Yearning for the ‘Utile’

Frank Kermode

  • What Good Are the Arts? by John Carey
    Faber, 286 pp, £12.99, June 2005, ISBN 0 571 22602 7

John Carey, former Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford, an authority on Milton and Donne and Dickens and others, the very model of a Merton Professor, has also been, for decades, the chief reviewer of the Sunday Times, a BBC sage, a sought-after chairman of panels, a man well known for his strong opinions on all matters to do with literature and the other arts. These opinions he expresses with unusual force and directness; his manner, as his blurb says, is ‘important and provocative’, whether pronounced ex cathedra in Oxford or in allocutions to a wider public.

His new book reaffirms his view that there is much nonsense talked about the arts. It is not innocent nonsense, and he is much concerned with the harm done by privilege, by the assumption that it is acceptable to finance the pleasures of the rich by cheating the poor, and by the failure of our society to understand that the arts should take their place among other legitimate human interests like religion, sex, rock music and football. Modern attitudes to these and other related matters are based on selfish fantasies and expressed in self-serving cant. His plan is to blow them away with the breath of common sense.

To answer the question asked in his title he begins at the beginning: since we attach so much importance to the idea, what, in fact, constitutes a work of art? It’s a newfangled notion – nobody could have asked such a question before the 18th century. Since then it has been a major cause of trouble, much of it stemming from Immanuel Kant – a man who spent his life in a backwater of East Prussia, cared little for the arts, and knew very little about them. His Critique of Judgment says what is, in Carey’s words, ‘patently untrue’, namely that the beautiful may be so called only if the speaker believes that everybody else shares his opinion, and also that standards of beauty are absolute and universal. From the same unreliable source came the notion that art objects must be of no practical use, provoke no emotion and offer no sensuous pleasure. The beautiful can give pleasure only as a symbol of the morally good. Artists whose work satisfies these requirements are called geniuses. ‘It is strange,’ muses Carey, ‘that this farrago of superstition and unsubstantiated assertion should have achieved a position of dominance in Western thought.’

His treatment of Kant is a fair illustration of the way Carey tackles the opposition. He provides a brisk account of somebody’s thought and then briskly knocks it to pieces. John Dewey’s thinking on art, once summarised, can be seen to have ‘the precision of cooked spaghetti’. A more recent American aesthetician, Arthur Danto, is one of those who make the impossible claim that their experience of art is more valuable than any that could be derived from the ‘kitsch or sentimental outpourings’ which other people enjoy. Behind the claims, variously stated, for ‘high art’ there always lurks this assumption that what I feel is more valuable than what you feel. But of course, Carey says, it is impossible for me to know how and what you feel. Powerless to enter into the inner experience of others, we are all debarred from valid comment on any claim they may make about the status of this or that object as a work of art. ‘Anything can be a work of art. What makes it a work of art is that someone thinks of it as a work of art.’

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