John Carey's What Good Are the Arts? is a very strange book. It's first half seeks to demonstrate that art doesn't really exist and that, if it does, it doesn't do anyone any good. The second half essentially ignores the case that Carey has just made and asserts that art does indeed exist after all and does some people quite a lot of good.
The first half is actually the more interesting and lively part of the book. Here he surveys all the various efforts made to define art and finds them wanting, concluding that "Anything can be a work of art. What makes it a work of art is that someone thinks of it as a work of art." The relativist in me wants to concede that ultimately this is true: no Platonic definition of art that thoroughly delineates those properties inherent to art and that marks it off from all those other phenomena that are "not art" exists. We wouldn't want one even if we could get it. Rogue artists who confabulate our notions of what art is and isn't are always going to come along, and we should be grateful for them, even encourage them. "Art" is, finally, whatever succeeding generations of human beings determine it to be.
On the other hand, when we all put on our logical thinking caps, we know that if "anything" is art, nothing is. There are just "things" that provide us with enjoyment, pleasure, instruction, or whatever we want to call whatever it is we get from these things. One could plausibly enough adopt this view (the pragmatist in me thinks it wouldn't ultimaty matter because it wouldn't really affect our sense of the value of what it is we do "get" from these things), but Carey himself finally doesn't want to go this far. He wants to retain the word "art," even if it does it does reduce art objects to those "things" someone, somewhere, thinks to call art. (Later in the book Carey tries to raise "art" back up to a more dignified status by stressing its utilitarian applications, but for it to have such applications it surely does have to exist in the first place, or those using it won't exactly know what they're applying.)
Thus Carey is able to argue further that "art" as it is celebrated by its snootier adherents doesn't have the morally elevating qualities they want to claim for it. No plausible evidence exists that art makes us better people. Most of the rhetoric used to pronounce on its spiritual qualites Carey incisively, and rightly, points out is so much bluster and metaphysical cant. If we can't provide specific scientific descriptions of the effect art actually does have on us (and Carey maintains that we can't) then better to remain silent than to make grandiose assertions about its "spiritual authenticity" or its ability to evoke "a peculiar emotion" that is "independent of time and place," as Clive Bell had it. And not only is the "religion of art" rhetorically bankrupt but it in fact "makes people worse, because it encourages contempt for those considered inartistic."
Curiously, then, Carey winds up not so much rejecting the ethical function of high art but affirming its ethical dimension: Too much attention to the wonders of art and too much discussion of those wonders only work to make us bad people. That art turns out to be morally enervating rather than elevating doesn't make it any less "moral" in its implications.
Carey's inability to rid himself of the very assumptions he wants to decry runs throughout the chapter charging arts enthusiasts with turning it into religion. Such enthusiasts apparently are wrong not so much in thinking that art might have beneficial effects but in failing to spread those effects around widely enough: "Turning art into religion often carries with it the assumption that there is a higher morality of art, distinct from conventional morality." The religion of art "devalues, by comparison with itself, ordinary life and ordinary people." Furthermore, it is the focus on the appreciation of, rather than participation in, the arts, that keeps it floating above the outstretched arms of those "ordinary people" who might after all be made into better people if they were to experience the joy of art for themselves. As evidenced by various studies Carey cites, feelings of powerlessness might be alleviated (resulting in a decrease of violence), self-esteem might be raised, and an epidemic of depression might be halted. Thus, "Another thing we should do is to switch the aim of research in the arts to finding out not what critics think about this or that artwork--which is necessarily of limited and personal interest--but how art has affected and changed other people's lives."
Notwithstanding that Carey's contentions in this chapter essentially contradict everything he's said before--art can't be "anything" or there would be nothing specific to apply in the kinds of arts programs whose beneficent effects he lauds, and there would be no reason to enlist the arts at all in such programs if they can't change lives--they don't even count for much in Carey''s own ultimate valuation of "art" in the second section of the book, "The Case for Literature." It turns out that Carey's brief on behalf of participatory art was only a kind of gesture toward a quasi-Deweyan program of "making art," good for bashing the swells and the necessarily limited efforts of critics, perhaps, but not really a serious defense of an alternative to Art. Literature, it would seem, actually is art, and its primary effects are to be located in the secondary act of reading. (I agree that they are, but in the context of Carey's overall argument about the subjectivity of standards, it nevertheless brings the critic back into prominence, as the reader who proves to be especially attentive.)
