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For whose good are the arts?

Anton Krueger

Click on book cover to buy your copy now!

What Good Are the Arts?
Author: John Carey
ISBN: 0571226027
Publisher: Faber And Faber
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 204
Price: R189.95

In his introduction to this enjoyable book, John Carey maintains that

... aesthetic choices resemble ethical choices in their decisive importance for our lives. But since they cannot be justified by reference to any fixed, transcendent standards, they must be justified, if at all, by rational explanation.

And this is an eminently rational book. Taking this into consideration, I thought of trying to write a review which addressed the book in a rational fashion. And yet, what I found was that although Carey ridicules the idea that any justification for art which makes an appeal to the emotions could be feasible, his own emotions which enthuse his enjoyment of literature give the game away.

I suspect, however, that any of the book's readers who might be expecting a justification that their interest in art is valuable, meaningful, or at the very least useful, will come away disappointed. Those with a large personal, emotional and spiritual investment in the value of art will have much to argue against in this text, since the book is a consistently rational attack against various idealisations of art. Carey is opposed to the Romantic veneration of the artist as genius, as well as the Victorian deference to a select and sensitive audience.

He is at his most venomous (and, admittedly, his funniest) when attacking elitist notions of art. For example, when reflecting on a remark made by John Tusa – the Managing Director of the Barbicon Centre in the UK – that opera justifies vast amounts of public money because it is demanding and difficult, Carey provides the following retort:

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 ...

When compared with the real difficulties of day-to-day survival faced by most human inhabitants of this world, the suggestion that opera is important because it is difficult becomes ludicrous.

Emotions which art may produce in an observer remain inaccessible to objective scrutiny, and Carey quickly dispenses with the notion that great art elicits superior feelings in superior people. He consequently finds no rational grounds to distinguish high art as superior to other forms of art. It seems, on the contrary, that he disparages the highest of today's high art (ie conceptual art) with snide remarks, whilst praising community participation in art. He may have a point. The experience of acting in a play is vastly different from being part of its audience. For the audience member it provides perhaps a diversion of some few hours, whereas for the participant it is a total commitment to the ritual of theatre (from thauma – wonder, miracle, trauma).

Although a great many people have spent a great deal of time and money trying to prove the utility of art (as therapy, as education), not one of these tests has ever managed to prove its point conclusively. Perhaps one of the difficulties here lies in that Carey's approach is for the most part scientific (ie based on a hypothesis which is tested through reasoning and verification). Trying to apply this methodology to an investigation of art leads to inconclusive results, yet it seems that Carey is after certainty.

But then he shows his hand. In an amazing about-turn, Carey uses the second part of his book to show how this very uncertainty as to what is produced as a result of an encounter with art makes literature superior to all other art forms.

Up to this point, the first part of the book has served as a useful primer on the history of modern aesthetics. In other words, what we have been dealing with has been, essentially, a summary of philosophical standpoints. Each chapter has addressed a particular question regarding the nature of art. These questions are:

What is a work of art?
Is high art superior?
Can science help?
Do the arts make us better?
Can art be a religion?

Carey's answers to these questions are (respectively): Anything, No, Not really, Not really, Not really.

Having unceremoniously dealt with these bugbears, Carey then rolls up his sleeves and gets down to some old-fashioned textual analysis of extracts from the English canon. His reasons for the superiority of literature is that literature is the only art capable of criticising itself (according to him). He also approves of it because it is "indistinct". What he means by this word, remains, well, somewhat indistinct.

Using these two points, Carey then launches into a great many pages of Leavisite close readings of Shakespeare which rely on common sense and a sensitivity towards Life. While he tries to remain rational about it all, a certain fervour and excited enjoyment in his task becomes more and more evident as he unravels the intricacies of Shakespeare's genius.

Coming from a man who has been teaching English literature at Oxford for almost half a century, a case for literature as a superior art form may not be altogether surprising. But perhaps one of the difficulties with Carey's approach is that although he repeatedly mentions the subjective nature of taste, he also insists on using "reason" as a standard of judgement. But "reason" makes an appeal towards some sort of objective system by nmeans of which different parties can reach the same conclusion independently. If it were simply a matter of taste, then there would be no reason for reason to feature at all. Arguments for taste and reason sit uneasily together, if at all.

In his insistence on a proletarian aesthetic, as opposed to an elitist model, Carey tries to avoid discriminations, but this stance also weakens his own arguments when he tries to make a decisive point. For example, note the contradiction in his closing sentence:

Literature does not make you a better person, though it may help you to criticise what you are. But it enlarges your mind, and it gives you thoughts, words and rhythms that will last you for a life-time.

Surely all of those fine ideas in the second sentence quoted are better. Surely it is better to have an "enlarged" mind. This is the tightrope which John Carey walks – he is caught between trying to maintain an open-minded relativism and making a definite point about works he considers to be valuable and meaningful. Is it possible to do both? Perhaps not. But that's Life.

LitNet: 20 December 2005

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