Feb 25, 2011

What Good are the Arts? by John Carey

What Good are the Arts? by John Carey

This book! Where has it been all my life? My friend Vishy earned my eternal gratitude by suggesting that I read it sooner rather than later in the comments of my recent ‘Not All Readings are Created Equal’ Sunday Salon post. As Vishy pointed out, What Good are the Arts? deals with many of the same questions I so often struggle with myself as a Common Reader With Opinions - and also as someone who finds the very different critical attitudes towards different types of books I happen to love equally love frankly puzzling. I’d been meaning to read this book ever since Nick Hornby raved about it in one of his “Stuff I've Been Reading” columns, but I could definitely use the extra nudge that Vishy provided.

John Carey is a literature professor who doesn’t share some of his colleague’s reverence of “high art” and contempt for “low art”. What Good are the Arts? is divided into two parts: the first deals with the question “What makes something a work of art?” and the many ways it has been answered over time. Specifically, Carey considers the definition of art, the supposed superiority of “high art”, the extent to which science can provide answers to these questions, the common belief that artistic sensibility makes you a better person, and the relationship between art and religion. The second part makes the case for literature as an art form with something unique to offer – and if this sounds like a contradiction of part one, Carey never frames is own preference for literature as anything more than exactly that—his preference.

I confess I approached the book with some trepidation, because if there’s one thing I’m tired of, it’s seeing defences of disreputable art forms eventually turn into dismissals of those generally deemed respectable. As someone who loves both, I’m always left in an awkward and pretty lonely position. This kind of thought process is often referred to as “reverse elitism”, but to me it’s just good old elitism with its allegiances in unusual places. But thankfully I had nothing to fear here: Carey is nothing if not an art-sceptic, but this isn’t the same as saying he’s dismissive of art, be it “high” or “low”. His approach here reminded me a little of my struggle to explain to people that being an atheist and not believing that life has an ultimate meaning is not the same as being a nihilist and not caring about anything at all. Carey doesn’t believe that art is “sacred”, but that doesn’t mean he thinks it doesn’t matter.

His own definition of a work of art is ,“Anything that anyone has ever considered a work of art, though it may be a work of art for that person alone”. I don’t think we can do better than this, really. He also adds, “If this seems to plunge us into the abyss of relativism, then I can only say that the abyss of relativism is where we’ve always been in reality—if it is an abyss.” For me, the crucial thing in this definition is the lack of a “merely” or equivalent before “for that person alone”. Of course there have been works of art that have mattered for a larger number of people, and as such they have come to acquire a kind of cultural resonance that other works of art do not have. This is what calling something a classic mostly means to me. Cultural resonance is interesting and worth keeping track of; acknowledging this, however, does not necessarily mean that those other, less resonant works of art will have to be dismissed, or that the emotions they provoke in those individuals who love them are in any way less worthy or inferior.

The work of demystification done in What Good are the Arts?, then, is done with real appreciation for what art does have to offer, particularly literature. Carey doesn’t throw away the baby with the bath water, but be warned that this doesn’t mean he doesn’t get quite sarcastic at times. Personally I loved his tone – he often made me laugh out lout, even if I didn’t always fully agree with him - but I can see how it has the potential to be off-putting. I especially enjoyed his response to what I can only call the history of waxing lyrically about art. Some of the critical passages he cites were quite a revelation—I wasn’t actually aware that the dehumanising attitude implicit in so many elitist positions had actually been worded this explicitly.

Example: Art “‘acts like a social agent’, segregating from the ‘shapeless mass of the many two different castes of men, those who understand it and those who do not. It implies that the first group ‘possesses an organ of comprehension denied to the others—that they are two different varieties of the human species’”. The masses will always be hostile to ‘high art’, then, because it “forces them to recognise themselves as ‘the inert matter of the historical process’”.