Carey titles his first chapter on the subject "Literature and Critical Intelligence," but his initial argument seems to place "critical intelligence" in literature rather than the reader: "The first claim I would make is that, unlike the other arts, [literature] can criticize itself." It "shows itself more powerful and self-aware than any other art." Perhaps this is true, but if so, it very nearly belies Carey's larger point that art--even the premier art of literature--doesn't have any particular, objective value. (Yes, Carey assures us that his valuation is indeed his unavoidably subjective own, but still. Carey's very attempt to offer concrete reasons for literature's superiority seems to assume at least an objective method of assessing its superiority.) "More powerful" suggests that works of literature do have some experiential qualities that can be measured. Furthermore, Carey believes that literature "is the only art capable of reasoning" and that "only literature can moralize." (He seems to be using "moralize" in a sense that makes it a good thing, something like a "critique" of human behavior.) Swift and Johnson are presented as authors whose works illustrate these capacities.
Carey appears to have adopted some variation on the otherwise presumably "elitist" French-theoretical idea that language, not writers, create texts, since it is "literature" that reasons and moralizes. If he means instead to say that individual authors such as Swift are moralists, this is just another way of describing their particular interests. It says nothing about literature as "art" per se. According to the terms of Carey's discussion, it is literature that moralizes, literature that reasons.
I confess I find this idea absurd in the extreme, essentially insane. Carey is hearing voices speak through literary texts that no critic or reader with a decent respect for fiction or poetry as distinctive modes of discourse would hear in such an unmediated way. Moreover, Carey himself apparently doesn't really accept these formulations. The final chapter of What Good Are the Arts? tries to make a case for literature based on the its characteristic "indistinctness."
All written texts require interpretation and are, to that extent, indistinct. But with Shakespeare something new happened. An enormous influx of figurative writing transformed his language--an epidemic of metaphor and simile that spread through all its tissues. . . So when writing is dense with metaphor and simile. . .the imagination has to keep fitting things together that rational thought would keep apart. It has, that is, to keep ingeniously fabricating distinctness--or whatever approximation to distinctness it decides to settle for--out of indistinctness. . . .
As it happens, I thoroughly agree with all of this. "Indistinctness" is a perfectly good name for that evasive quality in works of literature that sets them apart from straightforwardly discursive forms of writing, that in the most intensive way requires we really read the text before us. But I don't see how at the same time we are grappling with the "indistinctness" of literature we can also comfortably accede to its "reasoning"--after all, "the imagination has to keep fitting things together that rational thought would keep apart"--or its "moralizing." Either literature "says something" about morality or politics or ideas in the kind of readily accessible way Carey's discussion of it implies, or it is "indistinct" and thus all of its putative messages are unavoidably ambiguous when they're not just hopelessly garbled.
Carey wants to have it both ways: it is because literature can "communicate" more effectively and it can also remain "indistinct" in the manner common to all the arts that it is ultimately the most valuable of the arts. Perhaps this is just the consequence of the fact that literature emerges from language as its medium and that language is inevitably burdened with "meaning" (although it is also the consequence of a failure to consistently distinguish between the use of language for meaning and the use of language for aesthetic effect), but it nevertheless results in the most crippling contradiction in a book full of contradictions. Literature can't both produce an indistinctness that every reader makes distinct in his/her own way (or leaves it indistinct) and make moral and rational claims that are presumably universal in their appeal.
As far as I can tell, Carey seems to have written this book in order to upbraid the likes of Geoffrey Hartman, who, according to Carey, believes "the experience he gets from high art is better than that others get from the mass media." Since there is no way of establishing that high-art lovers do obtain a "better" experience therefrom, or even of establishing what "better" might mean, all defenses of high art are simply expressions of elitism dressed up in patronizing rhetoric.
But what if the experience of art does contribute to human improvement? Not because art's moralizing or "spiritual" qualities directly lead to social change or self-actualization, but because close consideration of art enhances our ability to have fulfilling experiences? Because complex works of art encourage us to pay attention in a way that does not direct it into pre-existing channels or entirely cut off the very possibility of sustained, fully-engrossed attention by settling for the superficial or the sanctimonious. Even if there is no way of measuring the quality of experiences of this sort vs. the quality of the "anything" someone might want art to be, who really thinks that anything will do? Near the end of the book, Carey offers a sop to art-lovers: "That the arts are enjoyable to those who enjoy them is a fact that it may seem I have not emphasized enough in this book. If I have not done so, it is partly because it is obvious, and partly because being enjoyable does not distinguish the arts from a vast range of other human activities." But what if it's why the arts are enjoyable "to those who enjoy them" that's important? Not because it confers some special honor on their declared tastes but because the enjoyment comes from having one's powers of apprehension challenged?
And why can't the objects of this particular kind of enjoyment be called "art" by those who care about it? Why does John Carey want them to stop calling it that, unless they also stipulate that "anything" can be art if claiming otherwise makes the "inartistic" feel bad? It's finally only Carey who seems to believe that "art" must have a metaphysically-fastened, all-encompassing definition, or else there's nothing.