What Good are the Arts?

What Good are the Arts?

listerm08pic1.jpg What is a work of art? Is ‘high’ art superior? Can science help? Do the arts make us better? Can art be a religion? These are among some of the simple questions that John Carey asks in his book, What Good are the Arts?, in his attempt to make sense of art, culture and cultural theory in the 21st century. The answers Carey has to offer are often provocative, far from easy or pat, and they certainly do challenge the perceived wisdom surrounding ‘aesthetics’ of the past two and a half centuries. The term was coined by Alexander Baumgarten and amplified by Kant when he first wrote about beauty and our response to it in his Critique of Judgement.

In Part One of his book, Carey closely examines the tradition of Western cultural theory, far from uncritically and far from coldly or dispassionately. And in fairness to himself and to his subject, though he is decidedly not fond of conceptual art, Carey clarifies his own position early on, and writes, ‘I hope the reader will not suspect … that this book is going to deteriorate into a harangue against the enormities of modern art, of the kind the tabloids indulge in each year when the Turner Prize shortlist is announced.’ In fact, his book does the opposite and in every chapter he takes great pains to examine the major creeds within the critical tradition, laying out their tenets, considering their arguments, demonstrating the implications of their positions, though not before, more often than not, debunking these positions as elitist, proscriptive, divisive, utterly subjective, based largely on personal and institutional prejudice and ultimately unsustainable as rational philosophical arguments. Although Carey does not refer directly to the ‘canon’ until nine pages before the end of his book, it is obvious on every page that he is very much interested in the canon and canonicity, though he is never explicitly for or against it. His concerns are more with the cultural theorists and their theories, which, after all, are what establish and perpetuate the canon. His examination of the critical tradition within cultural theory is both broad and detailed. Carey is evidently massively erudite, but not stuffily so; he writes intelligently and informatively about visual art, music and, of course, literature in its various manifestations, and examines the aesthetics of many modern theorists and commentators, including Schopenhauer, John Dewey, Arthur C Danto, Clement Greenberg, Jeanette Winterson, William Morris, Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, Iris Murdoch, John Tusa, R.D. Ellis, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Marshall McLuhan, R.D. Collingwood, Harmann, Baudrillard, David Hume, J.S. Mill and the former Culture Secretary Chris Smith! At each of these writers Carey pops a shot, but not without offering his considered objections to their positions, and these mostly in measured tones. Sometimes he blasts their cultural assumptions and assertions with wicked humour and biting wit, which occasionally includes a sense of outright satirical glee. The keepers of the flame are themselves, of course, fair game. Carey is keen to deflate the pomposity of many of the elitist and self-perpetuating arguments surrounding the arts, often with satirical means, and in so doing, he achieves a greater effect than any simply savage polemic could do. His wit is reductive and sometimes devastating, but only when it is deserved. His shots at Winterson, Tusa and Smith, for example, are quite naughty and very memorable. According to Carey, one reason why that absolutist advocate of high art Winterson equates art with rapture and ecstasy, in the tradition of Bloomsbury, is because of her need to make herself feel superior to her mother, and if Winterson’s mother were to learn to become ‘adept at her daughter’s kind of art … Winterson would have to find some new reason for feeling superior.’ With reference to Tusa, Carey demolishes the claim that high art, because it is necessarily difficult, justifies being supported by public money for a minority that otherwise would not be able to afford it. Carey further accuses Tusa of linking ‘quality’ and ‘difficulty’, Tusa believing, ‘the fact is that opera is not like dipping into a box of chocolates. It is demanding, difficult.’ Carey questions Tusa’s association of opera with difficulty, and wonders ‘what sort of difficulty … do those attending operas encounter? What is difficult about sitting on plush seats and listening to music and singing? Getting served at the bar in the interval often requires some effort, it is true, but even that could hardly qualify as difficult compared with most people’s day’s work’. Carey then details the public subsidies that the Royal Opera House swallowed in 1996 alone – £78 million of lottery funding – and concludes his argument: ‘as Tusa says, opera is not like dipping into a box of chocolates. It is very much more expensive.’ Taking on Chris Smith’s book Creative Britain, Carey points out that while Smith professes to loathe the distinction between high and low art, ‘he endorses it in a thoroughly conventional way’ and as a politician ‘the only kind of value he attributes to the creative industries he surveys is financial.’

