The Value of the Arts

Review of What Good Are the Arts, by John Carey (Faber and Faber, 2005)

© Donald Richardson, October, 2005

This book is actually an apologia for literature - and the literature of 'the canon' (which, one must admit, is the proper study of any Oxford professor of literature). Of course, this defence is inspired - and necessitated - by the assaults on the canon in all the arts by the post-modernist/post-structuralist academics who have stuffed (in both senses of the term) the tertiary institutions - the culture of whom is a major cause of the federal Education Minister's attack on educational standards.

But this only occurs in the second part of the book. In the first, Carey performs a richly-deserved hatchet job on aesthetics - in particular, the concept of taste, which he justly characterizes as eighteenth-century middle-class gentlemen's values and, therefore, anything but universal. He has little to say about music, and is less than charitable to visual art, but his opinions have largely been formed by reading
the masses of inanities that have been written about the conceptual variety. His criticism of the 'Modern British' art of the likes of Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst is devastating, yet fair.

Literature, on the other hand, is lauded for its unique qualities of discussion and communication, even when it deals in the romantic, irrational and imaginative. Also, it is the only medium of rational criticism - including of literature itself. And Carey goes on to prove this with eminently professorial mini-lectures on writers from the canon.

Of necessity, Carey must enter the fraught field of the definition of art. The most recent published statement - that of Arthur Danto: that art must be anything that has been accepted by 'the art world' to be so - Carey finds not broad enough. He posits instead that art is anything that anyone has ever considered to be art. While this seems to be the reductio ad absurdum, it helps Carey make his major point that, as there are no absolute values in the arts, we cannot justly condemn anyone else's point of view about art. How he justifies this with his criticism of those who regard themselves as superior to the general run because they understand the arts - and with the very concept of a canon - is not clear, however. People who understand and appreciate the arts had to work on it (as Carey himself must have). Understanding and appreciating the arts is like working one's way through the stages of a secret society or lodge, so it can be difficult for those at a lower stage to appreciate what those who have progressed further do. This may be regarded as elitism, but 'elitist' is never applied pejoratively to the initiated in sport, business or religion. Peculiarly, it is only ever applied to the afficionados of the arts.

But, there is no doubt that Carey values all the arts and believes we should have universal school education in them - a consummation devoutly to be wished.