BY Brian Dillon in Reviews | 13 SEP 05
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Issue 93

What Good Are the Arts?

BY Brian Dillon in Reviews | 13 SEP 05

John Carey, who doesn’t like much about art, at least knows what he knows. Which is to say: not a lot. Art, he argues, is entirely unamenable to statements of an epistemological order. All we are allowed to assert is a subjective preference for this or that work; there are no universal, or even locally exportable, criteria by which to persuade our neighbours of the rightness of our aesthetic judgements. Critics, however, have had a hard time accepting the essential solipsism of their métier and have sought all manner of implausible supports for their dicta: metaphysical, political, quasi-religious. The result is a world in which over-refined art mavens, pretending to objectivity, freight their frail opinions with moral and mystical cargo and sink in a sea of élitism.

Fragments of this argument are wittily contrived, but if the above précis sounds less than original or subtle, it is because Carey proceeds as though two centuries of art and aesthetics could be reduced to a sort of pious connoisseurship, as though any assertion by an artist or critic were by definition elitist, even totalitarian (the less said about his insinuation that ‘high art’ is bad because Hitler liked it, the better). No critical or artistic position is good enough for Carey, because in the end they all rely on the imposition of an obscurantism at odds with (and deliberately designed to disparage) a properly popular culture. But where is this authentically mass art? Carey never once risks a sustained analysis of a real example.

There is something profoundly un-democratic about a book that argues the case for popular culture and then has nothing to say about it. The book is addled by such contradictions. Carey deprecates Theodor Adorno for crediting an unlikely conspiracy behind mass culture (Adorno would surely demur: ‘conspiracy’ was hardly the point), then asks us to believe that contemporary art is an actual, advertent effort to exclude the masses. He advocates empirical research over theory but restricts his reading of contemporary art to quoting some catalogue essays from last year’s Liverpool Biennial. In the book’s second half he argues that literature is more capacious, democratic and involving than today’s visual art, but also that literature’s value is its ‘indistinctness’: in other words, its obscurity. As his beloved John Donne put it, Carey ‘hath been grieved to be understood; when will he be believed?’

Brian Dillon is professor of creative writing at Queen Mary University of London, UK. Suppose a Sentence (Fitzcarraldo Editions/New York Review Books) will be published in September 2020. He lives in London.