John Carey

March 1st, 2004

Last year John Carey asked me to deliver a lecture at Oxford called What is Art For? I do not see my host later, which puzzled me slightly, but now, finding this, his new book, I am not puzzled anymore, and I remember that Macbeth too was a host.

I begin in this way because readers of this review should know that I am not neutral; not simply because I am cited in his book as ‘superior’, ‘elitist’, and ‘barely sane’, but because he was present when I explained to over a thousand students how I had escaped from a life of poverty, got myself to Oxford, become a writer, and all because of the power of art. My text was simple; if art can do that for a working class girl whose father could not read, art is neither remote nor a luxury.

The title, What Good Are the Arts? seems as idiotic to me as asking What Good is Food? If you believe, as I do, that life has an inside as well as an outside, you will accept that the inner life needs nourishment too. If the inner life is not supported and sustained, then there is nothing between us and the daily repetition of what Wordsworth called ‘getting and spending.’

Carey would counter here that I am confusing art and religion, and one of his chapters is devoted to the fallacy of art as a religion, primarily debunking any notion of ‘transcendence’ or ‘spiritual experience.’

Having spent most of my early life in a gospel tent with a pair of evangelical parents, I know that art and religion are not the same thing, but I know too that while religious faith has proved inadequate for many, art has had to double its workload. Like religion, art offers an alternative value system; it asks us to see differently, think differently, challenging ourselves, and the way we live. Most importantly, art is a continual reminder that the money and celebrity scrabble of the modern world can be countered by the serious pleasure of doing something for its own sake. The old-fashioned word ‘love’ is appropriate here. Real writers, painters, musicians, do want they do because they love what they do. The money is secondary. We are often dazzled by the media circus surrounding the arts, but behind all that, going on as it ever did, is the intent and endeavour of the artist, an intent and endeavour that we share when we choose to read, or look at pictures or go to the theatre, and so on. The twenty- four emergency zone that we call real life saps our energies. Art renews those energies because it allows us an experience of active meditation. The energies of the artwork cross-current into us. It is a transfusion of a kind, and if this has religious overtones, it doesn’t matter. Nobody need be nervous about a connection between art and religion. All of life is connected and our deepest experiences, whether of faith or love or art will share similar qualities. That does not mean they are the same thing, it means we are in a particular territory – that inner life that John Carey finds so suspect.

He dislikes the words ‘real’ and ‘true’. Such words suggest absolutes, and for Carey everything is relative. ‘A work of art is anything that anyone has ever considered a work of art, though it may be a work of art only for that one person.’ So everything is art, East Enders, internet porn (‘ once again people are being sent to prison for looking at the wrong kinds of pictures’) the cartoon dog I drew this morning for my god-daughter, and nothing is art, because there is no there there, as Gertrude Stein put it. Nothing exists, only our impressions. Carey rushes to science to back him up here, and points out that only science can offer ‘proof’. The best art can do is ‘persuade’, and what persuades us is really a amalgam of snobbery, prejudice, fashion, period, and emperor’s new clothes. If enough of the right people keep saying that a thing is a work of art it becomes one, but that doesn’t mean it is one, because there are no absolute values, no objectivity, only the mind observing itself and what it makes.

The muddle here is to confuse objects with energies. Yes, we live in a quantum world where there is only, in TS Eliot’s phrase, ‘the dance’, and the dance is always changing, both in the sub-atomic world of particles, and in the visible world of objects. We construct out world so that we can apprehend it, we make our ideas visible so that we and others can enjoy them and debate them, and usually destroy them at some time or other, but we go on making, we go on turning energy into objects. The object itself is provisional, the energy, though changing, is permanent, and is a feature of the whole universe. What art does is to release and focus energy in a particular way, and I would argue that what we call art objects are places where energy is especially intense. It doesn’t matter whether it is a picture or a book or a piece of music, or a performance, it is a concentration of energy. This is why the arts occupy relatively timeless space, and why one of the tests of art is that it should go on working on us long after any contemporary interest in its subject matter is extinct. We don’t go to Shakespeare to find out about life in Elizabethan England, we go to Shakespeare to find out about ourselves now. The energy in the plays goes on being released.

This is why Carey’s rubbishing of any distinctions between high art and low art is so misplaced. There is no such thing as high and low art, there is only the real thing, and it comes very differently packaged and dosed at different strength. This is why, in one of my ‘barely sane’ periods, (Carey), I talk about the huge truth of a Picasso and the quieter truth of a Vanessa Bell. The dosage is as different as the packaging, and not all art lasts forever, indeed forever is a meaningless term, when in performance art, for instance, every performance lasts only as long as itself. One of the liberations of contemporary art has been to free us from the mandarin view of ‘everlasting monuments to the human spirit’. It is the human spirit that is everlasting, not its monuments, but art’s great gift is to transmit that spirit across time.

In Part Two of this schizophrenic book, having told us that art is not special, and has no special function in our lives, Carey decides to make a case for literature as the most ‘superior’ of the arts, (bit of a surprise to find this word suddenly in favour again). Having just told us that everything is art, he urges us to read the Canon, and takes as all his examples of the greatness of books, texts that everyone can agree on, even though consensus, in Carey’s early argument, is at best misleading, and at worst, a conspiracy of the elite.

Never mind. He loves books, and much of what he writes about literature is very moving and absolutely right. I fear that like many bookish people, John Carey does not enjoy or understand other art forms, and so it is easy for him to dismiss them. He talks bafflingly about how literature is cheap and egalitarian because you can learn it by heart, something, he says, you can’t do with a picture or a piece of music. My musical friends play whole scores in their heads, and many, including myself, know paintings so vividly that that they can be projected onto any wall.

His argument that literature is ‘superior’ also cites its ability to comment on itself, which, he says, other art forms cannot do. This is plainly bonkers; consider Duchamp, Warhol etc, but even if it were the case, why should all the arts be aiming at the same target? The arts do different things, and for different people.

Carey is wary of feelings and experiences he has not had himself, and so he denies their validity in others. He is avowedly secular and sceptical in his approaches, and will not admit that there might be other ways of approaching the arts that might yield very different results to his own. He is strangely dogmatic for a man determined to avoid ‘absolute values.’

The real worry of this odd book is that it is a Bible for all those who would like to cut arts funding on the grounds that art is a bit of a trick and you can do as well watching TV or downloading Internet porn. It will play into the hands of those who love to use words such as ‘pretentious’, ‘elitist’, ‘irrelevant’, to justify their own indifference to art.

He talks about funding communal art, taking art into prisons, pushing its importance in schools, but assumes that should be done at the expense of ‘elitist’ institutions like Covent Garden, which ‘consume resources.’

I am all for art across the nation, everywhere, at all times, but I believe too, that we should recognise and protect art as something special, something real, something beyond the ordinary. If not, well, it is fine that Rolf Harris is going to paint the Queen for her eightieth birthday. In Carey-world, there is no difference between Rolf Harris and Lucian Freud. Is there?