What Good Are the Arts?

The Press, September 9, 2006

Denis Dutton


What Good Are the Arts? By John Carey. Faber and Faber. 2006. $22.95. 296 pages.


What good are the arts? Here’s one stab at an answer. They provide us with powerful pleasures. They expand our imaginative sense. The are windows into historical epochs and into realms of pure fancy and fantasy. They sharpen our intellectual discriminative powers and, for example in music, develop human technical capacities to the highest degree possible. The arts incite emotional experience of an intensity and variety nowhere else available and take us deeply into alternative human sensibilities. They can increase human sociality, for artistic performers and their audiences alike. They record what are some of the most profound ideas human beings have ever had, but unlike advanced science do it in a way that ordinary mortals can understand.

Yes, yes, but John Carey wants to know, what else are they good for? Carey, a former Oxford literature professor, confronts and debunks what he regards as the false ideologies that govern our modern take on the arts. Carey’s main enemy is the notion that the arts amount to a kind of ersatz religion, and that the people who create and enjoy them are morally superior to philistine hoi polloi.

Carey has a keen nose for elitism of any kind and delights in exposing what he regards as fraudulence in the art world. This includes, naturally enough, excesses and absurdities of the avant garde, such as the Italian artist Piero Manzoni, who produced as works of art labeled tins of his own excrement. (One of these tins was bought by the Tate for over £22,000, others were so poorly autoclaved that they later exploded).

John Carey

By concentrating on such stunts, Carey shows little desire to produce a balanced historical account of modernism. He traces our current bad, elitist attitudes back to Kant, who, he argues, thought of beauty as a mysterious supersensible property of art works. Kant believed that standards of beauty were “absolute and universal.” For Carey, Kant’s aesthetics is a “farrago of superstition and unsubstantiated assertion,” and he cannot understand why anybody ever believed any of it.

What’s worse, Kant infected western thought with the intellectual disease of imagining that works of art are somehow “sacred” objects set off from the rest of ordinary experience. Carey’s account of Kant strikes me as embarrassingly partial and confused, but I doubt if Carey cares: for him, Kant is just another way to denounce the preciousness endemic in the art world.

Ruskin is dismissed for treating art as religion and a higher moral realm. “Taste,” Ruskin declared, “is not only a part and an index of morality — it is the ONLY morality.” Carey has little trouble demolishing this sentiment, though I wish he had found more original examples than Hitler’s tastes in opera and the fact that Auschwitz guards could listen to classical music at night and go back to killing people by day.

All of the problems Carey discovers with art and its uses lead him to a surprisingly empty definition when he finally gets to it: “My answer to the question, ‘What is a work of art?’ is ‘A work of art is anything that anyone has ever considered a work of art, though it may be a work of art for only that one person’.” This aesthetic solipsism may be one way to respond to the snobbery of the likes Kenneth Clark, but it does not do much to advance Carey’s argument. After all, if art is whatever you say it is, then the Tate can hardly be faulted for buying Manzoni’s feces.

In his zeal to burn modernist scarecrows, Carey misses many opportunities to deepen understanding. David Hume, for example, is quoted as searching for a standard of aesthetic taste that has been “universally found to please in all countries and in all ages.” Carey responds that “a moment’s thought will tell us that there is nothing on earth that meets this criterion, except perhaps sexual intercourse and eating.” This is most unfair to Hume, who honestly wanted to know why, in a world of continuously changing fashion and value, the epics of Homer were still enjoyed in Georgian London as they had been in Periclean Athens. It’s an intriguing issue, and it will survive Carey’s attempt to rubbish Hume.

A bright spot in Carey’s book is his enthusiastic incorporation of aesthetic theories of the American thinker Ellen Dissanayake. She argues that the arts came into prehistoric life as ways of nurturing tribal solidarity and human fellow-feeling. They involved from the beginning ways of what Dissanayake calls “making special” — in painting, dancing, carving, chanting, and body decoration. Art’s function in early history, “was to render socially-important activities gratifying, physically and emotionally, and that is how it played a part in natural selection.”

Carey agrees with Dissanayake that much of the ancient socialising pleasures of art are lost in the alienating culture of high-art modernism. He quotes Dissanayake’s remark that “our marvelous, long-evolved, specialised hands, which can weave baskets, fashion arrows, or mould vessels, are now chiefly used for pressing buttons on appliances or computer keyboards.” We’ve lost contact with the deepest springs of our aesthetic interests in a world that compels the passive consumption of entertainment, rather than the encouraging the creative development of our human skill and perception.

Again, if Dissanayake is right, maybe there is more to the concept of art than “whatever you think it is.” But Carey, who is far too willing to indulge his personal prejudices, does not bother to ask the question. His obsessive anti-elitism left me with the impression that as a child-serf on some noble estate, his artistic tastes must have been haughtily dismissed by the lord of the manor.

Okay, maybe not, but Carey carries a large chip on his shoulder when it comes to his aesthetic interests. Moreover, those interests are rather limited. There is not a single loving description of a painting in this book. It is clear that he cares little for music: the longest passage on music is about how much Hitler enjoyed Bruckner and Wagner. No wonder Carey would cut off all state support for the operas at Covent Garden. Take that, opera snobs!

Considering his personal aesthetic relativism, it is a surprise that Carey ends his book with two chapters defending literature as the best of all the arts. Literature “can criticise itself,” and in fact it can criticize anything. Carey quotes a passage from Tolstoy making fun of opera and helpfully explains that, anyway, music “is the art that has most consistently seemed irrational to poets and writers.”

Not only does the self-conscious rationality of literature demonstrate its aesthetic superiority, it is English literature that is the highest of all: “English literature does not go in much for art worship of the mystical, Hitlerish kind.” Take that, foreigners!

But however preposterous Carey can be, his literary analysis can be acute. His discussion of aesthetic indistinctness in Shakespeare is a pleasure to read. Of a single sentence from The Merchant of Venice, Carey shows how it “manages at once to be both vivid and nebulous. It is brilliantly and unfathomably indistinct, which is why the imagination is gripped by it and cannot leave it alone.”

With some of the aesthetic issues that have gripped John Carey in this book, one might wish he had left them alone. He does push half-understood questions to sometimes absurd conclusions. On the other hand, if any book can be said to provide pleasure along with exasperation in its meanderings, it is What Good Are the Arts?


Denis Dutton teaches the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury