Customer Reviews


16 Reviews
5 star:
 (9)
4 star:
 (2)
3 star:
 (3)
2 star:
 (1)
1 star:
 (1)
 
 
 
 
 
Average Customer Review
Share your thoughts with other customers
Create your own review
 
 

The most helpful favourable review
The most helpful critical review


36 of 41 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hilarious, but internally contradictory
It's hard not to love John Carey. There are so few witty, intelligent literary critics willing to stand up for the general reader. As ever, this offering is rich in pointed and thoughtful deflations of the smug, the pompous and the self-important, and the result is rib-tickling and heartwarming.
However, it isn't always illuminating, because Carey's critical...
Published on 17 Aug. 2005

versus
29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Do you get it?
This book is not quite what you might think from the cover. It suggests it may be an enquiry into The Arts, but in fact it is a 100 page discussion of literary fiction, prefaced by 170 pages saying how painting and music are nothing much.

There are many good reviews of this book available online, and different reviewers have found different reasons for becoming...
Published on 18 Oct. 2006 by Demot


‹ Previous | 1 2 | Next ›
Most Helpful First | Newest First

29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Do you get it?, 18 Oct. 2006
This review is from: What Good are the Arts? (Paperback)
This book is not quite what you might think from the cover. It suggests it may be an enquiry into The Arts, but in fact it is a 100 page discussion of literary fiction, prefaced by 170 pages saying how painting and music are nothing much.

There are many good reviews of this book available online, and different reviewers have found different reasons for becoming frustrated with the book. For me it was the outrageous sophistry of his arguments.

He seems to use every fallacy available, attacking the person not the idea, making sweeping generalisations, setting up caricatures of opponents and knocking them down with torrents of scorn. I found it useful to read it alongside Anthony Weston's great little book `A Rulebook for Arguments,' using Carey as a textbook of what-not-to-do.

His rabble-rousing style is very readable, but becomes annoying each time you realize you have just read a lot of nonsense. I wondered if he intended the whole book to be ironic - picking up interesting ideas and blowing them down with such silly arguments that you are inspired to work out what is really true.

Carey has been described as a 'reliable dribbler of cold water on all forms of overheated aestheticism' (LRB) - but is that really what he is doing in this book? While the bulk of the book is about the visual arts, it seems he just doesn't `get' it. Not just overheated aestheticism; he really does not understand the value of the arts as arts. He thinks - or pretends to think - that the arts are inane, at best an enjoyable entertainment, at worst mere snobbery.

Carey writes that he wants to burst the pomposity of elitist art-worshipers, but he never knows where to stick the pin, having no idea that there is real value to be distinguished from the fake. Some of his comments on painting are laughable. Is this just a pose? After all, he has spent his life in the arts - as professor and critic.

At the start of the second section, he gets into his real point - `Literature is superior to the other arts.' His defence of literature is that it is `not just to delight like painting or music,' which misses the whole point of difficulty in the arts. Do people go to modern art for `delight'?

But on closer inspection it turns out that he thinks literary fiction is superior only in so far as it is a sort of philosophy, not an art at all. He writes: `only literature can criticize, then. Further, only literature can moralize. Nowadays this is frowned on. Literature, we are advised, should show not tell. It should work obliquely, through narrative. This is rather like saying that Christ would have done better to stick to parables.' Actually, it is rather like saying that the arts work with the imagination.

If you never understood why some people think the arts can provide powerful experiences of great importance to your life, then you can enjoy the confirmation of a professor who doesn't `get' it either. He will tell you there is nothing to get.

If you want a serious consideration of the place of the arts in modern life, or if you are easily annoyed, don't buy this book. That said, having thrown it across the room in frustration, I always picked it up again after a week or two. It isn't dull.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


