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April 27, 2006

"Carey is conservative when it comes to what he might be supposed to know about - but conservative in such a way that one is led to wonder sceptically about the depth and truth of that knowledge": What Good Are the Arts? - John Carey

Posted by David Womersley

What Good Are the Arts?
by John Carey
Pp. xii + 286. London: Faber and Faber, 2005
Hardback, £12.99

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - is left unimpressed by John Carey's What Good are the Arts?

Robert Conquest's brilliant insight – that everyone is conservative on subjects that they know something about – is vividly but curiously exemplified in John Carey's weak essay on the arts.

What Good Are the Arts? falls into two parts. In the first, Carey shows, to his own satisfaction at least, that many of the claims made over the centuries on behalf of art – that it embodies a keener insight into the human condition, that it exerts a lenifying or civilizing influence on those who are devoted to it, that it is fully appreciated only by those who have laboriously acquired the mental and sentimental equipment to do justice to it, that it can connect us to the divine – are at best self-serving mysticism, at worst class-inspired deception.

But then in the shorter second section of the book, in which Carey swivels his attention towards literature, the dominant negative tone dies away, and instead we are told that the written word, because of its conceptual content, and also (somewhat confusingly, given the first merit of literature) because of its indistinctness, and hence the urgency of the imaginative appeal it makes to its readers, provides us with an art which is indeed worthy of our respect and commitment.

Carey was the Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford, and it might be thought a pleasing piety that, at the end of his academic career, he should pay tribute to the subject which put meat on his table for so many years. Pleasing, and perhaps surprising.

One of Carey's most notorious essays, "Down with Dons", delivered several low blows against the academic profession. An early effort, it set the keynote for Carey's chosen public persona – the doughty champion of the ordinary man against the manifold pretensions and poses of those who think themselves above the ordinary, including in particular artists and academics.

It was a persona which ran pretty steadily through Carey's journalism (a selection of which was published in 1987 as Original Copy: Selected Reviews and Journalism 1969-1986) but which expressed itself most vividly in The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1800-1939 (1992).

This book denounced the moral unworthiness of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe's spokesmen for high culture, and launched a series of unabashedly ad hominem onslaughts remarkable for their reluctance to engage with the questions they raised at any kind of conceptual level. Perhaps because it chose so to tether itself, The Intellectuals and the Masses elicited enthusiastic praise from such commentators as Julie Burchill. For most people this would, I suspect, have been a humiliation too far. It might even have prompted some remorseful reflections on the wisdom of the course of conduct which had led to such a calamitous outcome. Not, however, in the case of Carey, who presumably condoned the printing of a puff from Burchill on the cover of his latest book:

In a perfect world, intellectuals would be original, logical, funny and full of common sense. That is, they would be like Professor John Carey.
More reflection might have suggested that to classify the author of The Intellectuals and the Masses as an intellectual was not perhaps the most adroit compliment. However, one imagines that to have the words "Julie Burchill" on the cover was what counted. If so, the implicit preference for the helpful influence of "celebrity" (no matter how tarnished) over the substance of what is said makes the argumentative stance of What Good Are the Arts? seem little more than a posture.

In the first section of What Good Are the Arts? Carey lays into his targets with evident enjoyment. He has alighted upon some of the right enemies – Rousseau, Jeanette Winterson, Salman Rushdie, conceptual art – just as in the second section of the book he has some of the right heroes (Swift, Johnson, George Eliot, Conrad, Austen, and of course Shakespeare). However, nothing does more disservice to a good cause than an inept defence, just as nothing offers more comfort to deserving targets than impotent attacks. Aside from some truly ghastly attempts at metaphorical vivacity (for instance, Browning's "Italian grandees ooze malignity like brake-fluid"), the prose style of What Good Are the Arts? consists of a series of sneers:
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.

It follows, the Kreitlers conclude, that paintings ought to have both contrasting and non-contrasting colours, so as to provide both tension and relief. As a contribution to art criticism, this evidently falls some way short of usefulness.

The egalitarian thrust of the argument sits uncomfortably alongside this prevailing tone of contempt. The upshot of Carey's assault on the Western European aesthetic tradition since Kant might well be to make thoughtful readers toy with the idea that there is more to it than they had at first supposed. Setting aside the damaging incompleteness of Carey's account of Kant's aesthetics, in particular his overlooking of the implications of Kant's definition of beauty as the form of finality in an object, it is surely the case that anyone who believes that the following remarks have any role to play in a serious consideration of a body of conceptual work probably does not have an opinion worth listening to:
Kant was in several respects a curious person for the West to have chosen as its artistic mentor. His life was passed in a backwater of East Prussia, and he had little knowledge or appreciation of the arts. Music, in particular, struck him as an inferior pastime. Since it was incapable of communicating ideas, and depended on "mere sensations without concepts", he felt that it should at best be classified as an "enjoyment", rather than an art. Besides it was, he observed, guilty of "a certain want of urbanity", since, when played loudly, it could annoy the neighbours. This was a sensitive issue with Kant, as he had himself been inconvenienced by the hymn-singing of the prisoners in the jail adjoining his property, and had been obliged to write to the burgomaster about it.
And furthermore, why does this attack on the Western idealist tradition in art begin with Kant, rather than with Aristotle's defence of art against the strictures of Plato? Perhaps because Aristotle was not quite so tempting a target for this kind of irrelevant, biographical reductiveness. How might an attack in the same vein on Aristotle read?
He passed much of his life in the greatest city of the ancient world, and acted as tutor to the consummate military genius of antiquity.
Doesn't have quite the same deflating hiss to it, does it?

