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 just a shade over four out of 100, with an equally precipitous decline evident in foreign literature enrollments as well.
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, which makes a compelling and persuasive case that creative expression—especially the written word —is absolutely 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, 1992's The Intellectuals and the Masses, a stunning reappraisal of British modernists as hate-filled class warriors terrified by the breakdown of social hierarchy. "But it enlarges your mind, and it gives you thoughts, words and rhythms that will last you for life."
Ironically, in making his case for the arts, Carey spends most of his book tearing down what he considers specious justifications for them. Where 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."
Nor does he have any sympathy 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.
If Carey finds no theory of the arts fully convincing, he remains their adamant champion.
In what smacks of special pleading, Carey contends that literature is first among the arts, mainly because it is the only art that is explicitly capable of reasoning. The chief implication of this is that literature can moralize in the best way possible. Not in a William Bennett Book of Virtues sense, which holds that if people consume the right sort of messages, they will be upright citizens. Rather, Carey writes that the world's boundless 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 which they will create.