My Goodreads review of an awesomely bad book by John Carey

What Good Are The Arts?What Good Are The Arts? by John Carey

In the first place, this book has the wrong title. It should be called ‘How Sacred Are The Arts?’, because that’s the question Oxford Professor of English Literature Carey spends most of his time trying to answer. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Professor Carey and his publishers went with something more punchy. Another possible title would be ‘How Good Do Other People Think The Arts Are?’, because the more you read this book, the more you realise that Oxford Professor of English Literature John Carey is apparently neither willing nor able to grapple with the fundamental question that his book title poses. Instead, he prefers to quote other people’s attempts to do so, and passes verdict on them. In the end, it’s difficult to tell exactly what good Professor Carey thinks the arts are. He doesn’t seem to be very interested in them, and perhaps I’m just naively trustful that a professional educator in such a senior position would be more enthusiastic about the arts in general, but that does seem like quite a surprising attitude for an Oxford Professor of English Literature to have.

What’s maybe more understandable is that he knows little about anything other than literature, and what he knows about literature is confined a very narrow field indeed: the last 150 years or so of English literature. I say ‘English literature’ because I mean writing by English people; he seems to be largely uninterested in American literature, or the literature of the former English colonies.

So okay, he’s a specialist, but does that mean he’s unqualified to make grand sweeping statements about the good of the arts as a whole? Maybe he has some hitherto unexpressed talent for brilliant generalisation, a capacity to make large arguments about complex subjects with insight and explanatory power?


The art critic Matthew Collings, who was one of this book’s very few negative reviewers, characterised it cruelly but amusingly as ‘taxi driver bollocks’. I disagree with this assessment insofar as I once had a long and fascinating conversation with a taxi driver about the jazz musician Eric Dolphy, which goes to show that you can never tell merely from somebody’s job what they know about the arts. This, however, is a conversation that Professor Carey can’t imagine anyone having. Part of his whole argument goes like this: over here, there is a small elite of poncy high-art fans who only look at great paintings and only read classic literature and who talk mostly pernicious nonsense about those things, and we should stop listening to their nonsense; while over there, there is a whole bunch of ‘masses’ who aren’t interested in high art at all but who only watch cheap TV, but we ought nevertheless to respect their ignorance of the classics, and accept that the stuff they are interested in — like soap operas — is actually fascinating, relevant and important. And, by the way, these are the only two types of people there are. (Apart from Professor Carey himself, who presumably falls into neither category.) Now, this, you may think, is a very strange position for an educator to take; shouldn’t he be all about introducing people to the pleasures and virtues and power of art? But apparently, several decades of teaching English at Oxford have taken their toll on the Professor because like I say, he finds it very hard to imagine that the soap opera lover might sometimes stick on a bit of Mozart just because she happens to like it. He doesn’t seem to realise that not all art critics are roaring snobs, and not all soap opera fans don’t like a bit of high culture now and then. He spends so much time in this book attacking straw men that he ought to be brought up on charges for cruelty to straw.

Besides his inability to make fine distinctions between different ways of appreciating art, there is also Professor Carey’s extraordinary ignorance of the art he’s talking about. For example, he appears to believe that Warhol’s soup cans were actual cans that Warhol bought and exhibited in a gallery, as opposed to paintings of cans, thereby missing the entire point of what Warhol was doing with the Western tradition of painting (and also conflating Warhol with Duchamp — oh, they’re all the same, these modern art chaps). He almost never talks about music at all; what about jazz, which flickers problematically between being a popular art and a ‘high’ one? Jazz severely screws up Carey’s whole thesis, so in a way it’s not surprising that he never mentions it. Carey’s few references to music are to Bob Dylan and Beethoven, both of whose status as classics in their respective fields are by now assured, although Carey appears to regard Dylan as a contemporary pop singer who we are only beginning to realise is actually rather good; rock music is now old enough to have generated its own hierarchy of classics and non-classics but here, as elsewhere, Carey is decades behind the times, and is perpetuating the very hierarchies that he professes to deplore.

He argues — no, wait, I can’t dignify it by calling it an argument, he asserts — that music and the visual arts are only capable of offering ‘delight’, and can’t offer instruction, reflection, or criticism, all of which properties he claims are things that can only be done within literature. I’m not even sure how to begin addressing this. It really is the kind of thing that makes you want to resort to abusive phrases like ‘taxi driver bollocks’, except that that’s too easy. Well, okay; so he can’t tell how Rembrandt’s achievement in oil painting is different in kind from that of other painters, in the way that in his late paintings, Rembrandt (as John Berger has pointed out) turns the entire tradition against itself. And I guess he’s never listened to a symphony by Shostakovich, or even by Mahler, because otherwise he would be able to understand how music can contain irony and reflection; hell, Beethoven’s late quartets are proof of that. To go back further, a motet by Lassus (Cum essen parvulus comes to mind) illustrates with music the ideas contained in the text, further proof that music has been capable of reflection since the 16th century, whether Professor Carey is aware of it or not.

Elsewhere, he resorts to the kind of argument typical of drunk first year students after their first philosophy tutorial. For example, in the course of attempting to demolish the notion that the ‘art-world’ has any authority to determine what is art and what is not, he brings up a peculiar thought experiment in which Picasso paints a necktie and so does a small girl.

