return to homepage
A Review of
are the Arts?
those insects it is impossible to extract from the orifice they
there is no way of dislodging the fool from his
folly. —Ortega y Gasset
Carey is a 71 year-old professor emeritus of English literature
at Oxford and the chief art critic at the Sunday
London. His book What
Good are the Arts?
is coming out next week (June 2) in the UK. As a bit of
advance publicity, Mr. Carey published a gloss of the main
argument of the book in this week’s Sunday
It is this gloss I will address here. It would take another
book to address all the non-distinctions in his book; here I can
just about match the length of his gloss in destroying it.
Since Mr. Carey wrote the gloss of the book himself, the
destruction of the gloss is as good as the destruction of the
book, which is what I hope to achieve
now, Mr. Carey has stayed beneath my radar. That is to say,
his opinions have not inconvenienced me in any appreciable way.
Now, however, it is claimed that this new book will cause a major
row, at least in the arts in Britain. That is yet to be
seen. Nor am I convinced that a major row among the current
players in the visual arts scene, in Britain or elsewhere, is of
much concern to art history. However, it being a slow week
for me, I thought I would pre-empt the row with a few coldwater
observations. Mr. Carey preens himself on being a
bottom-liner, a brass-and-tacks sort of writer in the tradition
of Orwell. I say I can do him one better. That
is reason enough for getting involved.
was recommended to the article by an English artist who told me
of Mr. Carey’s local reputation as someone who had taken on the
arts establishment and yet still managed to be a major player in
it. Needless to say, I was skeptical. That
combination has been rare in history and is all but impossible
now. I predicted to myself that Mr. Carey had taken some
stance that, while appearing to be slightly extravagant at first,
was actually only a subtle variation of the status quo.
Decide for yourself how accurate I was.
Carey has made his loaf by attacking artistic snobbery. In
short, he is a fierce anti-elitist, the ally of the common man
and the common sensibility. Before I address the specifics
of his argument, I would like to remind the reader that being an
anti-elitist in modern society is not exactly a risky move, even
for Oxford dons. It could hardly be seen as swimming
against any tide. In fact, everyone knows that
the tide. Mr. Carey could not be more establishment
if he tried. This is doubly and trebly true in the arts.
The worldwide establishment in the arts is anti-elitist, and has
been for at least 80 years. So I am mystified to know why
Mr. Carey is seen to be fiercely independent, courageous,
outnumbered, or any of the rest. He is not near any
margin. He is very near the bullseye of modernist thought.
supposes it is because he is reckless enough to attack the modern
centers of power Immanuel Kant and Jeannette Winterson.
Yes, he has really put his head on the block there.
It is yet to be seen if he can escape the fury of their replies.
mean no slight against Ms. Winterson, whose work I like (I also
like her ideas
about art much more than Mr. Carey’s). But surely
no one can be deluded enough to think that Ms. Winterson is part
of any establishment. Nor Iris Murdoch, another writer that
Mr. Carey attacks. Murdoch and Winterson are certainly
respected by many, but as far as their opinions on the definition
of art go, they are much further toward the margins than Mr.
Carey. It is they who have taken the risks, not him.
They have managed to outrun these opinions, which are not very
popular, due to the quality of their art. This is worth
underlining, seeing that Mr. Carey cannot say the same. In
my opinion, what we have in this case is a non-artist, Mr. Carey,
arguing about art with artists. Mr. Carey is an analytical
writer, which is not the same thing as a creative writer.
Mr. Carey is a critic, which is not the same as an artist.
One is an analyzer and the other is a synthesizer.
course Mr. Carey is at pains to hide this distinction. He
is at some pains to hide all distinctions, it would appear.
For example, he agrees with Arthur Danto that everything is
art. Danto is one of the major players in the
worldwide art establishment. If Mr. Carey were
anti-establishment, we would expect him to disagree with the
establishment, but, at least in this gloss, he never does.
Mr. Carey falls into step with the au
of pluralism, which is a fancy way of saying that a Brillo box or
a train ticket or a can of excrement is art. This is
Mr. Carey’s courageous act of defining art, an act he leads us
up to with foreshadowing and bravado. Readers of my
“Lastman” article will remember that this is precisely the
definition given by Louis Menand in the New
1999, and even Mr. Menand was no bold inventor of definitions.
This one has been around for decades. Arthur Danto claims
it in one of his books, going back to 1964 to do so, but everyone
with a clue knows that Duchamp beat him to it by a half century.
This makes Mr. Carey about a century late in his claims to
Carey's main line of argument in the gloss is to show us some
examples of snobbery or elitism in historical and contemporary
art and then to flush the whole idea of high art with these
examples. The logic goes something like this: 1) Some
artists and critics have been snobs, 2) Therefore art is based on
elitism, 3) Therefore all art is called into question, 4)
Therefore all distinctions in art are manufactured, 5) Therefore
these distinctions should and must be jettisoned.
