Thursday, May 26, 2005

John Carey on the arts

Now don't let that word 'arts' put you off. This is not going to be a high-falutin, arty-farty, fancypants piece of pseudo-intellectual bullshit, of the kind to which you are so well accustomed, and of which you are so heartily sick. No sirree and madam. This is going to tell it like it is. Courtesy of John Carey. And, of course, my modest self.

Last weekend's Sunday Times contained an article by John Carey, extracted from his forthcoming book What Good are the Arts, to be published on 2 June by Faber. I would like to give you an online link to this article, but I can't because the Times web site has been down for a week or more. Never mind. I can give you the gist of what Carey had to say.

John Carey, by the way, was Merton Professor of English at Oxford until he retired in 2001, and he is still an emeritus Prof. But fortunately he has not fallen prey to spouting the kind of nonsense which emerges from some of our universities. In addition to his academic status he has for a number of years been the Sunday Times's chief literary critic.

Judging by the extract from Carey's new book, his argument is that people in the West have been saying extravagant (and just plain wrong) things about the arts for two hundred years. For example, it is often claimed that art-lovers have more 'refined sensibilities' than others, and that those who fail to appreciate the highbrow stuff are in some way a lesser kind of human being.

Carey rejects that view. It derives, he believes, from the work of Immanuel Kant, in the Critique of Judgement, and Kant's barmy ideas have remained the basis of aesthetic assumptions in the West ever since. Much of what Kant had to say, Carey argues, is a 'farrago of superstition and unsubstantiated assertion.' And he is dead right.

One way and another, those bloody German philosophers have a lot to answer for, don't they? Kant, it seems, was the starting point for Hegel, who led on to Marx. And look where that got us. Right up the creek.

Similarly, Carey is right on the ball when he points out that the highbrow arts (for want of a better term) constitute a glorious opportunity for certain sections of the community to 'demonstrate', i.e. assert, their own superiority over the mere plebs who prefer Coronation Street to Hedda Gabler.

The argument, he says, goes something like this: 'The experience I get when I look at a Rembrandt or listen to Mozart is more valuable than the experience you get when you look at or listen to whatever kitsch or sentimental outpourings you do get pleasure from.' This is a point of view which is all too familiar and one which, to use a distressingly plebeian phrase, gets right up my nose.

Such arguments, says Carey, bring with them a wonderful sense of security (for the select elite, that is). The elitist viewpoint 'assures you of your specialness. It inscribes you in the book of life, from which the nameless masses are excluded.'

These unacceptably snobbish attitudes are based on the assumption that there exists a category of things, called works of art, which are intrinsically more valuable than things which are not works of art, and that those who can 'appreciate' them are infinitely superior to the rest of us groundlings. And they are based, says Carey, on no firm intellectual footing whatever.

Well, bless my little cotton socks. It is always gratifying to find an eminent and learned man who says things that I myself have said a good few times: frequently on this blog, in abbreviated form, and at greater length in my 2003 book Truth about Writing. That book, by the way, is available either on, or on

My next post will take the form of an extract from The Truth about Writing which deals with the question of whether there is or is not such a thing as a Great Novel, and whether there is truly a hierarchy of fiction -- or for that matter, any other form of art. Hint: there ain't.

Meanwhile, if you want to read a seriously objectionable piece of intellectual snobbery, coupled with some amazingly fuzzy thinking, nip over to the Guardian. There you will find a piece by D J Taylor.

The assumption underlying this article is that there are 'good books', which are read and appreciated by frightfully clever chaps like Taylor, and there are books which are sold in supermarkets, which, my dears, are the most ghastly vulgar trash. So much so that one can hardly bear to think of all those dreadful working-class people carrying them off and actually enjoying them! It is too, too depressing.

According to Taylor, the availability of books in supermarkets can only lower the overall quality of the available material. And this is, apparently, quite dreadful news for 'serious novelists' -- for which, read people who write literary fiction, take themselves far too seriously, value themselves far too highly, and expect others to take them at their own valuation.

For more on why Taylor is wrong, see my next post.

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