The fallacy of viewing art as a form of knowledge
here for best printing of text
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 culturewhere 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 artistsat least not in the sense I define themAs 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
Carney: Films are treated not
as art, but as generic, representative, cultural productsnot 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
expressionsbut they can't get rid of the last remnantsthe Garbos, the
Falconettis, the Brandos. The star remains: Harrison Ford and Julia Roberts
and Michelle Pfeiffer.
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 artistsEmily
Dickinson, Henry James, Paul Taylor, Barbara Loden, Mark Rappaport, Charles
Burnett, Tom Noonancreate 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
Art creates new forms
of experience that never existed beforeexperiences 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 expressionforms 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 endbut 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
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 experiencebut
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 nightthe 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 restall
the pop culture commentary and sociological criticism and Hollywood movie-going
and newspaper readingis 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 somethingcall it new forms of thinking, feeling, beingthat
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 experiencesexperiences
that not only resist being turned into cultural generalizations, but that
defy being translated into meanings at allare what I am struggling
to describe and understand in my writing. Just like I'm struggling to
describe them to you!
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
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 lostto
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 understandyou 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 ReviewingAnd 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