What Good are the Arts?

by John Carey
286 pages,
ISBN: 0571226027

Post Your Opinion
On Art and Artistic Judgement
by T.F. Rigelhof

Over the past couple of decades in Mulroney's and Chretien's Canadas, no less than Thatcher's and Blair's Britains, the case that the arts are good for us has been made increasingly on economic grounds: the arts are "cultural industries" providing jobs, attracting consumers, and generating tax revenues in ways that effectively counterbalance their costs to the public through arts council grants-or so they say. Mind you, trickle-down economists will say just about anything, won't they? How very far we've sunk since Oscar Wilde's glorious pronouncement, "All art is quite useless!"
John Carey, one of Britain's more outspoken book reviewers, academics, and judges of literary prizes (it was on his watch that D.B.C. Pierre's Vernon God Little pipped Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake to the Booker Prize), is satisfied with neither utilitarian nor non-utilitarian arguments nor nuances between or beyond the cultural industrialists and Wildean daydreamers. What Good are the Arts? is a more-than-raw but not fully-baked polemic on behalf of the little man against purveyors of high art theories of pretty much every description.
According to Professor Carey, "art was spread throughout the whole community" until a priestly caste of philosopher-aesthetes led by Kant, Hegel and Shopenhauer hijacked it and transformed art-makers into artist-geniuses and art-receivers into unusually gifted connoisseurs. Carey provides chilling examples of where this toffee-nosed hauteur can lead from the nadir of Hitler (who welcomed the Allied bombing of German cities as "an architectural opportunity" and said that art is a public good because it "raises [people] above the petty cares of the moment and shows them that, after all, their individual woes are not of such great importance") to the recently gentrified Jeanette Winterson's long look down her nose at her mother's "hideous" taste in decorating "the best parlour" with whatever was "factory-made and beyond her purse."
What's Wrong with the Arts? comes in two parts. The first and longer section (and the reason for all of the controversy this book has generated in the UK over the past several months) scolds not only German Enlightenment philosophers and their Romantic successors but such twentieth-century thinkers as Marshall McLuhan, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Iris Murdoch for being hopelessly muddle-headed when it comes to the arts. Carey wields what David Lodge has dubbed an "Occam's machete" with both an Oxonian wit that makes his book intermittently hilarious, and a blunt-minded superciliousness that makes it crudely offensive. Carey divides his large question into five smaller ones: What Is a Work of Art? Is High Art Superior? Can Science Help? Do the Arts Make Us Better? Can Art Be a Religion? His strategy throughout is self-defeating as John Armstrong-the author of that gem of recent philosophical enquiry, The Secret Power of Beauty: Why Happiness is in the Eye of the Beholder (Penguin 2005)-noted in his review:

"[Carey] defines 'art' in the most lax and empty way: it is whatever anyone has ever called-for whatever reason-art. Then he defines 'good' in the most stringent and demanding terms. 'Good', for Carey, means relieving world poverty and helping injured strangers. It is obviously out of the question that art (as he defines it) could be systematically connected with goodness (as he defines it). . . . Carey considers 'good' in instrumental terms. So he is asking: what further good things reliably follow from engagement with the arts. A more relevant question is whether the best works of art have high intrinsic value. Is experience of appreciating such works valuable in itself? Carey rejects this line of thought; he holds that there is no scientific way of measuring the worth of an experience; and no rational basis for preferring one kind of experience to another."

So why bother with him? Why read Carey at all? There's always something to be said for knowing one's enemies in order to better counter them. The danger, of course, is in being seduced and Carey is seductive, especially when it comes to skewering intellectual snobbery. Here's his jibe at the pretentiousness of modernist poets and their readers:

"The kind of 'difficulty' claimed for high modernist art frequently seems questionable from another angle. There are many intellectual tasks, ranging from mathematical problems to crossword puzzles, which can justly be called 'difficult' in that they have correct solutions that are hard to work out. To say that a modernist work of art-T.S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land, for example-is 'difficult' is to use the word in a quite different sense. There is no agreement about what The Waste Land as a whole means, and for some sections of it no explanation has been found that seems even remotely satisfactory. The idea that the poem has a solution, like a crossword puzzle, would, in any case, be treated with disdain by its admirers. However, if it has no correct solution then its 'difficulty' is quite different from the difficulty of soluble tasks. Our normal word for things that cannot be understood is 'unintelligible', and in descriptions of high art, particularly high modernist art, this might be more accurate than 'difficult'."
But strip away the academic tone from this pronouncement and Carey is being as nihilistic as a tabloid journalist: snobbishness inevitably exposes the underlying poverty of the person, not the worthlessness of the work the snob asserts.
The decisive issue in any discussion of the arts is, as John Armstrong amply demonstrates in his book, the reasons the reader or listener or viewer gives for their admiration. The principal reason snobs give for admiring anything is that others whose admiration they seek also admire it. Or, as Carey puts it: "Taste is so bound up with self-esteem, particularly among devotees of high art, that a sense of superiority to those with 'lower' tastes is almost impossible to relinquish without risk of identity-crisis." In the second and better half of his book, "The Case for Literature", Professor Carey does tell us why he admires the writers he admires-William Golding, William Wordsworth, John Donne, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson especially-and what he finds most admirable in their works. Carey holds that literature is superior to all other art forms since it's the only art capable of self-criticism because its medium is language, and, therefore, it's capable of rational discourse and moral argument. He quotes Swift and Johnson to particularly telling effect. That, to be sure, is not all it can do, and his final chapter, "Creative Reading: Literature and indistinctness", celebrates literary language's indeterminacy, polysemy or ambiguity-its capacity to generate non-random but inexhaustible meanings on repeated readings. He puts the case well but not nearly as well as D.H. Lawrence does in far fewer words in Apocalypse:

"Once a book is fathomed, once it is known, and its meaning fixed or established, it is dead. A book only lives while it has power to move us, and move us differently; so long as we find it different every time we read it. Owing to the flood of shallow books which really are exhausted in one reading, the modern mind tends to think every book is the same, finished in one reading. But it is not so."

Lawrence, unlike Carey, freely grants this same power to pictures and jewels and a whole range of art-objects. Indeed, Lawrence understood, as Carey does not, that a systematic attempt to say why beauty has the power it does is not the vain pursuit this shallow book dismisses.

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