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What Good Are The Arts? by John Carey
Carey tackles the question raised in his title by posing a series of sub-questions: What Is a Work of Art? Is High Art Superior? Can Science Help? Do the Arts Make Us Better? Can Art Be a Religion?

The following extract is a review written by David Lodge for The Times:

Regular readers will know that John Carey is that rare creature, an academic who writes shrewdly, wittily and economically on a wide range of subjects in a style that non-specialists can understand and appreciate. There is a principle, central to the British tradition of philosophical discourse, known as Occam’s Razor, which forbids the unnecessary multiplication of facts. Carey’s favourite argumentative tool is more like a machete. He has a ruthlessly logical mind that cuts through obscurity, pretension, fallacious reasoning and unsupported assertion, and he has a knack of summarising and quoting from writers with whom he disagrees to devastating effect.

The machete is much in evidence in part one of this book, where Carey tackles the question raised in his title by posing a series of sub-questions: What Is a Work of Art? Is High Art Superior? Can Science Help? Do the Arts Make Us Better? Can Art Be a Religion? His answers are, in brief: anything; no; not much; not as a rule; no. Then, in part two, as if dismayed by the negativity of his own conclusions, and the havoc his blade has wrought in the jungle of aesthetic theory, he makes a modestly stated case for the superiority of literature to the other arts, implying that one of them, at least, is good for something.

In his first chapter, he traces the concept of art as an autonomous and privileged activity, producing “works” that have an essence or qualities in common, back to the idealist aesthetics of Kant, briskly dismissed as “farrago of superstition and unsubstantiated assertion”. This tradition of aesthetic theory is biased towards “great” works of art, thus excluding much artistic production and experience. In his second chapter, Carey questions the distinction between high and low art in terms of value. He regards Jeannette Winterson’s elitist musings on art as “barely sane”, and the claim of Chris Smith, former minister for culture, in his book Creative Britain, to speak for “all of us” in claiming ecstatic experience of high art while urging tolerance of popular art, as “banal and evasive claptrap”. Carey has much more respect for Dorothy Hobson’s study of responses to the despised television soap Crossroads, which showed that its narratives were deeply meaningful to an audience, mainly women, most of whom could not be included in Smith’s “all”.

Value is certainly an unreliable basis for formally defining art, but it is at the very heart of the experience of art. Carey goes too far in forbidding us to pronounce other people’s aesthetic judgments right or wrong. As a critic, a teacher and a judge of literary prizes he must be constantly engaged in disputing other people’s aesthetic judgments. In the second half of the book, he admits that he hopes other people will be convinced by his literary criticism, but points out that this is a discourse of persuasion rather than demonstration or proof, which is the province of science.

Carey is a literary intellectual who has made it his business to understand science extremely thoroughly, and one of the most informative chapters here surveys the efforts of biologists, neurologists and evolutionary psychologists to explain the nature of art and human experience of it

For the full article

The Times

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