Can Barbarians Have Good Taste?
Review of “What Good are the Arts?” by John Carey

What Good are the Arts?

AMONG THE IDOLS OF OUR AGE is the assumption that art is good for you, a moral tonic. Keep the dosage up and your soul will be healed. Cleansing torrents of art redeem the world. Or, as abstract expressionist Clifford Still said of his own painting, “A single stroke of paint, backed by … a mind that understood its potency and implications, could restore to man the freedom lost in twenty centuries of apology and devices for subjugation.”

Bloodletting is the best treatment for swollen pieties, more contagious now than ever. The pathogens of art appreciation die on exposure to air and John Carey knows just which veins to open. One of Britain’s most prominent literary critics, he restates the questions raised by Jacques Barzun a generation ago in “The Use and Abuse of Art.” Mr. Carey, like his predecessor, understands that art must be challenged because its mock-philosophical, quasi-religious armatures are shaky and dangerous. Art can trivialize the imagination as easily as enlarge it.

Overweening claims for art are mounted on a large incoherent body of beliefs—in short, on superstition masquerading as intellection. Erudite and entertaining, Mr. Carey takes a scalpel to unfounded assertions, suppositions and fallacious reasoning by aggressive didacts (Arthur Danto and John Dewey, among them). The first half of the book is a lively assault on art’s self-regard and it’s resentful role in relation to life.

The pleasure of reading Mr. Carey lies as much in his irreverence as in the logic that shapes it: “The idea that by calling something a work of art you are bestowing on it some divine sanction is as intellectually respectable as a belief in pixies.” A feisty egalitarian, he dismisses the conceit that high art is difficult and accessible only to a few. (Sitting on plush seats and listening to opera is easier than getting a drink at intermission, certainly cushier than most people’s day job.)

After examining the critical evidence, Mr. Carey finds no objective basis for judging one work of art superior to another. Absolute values do not exist; art is whatever one says it is. Consequently, we have no basis to disdain other people's aesthetic choices, however much we dislike them. Nor can we look to the arts for any humanizing influence. Their function is totemic. Art is “a kind of bullion” that underwrites the spiritual authority of those that possess it. Taste be damned.

He scoffs at the Ruskian notion that aesthetic sensitivity benefits our characters or the collective moral life. In his telling, art worship is a cult for manicured barbarians who value their “portable deities” over the lives of real people. Mr. Carey reminds us that a passion for the arts was crucial to earning Hitler’s respect. (Hermann Goering was an art collector; Josef Goebbels wrote plays and a novel.) He cites J. Paul Getty as representative of privileged, callous men using art to “purchase a surrogate soul.”

His examples serve the point. Still, a less hackneyed list (I miss Jacob Frick, architect of the Homestead Massacre and Tyco titan Dennis Kozlowski) would stiffen his argument that art collecting—like viewing and producing art—is a cultivated activity devoid of any civilizing power.

Our common tendency to view Nazism as an aberration blunts Mr. Carey’s reliance on Nazi aesthetes to refute John Ruskin’s faith in taste as “the ONLY morality.” Yes, demonic aesthetics can coexist with benign ones. Connoisseurs of cruelty can respond rapturously to Bach or the Barberini Faun. But unless that fact persuades us of something more discerning than a gleeful relativism that corrodes distinctions between high and low art, knowledge of it is as futile as contemporary mania for art.

Mr. Carey’s skepticism has limits. While he faults fellow scholar George Steiner for pulling back from despair over art’s uselessness, he cannot bring himself to ride full throttle into absurdity. After challenging the presumptions inherent in concepts of quality, he shifts gears and argues splendidly for the superiority of literature over other arts. Not just any literature, mind you, but the English high canon. At least one art is good for something.

Enjoyment of the arts does not distinguish them from a vast range of other activities, as Mr. Carey notes, but participation in language is unique. We inhabit language. It may not make us better but it makes us human. Without explicitly admitting so, he assents to the fact that it is through language, and language alone, that we conceptualize good and evil. Language places a name on acts that images can only mimic. Even our acceptance or rejection of images is touched by the critical capacities of language.

Is Mr. Carey’s about-face a failure of nerve? A refusal by a man of letters to permit his own contention to undermine his calling? Not really. He aims to keep Aesthetic Man in his place, not kill the prig. Kneecapping will do.

In the end, Mr. Carey prefers the significance resident in language to the shadow of it expressed in nonverbal arts. But affirming preferences is a cheerier task than vindicating them in the absence of sovereign values. To be sure, Mr. Carey’s lucid and thoughtful readings of literature are those of a humane man. But the dissimilar effect of the same literature on inhumane men is part of the mystery of evil which Mr. Carey is too much the rationalist to address.

Perhaps he does not have to. His role is purgative. It is enough that he takes us on a bracing romp through the sport of manners that we mistake for a cultivated life.


This review first appeared in The New York Sun, January 5, 2006.

Copyright 2006, Maureen Mullarkey

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