaphor. Or a symbolic lighting pattern. Well, isn't it obvious that that is not a sufficient way to explain what a complex experience? Isn't it embarrassing that someone would even try to do that? We may remember plot or psychology or symbols, but it's those millions of electro-chemical flickers that we are experiencing, and that criticism must find a way of describing. We may understand backward, but we live forward, and we must find a way of making criticism responsive to our living, not just our understanding.

Interviewer: Your talk about mind-expansion and art as living sounds almost druggy or mystical.

Carney: [Groaning] Aagh! It's not! Or maybe it is! Great art is like a drug experience—but one that takes you into life, not away from it. But the experience is also very normal, very frequent, very common, very sober. I was in my car driving home at rush hour last night, pushing the buttons on the radio to try to find something to listen to. The first two I hit had “All Things Considered” on. Some big story about the Middle East. Then I hit the third button and Bach's double violin concerto was playing on the classical music station. I stayed there and I thought how silly that anyone would ever listen to the news when they could be listening to that. The news is the same thing night after night—the same moralistic children's stories for adults about the same repetitive subjects, the same emotional strife, the same predictable disagreements and formulaic statements from people on opposite sides, over and over again. Boring. Predictable. Formulaic. Dead. And then there is Bach just a little further down the dial speaking this marvelous inspiring foreign language, telling tales of miracles and glories and adventures and agonies, saying so much, talking so fast, leaping to such extraordinary and unexpected conclusions. That's what art is. And, as far as I am concerned, all the rest—all the pop culture commentary and sociological criticism and Hollywood movie-going and newspaper reading—is the evening news.

On second thought, maybe that isn't a good way to explain it. I just know one thing for sure. Great art offers me something—call it new forms of thinking, feeling, being—that I don't get in many other situations. Since you mentioned drugs, I'd admit that you might get something similar from psychedelics. Or you might get it from an extraordinary sexual experience. Or from being in love. But I'm not preaching mystical mumbo-jumbo. I get this same state of altered awareness once in a blue moon, when I'm in the zone, really in the groove, from my writing. I also get it from reading science. I just worked through five or six books about organic chemistry and cell biology that completely blew away all my customary forms of understanding. Reading about protein folding in the endoplasmic reticulum or how the RNA polymerase molecule moves along the gene freed me from my normal states of awareness. I've heard people talk about how mountain climbing or race car driving can change you states of awareness too. But the place I get this alteration of consciousness most often is from art. I can get it from watching ten minutes of The Sacrifice or Ordet. I can get it from reading a single page of The Ambassadors or The Sacred Fount. I used to get it every time I watched the first movement of Balanchine's Jewels. I got it last week watching a couple performances of Paul Taylor's Promethean Fire. I can get it standing in front of a Rembrandt. I can get it from listening to Bach. Those sorts of experiences—experiences that not only resist being turned into cultural generalizations, but that defy being translated into meanings at all—are what I am struggling to describe and understand in my writing. Just like I'm struggling to describe them to you!

Interviewer: I think you're doing fine. But I still am not sure why you say these sorts of experiences don't have meanings. They seem to have a lot of meaning for you.

Carney: We can play with words of course, but I think I'm making an important distinction, though the point still might not be clear. Let me try again. there's a set of experiences we have all had, and that I think we have to imaginatively re-visit and think about more than we do: The times in life when something happens that defeats our understanding. It can be something simple, like when I am biking and there is suddenly a loudness, a roaring sound, that I don't recognize. Is it a plane crashing near me? An animal rushing out of the woods? What is it? Where is it? For a second I am processing reality in a totally different way than I normally do. Or you are walking through the woods and something unexpectedly moves somewhere in front of you, or you think something moves, and you don't know what it is. Or say you get lost hiking in the winter as darkness is falling. Really lost—to the point of not knowing if you will ever be found or ever find your way out. Or say you are thrust into a totally new social situation with people and things you don't understand—you start a new job or go live in another country with another language and different customs and living arrangements. Those are all amazing openings into different states of awareness, because those situations take you out of yourself. Out of all of your old patterns of thinking and responding. For a moment you are free. That's what great art does. It can be scary of course. You don't necessarily like it. But the problem is that we don't stay lost or confused for very long. We realize the roaring is a train on a track we hadn't noticed. We find the trail again. The second or third day on the job, we figure everything out and decide what we think about the people. That's pretty much the end of growth. The greatest art knows that it has to get us off the trail of meaning, get us really lost this way, before we can find anything new.

This page contains a brief excerpt from a lengthy interview with Ray Carney. In the selection above, he presents a view of art and artists. The complete interview is available in a new packet titled What's Wrong with Film Teaching, Criticism, and Reviewing—And How to Do It Right. For more information about Ray Carney's writing on independent film, including information about how to obtain this interview and two other packets of interviews in which he gives his views on film, criticism, teaching, the life of a writer, and the path of the artist, click here.

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Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.