What Good Are The Arts?

ARTS, Books

John Carey, Denis Dutton, Sarah Thornton
Auckland Writers & Readers Festival | May 14

Anyone who’s had an argument about art knows that it can be as bad as politics or religion for getting our egos riled up. I myself have experienced something close to homicidal rage when a relative of mine declared his love of classical music to be wiser, more sophisticated and closer to God than my love of literature.

So when I attended What Good are the Arts?, a highlight of this year’s Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, I confess that I was gleefully hoping for a fight. The topic was a book of the same name by John Carey, Emeritus Merton Professor of English at Oxford and book critic for the London Sunday Times, who argues that not only is it foolish to say that music is inherently more valuable than literature, but it’s impossible to prove that art benefits society or makes us better people. He was joined by Denis Dutton, a philosopher at the University of Canterbury, and Sarah Thornton, chief writer on contemporary art for The Economist.

Carey was in the position of defending his outrageous claims from the fury of art lovers everywhere. He started things off by explaining that art is purely subjective and has no real definition beyond “whatever we say it is”. Moreover, because we cannot experience life as anyone other than ourselves, no one can say that his or her experience of art is more valuable than another person’s experience of art—or of gardening or childbirth or football, for that matter.

If art improves society and makes us better people, as art enthusiasts are always insisting, then why are so many artists and art lovers notoriously unpleasant people? “Writers as a specimen of humanity are abysmal!” Carey said, listing the arrogance, drunkenness and misogyny of some of the world’s most revered authors.

Carey spoke with a marvellously British sense of humour that had me on his side from the beginning. Explaining the football example, he went into a long poetic description of what “the beautiful game” might mean to a football enthusiast—the war-like symbolism of the match, the beauty of athleticism, the local and national pride that the game inspires. Then he shrugged and remarked that he wouldn’t be caught dead at a football match himself.

Speaking in defence of art, Denis Dutton was equally eloquent and engaging, and just as likeable. His book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution draws on anthropology and art history to make the case for an evolutionary purpose to art. In his view, art is as innate to human nature as language and religion, and our minds and souls are hard-wired to appreciate aesthetics and beauty. He has clearly loved art for most of his life, and talked about paintings and classical music with a passion that struck a chord with the audience.

Needless to say, he didn’t have much patience for Carey’s argument. “You can’t honestly believe,” he admonished Carey, that “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is equally valuable to the works of geniuses like Beethoven or Shostakovich.  And when you consider that Carey ends What Good are the Arts? with several chapters on why literature is superior to all other art forms, it seems that Dutton has a point. Carey defended himself by saying that his preference for literature is just as subjective as anything else and that people are free to disagree with him.

With this “atheist vs. theologian” debate going on, Sarah Thornton was in a strange position. Unlike the classical leanings of Carey and Dutton, Thornton studies art from a modern sociologist’s point of view. For her book Seven Days in the Art World, she interviewed a diverse range of people from the world of contemporary art and found it to be a jumbled collection of subcultures, full of big egos and eccentric personalities. She believes that the art forms we consider “good” say more about our society than they do about intrinsic value or morality.

She was critical of both Carey and Dutton on many points, particularly in their approach to modern art. She thought that Dutton’s authority trails off a bit after around 1920, and wasn’t impressed with Carey’s assertion that literature is the only art form that can criticise itself, as there are entire genres of modern art created to do exactly that.

But with Carey and Dutton dominating the panel, Thornton had difficulty making her point. Several times she was left waving her arms in exasperation as the other two made a generalisation that she disagreed with; at one point she could only exclaim, “I don’t even know where to start!”(It didn’t help that she was having trouble her microphone throughout the discussion.) She would be much more in her element during her own session on Seven Days in the Art World, scheduled for later on in the festival.

Overall, I thought the discussion was thought-provoking and very entertaining. All of the panellists had intriguing ideas and seemed to be enjoying themselves, and since none of them believed that their way of appreciating art is the only way, the debate was spirited without being uncomfortable. There may have been some people in the audience who were offended, but most seemed amused and even relieved to hear Carey’s argument said out loud and debated in the open.

By the end, I was interested in reading all three of the featured books. I’ve started with What Good are the Arts?, and I may give out copies as Christmas presents to all the art snobs in my life.