John Carey’s book What Good are the Arts? is of an age - our age - in which those at the top of education aim to be barbarians in citadels not keepers of flames, while too many of those who get the education that this attitude fosters are stunted and small-minded, their only consolation being the bogus, guilt-laden ‘celebration’ that they receive from all quarters, not least Professor Carey’s.
I work with some of these people. Believe me, they don’t need the support that Carey offers. Richard Hoggart, that noble man, parodied the patronising neglectfulness of the anti-elitist elite as ‘just stay as sweet as you are’.
Anyway, Carey attacks some common assumptions about the arts. He claims, among other things, that:
- ‘High art’ is no better than ‘low art’.
- Art doesn’t make us better (Hitler, after all, was artistically a rather cultivated man), although he does say that arts programmes can serve certain utilitarian goals.
- A work of art is anything that anyone thinks is a work of art: since we can’t know how one person - let alone all of us – subjectively responds to anything, there can be no shared definition.
As Emeritus Merton Professor of English at Oxford, Carey knows more than I do about his subject. That is factually true. But no matter: by his argument (if not mine), I suppose that if I think his book is crap, then it is crap, and I can finish this post here with that clear in my mind, if no one else's (and certainly not, I imagine, his). He might even go so far as to assert that flawed modern belief that I am entitled to my opinion. But if I’m wrong, and I hope he'd allow me to be, I may well be entitled to express my opinion but I’m not entitled to hold it. This gets us nowhere.
So here’s a brief stab at tackling each of Carey’s above claims. What do you think? Am I entitled to my opinions?
‘High art’ is no better than ‘low art’. Yes it is, because it requires more and deeper reserves of human imagination, skill, application, ingenuity and empathy in order to produce it, and these qualities, even if they are not all shared by all human beings in all cultures at all times, are accessible to all. In short, J.S. Bach's The Art of the Fugue is better than The Brotherhood of Man's Save Your Kisses for Me. Oh yes it is.
Art doesn’t make us better. No it doesn’t, but it has a wonderfully rich capacity to do so, which, as moral agents, we can welcome, ignore or pervert as we wish, and that is what matters; for every Adolf Hitler there is a Daniel Barenboim, for every Richard Wagner a Richard Wagner.
A work of art is anything that anyone thinks is a work of art. Only unimaginative, lazy, infantile - or habitually patronised - people will be content to say “I like x because I like it” and leave it at that; humans have and can give reasons for what they think and feel, and we have flawed but potentially fruitful shared means of making these reasons intelligible to others. Art is not an individual statement but a mutual discussion and exploration. The quality of the artistic experience should be a subject for that discussion.
I think Carey’s approach, whatever his intention, will encourage people to close down rather than open up good, inquisitive debate in a spirit of good will. I think it impedes the development of the ‘critical literacy’ (another Hoggart phrase) which Carey has in spades but would deny people who need it. I think it condones and supports the selfish and anti-social individualism encouraged by the market values he no doubt – and, if so, rightly – abhors.
He, and the many relativists in education and beyond, are not as radical as they think they are.