It should be called 'How Sacred Are The Arts?', because that's the question Oxford Professor of English Literature John Carey spends most of his time trying to answer. Another possible title would be 'How Good Do Other People Think The Arts Are?', because the more you read this book, the more you realise that Oxford Professor of English Literature John Carey is apparently neither willing nor able to grapple with the fundamental question that his book title poses. In the end, it's difficult to tell exactly what good Professor Carey thinks the arts are. He doesn't seem to be very interested in them, and perhaps I'm just naively trustful that a professional educator in such a senior position would be more enthusiastic about the arts in general, but that does seem like quite a surprising attitude for an Oxford Professor of English Literature to have. Part of his whole argument goes like this: over here, there is a small elite of poncy high-art fans who only look at great paintings and only read classic literature and who talk mostly pernicious nonsense about those things, and we should stop listening to their nonsense; while over there, there is a whole bunch of 'masses' who aren't interested in high art at all but who only watch cheap TV, but we ought nevertheless to respect their ignorance of the classics, and accept that the stuff they are interested in -- like soap operas -- is actually fascinating, relevant and important. So, Professor Carey isn't himself really interested in the mass culture that he claims people ought to be interested in, and yet he thinks that the 'masses' who, he thinks, like that stuff and nothing else, are in some way to be praised for not liking 'serious' or 'high' art. This, you may think, is a very strange position for an educator in his position to take; shouldn't he have decades of experience of introducing people to the pleasures and virtues and power of art? But Professor Carey appears to believe that an appreciation of anything more complex than a TV soap opera is something that you can only expect from people who've had a university education. I could tell the Professor that I myself was reading and enjoying Joyce in my teens, and although I've now read Ulysses three times in total and bits of it many times more, I've still not studied English literature at university level, but presumably he would counter that I only thought I was enjoying it, and I only think I'm getting the allusions and appreciating the multi-layered nature of Joyce's achievement, but I'm not really doing any of these things; I'm just kidding myself, because I haven't been to his tutorials. He argues -- no, wait, I can't dignify it by calling it an argument, he asserts -- that music and the visual arts are only capable of offering 'delight', and can't offer instruction, reflection, or criticism, all of which properties he claims are things that can only be done within literature. Carey argues that the establishment art-critical position, in which Picasso's necktie is a work of art but the small girl's isn't, is based on some sort of quasi-religious argument in which the 'art-world' takes its own authority to be transcendent and unquestionable, etc. Of all people, Oxford Professor of English Literature John Carey should be aware of the numberless hordes who've struggled to finish fat Victorian novels out of a joyless sense of cultural duty. This goes to show that it's quite easy for artistic value to be created and upheld without any reference to impossibly subjective questions like 'Is this art greater or lesser than that art?' Professor Carey tries to deny the authority of the art-world, in the manner of someone denying that the police have any authority to arrest him: that's all very well, but try putting the stuff in a gallery (or heaving a brick through the police station window) and see how far it gets you. Carey achieves a kind of ideally vacuous non-argument shortly afterwards; he imagines the father protesting that the kid's necktie is an artwork 'for him', and the art critic denying it on the grounds that the art critic's experience is much deeper and more meaningful than the father's. This is not an argument that any professional art critic would ever make, but Professor Carey nevertheless attempts to refute it on the utterly bizarre grounds that the critic is wrong, because 'we have no means of knowing the inner experience of other people and therefore no means of judging the kind of pleasure they get from whatever happens to give them pleasure'. To this, it can only be replied that Professor Carey is being either deliberately disingenuous or plain stupid, because we do have a means of knowing the inner experience of other people, and it's called language. In fact, there is a somewhat more complex, sensual and involved way of knowing the inner experience of other people, and it's called art. Who would want to be taught about literature by a supposed educator who thinks that the arts are nothing but a way for making snobs feel good about themselves?
John Carey asks some really interesting questions.
Now I have to go write a paper about whether or not this book should change our approach to arts policy.
I remember years ago sitting on a London bus with group of friends when one of the party expressed the view that art makes people better. That great German music could be played at the same time that other Germans roundup Jews for genocide, would seem to show that art does not make individuals ethically better. Carey has many other examples like this, including the discussion of Hitler as an aesthete as well as a genocidal mass murderer. So, if art does not make people better, whats the point? Another problem with Careys argument is that art is never really defined and this question hovers in the background throughout the book (perhaps he thinks its impossible to define something that is totally subjective). What Carey seems to be focusing upon is high art, but the idea that this is the only art seems dated. The classical art house films of Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa and Satyajit Rai are judged, at least partly by English speakers, as so due to them bring in another language, as art film. But to return to high-culture: if it is used in a class society as an emblem of superiority, what of those who are not part of the dominant class and how are they to respond to art? The impact of this takes us outside of Careys book, but if much of education is, at least partly, opening access to culture that dominant classes use to define themselves, there is a strong likelihood that it will be rejected by working class young people. He doesnt like snobbery and the use that elites make of high-art. But if art (and especially high-art) is somewhere between tricky and impossible to define and it is used as a class emblem and can therefore damage working class people, is it all just a matter of opinion. I also dont think that Carey really thinks that the view that Jane Austin is better than Barbara Cartland is just a matter of opinion.
When Ive first put my hand on John Careys book What Good are the Arts?, I couldnt dare asking why and how his views resulted in much controversy among art scholars in UK and Europe in general.
It cuts through the language used in the "art" industry, & makes stunningly simple & true points about what it's all about & how one can think about it.
I bought it because Nick Hornby raved about it in The Complete Polysyllabic Spree. I was sure I would love it.
He certainly lays out a case that literature, after all that, is in fact the superior art.