36 of 41 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hilarious, but internally contradictory, 17 Aug. 2005
By A Customer
It's hard not to love John Carey. There are so few witty, intelligent literary critics willing to stand up for the general reader. As ever, this offering is rich in pointed and thoughtful deflations of the smug, the pompous and the self-important, and the result is rib-tickling and heartwarming.
However, it isn't always illuminating, because Carey's critical judgement is sometimes overwhelmed by his flair for apt phrases and putdowns, and because of the stark contradiction at the heart of the book. Having spent several chapters wittily dissecting the pretensions of high culture in the form of the visual and musical arts, he abruptly tells us that literature is different because it alone is self-critical. Huh? Modern art - since Matisse, at least - is vehemently self critical to the point of being self-consuming, constantly lampooning its own status. There's an intriguing argument about literary language actually being vague and suggestive rather than precise, but one could use this just as well to defend Vaughan Williams or Kandinsky. Somehow, Carey wants to cut Dickens a lot more slack than anyone else, despite the fact that he too could be as snobbish as anybody.
If you can live with all these contradicitons, however, you can enjoy Carey's own lacerating wit as itself the kind of literary pleasure he wants to defend.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars May not be your cup of tea, 9 Sept. 2011
By 
RR Waller "ISeneca" (United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: What Good are the Arts? (Paperback)
John Carey, a very well-know and respected critic and writer who, under that title, seems to be sitting on a branch and sawing between him and the trunk. It is a question so many people ask with all seriousness and Carey sets out to answer them.
What is a work of art?
Is "high art" superior?
Can science help?
Do the arts make us better?

He admits the "inevitably subjective" nature of art criticism; on page 173, he states ""I shall try to show why literature is superior to the other arts and can do things they cannot do". His definition of literature "is writing I want to remember - not for its content alone as one might want to remember a computer manual, but for itself; those particular words in that particular order." (Pp174-175) This sounds more than a little like Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "best words in the best order", his definition of poetry. (Does Carey actually think people read computer manuals, never mind remember them? Anyone who has read instructions of any kind knows there is a best words and best order for some of them too, resulting in clarity.)

Pages 173-175 are a little like "light blue touch paper and stand back" while a literary critic proves his job is best but it is fun, well written, thought-provoking but may end a damp squib. In the end, some will say, like Lawrence in "Last Lesson of the Afternoon":

What does it matter to me, if they can write
A description of a dog, or if they can't?
What is the point? To us both, it is all my aunt!
(And yet I'm supposed to care, with all my might.)

Enjoyable but don't expect deep philosophy or definitive answers.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Democratic for the People, 2 April 2010
By 
Roderick Blyth (Oxfordshire, United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
This review is from: What Good are the Arts? (Paperback)
John Carey, the former emeritus Merton Professor of English Literature, and the author of superb critical studies of John Donne, Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray has written a rather odd book on the Arts which seeks to make the maxim 'de gustibus non est disputandum' keystone of a theory of criticism. There are chapters given over to lengthy and heavily documented analysis of propositions that seem self-evident to any one of reasonable intelligence; for example, that the arts don't make us better morally; that we are unlikely ever to be able to discover the material basis of aesthetic appreciation; that art can neither be, nor replace, religion; and that art sponsorship in the UK is over-orientated towards consumption (by the middle class) and under-orientated towards production (by the worse off). I enjoyed the side swipes at the vacuities of arts ministers, and the vapourings of aesthetes: Professor Carey's attacks on snobbery and class assertion through the arts are fair enough, even if it might reasonably be said that we do not need one of the country's leading intellectuals to provide ammunition to philistines who might, if they actually read, form his natural constituency.The special claims made by Professor.Carey for literature as a touchstone for morals are fair as far as they go, especially since those claims are limited by reference to classical texts and direct authorial comment, but I found it surprising that having referred to the older, and more complex systems of perception (such as vision and hearing), and having contrasted their sophistication with the limitations of language, Professor Carey did not ask himself whether the visual and aural arts might not communicate meaning in a different, but as profound a way, as language.

It's all very well to have a go at Kenneth Clarke (who, The Professor rather childishly alleges, saw great art as inseparable from the country houses occupied by his privileged friends, but I remember seeing a series of programs in which the painter and critic Laurence Gowing spent half an hour or so discussing a specific painting and left me quite astonished at what close attention to a canvas and its cultural milieu could tell you about effects, meaning and the degree of sophistication which a skilled practitioner at the height of his powers could bring to conveying sentiment, meaning and morality.There is, without doubt, a convergence of mood and purpose in a painter like David, a composer like Beethoven, and the plays of Goethe and Schiller; there is a deliberate attempt, on the part of Robert Schumann to convey the refined but passionate sensibilities expressed in the work of John Paul Richter - the works of any of these might survive without the works of the others - but it would be strange if an interpretation shaped by relevant knowledge of them was not more interesting in cultural and critical terms than one that was ignorant of them. Meaningful conversations about artists, their aims, and their ultimate achievements are surely not as problematic as Professor Carey maintains. Take Gustav Mahler, a composer accorded enormous admiration by the ignorant, but whose works as risible to all but those prepared to consent to them completely on their own terms. Mahler's orchestration of a movement from one of Beethoven's late string quartets and its insertion into his third symphony is a grotesque travesty, and a man who writes of one of his overblown farragoes 'Can this be endured at all? Won't people kill themselves afterwards' is surely suffering from disordered ideas about himself, other people, and the function of music. `Feeling' is like `taste' : there is no arguing with it in its unrefined form - but taste and feeling mediated through intellect and experience, and alive to criticism, are qualitatively different, and should surely be recognised as such.

