Saturday, September 16, 2006

Denis Dutton on John Carey

'… but Carey carries a large chip on his shoulder when it comes to his aesthetic interests. Moreover, those interests are rather limited. There is not a single loving description of a painting in this book. It is clear that he cares little for music: the longest passage on music is about how much Hitler enjoyed Bruckner and Wagner. No wonder Carey would cut off all state support for the operas at Covent Garden. Take that, opera snobs!

Considering his personal aesthetic relativism, it is a surprise that Carey ends his book with two chapters defending literature as the best of all the arts. Literature “can criticise itself,” and in fact it can criticize anything. Carey quotes a passage of Tolstoy making fun of opera and helpfully explains that, anyway, music “is the art that has most consistently seemed irrational to poets and writers.”

Not only does the self-conscious rationality of literature demonstrate its aesthetic superiority, it is English literature that is the highest of all: “English literature does no go in much for art worship of the mystical, Hitlerish kind.” Take that, foreigners!

But however preposterous Carey can be, his literary analysis can be acute. His discussion of aesthetic indistinctness in Shakespeare is a pleasure to read. Of a single sentence from The Merchant of Venice, Carey shows how it “manages at once to be both vivid and nebulous. It is brilliantly and unfathomably indistinct, which is why the imagination is gripped by it and cannot leave it alone.”

With some of the aesthetic issues that have gripped John Carey in this book, one might wish he had left them alone. He does push half-understood questions to sometimes absurd conclusions. On the other hand, if any book can be said to provide pleasure along with exasperation in its meanderings, it is What Good Are the Arts?'

Denis Dutton in a Sept 9 2006 review of John Carey’s book What Good Are the Arts?

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