Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, January 29, 2006


By John Carey

Oxford Univ. 286 pp. $26

John Carey is a former Oxford professor of English who left academe to become the chief book reviewer for the Sunday Times of London. Now even for public intellectuals, this isn't a typical career move. Carey's biographical note further indicates that he's also been "a soldier, a television critic, a beekeeper, and a bar tender." Of course, we've all done lots of things in our lives, but to mention them on a dust jacket suggests that these previous jobs are somehow important to this book. And they are. What Good Are the Arts ? is in fact an intensely argued polemic against the intellectually supercilious, the snooty rich and the worship of high culture as a secular religion for the spiritually refined and socially heartless. Anyone seriously interested in the arts should read it.

"Modern art," writes Carey, "has become synonymous with money, fashion, celebrity and sensationalism, at any rate in the mind of the man on the Clapham omnibus." Contemporary painting, opera, ballet, most poetry and theater are all removed from the life of ordinary people, being part of a cult available largely to the wealthy and mandarin, where only the elect may worship. Meanwhile, "mass art" -- daytime drama, pop music, Hollywood filmmaking -- is commonly dismissed as mere entertainment for shallow and stupid proles.

Refusing to choose between these extremes, Carey instead argues that "a work of art is anything that anyone has ever considered a work of art, though it may be a work of art only for that one person." What matters is the way we look at the thing, the way we engage with it. Think of the concentrated elegance surrounding the Japanese tea ceremony. But think too of the similarly intense focus and appreciation of details that fans bring to their discussions of a daily soap opera or an episode of "Lost."

Approved high art, Carey insists again and again, is too often simply a marker of class, education and wealth. "It assures you of your specialness. It inscribes you in the book of life, from which the nameless masses are excluded." Yet "the characteristics of popular or mass art that seem most objectionable to its high-art critics -- violence, sensationalism, escapism, an obsession with romantic love -- minister to human needs inherited from our remote ancestors over hundreds of thousands of years."

From here Carey goes on to discuss the vexed matter of whether the arts make us better. Public museums were established as cathedrals to elevate the souls of the working classes and to reconcile them to their hard lot in life. But do the arts, in fact, "civilize"? In a long section, he shows that Hitler regarded himself as primarily an artist, that concentration camp butchers listened to Bach while entire families burned in the ovens and that J. Paul Getty spent a fortune on masterpieces and remained a salon fascist who regarded most people as barbarians, freeloaders and scarcely worth a second thought.

The real question that we need to keep in mind, says Carey, is "How does this person's love of art affect his, or her, attitude to human beings?" All too often, reverence for the divine Mozart or a heavenly Vermeer tends to reduce the rest of us to interchangeable extras on life's stage, unimportant and quite expendable. This is a monstrous way to regard people. Instead of approaching artworks as showpieces, concludes Carey, we would be better off emphasizing personal participation in the arts. The activity itself matters more than the quality of the end product. Art should be "something done, not consumed, and done by ordinary people, not master spirits." It should result in community, not a fatuous sense of superiority. After all, we descended from hunter-gatherers who worked with their hands, and something in our genes still hungers for such manual activity. "It is not what you paint on a piece of canvas that counts," Carey argues, "but what painting a piece of canvas can do for you." Such focused acts of attention may, for instance, develop qualities of character like "self-discipline, patience, and delay of immediate gratification." Carey ringingly concludes the first half of his book with these words:

"The religion of art makes people worse, because it encourages contempt for those considered inartistic. We now know that it can foster hideous and earth-shattering evil. It is time we gave active art a chance to make us better."

My précis hardly does justice to Carey's massing of anthropological and sociological evidence -- not for nothing is he the editor of The Faber Book of Science as well as The Faber Book of Reportage -- but some of his arguments can sound a trifle shrill, even when the points he makes are good ones. Carey clearly -- and rightly -- loathes the blatant sense of privilege and disdain for ordinary people that aristocratic elites often exude. But his hyper-sensitivity to class may be more characteristic of British life than American. We have the stupidly arrogant among us, too -- one need only look around Washington's corridors of power -- but, in general, the United States does tend to be a less hidebound society than those elsewhere in the world, fluid in both its social and artistic currents -- in short, democratic. We respect popular music and film as real art forms (even when we don't always like them), while our concert halls and theaters constantly do all they can to reach out to the general population. Sure, we have plenty of couch potatoes bonded to their joysticks and remote controls, but lots of adults also join serious book groups, take drawing lessons, plant gardens, decorate their homes, putter around and make things.

Nonetheless, Carey usefully underscores that doing art matters because it is in our very nature as homo faber to want to shape the ordinary into the special, that such activity can assuage the loneliness that is modern man's particular burden, and that art mystically helps us to feel that we matter as individuals -- that we, in effect, truly exist.

Still, this isn't the conclusion to What Good Are the Arts? In his last chapters, Carey persuasively argues for literature as the supreme art because it is, essentially, the most people-oriented one, dealing with moral issues, revealing life's complexities without reducing them to formulae and allowing us to address virtually any issue whatsoever. It is, after all, an art built on reasoning. "Literature gives you ideas to think with. It stocks your mind. It does not indoctrinate, because diversity, counter-argument, reappraisal and qualification are its essence. But it supplies the materials for thought. Also, because it is the only art capable of criticism, it encourages questioning, and self-questioning." What's more, English literature, perhaps all literature, persistently displays a distinct "antagonism to pride, grandeur, self-esteem and celebrity" -- in other words, to the inhumanity so prevalent among the lucky, the good-looking and the privileged.

Literature accomplishes so much because it makes us think as well as feel. In his last chapter, Carey proposes that indistinctness -- arising through the use of metaphor and simile -- grants poetry and fiction their particular, elusive richness. We are forced to build up in our minds complicated notions and images: "As the indistinctiveness of a text increases, so the reader's imaginative effort has to intensify." Such effort results in that "personal ownership" of a poem or story that is written art's "unique gift." For, finally, "literature does not make you a better person, though it may help you to criticize what you are. But it enlarges your mind, and it gives you thoughts, words and rhythms that will last you for life."

This is a surprisingly traditional view to end with. Still, while I might wish to qualify Carey's populist and highly subjective approach to culture, he's absolutely right about the interior gifts bestowed by patient and wide reading. Of course, being a book critic, I would say that, wouldn't I? ยท

Michael Dirda is a book critic for Book World. His e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com, and his online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company