What Good Are the Arts?

A brilliant case for literature.

In 1971, according to the Association of Departments of English, about eight out of every 100 bachelor’s degrees were awarded to English majors. Today that figure stands at a bit more than four out of 100. Foreign language and literature enrollments have taken similarly sharp tumbles. As the nation’s lit departments go begging for students, they would do well to consult John Carey’s brilliant, funny, and insightful What Good Are the Arts? (Oxford University Press), which makes a compelling and persuasive case that creative expression—especially the written word—is central to a rich and thoughtful life.

“Literature does not make you a better person, though it may help you to criticize what you are,” writes Carey, a former Oxford professor and author of, among other books, The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), a stunning reappraisal of British modernists as hate-filled class warriors terrified by the breakdown of social hierarchy and the rise of widespread literacy. “But it enlarges your mind, and it gives you thoughts, words and rhythms that will last you for life.”

In making his case for the arts, Carey spends most of his book tearing down what he considers specious justifications for them. While Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer argued for art as sacred, spiritual, and transcendent, Carey insists simply that “anything can be a work of art” and that standards of taste and beauty are irreducibly subjective. David Hume famously argued that classic art is that which has been “universally found to please in all countries and in all ages.” Carey wryly notes, “There is nothing on earth that meets this criterion, except perhaps sexual intercourse and eating.”

If he has little patience for delusional universalists, he has even less for left-wing critics of mass art such as Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, who viewed popular culture as a means of social control, a variation on Aldous Huxley’s soporific drug soma in Brave New World. Such thinkers typically evince a “complete lack of interest” in how “such art actually affects its recipients.” Similarly, new theories about aesthetics rooted in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology, while interesting, fail to explain the wide range of individual responses to specific pieces of art, not to mention changing tastes over time.

Carey does endorse anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake’s idea that underlying all art is a human proclivity for “making special,” for creating artifacts or rituals that allow us to step outside of our ordinary consciousness and reflect on our lives. For Carey, such an idea is attractive because it explodes divisive categories of high and low culture while stressing the participation of both creator and audience. Dissanayake’s concept may not help us in interpreting the meaning of works of art, but at least it encourages us to be skeptical of aesthetic theories that are rarely more than individual preference masquerading as objective truth.

If Carey finds no theory of the arts fully convincing, he remains their adamant champion. In what smacks of special pleading, the former lit professor contends that literature is first among the arts, chiefly because it is the only art that is capable of explicit reasoning. The main implication of this distinction is that literature can moralize in the best way possible. Not in the manner of William Bennett’s Book of Virtues, which is based on the premise that if people consume the right sort of inspirational messages they will become model citizens. Rather, Carey writes that the world’s literary canon “is a field of comparisons and contrasts, spreading infinitely outwards,” challenging readers to be more thoughtful about the past from which they spring, the present in which they live, and the future they will create.

In Carey’s analysis, literature plays a key role in developing such “critical intelligence,” and his hymn to the pluralism of the world’s library is nothing less than inspiring: “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.”

That’s a message the nation’s English and comparative literature departments should take to heart. From conservatives professors who scoff at canon revision and cultural studies out of fear and ignorance to tenured radicals who seek to reduce complex texts to little more than grim allegories about the persistence of race, class, and gender discrimination under “late capitalism,” academic literary studies has scared away too many students during the last 35 years, even as critical reading skills have become more important in an information-overload society.

One way to reverse the slide in majors might be to emphasize the open-ended conversation Carey rightly places at the center of literature.

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