Carey argues that the establishment art-critical position, in which Picasso’s necktie is a work of art but the small girl’s isn’t, is based on some sort of quasi-religious argument in which the ‘art-world’ takes its own authority to be transcendent and unquestionable, etc. etc. But this is moonshine compared to the more commonsensical position that the Picasso necktie picture is an artwork by virtue of Picasso’ established position in the art market, whereas the small girl’s necktie picture is not an artwork as long as nobody wants to pay any money for it and as long as no major critic wants to treat it as such.

The Professor’s argument that art critics don’t have any more right than anyone else to say what is and isn’t art is worth unpicking, because it goes to show how just how uninformed his position is, and why his particular style of supposedly provocative ignorance has been something that TV producers were willing to put on screen. It’s because Professor Carey performs a service that’s extremely useful to what for want of a better word I’ll call, after Guy Debord, the Spectacle: he’s unwilling to follow the money.

The truth is, art critics don’t get to decide what is and isn’t art. They get to pass judgment on what’s put in front of them, but most of them don’t try to confer ‘art’ status on things that aren’t art. They are much more likely to claim that something that has been hailed as art isn’t art at all, but they’re still not very likely to do that either, and for good reasons.

The process works like this: publications research information about art exhibitions in different art galleries and exhibition spaces, and they convey the information to the public according to criteria of ‘notability’. They don’t all want to know about every possible manifestation of artistic activity in the areas that they cover. They might aspire to cover everything, but that would be an impossible task — they can’t list information about every last P1-level art exhibition in every school open day, for example. Why? Because to pay staff to research and publish such things would massively increase the workload, with no real payoff to the publication, since a primary school, unlike an art gallery, doesn’t have the budget for an advert for its open day unless it’s an unbelievably rich and famous primary school with a renowned visual arts program, and maybe not even then.

So the publication selects from the information available, letting junior staff and subeditors choose the most ‘notable’ or ‘interesting-sounding’ stuff to be highlights, and quietly omitting mention of the least interesting. What are the criteria based on? On special knowledge of what ‘is’ and ‘isn’t’ art? Nothing so hifalutin. Staff are recruited according to certain criteria, and they stay in employment if they hold up the standard that the publication expects. Typical criteria would be ‘Put it in if it’s the kind of thing you’d advise your friends to go and see’, but also ‘Put it in if it’s a big gallery’. Here we can see the self-reinforcing nature of how the art industry works: prestige reinforces itself. Another and possibly bigger factor, although it’s seldom articulated, is that the publication very likely gets much of its income from advertising, and if it were to start telling its readers about things that its ideal readership would likely consider boring or irrelevant or entirely incongruous (like a notice about some guy sticking a picture by his kid on his kitchen wall), the readers will stop reading; or at any rate, the publication fears that they will. If circulation goes down, it becomes harder to sell ads and so the publication goes out of business.

So prestige breeds prestige. Fine, but what confers prestige on an arts organisation in the first place? A consistent record of producing art that people want to experience. When art organisations stop producing work that people enjoy on some level, audiences fall and the organisation struggles. Of course, some arts organisations can go on offering mediocre work and people keep going, because people get attached to the prestige rather than responding directly to the art, but exactly the same thing happens in all art organisations: of all people in the world, Of all people, Oxford Professor of English Literature John Carey should be aware of the numberless hordes who’ve struggled to finish fat Victorian novels out of a joyless sense of cultural duty.

So prestigious shows get covered because it would be financially senseless for publications to not cover them, and since they can’t cover everything, the non-prestigious stuff gets dropped for reasons of space, time and cost. This goes to show that it’s quite easy for artistic value to be created and upheld without any reference to impossible and possibly meaningless questions like ‘Is this art greater or lesser than that art?’ John Carey should not expect the art industry to be constantly asking itself difficult questions about whether or not this or that art is good or bad, if only because he himself is apparently unwilling to ask the same questions.

Professor Carey tries to deny the authority of the art-world, in the manner of someone denying that the police have any authority to arrest him: that’s all very well, but try putting the stuff in a gallery (or heaving a brick through the police station window) and see how far it gets you. Carey achieves a kind of ideally vacuous non-argument shortly afterwards; he imagines the father protesting that the kid’s necktie is an artwork ‘for him’, and the art critic denying it on the grounds that the art critic’s experience is much deeper and more meaningful than the father’s, which for a start is no argument that any professional art critic would ever make, but which John Carey attempts to refute on the utterly bizarre grounds that the critic is wrong, because ‘we have no means of knowing the inner experience of other people and therefore no means of judging the kind of pleasure they get from whatever happens to give them pleasure’.

To this, it can only be replied that Professor Carey is being either deliberately disingenuous, or plain stupid: we do have a means of knowing the inner experience of other people, and it’s called language. In fact, there is a somewhat more complex, sensual and involved way of knowing the inner experience of other people, and it’s called art. If art is not about sharing experience, it’s not about anything at all, but nowhere in this book does Carey suggest that his conception of art, whatever it is (because he doesn’t ever spell it out), has anything to do with sharing experience. From this, I can only conclude that somebody, like him, who doesn’t even know what art is, is not qualified to write a book about its value.

I am amazed that this book got commissioned, let alone published. I’m also kind of disgusted with Faber & Faber for allowing it to remain in print, and as a mature student I am very, very glad that I have never studied English literature at Oxford under the tutelage of Professor John Carey. Who would want to be taught about literature by a supposed educator who thinks that the arts are nothing but a way for making snobs feel good about themselves? I can’t imagine anything more empty, more stupid and more contemptuous of the very notion of education.

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My Goodreads review of an awesomely bad book by John Carey

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