And the following is one of the best summarisations of the dehumanising effect of elitism I have ever come across. It might seem somewhat hyperbolic at first glance, but at its core I don’t think it is, really:
…The assumption that high art puts you in touch with the ‘sacred’ – that is, with something unassailably valuable that surmounts human concerns – carries with it a belittling of the merely human which, when transposed to the realm of international terrorism, promotes massacre. The fatal element in both is the ability to persuade yourself that other people – because of their low tastes or their lack of education or their racial or religious origins or their transformation into androids by the mass media – are not fully human, or not in the elevated sense that you are human yourself. Of course it is just this fatal element that makes the view point so attractive. For it brings with it a wonderful sense of security. It assures you of your specialness. It inscribes you in the book of life, from which the nameless masses are excluded.
What this all comes down to is the fact that, like me, Carey is not a fan of definitions of art that amount to “things recognised as works of art by the right people”. He also doesn’t like to see art be defined exclusively as something that is done to you, something you approach and revere rather than as something you do yourself (I keep hearing Bill from Hilary McKay’s Casson family books going “It’s not quite art, is it?” in my head). The active role of the participant, Carey argues, is not actually something that distinguishes “high” and “low” art. As he states in the second half of the book, he believes that his favourite art form, literature, does this naturally – it involves the reader as a co-creator, no matter how seemingly simple and straightforward the text.

In part two, John Carey also attacks what is actually one of the cornerstones of my reading credo: the connection between reading and empathy. I fully believe that rehearsing the act of placing ourselves in the shoes of others through literature can be an encouragement for doing the same in real life, but I actually appreciated the way Carey challenged this idea. It was a good reminder than this rehearsal is not, in fact, a replacement for real life empathy:
To believe that, from reading books, you know what it really feels like to starve, to be in continued pain, to watch your children die—in short, to subsist in the Third World—is not a refinement of sensibility but a trivialisation of others’ suffering. It is self-serving and crassly unimaginative to think that any amount of reading will allow you to share the feelings of people in such situations.
Carey’s words are also a good reminder that there are very real limits to how accurately we can place ourselves in the shoes of other people. It’s certainly important not to get too self-satisfied, and not to fall into the trap of thinking that reading about something means we’re doing something when in fact we’re not. I still believe that reading and raising awareness are great starting points – but when it comes to social issues, they can’t really be an end in themselves.

Another common idea Carey takes issue with is that literature should strive to be neutral – that for a book or poem to take a clear ethical stance of any kind amounts to “preachiness”. I dislike preachy books as much as the next reader, but it’s certainly possible to take this idea too far and turn it into a plea for literature to stop engaging with any sort of Big Issue at all. I couldn’t help but remember all the times I’ve seen the term “preachy” be used as an equivalent of “takes a clear stance that doesn’t happen to match my own”. When I find a book preachy, what I object to is usually its lack of subtlety or explicit didacticism, not the ethical engagement in itself. So I can certainly see what Carey is getting at here.

All through the book, I really appreciated the way he challenged me to take my ideas further even when we didn’t agree. I’ll leave you with a few more of my favourite passages:
The Danto strategy, in the debate that I have imagined, is to over-rule the father’s personal feelings – to make his opinion of no account. When champions of high art dismiss or devalue the pleasures people get from so-called low art, the strategy is the same. Whatever the particular circumstances, the argument of the high-art champions will be reducible to something like this: ‘The experience I get when I look at a Rembrandt or listen to Mozart is more valuable than the experience you get when you look at or listen to whatever kitsch or sentimental outpouring you get pleasure from.’

Diversity is its essence. Unlike science, [literature] is not a field of discovery in which the right answer will eventually displace and supersede the wrong ones. It is a field of accumulation, made up of an incalculable number of divergent trajectories, as diverse as humanity. That is why science cannot be a substitute for it (nor, of course, it for science).

How we read, and how we give meaning to the indistinctiveness of what we read, is affected by what we have read in the past. Our past reading becomes a part of our imagination, and that is what we read with. Since every reader’s record of reading is different, this means that each reader brings a new imagination to each book or poem. It also means that every reader makes new connections between texts, and puts together, in the course of time, personal networks of association. This is another way in which what we read seems to be our creation. It seems to belong to us because we assemble our own literary canon, held together by our preferences.

Literature gives you ideas to think with. It stocks your mind. It does not indoctrinate, because diversity, counter-argument, reappraisal, and qualification are its essence. But it supplies the materials for thought.
Head over to Tales from the Reading Room for a thoughtful reaction that is very different from my own.

(Have I missed yours?)


  1. Oh my goodness, what a post! You were not joking when you said you loved this book. I can feel your emotions twisting like a whirlwind.