Once again Mr. Carey is in the main line of reasoning in
contemporary art and criticism. And once again I would
think an intelligent reader must be stunned at the lack of sense
in this line of “reasoning”. At least to me, it is
astonishing that an Oxford don can be such a syllogistic fool.
Mr. Carey elides over rules of logic like a schoolboy in
kneepants. But one does not need to be a philosophy expert
to see the holes in Mr. Carey’s argument. One would hope
that even the common men Mr. Carey claims alliance with could see
them. I happen to believe that logic, like art, is a field
open to all, if not practiced by all. Anyone who cared to
could see that Mr. Carey’s argument has no logic in it.
It is a bumpy rush to a foregone conclusion, a conclusion chosen
because it allied him directly to the power grid and allowed him
to be hired by a mainstream newspaper.
he is not flouting the rules of logic, Mr. Carey is putting the
spin on so heavily that one might almost call it lying. For
instance, he says, “Writers
on the arts have emphasized that their spiritual benefits, though
highly desirable, are not available to everyone.”
Yes, some writers who are now seen as outdated by almost everyone
may have said something like that in the distant past. But
I don’t know any writers who are saying that now, and I would
argue that the main line of art criticism has never said that.
Once again, Mr. Carey fails to make very important distinctions.
What the writers that Mr. Carey is talking about really said was
closer to this: “The spiritual benefits of art, though
available to everyone, will never be achieved by everyone
equally, due to the very simple fact that many people will not
take the time or effort to achieve those benefits.”
I think even Flaubert would come closer to my quote than to Mr.
Carey’s, and Flaubert was not the strongest believer in
question is not one of equal opportunity, it is one of equal
achievement. The same might be said of any arena of human
endeavor, from sport to art to the building of relationships.
People arrive at different levels, due to their own choices and
priorities. This is again common sense. But Mr. Carey
prefers to give it a class warfare spin, since this sells copy at
a much faster rate. He wants those who are artistically
ignorant to think that they are being denied a human right to
does he want them to believe it? Why does he care so much
about the artistically ignorant? Why has he made this
alliance? It is very simple. In defending them he is
defending himself. In most ways he is in an analogous
situation. The artistically ignorant are demanding equal
consideration as an unearned right. As an art critic, he is
doing the same thing. He has not earned his place in the
argument by producing great art, and he knows this. This is
the primary fact of his “creative” existence. Only in a
milieu in which all distinctions are thrown out can he hope to
continue to be taken seriously.
beyond his status as a non-artist, it is very difficult to take
someone seriously who would write this:
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,
implies that art, simply by being hierarchical, contains the
seeds of massacre. However, by making some commonsense
distinctions we can easily diffuse this bomb. First
distinction: Not everything that is “sacred” or “unassailably
valuable” surmounts human concerns or belittles the merely
human. In fact, the whole history of art contradicts this
connection, though Mr. Carey tries very hard to make the
connection seem absolute. Very many of the greatest art
works in history have drawn a bold line from the sacred to the
human. Painters and sculptors before the 20th
century were always painters and sculptors of things, most often
human things—people. Occasionally these people were
painted or sculpted as gods or heroes, but even so their concerns
did not surmount human concerns or belittle the human. All
art, even the highest religious art, has been primarily about
human concerns. The great historical religions all have
their problems and I am not here to deny it, but to state that
art and religion have or have tried to surmount human concerns is
simply preposterous. Both were created mainly to
address human concerns. What other concerns are
there? Second distinction: Even if we look only at
the most transcendental parts of the most transcendental
religions and artworks, it is hard to assign violence to them
categorically. Mr. Carey implies that chasing over-earths
and paradises is more strongly linked to violence, personal and
cultural, than other philosophies. This means,
presumably, that to take art and religion away from man is to
civilize him—to make him less violent. I can’t imagine
that anyone seriously believes this, the common man least of
all. The common man knows, like any man with his eyes open,
that men are violent. If you take away their art and
religion, they will invent other hierarchies to war over.
Common men throughout history have lived without much art or
religion, and yet they have gone to war like they were going to
lunch. If you take all the wildebeest out of the Serengeti,
will the lions start eating grass? No, they will find other
prey or starve to death. Even herbivores and little birds
battle over territory. If we diffuse art and religion, we
will battle over territory or mates or politics or football.
Take away football from young boys and they will rank themselves
on shoe size or spitball contests. Take away clothes or
jewelry or grades from teenage girls and they will rank
themselves on the shape of their noses or how tan they are.
again vastly overstates the case when he says this:
fatal element in both [art and terrorism] 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
Here we are
presented with the artist as a little Hitler, and we see once
again how establishment Mr. Carey really is. According to
him, an artist who thinks he knows more about art than people who
know nothing about art must think that these people are “not
fully human” and therefore ripe for extermination. It
would be difficult to be more exclamatory or absurd. Let me
state for the record that I think I know more about art than Mr.
