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John Carey


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2005).

John Carey has written a beautifully calculated attack on what he takes to be over-inflated claims on behalf of the arts. One of his main points is that there are no absolute criteria of value in the arts. Judgements about a piece of art are inevitably subjective; either you like a work or you don't, and that's all that can be said. There are no independent canons of taste.

For Carey, the use of the term "work of art" as a commendation is obsolete. "The idea that by calling something a work of art you are bestowing on it some divine sanction is now as intellectually respectable as a belief in pixies." So Carey defines a work of art as "anything that anyone has ever considered a work of art, though it may be a work of art for that one person."

Art is often said to make people better. Carey finds no evidence for this, instancing the example of Adolf Hitler (an ardent art lover) as well as numerous cultured Nazis who found no difficulty in combining their love of art with their enthusiasm for the Final Solution. Art can produce ecstatic experiences in some people but these, too, are not a guarantee of moral superiority. Carey quotes some disturbing comments by Bill Burford, who attained ecstasy by indulging in football hooliganism and assaulting old people.

Some enthusiasts go so far as to regard art as a replacement for religion in a secular age. Although Carey is not himself religious, he has no difficulty in demonstrating the absurdity of this view. Art cannot supply what people seek from religion. The critic George Steiner believed that "great art" is genuinely immortal, but Carey takes this to be absurd hyperbole. It is only appropriate to speak of immortality in relation to God.

Although the contemplation of art does not seem to do anything to improve people's moral qualities, Carey thinks there is some evidence that producing art oneself does have benefits. He cites some experiments with prisoners which support this view, but few opportunities for art exist once the prisoners are released. Carey suggests that if the money which is lavished on "official" art had instead been directed towards increasing participation by the population in general the results would have been more worth-while.

In recent years there have been claims that science can explain the effects of art on the brain and that this provides an objective criterion for artistic appreciation. Carey accepts that science can indeed tell us a lot about what is going on in the brain when we look at a picture or listen to music, but this cannot help us to evaluate the experience itself.

Whether you agree with Carey or not, he is certainly an exceptionally fine writer: sharp, incisive, often funny. I found myself laughing aloud more than once as I read. And he is wonderfully dismissive of cant. Here he is on John Tusa's claim that opera is demanding and difficult.

What sort of difficulty, it might be asked, 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 would hardly qualify as difficult compared with most people's day's work. The well-fed, well-swaddled beneficiaries of corporate entertainment leaving Covent Garden after a performance and hailing their chauffeurs do not look as if they have been subjected to arduous exercise, mental or physical.

I see what he means, though I admit I've found sitting through a Wagner opera something of an ordeal. But Carey emphatically rejects the widespread critical assumption that high art must necessarily be difficult and hence is accessible only to a small elite of conoisseurs.

The second part of the book advances Carey's view that literature is the most valuable of the arts because it is the only one that is capable of true criticism, including self-criticism. As Carey is professor of literature at Oxford one might suspect that he is not exactly disinterested here, and indeed he fully accepts this himself. "Like all criticism of art or literature my judgements are concealed autobiography, arising from a lifetime's encounters with words and people that are mostly far too complicated for me to unravel."

Although I found Carey's comments on individual writers interesting and illuminating I enjoyed the iconoclasm of the first part more. This is a short book and the first part might perhaps have been longer. I should have liked to know Carey's opinion of chimpanzee and elephant art (though he does mention the "rain dance" performed by chimpanzees in the wild). I should also have liked some discussion of the importance we attach to authenticity: why does a work of art lose most of its value if it is shown to be a forgery?

Before reading this book I was reasonably familiar with the notion that art judgements, like ethical judgements, are largely subjective, but I doubt if I would have gone as far as Carey does here. But after reading his book I feel I need to think the question through from scratch.

16 June 2005

%T What Good Are The Arts?
%A Carey, John
%I faber and faber
%C London
%D 2005
%G ISBN 0-571-22602-7
%P xii + 286 pp
%K literature

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