    I like the idea that art is a personal thing and should not be defined by the so called 'right people'. I also would like to see the demise of 'art as a social agent' I have always felt as though I belonged in the lower group and would love to see that barrier broken down.

  2. You liked this book much more than I did, Nymeth. The thing is, I get fed up with critics who only pull apart and never create. I felt Carey was often shooting fish in a very small barrel when it came to his challenging arguments, and that he missed his opportunity to really make a proper case of his own.

    I didn't like the definition of art as anything anyone had ever called art. I much prefer one I saw not long ago on another blog (how I wish I could remember which!) that said art was an object or an experience designed to provoke an emotion. Now that I liked - it's positive rather than Carey's open ended undefined definition. But don't mind me - Carey gets up my nose because his default position is to argue but he's also very vain - I've never yet known him question himself. These things get in the way of my appreciation of him as a critic!

    Here's my review of the book:


  3. I think this is one book I've got to get my mitts on. Both art and literature have been a big part of my life as are the questions you raise in your post. I don't really think I have an answer (and it keeps changing with time) but I enjoying reading the different arguments so that I can better understand what the arts means to me. One thing that struck me in your post was the question of empathy. I have to say I agree that you cannot totally understand what someone has experienced just by reading about it, precisely because people react so differently, but I also think that there's no harm in trying to understand by reading about it:)

  4. Loved the quote about the “abyss of relativism”.

    I’ve studied arts in high-school (a pretty liberal one) and there it was always assumed that art is in the eyes of the beholder.

    Even if you didn't see it that way when you first arrived, you changed your mind after some classes in semiotics (symbols, meanings, conventions, etc). So what I found strange when I left that school, was seeing people nit-pick what is art and what’s not.

  5. Isn't it fabulous when we find a book that excites us? Love to hear when it happens to other avid readers.

    As for Carey, I'm not sure he's saying anything new, although it's a worthwhile discussion in every generation.

    I also feel that if he substituted the term 'sacred' for another, his argument on that point wouldn't hold together so well.

    Sacredness can imply elevation, sure, but the artistic and artistic appreciation sensibilities do rely on an otherness that doesn't make that implication. He's suggesting it's by default, and really it's a distinction of hierarchy that every elitist chooses to make in every sphere of life.

    When I create art or appreciate it, I am transported into a different state. It doesn't make me superior for getting there nor does the fact that someone else does not 'get it' mean they are inferior.

    I for instance don't 'get' the athletic high.

    On a similar note, I'm not convinced that even 'sacredness' surmounts the human concern, and by default belittles humanness.

    Although I understand his stance and agree with most of it, I think he's missed a great many nuances.

    Anyway, great discussion and could go on and on, lol.

  6. Ok, I really need to read this book and try to figure out just where I stand in relation to the points it makes about high art. Often the types of books that intelligent people really rave about seem to be beyond my understanding, or beyond my scope. Does this mean that I am below intelligence, common, or just sort of apathetic? Does it mean that other readers are smarter, or just pretentious? I think that this book might go a long way to answer some of these questions for me, and I like the fact that the author can be a little sarcastic in his presentation. It lets me know that he doesn't take himself too seriously.

  7. This sounds like a great book. I majored in art in college, and while I adore art in all forms, I definitely agree that a piece of art is anything that anyone has decided is a piece of art. I really feel like there are too many rules and judgements (about too many things, actually), but art can be so personal, how dare anyone tell you that it's not art, if you feel it is? Anyway. Thanks for this terrific review! And the bit about reading as a pathway to empathy -- I've never thought about it that way, but it certainly can open your mind to other people and situations you might not have come across ordinarily. This doesn't always mean I feel more empathic to real-life people or situations which echo the book, but it does usually make me examine my own beliefs and adjust accordingly.

  8. Wow. Do you think Carey would shush me in a modern art gallery the way old ladies sometimes do? Because modern art often makes me laugh, which I say is one way of enjoying it.

  9. This sounds like a must read for me! ;)

  10. Vivienne: I would love to see that barrier broken down as well!

    litlove: Thank you for your link! My only problem with the definition of art as something designed to provoke an emotion is that it might be read in a way that emphasises authorial intent a little too much. I do think the ideas and emotions artists try to communicate through their work matter, but I also think it's valid to see more in a piece of work than what was ever intentionally put there. I hope this makes sense!