It is in Part Two of his book that Carey turns to his own specialism of literature, defining literature as ‘what I want to remember – not for its content alone, as one might want to remember a computer manual, but for itself: those particular words in that particular order.’ He puts forward a special case for literature, above all other arts. His case is eloquent and persuasive. His first claim is that, ‘literature, unlike the other arts, can criticize itself.’ He further claims that, ‘uniquely as an art, literature can totally reject literature and writers can reject writing and reading in many different ways and for all sorts of reasons. Literature is not just the only art that can criticize itself, it is the only art that can criticize anything. And while literature may also moralize, it does not just moralize. It disagrees and argues. And, because it is the only art capable of criticism, it encourages questioning and self-questioning. And literature gives you ideas to think with.’

In establishing the case for literature as superior to all other arts, Carey attributes a particular quality to writing which he calls ‘literary indistinctness’. This, he argues, is ‘a vital element in all literature which empowers the reader.’ It is ‘literary indistinctness which generates multiple readings, which is why we can all feel we have produced our own’ and can claim personal ownership of the reading or of the work itself. Carey illustrates his argument with many examples from Shakespeare, in whose figurative writing, he claims, something new happened to the language. This was an influx or ‘epidemic of metaphor and simile’, and ‘when writing is dense with metaphor and simile, the imagination has to keep fitting things together when rational thought would keep it apart. It has to keep ingeniously fabricating distinctness … out of indistinctness.’ And this is also what ‘contributes to that sense of personal ownership’, which, Carey claims, ‘is literature’s unique gift.’

Although Carey does believe that some lines from literary works, ‘are ideas strong enough to live by’, like perhaps Arnold’s famous ‘touchstones’, all arguments about art are relative, and while there are no false answers in art, there are no true ones either.

This echoes what the critic David Daiches said half a century earlier about literary art in one of his many books on criticism, which for Seamus Heaney as an undergraduate was ‘a class of a bible.’ Daiches wrote, ‘there is no single ‘right’ method of handling literary problems, no single approach to works of art that will yield all the significant truths about them … While the scrutinizing of literary theories is a valuable philosophical activity that can not only throw light on the nature of literature but also help us to read individual works with greater understanding and appreciation, the active appreciation of literature is not always dependent on such theorizing … Art is greater than its interpreters … All criticism is tentative, partial, oblique … Art is meant to be experienced, and in the last analysis the function of criticism is to assist that experience … To enjoy with discrimination, to discern value, to recognize and reject the spurious, to respond maturely to the genuine, never to be fooled by the shabby and the second-hand – that is the civilised approach to the arts. We turn to criticism to develop and strengthen that approach, … criticism can come to this task directly or indirectly, through a frontal attack on individual literary works, through theoretical discussion of the nature of literary value, through investigation of origin and growth and causation. Every effective literary critic sees some facet of literary art and develops our awareness with respect to it; but the total vision, or something approximating it, comes only to those who learn how to blend the insights yielded by many critical approaches’.

Carey adds that since art ‘must accommodate all personal tastes and choices … it is as illimitable as humanity, and as extensive as the imagination.’ In answer to one of his questions at the opening of the book, ‘do the arts make us better?’, Carey writes, ‘literature does not make you a better person, though it may help you to criticize what you are. But it enlarges your mind and it gives you thoughts, words, and rhythms that will last you for life.’ This much any reader should be happy to settle for.

John Carey, What Good are the Arts?, Faber and Faber 0571226027 £12.99

© Michael Lister 2005