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.’
This has the virtue of simplicity, but there is surely more to be said, if not about Kant, then about the terms ‘art’ and ‘work’, the first long associated with skills of every sort and the second with the results of their application; for example, Prospero’s ‘art’ was magic, and what the magic accomplished was ‘work’, a word also used to describe the alchemical process. It is easy enough to see that many people, each knowing what the others were talking about, could agree that some object or process was a work of art. And indeed the extended use of the term to characterise a vase or a painting is surely intelligible to most people. There can obviously be a consensus, shared even by people who happen to think it ugly, about whether a painting by Botticelli is a work of art. This is a matter of linguistic community, not taste. The arguments start only when the term is used to attribute value to an object, or to devalue it by denying it the status implied by both ‘art’ and ‘work’.
Carey maintains that there are ‘no rational grounds’ for believing that ‘high’ art is superior to mass or popular art. Persistence in such an opinion is hardly to be distinguished from claims to belong to an upper class. Among those here castigated for snobbery and irrationality are Jeanette Winterson, Clive Bell and Kenneth Clark. The last-named is treated with particular severity because he had such power to impose his false opinions on the world. For example, he had much influence on the decision, in 1939, to store the paintings from the National Gallery in Welsh slate mines. Carey points out bitterly that no comparable service was done to the people of London, and that is true, but he can’t be saying that the population of London should have been consigned to Welsh caves. They couldn’t, but the paintings could be. And he surely cannot mean that it would have been better if the pictures as well as the people had been bombed; he is hostile to public art galleries but doesn’t suggest blowing them up. He just thinks they don’t do anybody good.
In fact he devotes a chapter to the question ‘Do the arts make us better?’ It is a question expecting the answer ‘No!’ They may make us better art-lovers, but cannot be asked to produce moral improvement. I think this is the right answer, but it’s probably oversimplified, and Carey will later explain that it is not quite true of literature. But the idea that public galleries with free access are morally uplifting and a benefit to the poor (which was the reason, given in one form or another, which got them started) is simply false, the sort of crooked thinking to be expected from men of power like Clark. There is no evidence that anybody else benefits from subsidised national collections, and some evidence against the notion. Remember that the greatest art-lover of his time was Hitler, to whose artistic accomplishments Carey devotes several cautionary pages.
And what would it mean, anyway, to be made better by looking at paintings? The idea that it makes you more civilised is intellectually as well as socially disreputable because it involves acceptance of a false definition of civilisation or culture. And the maintenance of this pernicious myth – art does you good morally – costs money. John Tusa of the Barbican remarks that art of high quality is difficult, and its difficulty is not unrelated to its need for heavy subsidy. ‘What sort of difficulty,’ asks Carey austerely, ‘do those attending operas encounter? What is difficult about sitting on plush seats and listening to music?’ His indignation at the subsidy paid to the Royal Opera is vented in a pleasing fancy: he imagines the ‘well-swaddled’ audience leaving the Opera House after an evening of pleasure, made possible by ‘colossal injections of other people’s money’, and languidly hailing their chauffeurs.
All this wickedness and folly is caused by the selfish misconception of ‘high art’ fostered by such insidious propagandists as Adorno, Benjamin and Geoffrey Hartman of Yale. It is fair to add that what really infuriates Carey is the coexistence in our world of a class that can afford the already heavily subsidised seats at Covent Garden and the myriad fellow humans who live on $2 a day. In so far as we condone this state of affairs, art seems to be making us worse, not better. Carey agrees with Pierre Bourdieu that having a taste for art is more a mark of class than anything else, although one has to remember that working-class people have been known to enjoy The Well-Tempered Clavier, and that some middle-class folk admire La Traviata. But for Carey the important question is still the apparent lack of connection between sensitivity to art and sensitivity to human suffering. One of the few commentators he quotes with admiration is Marghanita Laski, who asked how many people who have achieved ecstatic experiences through art have been induced to do charity work that involves ‘personal contact with people who are physically disgusting’. They are probably rather few. Art doesn’t make people better, and the notion that it can do so is the product of ‘lax and baseless assumptions and pious hopes’. So too with the notion that art can be a kind of religion; this is a non-starter: ‘As a religion . . . art is simply an idolatrous fake.’
Something might yet be done to make art more useful. The Arts Council might go back to what was perhaps its original intention and fund community arts rather than squandering money on metropolitan ‘quality’. Drama and painting in prisons have been shown to have good therapeutic results and consequential social benefits. More generally, we could rethink our own assumptions in the light of what is known of other cultures. There is ample anthropological evidence that art can be communal, uncompetitive, accessible to everybody. We might try to think of ourselves as what we in fact are – lonely left-over hunter-gatherers who long for community. We might get a much more helpful response to our loneliness from fashion, gardening and football, though there the male bonding, valuable in principle, sometimes ends in violence.
