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A Review of John Carey’s

What Good are the Arts?


by Miles Mathis

Like those insects it is impossible to extract from the orifice they inhabit,
there is no way of dislodging the fool from his folly. —Ortega y Gasset

John Carey is a 71 year-old professor emeritus of English literature at Oxford and the chief art critic at the Sunday Times in 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 Times.    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

Until 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. 

I 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.

Mr. 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 anti-elitism is 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. 

One 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.

I 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. 

Of 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 courant idea 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 Yorker in 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 boldness.

Mr. 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.   

When 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 democracy.   The 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 artistic brilliance.  

Why 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. 

Even beyond his status as a non-artist, it is very difficult to take someone seriously who would write this:

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.

Mr. Carey 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. 

Mr. Carey again vastly overstates the case when he says this:

The 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 human yourself.

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? 

Even Mr. 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. 

Even more puzzling is Mr. Carey’s claims that Kant’s denial of the term “genius” to scientists like Newton has carried over to the present day: 

Men 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 occurred.

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 art critic?  

Moreover, if 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 psychology.  

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? 

We are also told, in an accompanying article, that Careyfinds 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:

Of 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. 

In 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 Nation.

click here to read a follow-up essay on Carey

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