In Is Art Good for Us?: Beliefs about High Culture in American Life (Rowman & Littlefield), Joli Jensen answers her titular question with a resounding no. She wants "us to give up the faith in the arts as doing good, and commit instead to a faith in the arts as being good." Drawing especially on the work of John Dewey, Jensen, a communications professor at the University of Tulsa, takes aim against an "instrumental view of culture"—that good art makes us good and bad art makes us bad—and champions an "expressive view of culture"—that art is a way that people connect with and explore their place in the world.
Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie spoke with Jensen in March.
Q: Why do so many people hold an instrumental view of culture?
A: People like to look for simple causes and simple cures. That view is very tempting because if certain kinds of culture cause bad things in society, then you can change that culture and fix society. There's an assumption that art is an instrument like medicine or a toxin that can be injected into us and transform us. But there's very little evidence of a direct effect, and we all participate in creating the meaning of a particular piece of work. We should always be considerate about how we choose to tell stories and the stories we choose to tell. That's an ongoing cultural conversation, but I mistrust attempts to control that conversation by excluding a priori categories of stories or by assuming that the stories we are telling are harming us.
Q: If the arts aren't medicine, what are they?
A: They're expressions of creative intellectual energy. This is related to John Dewey's understanding of culture as a way that all of us, even those of us who are not in a special guardian class, understand and symbolically engage the world. I also question the distinction we constantly try to make between the arts and popular culture and other forms of creative expression such as architecture, park design, gardening, and the like.
Q: Does that moot aesthetic judgment?
A: No. It's healthy for a society to debate what is a good or bad aesthetic experience and what is good or bad cultural expression. But it's important that we fundamentally respect the tastes and choices of people who are choosing forms different than our own. We should stop thinking that we're talking about something essential in each cultural form rather than constantly renegotiating what is good or bad, authentic or commercial. Thirty years from now today's commercial culture will be "authentic" culture.
Q: What's your mass-culture poison?
A: I'm a Law & Order addict, in all of its iterations, but especially Special Victims Unit.