I accept that it is difficult to talk sensibly about certain works of modern art, and that much of what is said about them is ludicrous, but I think that the fact that the word 'modern' is required as a qualifying adjective suggests that the problem is more one of definition than of judgment. The Professor himself accepts that the project which the word 'aesthetics' was, in about 1750, coined to describe, is one of shared technical and cultural objectives from about 1440-1890. It is interesting that one of the Plinys - the Elder, I think - is quoted in John Boardman's book on Greek Art as saying, of the period from about 200 BC, 'deinde ars cessavit,' (or `that was the moment that art came to an end') and I think it true to say that European Art has followed a parallel, if more sophisticated, development to Ancient Greek Art, and that interesting things can be said about that evolution, and the comparative merits of its exponents.

I don't accept Professor Carey's thesis that the most important thing to be said about responses a piece of verse, is that they are infinite because they are open to an infinite number of differently conditioned associations. This may well be true in some base sense, but in the end, the objectionable character of a truth like this lies in the fact that it is profoundly uninteresting. What is more interesting that there is a remarkable convergence in the interpretation of classical works of art, and it is surely more intelligent, and more realistic, to argue that an artist's skill lies in the degree to which he manages such interpretation - just as the critic who understands its milieu is likely to be a better critic of a work or period than one who does not. Contrary to the Professor's assertion, the fact that artists come in and out of fashion does not prove that there are no absolute standards of taste and judgment, but only that artists come in to, and fall out of, fashion. So, of course do critics, and a generation that once thrilled to the high-minded nobility of Burckhardt gives way to one that swoons to the aesthetics of Pater, a generation edified by the moralising of F.R.Leavis, is replaced by one that prefers the intellectual asperities of William Empson.

The work of art, as traditionally conceived and executed, is the aesthetic execution of a rational project, and can be rationally discussed. Criticism should serve to sharpen the perception of the artist's intention and not to 'celebrate' the individual's emotional response to it. Professor Carey's excellent analysis of some of the 'visual' effects achieved by Tennyson in his verse demonstrates this much more interestingly than his elaborate demonstration of the relative associations that can otherwise be brought to it. The artist has aims, and uses technique, to impress his aims upon his public. As soon as an artist has to go outside his work in order to explain it he has failed, whatever his success in some, as yet, uncategorised but alternative activity. Professor Carey is sniffy about Plato, to whom he refers only to dismiss him - though not in terms as contemptuous as those wih which he dismisses Aristotle. And yet Plato's central point, namely that excellence in both the arts and sciences depend on both basic knowledge (as in `how to play the piano'), and more advanced knowledge (as in `how deliberately to instil a specific emotion by skilful use of the piano') do require to be met and dealt with on their own terms. And it occurs to me that if `modern art' requires neither knowledge on the part of the consumer, nor skill on the part of the producer, then the real point is that `modern art' is something other than what has previously has been defined as `art', and should, perhaps, be called something else - 'messing around', for example. f this is the case, then Professor Carey's reduction of the effects of art to ones in which the private 'feelings' of a given individual are all that are at stake, and his refusal to accord any qualitative distinction between the different responses of different individuals, robs aesthetics of interest or relevance, and makes of art a freak show in which what is important is what the ordinary Joe 'feels' when he sees a squalid bedroom, a cow rotting in formaldehyde, or a skull studded with diamonds: this, it seems to me, is, like gladiatorial combat in Ancient Rome, and of interest to the ignorant and uncivilised.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


12 of 17 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars teachy, 14 Aug. 2008
By 
Nt Deregowski (Brazil) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: What Good are the Arts? (Paperback)
Writing slickly , Carey scores a few easy points in the first few chapters.

He probably doesn't much like art, at least not visual art or music.

He certainly doesn't have much time for aesthetic pleasure as an end in itself- it isn't "socially useful". Enjoyment, surprise, revelation- these aren't "good". The individual psyche isn't important, what matters are human interractions.

