Friday, August 25, 2006

What Good Are The Arts? by John Carey, reviewed by Bob Mann

In The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), John Carey offered a much-needed critique of the tendency among nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists and writers to dehumanise their fellow-beings while constantly asserting their own superiority.

In his new book he goes a lot further. Looking at the history of aesthetic theory and the pronouncements of philosophers and scientists on the nature of art, he concludes that it is all so contradictory and solipsistic as to be meaningless. In the end, everything is personal preference. If I think something is a work of art, it's a work of art for me. If you don't, it isn't for you. Nothing more can ever be said. As soon as I start claiming that the artworks I like are better, more profound or more universal than the artworks you like, because I am more sensitive, perceptive and intelligent than you are, we are on the slippery slope that leads to the death camps.

Carey's respect for so-called 'ordinary' people, and his scorn for the precious and pretentious, is admirable, like his fury at the guy from Covent Garden who claims that 'opera is difficult'. What is hard, he raves, about sitting in plush seats for three hours and listening to singing? Although I love opera, I agree: in most people's experience of life, it is well down on the list of 'difficult' things: however convoluted the plot, there's a synopsis in the programme; the language may be foreign, but as you can't make out the words anyway, it hardly matters; the emotions are so simple and blatant -- love, hate, anger, grief, joy -- that a seven-year-old can follow them.

And yet...much as I admire this book, I have problems. Carey quotes the appalling Bill Buford to suggest that there is no difference between the rapture experienced by Manchester United hooligans rampaging and pillaging in Europe, and the joy I experience from Beethoven's Ninth. I have to believe that there is a difference, and that my experience is ultimately better and more valuable.

Carey does admit that studying literature can be beneficial, and any parent may agree that if bored sixteen-year-olds were to sit down and read a book occasionally, they wouldn't need to drink themselves stupid with vodka every night (but not being a parent I won't go there). A stimulating and humane book, anyway.

What Good Are The Arts is published by Faber. This review first published in the November 2005 issue of The Finger.

2 Comments:

Blogger Seán McGrady said...

Two points here: It is said that one pleasure is as good as another. This is the old red herring brought up to justify the "popular" view of art, namely that one expression is as good as another, and as long as at least one person says that they enjoyed something, it can be classified as art. It begs the question by assuming what art is when that would be the question at issue. And even if we let that pass, I would have to say that art is not necessarily to do with pleasure (or joy) at all. These may accompany artistic appreciation, but I think art is much more to with an “intellectual” joy, where the appreciatee not only “knows” the nature of the object but something of himself as well. Without some knowledge of him or her self any other knowing is only half knowing, as RG Collingwood put it.

Secondly, I wouldn't agree with the observation that reserving art for an “intelligencia” leads to the death camps. It is more likely that if we leave it up to any Tom Dick or Harry it will lead to the lynch mobs of popular crap. And that is what we find today.

7:20 AM  
Blogger Seán McGrady said...

Two points here: It is said that one pleasure is as good as another. This is the old red herring brought up to justify the "popular" view of art, namely that one expression is as good as another, and as long as at least one person says that they enjoyed something, it can be classified as art. It begs the question by assuming what art is when that would be the question at issue. And even if we let that pass, I would have to say that art is not necessarily to do with pleasure (or joy) at all. These may accompany artistic appreciation, but I think art is much more to with an “intellectual” joy, where the appreciatee not only “knows” the nature of the object but something of himself as well. Without some knowledge of him or her self any other knowing is only half knowing, as RG Collingwood put it.

Secondly, I wouldn't agree with the observation that reserving art for an “intelligencia” leads to the death camps. It is more likely that if we leave it up to any Tom Dick or Harry it will lead to the lynch mobs of popular crap. And that is what we find today.

7:59 AM  

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