What good are the arts?

Featuring John Carey (What Good are the Arts?), Denis Dutton (The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution), and Sarah Thornton (Seven Days in the Art World), Friday’s What good are the arts? session has left me with questions rather than answers, and so in the spirit of giving I’m passing them right on to you.  Please also bear in mind that my own educational background has taken the literature, libraries and psychology route, rather than the fine arts and high culture route, and that my current heroes include a lurching zombie and a man wearing an iron suit.  Oh, and check out the Friday night audio wrap-up to hear me possibly insulting one of the world’s best and brightest experts in the art world.  I am on fire here.

Here are a selection of some of the questions I wrote down.  Some are comments from the speakers, some came from the audience, and some are just my own little musings.  Ready?

1.  Is there a rule that art critics and art writers can only use words of more than 5 syllables, all of which must end in -icity, -osity, -ality or -ism?

2.  Is calling someone a neuroaesthetitian a compliment, an insult, or a job description?

3.  If, as the Auckland Festival says, Ideas Need Words, does that make literature the highest form of art?

4.  Can anyone, in fact, claim that there IS a highest form of art, or is all art appreciation an absolutely solitary and individual matter of personal taste?  In other words, are there, as Denis Dutton says, universal and cross-cultural eternal values, or is it the case, as John Carey posits, that “you cannot be another being”, thus making it impossible for anyone to pass judgement on anyone’s taste?

5.  Is there a a shop where you can buy paisley cravats and smoking jackets?  And if so, can someone take me there right now?

6.  If the purpose of art is to make us better people and to draw us closer together, does that make football a higher form of art than painting or poetry or sculpture?

Well, people?  I just know you all have ideas and opinions about these questions …  (Just please don’t get all shouty at me.)

8 thoughts on “What good are the arts?

  1. Artswebshow 16 May 2010 / 12:03 pm

    some really interesting and thought provoking questions here.

  2. Denis Dutton 16 May 2010 / 12:19 pm

    Great questions. Am I the guy you insulted? Are you the person who called me a bulldog? I’d have thought pit bull would have been more accurate. Still licking the blood off my fangs.

    The theory of art is my business. Carey is one of the best critics of the age, in my opinion, but in aesthetics he’s an amateur. Sarah Thornton, whose book is terrific, is essentially a journalist sociologist. Here are responses then from my point of view, not theirs.

    (1) You’re not referring to me, I assume, except my emphasis on the word “virtuosity.” I despise such idiotic jargon, and invented the Bad Writing Contest to ridicule it. Check it out here:

    (2) Neuroaesthetician is not yet a job description because (I personally believe) we do not know enough about the brain to usefully map aesthetic responses. At this point in the history of neuroscience, I find the idea silly. Evolutionary aesthetics – trying to determine the Darwinian roots of aesthetic responses, pleasures, and capacities – is very different. It can be made to work, given the current state of knowledge.

    (3) What a silly idea. But John Carey believes that literature is the “highest” art form because it deals with rational thought. Others have said music is the highest, and on and on. Balderdash. (And talk about projecting your own tastes on the rest of the artistic world….)

    (4) If the only way to understand art is to understand completely another human being, which is then defined in a manner that it becomes a priori impossible, then you’ve defined the desired answer to your own question from the start. How convenient! This is an absurd intellectual strategy. Of course, we can – sometimes better, sometimes worse – understand other human beings, who are members of our own species. The same with works of art. Great critics, like John Carey himself, have helped people like me to better understand works of art, e.g., the sections on Shakespeare at the end of his book.

    Some people have very crude and simplified tastes, especially for some arts. I know well that my own grasp of poetry has never approached my grasp of music. It is also clear from reading his book that Carey doesn’t have a clue what music is as an art form, however profound his command of literature. So it goes. Arts differ, and so do people.

    (5) This is a joke, but I don’t get it. Is the implication that someone on the panel (who?) thought that you needed a paisley cravat to understand art? Please explain to dunderheaded me.

    (6) This is a good point, and the area where I am most in agreement with Carey. Artists *are* largely egotists and often rogues, including especially the very greatest ones. Football produces hooligans, but look at Europe: better they should compete on the field than have yet another of their wars. I even think that football is better for human amity than religion a lot of the time. My bottom line short answer: the arts derive from evolved capacities that involve a whole lot more than group soldarity. (That can even be said of football.)

    Such reasonable questions you’ve asked. Why did you think anybody should get shouty at you?

    I would ask two things. Please read my review of Carey’s book:

    Also, take a look at the various reviews (pro and con) of my book here:

    Best wishes,


  3. Marion 16 May 2010 / 1:17 pm

    Phew! This morning John Carey talking about William Golding (Nobel Prize winner no less) was free from conventional opinions and while reading and enjoying Homer in the original Greek throughout his life, struggled with Joyce’s Ulysses trying 3 times to read it and writing in his diary “I must go on, I can’t go on”. (That could be a good slogan for a tshirt) He did finally finish the big U. He also thought Jilly Cooper’s Polo “not half bad” and “anatomically correct”!!!
    So its personal choice folks – no high no low culture its what you enjoy and respond to.

  4. richard 16 May 2010 / 2:15 pm

    I saw Luke Hurley busking on Queen Street the other day, so I’m disappointed that the arts aren’t a better career for someone with such talent.

  5. Denis Dutton 16 May 2010 / 3:23 pm

    […] Carey has been involved in some spirited argument during the festival. He believes in the accessibility of art to everyone and the clarity of his […]

    Yes, that was the part he and I agreed on.

    He is a wonderfully jargon-free, clear writer.

  6. Joyce 18 May 2010 / 11:56 am

    Yikes Bronnypop, you got Denis Dutton’d!
    His google alerts obviously work a treat, but alas not his sense of humour.

  7. Denis Dutton 18 May 2010 / 12:16 pm

    Me, no sense of humour?

    Golly, that’s a hellava verb: “to Denis Dutton,” meaning “to…. “

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