Art: What Is It Good For? Why Do We Like It?

(And Why One Bookstore Makes NYC A Better Place)

In a city that has not been known for its bookstores in quite some time, one bookstore seems to almost single-handedly defy a more recent law of physics – the downward spiral of the publishing industry. At McNally Jackson, on Prince Street, the staff recommendations remind you of forgotten literary treasures and introduce you to new ones, and the weekly roster of readings and events provide the type of public space New Yorkers crave and need like the denizens of few other cities (there is a reason the Highline has struck exactly the right chord in this city; apart from the nearly magical reclamation of an old rusty track and unexpectedly nuanced new design, it gives New Yorkers room to breathe and be near each other by choice).  Spending time in McNally Jackson almost makes Anatole Broyard’s memoir, Kafka Was The Rage – about the literary, book and smoke-filled salon world of post-WWII Greenwich Village, where he, among many others, opened bookshops for a pittance — not quite as mythic and wistful. For a few moments the reader can close her eyes and pretend that Broyard’s New York still exists.

One of the many events and activities McNally Jackson offers, both to enrich the community and compete with Amazon, is the monthly meeting of its art book club. The last two books the group read and discussed – The Story of Art by E. H. Gombrich and The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton – help guide both expert and amateur through the role and evolution of art in this world, in two very different ways. Not unlike printed books today, art has often had to fight to prove its place as more than just a cultural flourish, and these books are good ammo.

Though it is most often contemporary art that comes under a scornful gaze, the question of “Why is it art?” and the fearful sense that one “doesn’t get it,” has always kept many away. Few people have answered these questions more elegantly and invitingly than E.H. Gombrich in his classic, The Story of Art.  Like his A Little History of the World, the prose in this mini-history is intended for a young adult reader, but in a way that is so gentle, clear and unpatronizing that you would have to fight hard not to find yourself totally charmed at any age. The Story of Art is a primer on how to look at art and its history, but one can keep returning to it, either as a reminder on how to fall in love with art again, or merely to look at the book’s gorgeous color plates.

While Gombrich makes the case for art by appearing to let it speak for itself, Denis Dutton places art on the evolutionary map to show just how intrinsic it is to the state of being human. Dutton seems intent on showing how universal so many aspects of art are, and that they do not develop because of socialization alone (or even mostly), but rather are a natural product of evolutionary adaptations. Most major evolutionary biologists and psychologists, such as Stephen Jay Gould and Steven Pinker, have more or less concluded that art is a tangential byproduct of evolutionary adaptations, but Dutton, a philosopher of art, makes a compelling, if not completely convincing, argument that art is more central. He makes his best argument for the role of fiction and the “brute fact of the pleasure and universality of storytelling… why the mind is designed to find stories interesting.”  He quotes Joseph Carroll, a “literary Darwinist” who says “But like dreams, and unlike other forms of conscious conceptual order – science, philosophy, scholarship – literature taps directly into the elemental response systems activated by emotion. Works of literature thus form a point of intersection between the most emotional, subjective parts of the mind and the most abstract and cerebral.”

Gombrich and Dutton help describe and explain why art exists, what role it has played through the centuries, and how it has arrived at this point in our and its evolution. Whether or not art has any further “’practical” use seems moot and yet there are some good answers to even this question. In her essay, On Style, Susan Sontag writes about art and morality: “For it is sensibility that nourishes our capacity for moral choice, and prompts our readiness to act, assuming that we do choose, which is a prerequisite  for calling an act moral, and are not just blindly and unreflectively obeying. Art performs this “moral” task because the qualities which are intrinsic to the aesthetic experience (disinterestedness, contemplativeness, attentiveness, the awakening of the feelings) and to the aesthetic object (grace, intelligence, expressiveness, energy, sensuousness) are also fundamental constituents of a moral response to life.”

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One Response to “Art: What Is It Good For? Why Do We Like It?”

  1. Geoff Hurst Says:

    Is that a griffin? …a confrontational griffin, or am I missing something here?

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