One thing is sure: the defenders of ‘high art’ and its power to do good have so weak a case that they ‘deserve credit just for trying’. Not that they get much. Iris Murdoch’s argument ‘collapses the moment you give it the slightest prod’. Chris Smith, defending Blair’s invitation to Noel Gallagher, claimed that the prime minister was also deeply moved by King Lear, which is a ‘banal and evasive piece of claptrap’. With so much at stake, claptrap is the last thing we need; clear thinking on the whole question is essential. So Carey wonders if the scientists can help by making aesthetics a matter of knowledge rather than opinion. Well, if Edward Wilson’s Consilience is anything to go by, they can’t, and the same must be said of Ramachandran and Hirstein, who attempted, by experiments on rats, to divine the deep structure or universal rule underlying all aesthetic experience. Carey emphasises that these are professors of eminence; ‘yet the objections to them seem obvious . . . their theory’s hopeless ineptitude illustrates the difficulty of applying scientific research to art, even when fine minds attempt it.’
Semir Zeki’s An Exploration of Art and the Brain does give the prosecutor a moment’s pause. He is impressed by Zeki’s point that the visual system of the brain is millions of years older than its linguistic system, and can absorb information far more quickly. But Zeki makes rather little of this, and in the end his ‘adventures among the brain cells’ achieve nothing. For it does not make sense to say that the vertical lines of Mondrian are ‘admirably suited to stimulate cells in the visual cortex’, since ‘everything we see is admirably suited to stimulate cells in the visual cortex, otherwise we should not see it.’ A typical Carey knockout; and one more bleak conclusion: science can’t help us either.
A long final chapter on literature proclaims its superiority over all other arts. It is the only one capable of reasoning and the only one that can ‘criticise itself’ or indeed criticise anything; it is also the only art capable of moralising. Examples are offered to show that literature can indeed do all these things: Religio Medici, Rasselas (‘one of the wisest books ever written, and can be read in an afternoon’), Gulliver’s Travels, Middlemarch – no very surprising or non-canonical choices, except perhaps Conrad’s Victory, praised for its conclusion, a ‘Liebestod’ that ought to leave us ‘misty-eyed’. ‘Lena’s vision strikes a blow for “low” popular art, and for the masses who have no knowledge of great literature, and it shows they are capable of supreme courage and pure, selfless love.’ Carey could have chosen to discuss the endings of The Secret Agent or Under Western Eyes, both of which he touches on, but he expressly wants to give precedence to what is by most critics thought an inferior novel because his reasons for admiring it resemble those for which ‘the masses’ admire soaps. Unlike the figure of the maniac with the bomb and the shattered body of Razumov, Lena’s courage can impinge on the heroism of ordinary life as well as on its commonplace tales of sorrow and disappointment, and its unexceptional pleasures. It is a typical Carey choice, and his case for literature is that it can work in this way.
At this point one is inclined to think a suspicion has been confirmed, that Carey’s critical argument is an old one – he is commending this art because it can be useful. He has a yearning for the utile. All along one has been waiting for a word suggesting a corresponding interest in the dulce, the pleasant, the delightful, about which, suspicious of all claims to rapturous experience (obtainable, after all, from drugs) he has hitherto been agnostic. He discusses J.M. Coetzee’s claim that his life was changed when, as a teenager in South Africa, he overheard The Well-Tempered Clavier being played next door; an experience reminiscent of its archetype in Augustine’s Confessions, in which another voice in another garden urged a young man to pick up a book and read it. Augustine was symbolically choosing Christianity; what was Coetzee choosing? ‘High European culture’? Carey, for him rather weakly, says Coetzee chose what would improve his ‘self-respect’. But he does not deny the experience, which is an experience of art.
Whatever may be said against art snobbery and the obscenity of spending millions on paintings while around the world the poor are starving, experiences of art of something like the kind Coetzee reports are not uncommon; they may contain an element of self-congratulation, even of guilt at the thought of their inaccessibility to the deprived, but they aren’t essentially fraudulent and need not resemble in any way the chemical ecstasies Carey deplores. There are transactions with poems, paintings and music that involve the unaided imagination.
The second part of the chapter on literature does deal with the place of the imagination in the work of reader and writer. A passage in Lord of the Flies, when Simon’s body moves at the water’s edge, is justly called ‘wonderful’. The rest of the section consists mostly of verse, and the commentary admires the quality of ‘indistinctness’ – writing dense with metaphor and simile, writing of a kind that virtually begins with Shakespeare. ‘Literature’s indistinctness . . . makes reading creative.’
Carey writes with his habitual clarity about some difficult matters: about poems which inspire in him what Browne in Religio Medici called the pursuit of reason into an O altitudo, a love of losing himself in a mystery – an experience of which Carey elsewhere seems suspicious. But on the indistinctness of his poets, from Shakespeare to Larkin, he writes with warmth as well as acumen. ‘Poetic ideas do not tell you what the truth is, they make you feel what it would be like to know it.’ For literature he sets aside his strenuous argument that we cannot know what anybody else is feeling. He does not believe that poetic ideas do this only for him. Networks of association, we are told, link readers. ‘They make literature an internal thing, special to us’ (my emphasis). Some great poems are quoted much as Matthew Arnold quoted his ‘touchstones’, with obvious assurance that they affect others as they do Carey.
Can it be true that literature alone has such powers, such an obvious appeal to both imagination and reason? At the end of this absorbing and amusing book one feels that the rhetorical successes of the earlier chapters are, at the end, sacrificed and laid as booty at the feet of literature.