Carey, which means of course that I think know more than the
people he is referring to in this paragraph—the people who have
never studied art or painted anything or gone to museums or
thought much about the subject at all. But I do not think
they are sub-human; nor do I think they should be killed or
maimed or even looked at in a funny way. They can pursue
their interests and I can pursue mine. If they start
claiming to be experts in my field, then yes, they will earn my
ire, but that is about the extent of it. I don’t see how
any common man could disagree with me. A man who knows a
lot about model trains or Star Wars or cooking will also not like
it when someone comes into his basement or kitchen and starts
mouthing off indiscriminately. Nor will the Star Wars
expert grant the title of expert to everyone who asks for it.
There is no field in which status is automatically
granted, and I don’t understand why so many people seem to
think that art is or should be equal time. It is equal
opportunity, yes, but not everyone’s opinions are due equal
esteem. How, precisely, is that a faschistic idea?
Carey’s knowledge of art history is suspect, to say the least.
He claims in this gloss that there was no idea of the artistic
genius before the late 18th century. He
assigns all the ills of hierarchical art to Baumgarten and Kant.
I suggest he read Vasari, where Michelangelo and many others are
praised as geniuses and demi-gods. The Greeks also esteemed
their artists very highly, although Mr. Carey explicitly denies
it. Perhaps he has not read the extravagant praise of
Praxiteles and Phidias in many ancient texts. Or perhaps he
just assumes that his readers have not.
puzzling is Mr. Carey’s claims that Kant’s denial of the term
“genius” to scientists like Newton has carried over to the
of science, Kant stipulates — even highly intelligent ones like
Sir Isaac Newton — do not deserve the name “genius”,
because they “merely follow rules”, whereas artistic genius
“discovers the new, and by a means that cannot be learnt or
explained”. It is strange that this farrago of superstition and
unsubstantiated assertion should have achieved a position of
dominance in western thought. Nevertheless, that is what
One can only
wonder if Mr. Carey has ever heard of a little man named
Einstein. It is nearly beyond belief that Mr. Carey is
attacking his contemporaries based on what Kant said, especially
when precisely no one agrees with Kant on this. I seriously
doubt that any of the snobs that Mr. Carey purposes to hit has
ever claimed that Newton or Einstein or any other famous
scientists were “merely following rules.” And even if
they had, it is hardly to the point. Kant or Winterson or
Murdoch saying false or disagreeable things, even if it were
proved, does not merit throwing out all distinction in art.
If you take
Mr. Carey’s assertions to their logical conclusion, then you
get a world in which even his anti-elitist column becomes
impossible. If everyone’s opinions on art are equal, then
why should the Times give him space every month? Why
not draw names out of a hat and give everyone a chance to write
about art? What could be more elitist than the position of
Mr. Carey is so enchanted by the life of the common man, then why
didn’t he become a factory worker? His life would have
been so much more interesting, relevant, realized and consistent
if he had. At least Orwell (one of Mr. Carey’s heroes, we
are told) had a dose of this consistency. Orwell actually
fled the donnish existence and did some manual labor and lived
close to the bone. With Mr. Carey it is all armchair
It is said
that Mr. Carey was bitter about the destruction of the grammar
schools he went to, “schools that allowed talented children to
escape from humble obscurity.” What? If that
isn’t a contradiction of his whole thesis, I don’t know what
would be. Why should anyone want to escape from the humble
people? How can anyone be talented? Isn’t talent a
dangerous hierarchy that sows the seeds of destruction and
threatens us with more 9/11’s?
are also told, in an accompanying article, that Carey
reviewing books ‘addictive’ on account of the large
readership it grants him.” In response, I will continue
the quote from above, where Carey is talking about the fatal
element in art and terrorism. The next sentence in the
quote is this:
course, it is just this fatal element that makes the viewpoint 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.
It is OK for
Mr. Carey to feel special with his large readership, but it is
not OK for painters or novelists or connoisseurs to feel special
for their achievements. We are on the road to
massacre and mass extermination, while he is just an ally
of the common man.
the accompanying article in the Times,
Mr. Carey is said to have a great command of language and a rigor
that is feared and envied by other critics. I have to admit
that I saw none of that in his gloss. Only other critics
could be cowed by such poor writing and thinking. Beyond
that, I seriously doubt that a writer like Robert Hughes would be
either envious or fearful of Mr. Carey. The only idea that
had any beauty of conception or expression in Mr. Carey’s
article was his quote of Hughes on van Gogh. Everything
else was frankly an awful mess, hardly better than Danto’s
drabblings in The
here to read a follow-up essay on Carey
If this paper
was useful to you in any way, please consider donating a dollar
(or more) to the SAVE THE ARTISTS FOUNDATION. This will allow me
to continue writing these "unpublishable" things. Don't
be confused by paying Melisa Smith--that is just one of my many
noms de plume. If you are a Paypal user, there is no fee;
so it might be worth your while to become one. Otherwise they
will rob us 33 cents for each transaction.