    Sakura: That's pretty much how I feel about it - no harm in trying, as long as we know we can't really know everything.

    Alexandra: "Art is in the eye of the beholder" is pretty much my stance as well.

    Monica: I agree that most of his points aren't new, but he does sum them up quite nicely! I can see your point about "sacredness" / elevation. Another word for it might be ecstasy, and that's something that may be removed from everyday experience without being dismissive of it. I do agree with you there, but I thought that in the context of the book as a whole, he wasn't dismissing that kind of experience - just the idea that there are two sorts of human beings, and that this kind of experience is completely out of reach of the "lower" sort.

    Jodie: You DO.

    Zibilee: I don't think there's only one answer, really. But if I were to attempt one, I'd say it all comes down to taste, and that we shouldn't ever be made to feel that ours isn't as good as some other people's (easier said than done, I know).

    Daphne: I like how you put it - literature does make us re-examine ourselves, and that has to be one of my favourite things about it.

    Jodie: I don't think he would at all - it's easer to imagine him laughing along with you.

    Amy: Considering how often we agree about these things, I would say that yes, it is a must read for you :P

  11. This sounds very thought provoking. I think sometimes as readers, we get a little smug because we've read about issues - it's good to be reminded that reading isn't doing.

  12. Kathy: I have caught myself slipping into that kind of smugness more than once in the past :\ So yes, Carey's reminder was certainly appreciated.

  13. I struggle with the elitism that is sometimes present with who appreciate "high art." I do appreciate many forms of art and literature, both "high" and "low." I think there are also others that show animosity towards those who appreciate "high art" and assume that those individuals are trying to elevate themselves above others when it's not necessarily the case. It comes from both sides, and that is sad. Sometimes I feel stuck in the middle. :)

    This sounds like a really thought-provoking book.

  14. Interesting. I'm one of those people that appreciate different types of art...whether others see it as high or low. It doesn't mean I like everything in either category but I don't expect anyone to be like that.

    For example, I'm starting to really enjoy reading Shakespeare but I also like Edgar Allan Poe and the Harry Potter series and on and on.


  15. Now I'm very curious! You and Litlove did indeed have very different reactions, and I respect both of y'all's opinions quite a lot. I did have a semi-negative reaction to the business about art and the sacred -- not that I demand art must be able to put us in touch with the "sacred", but I do think it's hyperbolic, the connection he's drawing between that sensation and the superiority racism/classicm business.

  16. The comment about the abyss of relativism reminded me of Salman Rushdie's essay "Imagine There's No Heaven": "Imperfect human knowledge may be a bumpy, pot-holed street, but it's the only road to wisdom worth taking. [... F]reedom is that space in which contradiction can reign, it is a never-ending debate. It is not in itself the answer to the question of morals but the conversation about that question." I dig it in the abyss. :-)

    As for definitions of art, I'm not sure I love either Carey's or the one Litlove mentions (which I saw too! which blog was it on??), but I like the sort of general direction they're both heading. To me the problem with stressing "designed to provoke an emotion" is that I think there can be art that's completely process-oriented, designed to be rather therapeutic for the artist than provoking for the audience. And I also think it possible that pieces of art exist, that nobody has ever thought to call art. Often, for example, things like hats knitted by grannies, well-organized toolboxes, or the median strip outside our house that a homeless man "mowed" with his bare hands, pass unremarked as artwork despite their potential to be so and even despite the art-like reactions they evoke in us.

    But I ain't got my own to offer. :-)

  17. Kristi: Yes, that definitely happens as well. And I see it as the same process as good old fashioned elitism, even if about different things. At least we can be stuck in the middle together :P

    Lauren: You and me both :)

    Jenny: I think the analogy of terrorism is a tricky one for him to have used, but to me it worked because I can indeed see similar processes at work in both situations. I definitely don't think you can even begin to compare the amount of harm elitism causes with something like terrorism, but what he was getting at made sense to me because I see both things falling on different points of the same continuum. It all comes down to dehumanising other people and finding ways to rationalise that dehumanisation. Which to me is probably one of the scariest things we human beings do.

