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Book Review
‘What Good are the Arts?’ by John Carey
In his insightful book ‘What Good are the Arts?’ one of Britain's most respected and renowned critics, John Carey, offers a skeptical and totally unconventional look at the nature of art. In particular, the author cuts through the cant that surrounds the fine arts, questioning claims that the arts play a role in making us better people.

John Carey, having served as Emeritus Merton Professor of English at Oxford University, is a distinguished critic and reviewer for the Sunday Times of London. He has written many books on the subject of literature and arts.

Carey forcefully argues that there exist no absolute values in the arts. He states that we cannot definitively call other people's preferred aesthetic choices ‘incorrect’ or ‘mistaken’, however much we detest them. As the narration proceeds, the author reveals the perceived flaws in the aesthetic theories of everyone right from Kant to Danto. He skewers the claims of ‘high-art advocates’. "Modern art," notes Carey, "has become synonymous with money, celebrity and sensationalism, at any rate in the mind of the man on the 'Clapham omnibus."

He writes: “Contemporary painting, most poetry and theater are all ‘removed’ from the life of ordinary people, being part of a cult that is available largely to the wealthy.” The author argues that a piece of art is anything anyone has ever considered a work of art, though it may be so only for that one person. And what really matters is the way we tend to look at the thing, and the way we engage with it.

He goes on to debate whether the arts make us better. Does visiting an art museum, savoring art and admiring the old masters, really improve us spiritually and morally? Should government subsidies of ‘high art’ be ideally spent on meaningful local community art projects? Do the arts, in fact, ‘civilize’? He wants to know…

Nick Hornby of Los Angeles Times Book Review notes: “Carey defines art, and tells us what it's good for. He has enormous fun as he dismantles the claims of aesthetic theorists." In a long section, he suggests that Hitler would regard himself as primarily an artist, and the fact that J. Paul Getty had spent a fortune on masterpieces. But the real question we need to keep in mind, points out Carey, is "how does this individual's love of art affect his, or her, attitude towards human beings?"

Instead of approaching artworks as mere showpieces, concludes the author, we would be better off emphasizing participation at personal level in the arts. According to him, the activity itself matters much more than the quality of the end result. Art should result in community, and not in a fatuous sense of superiority.

"It is not really what you paint on a piece of canvas that counts," he argues, "but what painting a piece of canvas can do for you." But Carey does argue strongly for the unquestionable value of art as an activity. Language is the medium we use to convey ideas. He states that the usual ingredients of other arts - objects, light effects, noises - cannot probably replicate this function. Here then lies a stimulating and lively invitation to debate the very value of art. It is an argument that will pique the interest of those who loves music, literature or painting.

‘What Good are the Arts?’ (Publishers: Faber & Faber; OUP) emerges as an intensely argued polemic particularly against the intellectually supercilious and the worship of high culture. Washington Post Book World of Michael Dirda lauds the argument, stating one who is seriously interested in the arts should read the book.

It is an informative, entertaining and simultaneously, thought-provoking book on a subject of interest to art lovers. Anyone who still insists on lecturing us about 'high' culture and its superiority to 'mass' culture should be made to read John Carey's 'What Good Are the Arts?', points an art critic.