Oct 11, 2006

John Carey's "What Good Are the Arts?"

Debate has been whirling in cyberspace about a recent book by the reportedly well-known British critic and Oxford don John Carey, What Good Are the Arts? The New Criterion recently published Anthony Daniels’s review of the book,

(found at http://www.newcriterion.com/archives/25/10/higher-destruction),

which finds itself jumbled in an already large pile of reviews on the web. Search on google on the book’s title and author and you’ll find plenty more reflection on Carey’s book. I have skimmed it myself and a number of the reviews besides the New Criterion review. The book contains discussions of critical matters that are of importance to Wintersians, since Carey is out to debunk every attempt at a definition of art and all ways of evaluating art. The first half of the book does the debunking, though the second half, quite strangely and inconsistently, abruptly offers up a peaen to literature.

Carey conducts his snide attack on all answers to the question raised in his title with a consideration of a number of sub-questions: What Is a Work of Art? Is High Art Superior? Can Science Help? Do the Arts Make Us Better? Can Art Be a Religion? Summarizing, he answers thus (with cantankerous bravado -- and elegance and wit, too):

1. Anything (yes, ANYTHING!) can be a work of art.
2. No, science doesn’t help (despite the efforts of recent critics to work up a evolutionary theory of art).
3. High art is not superior by any measure to low art.
4. Arts do not make us better, except in some minor, restricted conditions.
5. Art cannot be a religion.

One might wonder how this author can rationally and consistently answer questions 2-5 after having so answered question 1, since he mindlessly pitches away any means by which to argue about evaluating art, assessing its effectiveness, or studying its spiritual meanings when he denies to art -- and any particular art or work of art -- any definition, purpose, or meaning (or, as Winters would say, any final cause). Does the answer to question 1 make the rest of this book futile? Nearly, perhaps.

It’s probably not very difficult for anyone acquainted with the critical work of Yvor Winters to imagine what his take on Carey’s answers to these questions most probably would be. Carey’s answer to question 1 would, in my view, unquestionably befuddle and perhaps enrage Winters. Carey’s problem, it seems to me, remains the same as the problem R.S. Crane and Cleanthe Brooks faced in their criticism, as Winters discussed so eruditely in “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature” (republished in The Function of Criticism) 50 years ago. Carey’s incomprehension of what art is arises from his refusal or inability to define art’s final cause. Here’s how Winters puts it about Brooks and Crane:

If we are to have any kind of critical guidance, we shall have to have some kind of critical method or methods that are really applicable to the business in hand. If we are to have any kind of critical method, we shall have to understand two topics with more or less clarity: the potentialities of different kinds of subject matter and the potentialities of various literary forms. Any understanding of these topics, in turn, will depend upon our view of the purpose, or final cause, of literature. In general, our critics have been afraid to commit themselves to any theory of a final cause, or if they suggest one have been afraid to state it clearly and to endeavor to implement it, and thus have been crippled from the start.
Similarly, Carey unwittingly cripples himself from the start. How can he offer us any theoretical insight into art or the art of literature when he cannot see that any study of art or any specific art begins with a definition of its final cause?

(This problem, by the way, appears also to trouble John Fraser, though no doubt less deeply, in his nebulous and elusive attempt to say in his Introduction to his New Book of Verse what he’s up to with the selection of poems for that anthology. Even a critic as well read in Yvor Winters as Fraser appears to have been unable to bring himself to say just what he conceives the final cause of poetry to be, a conception which would enable us to better evaluate the important anthology he has published.)

In part two, Carey blithely tosses aside everything he has said in part one, almost as though the second part was written at some other time and he wholly forgot what he said in the first part. The work of debunking evaporating like a thin mist on a sunny morning, in part two Carey makes a modest case for the advantages of literature over the other arts, implying that one of the arts, at least, is good for something.

Perhaps we shall have occasion to discuss Carey more specifically again in this blog, if it seems to me that he has something to add to our ruminations on Winters’s thought. In the meantime, I think the book is worth looking into, if only to follow yet one more literary thinker to the dead end that much of postmodern criticism has reached, even at Oxford.

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