    Emily: I like the Rusdhie quote :) I can see what you mean about the granny hats or toolboxes or median strips, but the way I'd put it is: those are things nobody has thought to call art *yet*. To me, artistic value is not intrinsic to them, just as it's not really intrinsic to anything. But they are indeed legitimate pieces of art the moment they're thought of as such, as they were in your example. Which brings me more or less back to Carey, I guess :P Actually, the more I think about this the more I begin to think that perhaps defining art doesn't matter all that much.

    Kelly: I do think you'd enjoy it :)

  18. This book sounds so great, especially since it is so thought-provoking and challenging. The neutral argument especially!

    Discussions of what is art and what isn't always makes me think of Joseph Beuys' tub! :D

  19. I am very happy and glad that you liked John Carey's book, Ana :) And I am glad to be of help by nudging you a little bit :) I enjoyed reading your review, very much!

    I liked very much your observation - "if there’s one thing I’m tired of, it’s seeing defences of disreputable art forms eventually turn into dismissals of those generally deemed respectable." I also liked very much your observation - "His approach here reminded me a little of my struggle to explain to people that being an atheist and not believing that life has an ultimate meaning is not the same as being a nihilist and not caring about anything at all." I remember having a conversation on this topic with one of my friends many years back - both of us were atheists - and while my argument was a bit nihilistic, her argument was probably more closer to yours. It was an interesting and sometimes heated conversation and today I am wiser because of that.

    Your observations on the definition of art made me remember a scene from the movie "Mona Lisa Smile", where the art teacher asks her students how they would define a work of art and one of the students replies that anything that an expert says is a work of art, qualifies as one.

    I liked your observation on reading with empathy. I like reading that way, though as you have said reading is never a substitute for doing something.

    I don't like 'preachy' books much - I like books to tell things as they are and allow the readers to draw their own inferences.

    I also liked very much your observation - "I do think the ideas and emotions artists try to communicate through their work matter, but I also think it's valid to see more in a piece of work than what was ever intentionally put there." Very beautifully put!

    I enjoyed reading all your favourite passages. The last one on literature was really wonderful!

    I thought I had written a review of John Carey's book before I started blogging, but when I checked my blog, I discovered that I had actually posted it. It is quite an inadequate review, but if you are interested, you can find it here - http://vishytheknight.wordpress.com/2009/02/08/book-review-no-3-what-good-are-the-arts-by-john-carey/

    Thanks for this wonderful review!

  20. "Cultural resonance is interesting and worth keeping track of; acknowledging this, however, does not necessarily mean that those other, less resonant works of art will have to be dismissed, or that the emotions they provoke in those individuals who love them are in any way less worthy or inferior."

    I think this is an important idea here, Ana, and one we could all remember when someone says "oh this is not art", or "that is art". Who is doing the judging? we seem to put on a high pedestal people who 'study' art, who specialize in critiquing and maybe understanding it, when I think this is not what art is about at all. While it helps to have a rough guide as to what constitutes art, that is always particular to the time and place. I think 'cultural reference' puts a finger on how what we call art is so hit or miss for the time - remember all those artists,writers and poets who starved because no one of their time recognized that their art did reveal something - because their art meant more for the future (if that makes any sense)?

    There is I find a timelessness about the best art, the art we consider the best representations in the Western Canon (or in other canons of world art), no matter the type of art. Even if the art is created in that time and space -as it can't helped to be - it transcends it somehow. Does Carey talk about this idea in his book?

    Really, I think this comes down to questioning what is creative, and what purpose it has. I always think of illumination, that art illuminates something we did not know before, whether it's through a painting, literature, a poem, a photograph.

    I am going to have to get this book so I can compare my reaction and thoughts to yours and litloves'!

    Excellent thoughts and points, Ana.

  21. Oh interesting! You always come up with the neatest books that I wouldn't necessarily come into contact with otherwise.

  22. Wow sounds like a fantastic book with a lot of food for thought. Thanks for bringing it to my attention :)

  23. I agree: "When I find a book preachy, what I object to is usually its lack of subtlety or explicit didacticism, not the ethical engagement in itself." Lack of subtlety drives me nuts. If a book is going to have a message - and really, don't most? - that's great, just don't beat me over the head with it. The quality of the writing should not be sacrificed for the sake of the message.

    Great, in-depth review. Thanks for sharing!


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