28 May 2005

Here we go again

Jeanette Winterson has a few words for John Carey:
Last year John Carey asked me to deliver a lecture at Oxford called What is art for? I did not see my host later, which puzzled me slightly, but now, finding his new book, What Good are the Arts?, I am not puzzled any more, 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 more than 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. [...]

Real writers, painters, musicians, do what 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 24-hour 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 Carey finds so suspect. [...]

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 television 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.
Do yourself a favor and read the whole article--she's got even more good points. As I've said before, people who look down on art are snobs.

(Via The Literary Saloon)

UPDATE: Stephen Mitchelmore voices his thoughts:
Carey resents the real thing. While he argues that the opposition of high and low art is wrong, he does so only because he doesn't know what high art is in the first place. If he did, he wouldn't bother making the argument. He thinks that authors write the real thing in order to exclude "the masses" whoever they are (so why didn't Proust and Eliot and Woolf write in Latin?). Everything he writes reveals unacknowledged assumptions, even the titles. Winterson says "What Good are the Arts? seems as idiotic to me as asking: What good is food?" And there's his recent collection Pure Pleasure subtitled A Guide to the 20th Century's Most Enjoyable Books. One wonders what isn't "pure" about literary pleasure? From looking at the contents, it's the choice of a predictable English literary sensibility. What is being rejected here? The unenjoyble modern classic? But what would that be? It seems like an excuse to make sloppy generalities that appeal to the British fear of ideas and call it "literary criticism".

Carey's project is profoundly unhelpful as it will stunt the development of many stuck in otherwise unhappy, unfulfilled lives. I tend to think of myself here, from a proudly anti-intellectual town, from a working class family not one member of which had been to university. Luckily I didn't have a guide like Carey to prevent me from reading all sorts of apparently unenjoyable books without shame (e.g. Proust at 15). The books were in English. How much more accessible do you need to be? As a result, my life wasn't dominated by embedded ideas such as the opposition of utility and pleasure. I couldn't tell the difference. My life wasn't too bad, but there was so much more.
Apparently, I'm not alone in thinking Carey espouses an "inverted snobbery."

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