‘What Good Are the Arts?’ John Carey
Sometimes I read books for fun; sometimes I read books because friends tell me to; sometimes I read books to learn about things I don’t know; sometimes I read books so I don’t forget how to read books; and sometimes I just read books because I want to feel clever.
Reading an Oxford emeritus Professor of English Literature discuss the status of art? Three guesses which category that falls under, and the first two don’t count.
What good are the arts? is a question I have been (rhetorically) asking myself for years, feeling that the answer had something to do with man (and woman and child, for that matter), not being able to live by bread alone, that all we really need to survive is some food, water and shelter, but that ‘art’ in all its forms is required to nudge us over the edge from ‘surviving’ to ‘living.’ I was hoping to get some answers from an author and critic I didn’t really know, but who I had a sneaking suspicion was very, very clever. (I had, in fact, thought that he might be the Archbishop of somewhere, for some unknown reason).
I was disappointed.
It is, to be fair, a broad remit, asking one man to explain and justify all of art in a 270-page paperback, but I was expecting something a little deeper and more scholarly. Instead, Carey presents a very personal view in two parts: the first, promoting the view that art is whatever anyone thinks is art; the second, less a case of “What good are the arts?” as “How good are the arts!” Or more exactly “How good is literature!”
In the first half of the book, Carey spends five chapters essentially refuting the common belief that some art is better than or higher than other art, some people smarter than others, some things more valuable than others, with reference to everything from Damien Hirst’s shark to Duchamp’s urinals. Lots of psychologists, philosophers and theories are presented to explain why we enjoy certain things, and interesting thought experiments abound.
Since opinions change from place to place and from time to time, Carey concludes, relativism is the only way to view art: a TV reality show has as much importance to its fans as The Nutcracker Suite does to its aficionados, and Charles Darwin, we are told, later in life found Shakespeare to be “…so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.” If nobody can agree on what good art is, or even simply what art is in itself, then everything can be art.
The chapter on whether art makes us better is interesting for its look at what it means to be better, and raises a fundamental art vs. bread question when Carey questions the logic of expensive art galleries and institutions in a world where so many people die from lack of food or clean water. However, he soon counters that argument with the lengthy section on the benefits of art in society, (especially prisons and schools), since:
“…a number of factors in modern life generate feelings of powerlessness, so that people resort to violence as a way of asserting their signifcance.”
Violence, drug addiction, depression and other mental disorders are all by-products of modern life which can, it seems, be mediated by the self-validating rewards of art.
The second part of the book consists of Carey bizarrely promoting literature as the bestest of all arts: a contradictory stance not as he had just spent most of his book explaining why the judgement of all art is purely personal, (he clearly opens Part Two by explaining that everything that follows is merely his opinion, an attempt to talk people into his own love of lit), but because of a lack of internal logic. Art, we are told, is better the more “indistinct” it is, allowing the reader to employ their imagination and fully engage with the work at hand, (the epitome for Carey seeming to be the nonsense poetry of Lear and Lewis Carroll, and the simile and metaphor of Shakespeare). However, conceptual art is subsequently dismissed as being too abstract, and music as not being descriptive enough.
But, when taken just as a well-read man enjoying sharing his favourite authors and passages, Carey presents a pleasant meander through the written ages, and I got to read some beautiful poetry. (I need to read more poetry. I like poetry. I want to like poetry. I read Stephen Fry’s wonderful book on how to enjoy it last year, regularly buy books of and on poetry, yet never seem to choose them over the literature and non-fiction in The Cupboard). Here Carey introduced me to W.H.Auden‘s beautiful, short, ‘indistinct’ poem ‘Lullaby‘:
“Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fever burns away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms til break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.”
Carey has a cute theory that literature is better than other arts as it is the only one you can truly internalise:
“Of course, we can hum tunes, or play them over inside our heads, but it is not the same as going to a performance…But learn a poem by heart, and you have it for ever…It is yours…The equivalent would be lugging The Kiss home from the Musée Rodin, or strolling out of the Frick with Vermeer’s Girl Interrupted at her Music...
Once its words are lodged in your mind, they are indistinguishable from the way you think…”
He also has a theory that a consistent, unifying theme of English literature is an “…antagonism to pride, grandeur, self-esteem and celebrity,” which is either disproved by a quick glance at the celebrity-stacked bookshelves of any local W.H.Smith’s, or a valid way of classifying this rash of celebrity literature outside the realms of ‘real’ literature, (something which, despite Part 1’s claims for universality of art, I believe most of us innately feel to be a valid distinction).
I finish this entry with a beautiful turn of phrase Carey uses when warning readers at the start of Part Two that these are merely his views, and not a universal truth of art, (since: “We cannot talk of truth and falsehood except where proof is available, and where proof is available persuasion is not needed.”):
“Like all criticism of art or literature, my judgements are camouflaged autobiography, arising from a lifetime’s encounters with words and people that are mostly far too complicated for me to unravel.”
‘…a lifetime’s encounter with words and people…’ If that’s not a perfect epigram for my blog, or even for my life, then I don’t know what is.