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What Good are the Arts? by John Carey

What Good are the Arts?

by John Carey

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The first chapter of the book is worth the book's price: Carey wrestles with the question "What is a work of art?" in this chapter after telling us that he is offering a secular viewpoint without the benefit of absolutes residing somewhere in the heavens. Like Socrates in the Euthyphro, Carey is looking, not for examples, but for a definition that will separate art from non-art. He starts by suggesting the problem in finding necessary and sufficient conditions for correctly labeling a thing a work of art is that it is impossible to say what is not a work of art. His example certainly stuns: what is not a work of art? human excrement. No, he says, that won't work because Piero Manzoni "published an edition of tin cans each containing 30 grams of his own excrement. One of them was bought by the Tate gallery and is still in its collection." So, if excrement counts as art then what doesn't?

The question "What counts as art?" is one of the oldest puzzles in aesthetics. I remember struggling with that question in a philosophy class at the University of California. Students came to that class with different expectations depending in part on their background and departmental major. The question seemed rather simplistic and vague at first. The art students asked "where are the slides?" - suggesting that if the philosophy professor would just get a slide projector and show some pictures the answer would become clear. (They were used to examples not argument about concepts.) The English majors in the class thought we should read Tolstoy to find out. And, of course, the philosophy students were looking for counter-examples to every offered definition.

Think for a moment about the example above. Does a piece of shit become art just because the Tate bought one of Manzoni's tin cans? Well, only if you hold that everything the Tate buys for its collection is art. Defining art is difficult because the attempts turn out to be either too narrow to encompass everything we want to call art or too broad to leave out things we want to say are not art. Or worse yet, too vague to say much of anything. Carey's approach is to put forward various attempts and then offer counter-examples to reduce the attempt to absurdity. After a fairly thorough inventory from Kant to the post-moderns he concludes that the only possibility is complete relativism: What counts as a work of art? "If you think it is, it is." He proceeds in chapter one by advancing different claims of the sort, Art is X. But then what about Y? Y is offered as art. The counter examples presented (urinals, and the like) have status as art only because someone said they are art - and that is the conclusion then presented by Carey: "if you think it is, it is." Is there a way out of this circular argument?

The German art historian, Wilhelm von Bode, once wrote "Rembrandt painted 700 pictures. Of these, 3,000 are still in existence." If this humorous claim is true, what do we make of those other 2300 pictures? Once a painting is discovered to be a copy, a fake Rembrandt, it immediately loses its place in the main gallery and is sent to the basement. Like a counterfeit $100 bill, once discovered is mere paper and ink, the fake painting is suddenly just its canvas and paint. What do examples like this tell us? They bring out the distinction between brute facts and institutional facts: the paper, design, ink, embedded chip, etc. that make up the $100 bill are brute facts (certain chemicals and elements) while the genuine (real?) $100 bill is backed by the issuing authority (e.g., the Bank of Canada). Sometimes called "funny money" by our neighbors to the south because of the different colours used to distinguish denomination, those bills, when backed by the government of Canada are as valuable as the international financial system dictates. This important distinction might help to answer the first question that prompts Carey's book: "What is art?". Art, like money, is brute fact plus institutional fact.

Some other distinctions are useful in thinking about Carey's book:

· matters of taste - I like chocolate ice cream.

· matters of aesthetics - I think Shakespeare is a better writer than Marlowe.

· matters of morality - I think it is wrong to torture babies.

It makes no sense to argue about matters of taste or to respond to someone by saying "Oh, you should not like that!" Nor does it make sense to ask "why do you like that?" Statements made describing matters of taste are purely subjective and we do not ask the person making the statement to give reasons. "Why?" questions are natural in matters of aesthetics and morality. "Why do you like Shakespeare more than Marlowe?" is a perfectly legitimate question and one that Carey provides reasons for in his chapter on literature. Similarly we ask questions why about matters of morality. Yet, it is clear that we do not have to torture a baby in order to arrive at the conclusion that torturing them is wrong. Aesthetic judgments, however, are different from both of the others: they are more than taste (that is we can and do give reasons for our judgments) and they are different from moral judgments (that is we have to experience a work of art in order to judge it).

Carey wants to turn all aesthetic judgments into matters of taste and to offer as justification for a judgment of a work of art -- "I like it". Well, it seems that he does, until we get to Part 2 of the book where he deals with the art form he takes to be the Queen of the arts: literature. In that section he argues (gives reasons for) his claim that "literature is superior to the other arts." His readings in this section of selections of literary works are first rate and he is a careful reader. His claim that reading is a creative art is true and readers indeed participate in the imaginative task of constructing meaning from a text. But, that seems true of other arts as well. Listening to music is not always a passive event. Looking at paintings also asks a viewer to "see feelingly" by bringing to the experience everything possible.

Carey worries about "the inaccessibility of other people's minds" as evidence for his relativistic position, but never makes clear just what would be gained in matters of aesthetics if we could all be mind readers. Art criticism seems one way that we do have access to other minds in the sense that the critic points to certain aspects of a work and thus helps us to see what we may have missed in our own experiencing of the work. We learn what Carey likes in this book. He likes literature. He likes Shakespeare. He does not seem to like painting and music. Why? Well, he need not give us reasons, for his position is that all such matters are matters of taste.

© 2010 Bob Lane

Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia. ( )
  delan | Aug 24, 2010 |
This book is not quite what you might think from the cover. It suggests it may be an enquiry into The Arts, but in fact it is a 100 page defence of the value of literary fiction and poetry, prefaced by 170 pages of saying how painting and music are nothing much.