It would be good if one could report that, with the transition from Carey's wholesale dismissal of the non-literary arts to the second part of the book and its defence of literature, there was some gain in the quality of the writing and the argument. However, once Carey turns to what he aphoristically calls "literature's ability to capitalise on language's disabilities", his book degenerates further, for his assertions of literature's supremacy amongst the arts beg so many questions. According to Carey, only literature can criticise itself, only literature can moralize, only

literature gives you ideas to think with. It stocks your mind.
But these bold claims are never sufficiently strengthened by argument and example into propositions which might receive our reasonable support. Closing What Good Are the Arts?, the reader is left with two strong impressions, the first familiar, the second more disturbing. The former is that Carey's natural bent is towards derision, and that when targets for derision are lacking or neglected, his writing falters or descends into banality. The latter revolves around how odd it is that someone who has passed their life in the study of literature can give no more subtle or interesting account of literature's claims upon us than is to be found in the second part of What Good Are the Arts?

Carey is conservative, then, when it comes to what he might be supposed to know about; but conservative in such a way that one is led to wonder sceptically about the depth and truth of that knowledge.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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The Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature at Oxford gives both barrels to the former Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford - and they are both meant to be idealogicla bedfellows and fellow conservatives. This review proves something I have long suspected - that the higher reaches of academia are a nest of vipers.

As a mere lecturer I must say it is all rather more civilised in the lowly ex-poly at which I teach. One would be tempted to say "give me an ex-poly any day over the vipers nest that is Oxford". But one would of course be lying.

Posted by: Cowardly Lecturer at April 27, 2006 12:35 PM
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More reflection might have suggested that to classify the author of The Intellectuals and the Masses as an intellectual was not perhaps the most adroit compliment.
John Carey is an intellectual, but that is neither here nor there. I think this is the sentiment Carey expounds in his writing – the elevated status of intellectuals. The merits of famous authors are well known, what Carey wrote about in The Intellectuals and the Masses is the less known aspects of their lives. It is important to look at someone’s work as a whole, and as the saying goes you can learn more from someone’s failings than their successes.
What Good Are the Arts? falls into two parts. In the first, Carey shows, to his own satisfaction at least, that many of the claims made over the centuries on behalf of art – that it embodies a keener insight into the human condition, that it exerts a lenifying or civilizing influence on those who are devoted to it, that it is fully appreciated only by those who have laboriously acquired the mental and sentimental equipment to do justice to it, that it can connect us to the divine – are at best self-serving mysticism, at worst class-inspired deception.
I’m not exactly sure of your meaning here. In What Good are the Arts Carey is exploring how art has/is defined by people and how they came to their ideas. He explores, with examples, what art means to other people, and in most cases it comes down to elitism, the desire to be removed from the masses, to stand out as special. This to my mind is common sense and a common human attribute, whether it is a desirable attribute or not.
Carey was the Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford, and it might be thought a pleasing piety that, at the end of his academic career, he should pay tribute to the subject which put meat on his table for so many years. Pleasing, and perhaps surprising. One of Carey's most notorious essays, "Down with Dons", delivered several low blows against the academic profession. An early effort, it set the keynote for Carey's chosen public persona – the doughty champion of the ordinary man against the manifold pretensions and poses of those who think themselves above the ordinary, including in particular artists and academics.
Perhaps Carey pays tribute to literature because he is passionate about it, after all he was a professor of literature – seems to me it is something he is especially interested in. I don’t think it simply comes down to earning money, after all it is wonderful when someone can earn their crust doing something they find rewarding, regardless of how much money they earn doing it.

All in all What Good are the Arts did not strike me - the subject did not arrest my attention because I agree with Carey that art’s meaning or worth is defined by the viewer – it is subjective.

I disagree that Carey can be viewed as Conservative based on his writing. He is not a defender of established values or the status quo; it is quite the contrary he flips them on their heads.

Posted by: Michelle Molynuex at August 30, 2006 10:15 PM
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For an equally scathing critique on Dr Carey's book readers should turn to issue 23 of the Lewisletter, where Dr Alan Munton delivers his two barrels' worth.

Posted by: R.M.Healey at January 3, 2007 06:15 PM
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