This limited view leads him to praise literature, especialy theatre, for it's value as a means of moral exegisis. This is all very English, and worthy, but reductive. Anyone familiar with Pevsner's much superior "The Englishness of English Art" will agree, and note that it is such attitudes, in part have lead to the certain flat-footedness of British art and building.

He sums up by saying how wonderful it is that Shakespeare can be used to teach convicts and thugs things about the human condition. This to him is the "good of the arts".

Of course, it is a good thing to reduce the likelihood of recidivism among prisoners, but in reducing "good" in art to "moral improvement" Carey simply shows his own limited appreciation of the joys of creativity, and sounds like a New Labour apparachik.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


14 of 22 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Breathtakingly careless and incoherent, 31 Aug. 2010
By 
lexo1941 (Edinburgh, Scotland) - See all my reviews
This review is from: What Good are the Arts? (Paperback)
In the first place, this book has the wrong title. It should be called 'How Sacred Are The Arts?', because that's the question Carey spends most of his time trying to answer, but since the problem of over-reverential art criticism has not been a serious thing in the minds of the general public since the decline of the Bloomsbury group, it's not surprising that Carey and his publishers went with something more punchy. Another possible title would be 'How Good Do Other People Think The Arts Are?', because the more you read this book, the more you realise that John Carey is apparently neither willing nor able to grapple with the question himself; instead, he prefers to quote other people's attempts to do so, and passes verdict on them. What emerges from this is not so much what John Carey thinks about the arts: insofar as he's interested in them at all he doesn't really seem to like them much, which is a bit surprising in an Oxford Professor of English Literature, and he knows very little about anything other than literature, and what he knows about that is confined almost entirely to a certain period of English-language literature, maybe the last 150 years or so. This is a fairly narrow specialisation for someone who is trying to make grand sweeping statements about the good of the arts as a whole. But that's okay, maybe he has some hitherto unexpressed talent for brilliant generalisation, a capacity to make large arguments about complex subjects with insight and explanatory power? Except, um, no. He doesn't.

The art critic Matthew Collings, who was one of this book's very few negative reviewers, characterised it cruelly but amusingly as 'taxi driver bollocks'. I disagree with this assessment insofar as I once had a long and fascinating conversation with a taxi driver about the jazz musician Eric Dolphy, which goes to show that you can never tell merely from somebody's job what they know about the arts. This, however, is a conversation that Carey can't imagine anyone having. Part of his whole argument goes like this: over here, there is a small elite of poncy high-art fans who only look at great paintings and only read classic literature and who talk mostly pernicious nonsense about those things, and we should stop listening to their nonsense; while over *there*, there is a whole bunch of 'masses' who aren't interested in high art at all but who only watch cheap TV, but we ought nevertheless to respect their ignorance of the classics, and accept that the stuff they are interested in - like soap operas - is actually fascinating, relevant and important. And, by the way, these are the only two types of people there are. (Apart from Carey himself, who presumably falls into neither category.) Now, this, you may think, is a very strange position for an educator to take; shouldn't he be all about introducing people to the pleasures and virtues and power of art? But apparently, several decades of teaching English at Oxford have taken their toll on the Professor because like I say, Carey finds it very hard to imagine that the soap opera lover might sometimes stick on a bit of Mozart just because she happens to like it. He doesn't seem to realise that not all art critics are roaring snobs, and not all soap opera fans don't like a bit of high culture now and then. He spends so much time in this book attacking straw men that he ought to be brought up on charges for cruelty to straw.

Besides his inability to make fine distinctions between different classes of art consumer, there is also Carey's glaring ignorance of the art he's talking about - he appears to believe that Warhol's soup cans were actual cans that Warhol bought, as opposed to paintings of cans, and he almost never talks about music at all; what about jazz, which flickers problematically between being a popular art and a 'high' one? Jazz severely screws up Carey's whole thesis, so in a way it's not surprising that he never mentions it. Not to mention that rock music is now old enough to have generated its own hierarchy of classics and non-classics. (Typically, Carey's few references to music are to Bob Dylan and Beethoven, both of whose status as classics in their respective fields are by now assured, although Carey appears to regard Dylan as a contemporary pop singer who we are only beginning to realise is actually rather good. Here, as elsewhere, Carey is decades behind the times, and is perpetuating the very hierarchies that he professes to deplore.)