There are many good reviews of this book in newspapers & journals, both critical and positive, and most available online. I must admit I was as much persuaded to read it by the quote on the back cover from Jeanette Winterton calling it ‘idiotic’ as that from Rupert Christiansen calling it ‘exhilarating and suggestive.’ In fact both are true, as so often it suggests interesting ideas as you try to work out why he is so wrong.

Different reviewers have found different reasons for becoming frustrated with the book. For my part, it was because of the outrageous sophistry of his arguments. He seems to use every fallacy available, attacking the person not the idea, making sweeping generalisations, setting up caricatures of opponents and knocking them down with torrents of scorn. I found it useful to read it alongside Anthony Weston’s great little book ‘A Rulebook for Arguments,’ using Carey as a textbook of what-not-to-do.

One example that springs to mind, he argues that Churchill’s wartime government valued paintings more than human life, because they moved the national art collection into disused slate mines, but did not do the same for the population of London. He repeatedly seems to suggest that anyone with alternative opinions must be a heartless fascist.

At the start of the second section, he gets into his real point - ‘Literature is superior to the other arts.’ (p.173) On getting over the arrogance of this stance, I gradually worked out what it was that so irritated me. He speaks for the bulk of the book about the visual arts, but it gradually becomes clear that he just doesn’t ‘get’ it. I thought the title was rhetorical, but he really does not understand the value of the arts as arts. He thinks the arts are inane, at best an enjoyable entertainment.

Some reviewers have said that this is contradicted by his championing of literature, but on close inspection it turns out that he thinks literary fiction is superior only in so far as it is a sort of philosophy, not an art. ‘Only literature can criticize, then. Further, only literature can moralize. Nowadays this is frowned on. Literature, we are advised, should show not tell. It should work obliquely, through narrative. This is rather like saying that Christ would have done better to stick to parables.’ (p.181)

His defence of literature is that it is ‘not just to delight like painting or music.’ (p.176) which misses the whole point of difficulty in the arts. Do people go to modern art for ‘delight’? It reminds me of Freud, who, having been told that his book on religion completely omitted the central point of religious (oceanic) experience wrote “I cannot discover this ‘oceanic’ feeling in myself.” !

Two quotes from Carey on the visual arts:
‘Even Marlowe's lines are beyond the reach of visual arts like painting or photography. You cannot paint grass green emeralds, except by some ponderous device like juxtaposing painted grass and painted emeralds, whereas language can merge the two in a flash.' (p.216)
And in analyzing a passage from Shakespere's Richard III - ‘How can a shadow be like an angel? Shadows are grey.' (p.218) ! He seems to suffer from boundless literalism.

So how can he deal with poetry, most of which is surely nothing if not an art? You can tell from the poetry he quotes that he is in fact moved by it, but the only explanation for this he can find is that poetry is ‘indistinct.’ Well, yes - artistic, aesthetic, ‘spiritual’ experience must seem ‘indistinct’ to those who don’t want to attend to it, and allow only a vague feeling to find its way through to consciousness.

He doesn’t seem to know that the arts can help us make sense of life, not in the literal sense of marshalling our ideas, but in patterning the deeper, underlying sea of non-discursive thought that lies behind our words and actions. I don’t mean unconscious thought, but that private, unspoken, but very conscious thinking which is experienced directly, without words, and gives significance to mere fact. ‘None of the fundamental things of life has words attached to it.' (Edwin Glasgow 1936 The Painter’s Eye)

‘Intellectual people too often feel obliged to pretend an interest in arts for which they have no natural inclination. The man of abstract mind apprehends great ideas presented in the abstract medium of literature, but in the concrete of painting he is easily deceived by associations with words into spending his admiration on mean forms, on foolish labour, on purposeless colour.’ R.A.M. Stevenson

Carey says he wants to burst the pomposity of elitist art-worshipers, but he never knows where to stick the pin, having no idea that there is real value to be distinguished from the fake. If you never understood why some people think the visual arts, music, etc can be powerful, even ‘spiritual’ experiences, of great importance in their lives, then you can enjoy the confirmation of a professor who doesn’t ‘get’ it either. He will tell you there is nothing to get.

Don’t buy this book if you want a serious consideration of the place of the arts in the modern world, or if you are easily frustrated. That said, having thrown it across the room in frustration, I always picked it up again after a week or two. It isn’t dull. ( )
  demot | May 20, 2008 |
Showing 2 of 2
The first chapter of the book is worth the book's price: Carey wrestles with the question "What is a work of art?" in this chapter after telling us that he is offering a secular viewpoint without the benefit of absolutes residing somewhere in the heavens.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 019530554X, Hardcover)

Hailed as "exhilarating and suggestive" (Spectator), "thought-provoking and entertaining" (David Lodge, Sunday Times), and "incisive and inspirational" (Guardian), What Good are the Arts? offers a delightfully skeptical look at the nature of art. John Carey--one of Britain's most respected literary critics--here cuts through the cant surrounding the fine arts, debunking claims that the arts make us better people or that judgments about art are anything more than personal opinion. But Carey does argue strongly for the value of art as an activity and for the superiority of one art in particular: literature. Literature, he contends, is the only art capable of reasoning, and the only art that can criticize. Literature has the ability to inspire the mind and the heart towards practical ends far better than any work of conceptual art. Here then is a lively and stimulating invitation to debate the value of art, a provocative book that "anyone seriously interested in the arts should read" (Michael Dirda, The Washington Post).

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:47 -0400)

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Looking at the true value of art, Carey both asks and answers many questions regarding our perception of the arts, as well as making a self-confessedly personal and subjective case for the superiority of literature over all other arts.

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