Elsewhere, he resorts to the kind of argument typical of drunk 1st year students after their first philosophy tutorial. For example, in the course of attempting to demolish the notion that the 'art-world' has any authority to determine what is art and what is not, he brings up a peculiar thought experiment in which Picasso paints a necktie and so does a small girl; Carey argues that the establishment art-critical position, in which Picasso's necktie is a work of art but the small girl's isn't, is based on some sort of quasi-religious argument in which the 'art-world' takes its own authority to be transcendent and unquestionable, etc. etc. But this is sheer moonshine compared to the more commonsensical position that the Picasso necktie picture is an artwork by virtue of Picasso' established position in the art market, whereas the small girl's necktie picture is not an artwork as long as nobody wants to pay any money for it and as long as no major critic wants to treat it as such. Carey wants to deny the authority of the art-world in the manner of someone denying that the police have any authority to arrest him: that's all very well, but try putting the stuff in a gallery (or heaving a brick through the police station window) and see how far it gets you. Carey achieves a kind of ideally vacuous non-argument shortly afterwards; he imagines the father protesting that the kid's necktie is an artwork 'for him', and the art critic denying it on the mere grounds that the art critic's experience is much deeper and more meaningful than the father's, which for a start is no argument that any professional art critic would ever make, but which Carey attempts to refute on the utterly bizarre grounds that the critic is wrong, because 'we have no means of knowing the inner experience of other people and therefore no means of judging the kind of pleasure they get from whatever happens to give them pleasure'.

To this, it can only be replied that Carey is being either deliberately disingenuous, or plain stupid: we do have a means of knowing the inner experience of other people, and it's called language. In fact, there is a somewhat more complex, sensual and involved way of knowing the inner experience of other people, and it's called art. If art is not about sharing experience, it's not about anything at all, but nowhere in this book does Carey suggest that his conception of art, whatever it is (because he doesn't ever spell it out), has anything to do with sharing experience. From this, I can only conclude that somebody, like him, who doesn't even know what art is, is not qualified to write a book about its value.

I could go on a lot longer about this book. I have pages of notes on it. I have not even finished it, but I've found an untruth and/or a logical fallacy in literally every paragraph. I am amazed it got commissioned, let alone published. I am actually kind of disgusted with Faber & Faber for allowing it to remain in print, and as a mature student I am very, very glad that I have never studied English literature at Oxford under the tutelage of Professor John Carey. Who would want to be taught about literature by someone who thinks that the arts are nothing but a way for making snobs feel good about themselves? I can't imagine anything more empty, more stupid and more antithetical to the very notion of education.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


14 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A knockabout but no knockout, 21 Jan. 2006
By 
Dr. G. SPORTON "groggery1" (Birmingham UK) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
Carey is funny and incisive, and certainly a critique of the Visual Arts, with its intellectual pretensions and creative stasis is overdue. Attacks on the quasi-religious status of 'the Arts' are welcome, as it is this sort of thing that protects the banal under the guise of improvement. However, some parts of the case are put poorly (not many, for example, would recognise Kant from the account that is put here), and the attempt to create a distinction between art and craft is partly to blame for the mythic status of the Arts. The definition offered of Art is not really viable (and wouldn't be proffered if he understood Kant a little better). Kant's point is that Beauty is applied as a universal label to certain works, in other words, as a cultural value, and that it is precisely the appropriateness of the assertion that is the stuff to argue about.
The worst of it is the patronising English lesson offered in Chapter 6. Notwithstanding the partisan argument for lit., Carey doesn't seem to be aware of the undercurrent of internal critique that accompanies most of the arts: people don't just make the stuff to please themselves, they also do it to spite a few others.
However, this is great knockabout stuff. As Adorno (selectively quoted in this book) said, 'the object of art is to end art', and as such, Carey hasn't quite managed it here.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars, 10 Nov. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Excellent read, in good condition with no annotations.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wise and brilliant, 5 Feb. 2011
By 
Michael Turley (Dublin) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: What Good are the Arts? (Paperback)
Fantastic book for the mildly sceptical lay person who finds themselves occasionally baffled about art and especially professional art criticism. Very funny in places, like when he deconstructs apparently serious or lofty seeming statements as fatuous and self serving.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars, 3 Mar. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Very intelligent, lucid and witty.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


‹ Previous | 1 2 | Next ›
Most Helpful First | Newest First

This product

What Good are the Arts?
What Good are the Arts? by John Carey (Paperback - 1 Jun. 2006)
£11.38
In stock
Add to basket Add to wishlist
Only search this product's reviews